XM Asia boss Paul Soon on acquisitions, the army and working with JWT

Paul SoonAt the age of 39, Paul Soon is one of the region’s youngest network CEOs. He has been in acquisition mode lately, buying three businesses in two years.

In this Q&A, the Singaporean talks to Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about his plans to expand XM Asia across the region.

You’ve been busy acquiring companies over the last 18 months as XM grows across Asia. What’s the next phase in the growth plan?

I’ve almost completed the picture for XM Asia in Southeast Asia in anticipation of the upcoming ASEAN Economic Community in 2015. With the recent acquisition of Designercity, this marks the latest push into North Asia, and that would be next big thing as we continue to strengthen our offering locally and connect regionally as a family.

Australia, Vietnam and Korea are top of mind for me now. On top that, I’m looking to diversify our acquisitions and expand into CRM, data and mobile.

What’s the secret to getting what you want from a deal?

The main thing is that there should be no secrets. The overriding factor in all my dealings is that there is full transparency. Respect for their businesses and acknowledging their entrepreneurial efforts is also key. And aligning their ideas for growing their businesses with my overall vision for XM.

These acquisitions would not have happened without the already strong standing of XM as a brand in the region. This is our 18th year in business, and we’re very proud of where we are now.

You left XM in 2004 but came back two years later. Why did you leave, and how had the agency changed when returned?

I left to broaden my experience by joining Saatchi & Saatchi to run the Singapore Navy account. I returned in 2006. I think that if there is anything that I have brought back to XM from that experience it a desire to always make change matter for clients.

What’s your favourite digital campaign of all time (sorry, you can’t name one of XM’s…)?

For me, it is very much still the Old Spice campaign from 2011-12. It changed the way we used video, SEO, real time marketing and branding completely. And it made a real difference to the Old Spice brand and business.

You only spent five months with Saatchi & Saatchi back in 2004. What did you learn from the experience?

I learned how powerful a single brand idea can be, and what it means to be passionate about the business. My biggest influences back then were Graham Kelly, Fred End and Esther Yue.

Don’t you worry that XM will eventually get absorbed into JWT some day?

Not at all. We are part of a very large family and there is always collaboration when and where it matters most. The depth of expertise and reach that XM has now only strengthens JWT’s competitiveness. What makes the relationship work is mutual respect at a senior management level. We are already seeing the fruits of the way we work together with clients like Singapore Tourism Board. Most agency networks would love to have what we have.

You’re signed up member of the Singaporean army. What has the army taught you about management?

That strong leadership is required at all times. And that a strong foundation in the middle layer is paramount to any successful organisation.


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