Y&R’s Matthew Godfrey on what it takes to be a regional agency boss

Matthew GodfreyMatthew Godfrey is one of Asia’s most highly regarded agency bosses. He has run Bates, Publicis and now Y&R as regional president.

In this interview, he talks to Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks about the best regional CEO he’s ever known, why so few people in his position are Asia, and how to stop young people from leaving the industry.

How do you work out how to spend most of your time?

We’re in the problem-solving business. In this job, every day you wake up, another problem is presented to you. My view is that my time should be spent tackling the problem of the day in the wider context of my plan for the year, which is mapped out in my head. You need to know what’s important for your people, your business and your brand, use that as your true north, and filter out the rest.

What’s your secret to staying focused when you spend much of your life on a plane?

I’m not often jetlagged, as I do not do long haul flights often. But even with the extensive travel, I can’t complain. My job makes me among the luckiest people on the planet. We’re all lucky to be in this business. Once you reach account executive level, you’re among the 10 per cent richest people in the world. We’re in the right region doing the right job for the right reasons.

Yes, I travel a lot, but I count myself as lucky. My wife thinks me traveling prolongs our marriage!

Who’s the best regional agency boss you’ve ever known and why?

Alex Hamill

Alex Hamill

This is going back in time, but the guy I felt had the best grip on things was Alex Hamill [over a 44-year career, Hamill spent 34 years with Y&R in Australia and Asia, and ran Bates between 1990 and 1996].

Chris Jacques [now M&C Saatchi’s APAC CEO] reported to him while at Bates. The day I met Chris was in Alex’s office. Alex had run Bates Asia from 1969 to 1972. He’d been in Asia for a while, then returned to Australia. He built a really strong network and was very highly regarded in the late 80s and early 90s.

What made him great was his experience, conviction and directness. He had the ability to connect with the most senior of clients. And he had the ability to be a leader of the industry, and not just an agency.

Who within the Y&R network would you say is best placed to succeed you?

Sanjay [Bhasin]. He’s been with Y&R for 20 years, and was promoted to run Southeast Asia last year. If I got run over by a bus, promoted or sent to Siberia, Sanjay would be the automatic choice to replace me.

You mentioned getting promoted. What are your ambitions for running Y&R globally?

Funnily enough, I ended up in Asia after trying to get a job in New York.

I was sent there while working at GPY&R in 1991. I loved it, came back and said to my boss, I’ve seen the light, the genie has come out of the bottle, I need to go there. I asked him if an opportunity came up again to please send me there.

Six months later, my boss came to me and said, Godfrey, you wanted more responsibility, you wanted to see the world? Yes sir, I said. Well, here’s your ticket to Vietnam. I wanted to go to New York, I replied. Son, he said, six months later I’ll get you to New York.

Never trust people in advertising! Twenty years later I’m still in Asia on my way to New York. But never say never.

The question is, could I do the job? It’s a bit like asking a soccer player to play basketball. They are both sports, but could you be good at both?

Right now, I think I can bring value to this region. In a global role I could bring skills, but less in terms of connections and experience. It seems that now, for the sake of our clients and the agency, I am of more value here than elsewhere.

Besides, global guys have it hard. On a personal level, it stretches your ability to have any kind of balance with your family. You get on a plane at the start of the year and don’t get back until December.

What’s your view on why so few people in your position are Asian?

I can only speak for me. I spent five years reporting to Jeffrey Yu [who was then running Bates Asia]. I learned from him and grew up in a network with an Asian leader. I look to Sanjay as my successor. My predecessor was Ambar [Brahmachary]. My view is no matter where you’re from, you need to be truly committed to the region, the culture and the clients. If you are, you will rise to the top and will do a much better job that those who see Asia as a stepping stone to other things.

How long will it be before Asians are in the top jobs in advertising in this region?

The most senior jobs in Asia tend to move very slowly. There are some very talented leaders in place who haven’t moved jobs for five to 10 years because they are very good at what they do. Those generational leaders will take time to move on.

Many agencies have scrapped the regional CEO role. Do you think that pretty soon the job will have become so tough that it won’t be feasible for one person?

Take a step back and look at the region. There are three billion consumers. There are opportunities everywhere, but you need a structure to grab those opportunities.

We don’t run the region in a hierarchically structured way at Y&R. We put good people in the right positions and empower them to chase after opportunities in their markets. We’re less concerned about organisational structure than taking opportunities, which is why we’re positioned as a global boutique.

The first principle is that there’s no global HQ. If you’re running Y&R Beijing, you lead it. There’s no one in New York worrying about your problems. We have a tool kit approach. You dive into the tool kit to help solve your problems.

We have 187 offices in 91 countries. But it’s not about how big you are, it’s what you do with it. Everywhere is a potential HQ. The Singapore office leads the global Caltex business. They can’t send a note to New York asking them to solve their problems.

I don’t think of myself as regional HQ. There is only such a thing as local scale. There’s no such thing as a regional consumer.

You’re Australian. You began your career in Australia. Why aren’t you running the Australian office, which currently reports directly into New York?

There is plenty on my plate as it is, including planning the launch of new brands in Asia in 2014. The Australian operation does not need me to help them in my spare time. What value would I bring passing through on email? To be a great Australian agency, you need to be 100 per cent committed, and I haven’t worked in Australia since 1994. Australia is either doing well – which it is – and doesn’t need me, or not and needs focus.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

For people like Sanjay, they’ve got so much talent they don’t need to listen to me.

For the young people coming into the organisation, I have two pieces of advice.

First, volunteer for biggest problem in the agency. Find the hardest client and volunteer to work on that account. Agencies need people eager to solve problems, regardless of whether they can fix them or not.

Second, take your boss’s job. In Asia, there is 20 per cent staff turnover. So when someone leaves, if you’ve stuck around, you’ll be first in line to get promoted. You need to build equity in your own brand, and that will come from showing loyalty.

So what’s the secret to keeping youngsters from leaving?

It comes down to entrepreneurialism. Most young people in Asia want to run their own business. I meet many twentysomethings who have ‘founder CEO’ on their business card. These people find it difficult to work in big organisations, because they feel they lack entrepreneurial freedom.

But they can find this freedom if they volunteer to tackle the big problems in big agencies. But agencies need to create that space where young people can have the freedom to build their own equity. Too much process squeezes young people and encourages them to look for a job elsewhere.


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