Opinion

Dentsu Asia’s Dick van Motman on his first year running the region’s largest ad agency brand

Dick van MotmanDick van Motman is just over a year into his role as chairman and CEO of Dentsu’s non-Japanese Asian operation.

In this interview, the former president and CEO of DDB Greater China tells Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks about hiring four creative directors in one go, why the biggest challenge for Dentsu is being Dentsu and why Asia’s biggest agency brand needs to “open the kimono”.

So, a year in. Are you pleased with the progress you’ve made?

I’m fairly pleased, although our progress has not been as fast as I’d like. Even though I’ve mellowed, I’m an impatient man – ask our PR agency, Rice Communications!

It’s been an interesting challenge for me to join Dentsu. I’ve worked around the region having come out of the West, and have worked at a number of different organisations. This is not so much an advertising gig, it’s about change management. My background is in organisational sociology; finding out what makes a company tick. And Dentsu moving from being a Japanese agency to global communications group is a study in just that.

In the years I’ve covered this industry, I’ve never written about an agency hiring four creative directors at once. You recently hired three ECDs and a CD in Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore. Dentsu must have very deep pockets in the talent acquisition department…

It’s a myth that we have unlimited resources. Yes, Dentsu is a powerhouse, but we’re a commercial organisation in the real world. The nice thing about working for company like Dentsu, is that it has a long-term perspective of time. It’s not all about quarterly earnings. Everything falls within the context of a seven-year plan.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for Dentsu right now?

The biggest challenge for Dentsu, is Dentsu. Can we unleash our enormous potential and bring that to a clientele beyond Japanese clients. We used to all about Japan and a mythical agency to a lot of people. I recently spoke to Terry Savage [the festival chairman of Cannes Lions], who asked me who he needed to tap into at Dentsu. It’s amazing that he needs to ask that!

Our model is very integrated. We have never unbundled, and one of the delightful things about my job is that I have media joined at the hip with creative, which is more in tune with a world that’s about 24/7 communications. Agencies need to be instantaneously everywhere. The business is now about speed and reach, fluidity and flexibility, and we have an organisational construct that can capitalise on that.

How important is PR for the Dentsu brand?

Very. We need to become as influential in the rest of the region  as Dentsu is in Japan. If I meet people randomly in the street in Tokyo and say I’m from Dentsu, they are impressed. The company has power and resonance. We need that in the rest in Asia. But we need delivery before the hype. Our clients need to get what they deserve – that will attract more clients and talent. Then we can be what we should be.

In Japan, Dentsu is not only a creative and media agency. It is a media owner. You cannot export this model wholesale, because frankly it is illegal in other markets. How can you export Dentsu across Asia with this limitation?

You wait until Google owns an agency! I believe that Microsoft used to for a while.

If we were defined by our actions in our home market, I would agree with you. But we are not. What we have that we can export is an understanding of media that other agencies do not have. We are adept at bringing different media platforms together. We also have Dentsu Digital Holdings, which helps smaller digital platforms through online trading, developing relationships and content ideas.

If you could hire anyone, who would it be and why?

One of them I have already hired. Ted [Lim, who joined from Leo Burnett]. In Kim Shaw’s [Campaign Brief Asia editor] recent overview of the top creatives of the last ten years, Ted featured. He’s a fantastic partner who plays as a team.

What’s not going so well?

I would love to have a little bit more energy in indonesia. It’s a great operation, with a fair amount of local business – we are the second biggest in the market there. But I would like us to play a more industry leading role. We’re a lot more sizeable than people think. We’ve been too reclusive. We need to open the kimono a little bit, as it were.

Why has Dentsu not been particularly successful expanding outside of Japan to date?

I would like to debunk that myth. We have been. In a lot of Asian markets, we are top five if not higher. We are a gigantic operation in Greater China. In Thailand we are second or third biggest. The same is true in Indonesia. We have sizeable positions in most markets. But we’ve never really shouted about ourselves. Why? We have rightly always been focused on the client getting the limelight. And of course there’s the Asian trait of being modest about your achievements. Although I would say that we need to be part of the conversation.

The reality of being a Japanese company is that some markets in Asia will not want to work with you, simply because you are Japanese. Has that proved to be a problem for you?

It will be a problem only if we let it be a problem. The Dentsu brand stands for more than a nationality. Dentsu is moving from being a Japanese agency to a global communications group. The last part is very important and should resonate a lot with talent, since we’re the first ever global comms group born out of Asia.

We need to make sure that that’s central, and not defined by fact that we happen to come from japan. We need to celebrate the virtue in that, and make the most of our heritage rooted in innovation and cultural values such as respect and dignity. If we can bring realise that into a global package I think we will be a force to be reckoned with.

Have you found that it’s a problem convincing people to work for Dentsu?

I had the same issue myself when I got the call from Dentsu. But I always say to myself, if your first reaction is strong, you should question it. And I questioned myself a lot. The people who approached me were very smart in the way they couched the job. When I looked under the hood, I started to realise that Dentsu has a very good agency model. We spend a lot of our own money on technology. We put a robot into space!

I had a great time at DDB. I was given a lot of freedom. But the opportunity to play a different game was very appealing to me. I only get a negative response in about 10 per cent of cases, and I’m started to see a lot of change. I tell a lot of talent, you’re good at what you do, but if you want to play a different game, come to us.

Do you feel that your rivals are more scared of Dentsu now?

I hope so. But haven’t seen enough evidence of that yet. In pockets of the region, sure. But we’re up there, competing with top agencies that we didn’t compete with before.

Do you find it tough working for a Japanese company?

It’s been a journey of discovery. The management and the board have shown to be brave bunch, and I’m full of admiration for them. They’ve very consciously taken a new strategic direction, having realised that their world is bigger than Japan. They’re determined to be global player of significance, and I have a responsibility to repay their trust and play a role in their journey.

What are your thoughts on scam? Many of the big ad agencies in Asia do it. Will you?

Ted [Lim] and I don’t want to do scam. If you have good relationship with your clients, you should be able to sell innovative work. That said, there’s a big difference between scam and creating opportunies for testing new ideas. Sometimes, as long as the client pays for the media, there should be leeway to test new ideas.

How far are you towards achieving what you set out to for Dentsu?

I’m the third of the way into a three-year plan. Pockets of the business are developing faster than I thought they would. We’re on a great run with Dentsu Möbius [the agency’s digital arm]. And in Vietnam and Malaysia, particularly with our media operations. Australia is doing well too, and there are the contours of a re-energised Singapore office starting to form. But everywhere, we have momentum.

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