Opinion

Mike Cooper on judging media, why Cheuk Chiang is the best leader in Asia and the task ahead for PHD

Mike CooperMike Cooper ran Omnicom Media Group APAC until 2007, when he left the region to take the top global job at PHD in London.

In this interview, Cooper tells Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks about judging at Spikes, his track record running Omnicom Media Group compared to Barry Cupples, and the task ahead for new PHD APAC boss Susana Tsui.

What’s the biggest change in media in Asia you’ve noticed since leaving the region to take on the global CEO role at PHD?

I was in Asia for 19 years, and I’ve noticed a lot of change. But having just judged the media category at Spikes, I would say the overriding observation is the quality of work.

When I was here, the region was on its way to becoming as good as anywhere else. Now it definitely is as good, exhibiting a degree of confidence I can’t recall seeing in the years I was here.

Compared to Europe, which has become risk averse, Asia seems more confident and brave than ever. And that confidence seems to stem from economic confidence, which is a lot higher in Asia than in the West at the moment.

Which countries stood out as the high achievers at Spikes?

The most exceptional work I’ve seen is coming from Australia, New Zealand and Korea. But I’m also seeing great work from India and the Philippines. India stands out despite having limited media choices and a lack of digital options.

What do you miss about in Asia?

I miss the energy and the relentless forward-looking nature of the region. The West tends to be more navel gazing. Here, there is confidence and the feeling that things will get better, and there’s a freshness and excitement about marketing communications that isn’t so clear in London or New York.

What was your biggest frustration about working here?

Trying to convince people to invest in emerging markets early on. I wish we’d gone into countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, which felt exotic at the time, quicker. We were focusing most of our energies then on India and China.

How do you compare your track record in Asia with what your successor, Barry Cupples, achieved in his six years in the role?

Barry Cupples

Barry Cupples

Barry and I have been in Asia at different stages. I started the business from scratch. We had to build a business from the media departments of ad agencies, which were weaker than those of our rivals.

It was hard. Media was not the developed discipline that it is today, and I’m tremendously proud of what how business has taken shape. It’s a seriously sized business with some very talented people.

I was lucky with the people whom I hired at the time, and when Barry took over OMG was a very mature business. His task was about building additional services around the core. He made progress in branded content, research and digital – and the business needed it, frankly.

A company always needs someone new to come in and look at it afresh. I was ready to move on when I did. Barry did an excellent job in the time he was running the region.

How do you expect Omnicom Media Group to be run differently under Cheuk Chiang?

Cheuk is, in my view, the best leader of any network in the region. What he did for PHD was astonishing, and I’m very excited about what he’s going to do for OMG. He’ll take the company to greater heights.

What stands out for you among Cheuk’s accomplishments?

When Cheuk first took over, PHD was small. We had no regional clients, no big-name clients and it wasn’t working as a network. He brought it all together, winning the likes of Unilever, HTC and ANZ bank.

You should never underestimate how hard it is to create belief in a company. Cheuk has created that belief in PHD, both in itself and externally. You cannot easily convince major international clients to start working with a relatively new player.

He has built the network in a way that is completely considtent with the PHD brand as a planning-led agency with a strong culture. He has achieved massive business success, won lots of awards [PHD won eight lions at Cannes in June, double last year’s tally] and has given much bigger, established networks a real run for their money.

I’ll never forget the first time Cheuk attended a regional meeting. It was February 2009, not long after he first took the job in September 2008. He said that our objective was to be media network of the year. We’d it won before with OMD, but I took Barry aside and said we have to be realistic, we won’t achieve it.

Not only did Cheuk win it in 2009, but also in 2010 and 2012 – which is pretty amazing. I didn’t think we could surpass when we won agency of the year in 1999 with OMD ten months after launching the network.

How do you see PHD unfolding under Susana Tsui?

Susana Tsui

Susana Tsui

I was involved in hiring her, as I was with Cheuk. She will be brilliant, I’m sure, although she has got a tough act to follow.

When we hired Cheuk we deliberately went for someone with a different background [Chiang joined from PHD from creative agency CumminsNitro]. We’ve done the same with Susana, who joins from OgilvyOne.

There is a sea of sameness in media agency land, and we’ve tried to position PHD differently. If you’re looking for something different in your product, you have to hire a different sort of person.

What do you want her to do in that role?

PHD is amazing now compared to what it was. But I’d like to see the agency reach greater heights, produce better quality work and live up to our reputation for creative media thinking.

We’ve launched Source [PHD’s global operating system, which was introduced in November last year], which is generating hundreds of media ideas across the network. It is a great resource to generate strong thinking, but it needs to be made the most of. It is still a little bit patchy in terms of its use. I want to see it used more, and for Asia markets to be on the leader board.

Don’t you think that a competitive matrix system like Source, which exist in creative agencies to measure how many awards they, could have a negative impact on the culture of the agency?

I read an article recently about Microsoft. Every year, they divide people up into different quartiles. There are the top 25 per cent, who are doing well, and the bottom 10 per cent are shipped out. We would never go as far with anything as aggressive as that. Advertising is a harsh business, and you need to make people feel good about where they work.

One of your competitors said to me recently that while PHD may have a strong brand, it is still relatively lightweight. What do you say to those critics?

You don’t win business like GlaxoSmithKline without a client having confidence in your size and scale. We offer the best of both worlds. We’re very individualistic in that we are a strong, planning-leg agency, but we’re backed up by clout of OMG.

When we need to have a conversation about scale, we don’t do it at the PHD level. That’s where OMG comes in. Having said that, PHD is not small. We have 400 people in China, and China is one of the most important markets in the world. And look at the clients we work with. They’re some of the most demanding, and Unilever more than anybody in the market. If they didn’t think they could rely on us, they’d go elsewhere.

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