Neil Stewart on making account management sexy

Neil StewartNeil Stewart has just moved into a global client role at media agency Maxus after four and a half years as APAC CEO.

In this interview, the former Asia marketing director of Motorola tells Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about his new job, why he’s based in Singapore, and the secret to winning and keeping clients.

You’ve just taken on a new role as global chief client officer at Maxus. What does your job really mean?

If you take a step back and compare us to, say, OMD or MediaCom, we haven’t had handling global or regional clients in our DNA. Others have had more than 10 years of growth to service big clients in lots of countries.

Our people and systems are great at handling local clients and local business – our business has been built on the back of this type of client. But now we have clients in multiple markets like JetStar and L’Oreal, and we’re going to start carving out our organisational systems around this sort of client.

There is a big people element to this. The regional CEO role is about finding the right local talent. But now we need to find people who can manage clients in multiple markets.

So why do a global role in Singapore? With respect to Singapore, it’s not New York or London.

Your assumption is that where you live with your family and where you physically spend your working hours are one and the same. I’ve done enough regional roles over the last 15 years to know where I physically live is about my family being happy.

Singapore is relatively central to the rest of the world. I used to do a role that covered half of the world [Stewart was Asia marketing director of Motorola before he took the APAC CEO role at Maxus] from Sydney.

I take your point that Singapore isn’t a New York or London. But the job is not about where you are. In a global role, at any one time you’ll always be in the wrong place.

Were you ready to move on after four years?

Not really. I think we made good progress, and we’ve become a truly global network and we’re just five years old come October. But there’s still a long way to go, so it’s not like my work is done here. We’re still nowhere in Korea, new in Japan and still haven’t launched in Taiwan.

What’s been your proudest moment in your time at Maxus?

Yewande Sokan

Yewande Sokan

This may sound trite, but so is your question. It was a girl by the name of Yewande Sokan, a WPP Fellow who spent a year with Maxus APAC and then got a full-time job at Maxus London. She won gold in the Media Young Lions this year.

When I joined Maxus I had just finished at Motorola when 95 per cent of the marketing team were made redundant. It was awful. But thankfully after that year I was in a position to add 500 new jobs, and identify talented people who have done great things in the industry.

…and your biggest disappointment?

Agencies are driven by new business, so it’s hard when you lose a client – like Shangri-La Hotels, whom we worked with for a few years. That didn’t work out for a variety of reasons I can’t go into, but I still stay at Shangri-La Hotels.

Finding good suits is said to be the industry’s recruitment challenge. How are you going to approach the problem? 

Kelly Clark

Kelly Clark

First is to look outside of media agencies. I found myself as CEO of a media agency having never worked in a media agency. When he interviewed me, I remember saying to Kelly Clark [the global CEO of Maxus between 2008 and 2012, and now CEO of GroupM North America]: “But I’m not a media guy”. Kelly said: “Good. We’ve got enough of them.”

You don’t have to be a media planner who’s moved up through the ranks and knows every detail of the business to be a great leader of a client’s business. As the business gets more specialized, no one individual can be an expert of it all. We need people who are great at managing the resources of agencies. And to date, creative agencies have been much better at this than us.

Account management isn’t as sexy as it used to be. How do you sell it as a career?

I take your point. It’s a vital role, and we haven’t made it a well-regarded career. If you’re a client leader for L’Oreal, well, what does that mean? It’s not as sexy as working in a new discipline like digital. The only way to make it appealing is to position the role at the highest level.

Good account people are future agency managers. If you’re an account manager in Thailand, you could become head of Maxus Thailand. I spent six years at Ogilvy as a business director and group account director. There, they spent a lot of time recognising that account leadership in a global or regional role is equal to that of a country manager. We’re not there yet, but that’s an aspiration for the next three to five years for us.

The same problem applies in marketing. The way to get better CMOs is to ensure they are given the most senior opportunities, so that it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

Account managers are poorly paid when they first join the industry. How can you expect to hold on to the good ones?

Entry level account managers are not particularly well paid, and that has an impact on the calibre of recruits we can attract. We need to ask ourselves if we’re offering competitive salaries relative to what the banks and legal firms are paying their new recruits.

What’s the secret to keeping a client?

Having been a client for so many years [four with Motorola and two with HP], I can say this frankly. If you can’t demonstrate the role of communications in business success, then you shouldn’t even be having a conversation with a client.

All too often, media people wanted to talk to me about GRPs, savings and the price of TV. What is more important is how these factors are related to a client’s business, and that rarely came out in the discussions I had with media agencies.

That’s where the other agencies who work for clients, be it creative or PR, have done a better job at having the right conversations about what we do, as a means to an end rather than end in itself.

When I was a client I used to wait to see where media people would sit at a dinner, and sit elsewhere because they were so boring. They used to talk about ratings and savings, when I wanted to hear about was how media translated to my business.

So what’s your plan for the year ahead in your new job?

First for the 90 days, it is about getting to understand where we have great client relationships and working out where the best people need to be. There will be a lot of focus on winning new business, but what’s more important is retention and the growth of existing business. Margins improve the longer your clients stay with you.


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