Zenith Optimedia APAC boss Gerry Boyle on how Asia is different to the UK, the value of strategy and how to make social media pay

Gerry BoyleGerry Boyle is Asia’s newest regional media agency boss. He succeeded Phil Talbot at the helm of media agency Zenith Optimedia in August last year.

In this interview, the former head of Zenith’s British operations and the agency’s worldwide managing partner, talks to Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks about how media agencies can prove their value, why the idea of having a social media department is “redundant” and what he wants to have achieve in his first year in charge.

You’re still fairly new to your role running Zenith Optimedia in APAC. What do you see as your biggest challenge?

The challenges are not dissimilar for many organisations in this business – ensuring that we attract and retain more than our fair share of the best talent. That’s fundamental. Businesses are built on talent – the people who produce the work that keeps our clients moving in the right direction and driving our business. That has got to be the cornerstone of what we do. 

What do you see as the biggest difference between the media agency scene in the UK and Asia?

One of the things I see in the people here is an almost endless optimisim and openmindedness – perhaps because the business is a little younger, and people in this region are not so sceptical. In the UK, people tend to be a bit jaded and think that everything has been before. Here, there’s an unbridled sense of enthusiasm to try new things.

In the media agency landscape, it’s difficult to launch a full-service start up [with a media buying function]. In fact, the only really successful start up in the last 12 years has, in my view, been Walker Media [a British media agency which ZO’s owner Publicis Groupe acquired last year]. This is why you’re seeing the growth of planning-led start ups such as Match Media in Australia and Goodstuff Communications in the UK. The importance of strategy is more nascent in Asia, but new agencies will start to emerge in the coming years, with an emphasis on planning.

Why will strategy make a difference, in what some see as a volume driven market?

Think about the way the media world changing. The trick is navigating it in a quicker way than your competitors. And that involves great strategic thinking. If you don’t have a great way to take a brand to the customer, how can you possibly say to your client that we should own your data or control your content strategy?

For me, the role of strategy is getting more and more important. It is difficult to set up a viable business that is built around media buying. Newcomers should really look at other aspects of their offering and let big the MNCs do the buying for them. Strategy remains the one thing that cuts through all disciplines.

Can you give us any detail on the roll out of Project Blue in Asia? Who’s going to run it, and what will its name be?

Zenith was a temporary name back in 1988 when we first launched, and it stuck – so let’s see how things go.

Project Blue will launch in Europe as that’s where a number of key clients are based. We’ve just acquired Walker Media, as you know. Sébastien Danet is leading that. We will work on proving the concept in Europe and then bring it to Asia when we need it, or once we’ve seen the concept work in Europe. It will most likely be six or 12 months down the line before we see Project Blue launch in Asia, then it’s launch in the rest of the world.

A media agency CEO recently told me that he doesn’t have a social media department, because social media is too labour intensive and doesn’t make any money. What are your thoughts on how to make social media contribute to a media agency’s bottom line?

For me, social media – if you can even label it that – is not just a part of the plan. It’s the construct of the plan. I can get planning insights from social media. I can use it as a sales channel, as a CRM tool, and to evaluate effectiveness. So the notion of having a social media division or a department is redundant, because it is inherent in everything we do. Clients will pay for what they perceive to be valuable. So it is our job to show how we can create value for, and by, the clients that we work with.

But how can you demonstrate that value?

This is one of the biggest challenges and therefore opportunities for our business. Which is to ensure that we – and this does not just apply to media agencies – can prove our value to a client’s business everyday. We need to invest more in modelling and quantify the value that we’re creating.

This is more easily done with digital media, where you have a true line of sight between what you do and the bottom line. The line of sight in the offline world is less true, and that’s helping to hasten the shift of focus to digital. 

Agencies are stuck in a vicious circle of getting discounts for their client’s spend to get a bonus. But clients want to pay a fee for an outcome, which is a far better way to establish a relationship. For some this is idealistic, but it is something we have to aim for as an industry.

Around two-thirds of the media bought through GroupM in Asia is still television. Since traditional media still delivers handsome returns for media agencies, do you think agencies have been slow to embrace digital?

No. I don’t agree. We do both. Just because you start doing a new thing doesn’t mean you will stop doing what you’ve always done. The speed with which media agencies embrace new channels has a direct correlation with the culture created in that agency, and the clients that they have. If you have a predominately FMCG client base, you will move into digital channels slower than with tech or finance clients.

Media agencies struggle to differentiate themselves. How can any individual stand out in such a homogenous sector?

This issue is often brought up. And the fact is that what we do is very similar. But I would argue that there are a couple of areas where we differ. The biggest is people and culture. If you take us, Aegis or GroupM, you will find that although people move around the industry quite a bit, there are certain types of people who work well within those systems. So I would question the notion that we’re all the same.

Live ROI imageIn terms of positioning, Live ROI [which launched in April last year] is right for us. It’s dead simple. You get an insight from yesterday, you apply it today, and measure it tomorrow. It’s a nice contemporisation of the original ROI positioning [that Zenith introduced in 2003].

What do you make of your offices looking to localise that proposition? In Australia, Zenith calls itself ‘The Open Agency’. Does that bother you when you’re trying to create a consistent culture across the region?

We have a bottom-up approach at this agency – it’s not a command and control culture. ‘Open’ is more of a philosophy and an approach. Ian [Perrin, Zenith Optimedia Australia’s CEO, who joined from Naked Communications in 2011] never said that ZO Australia is no longer the ROI Agency. He was saying, ‘We’re open’ within the paradigm of ROI.

Why is it that so many people stay at Zenith Optimedia for so long? Steve King, the global CEO, has been there since the beginning, when Zenith was born out of Saatchi & Saatchi in 1988. Malcolm Hanlon, ZO’s regional COO, and yourself have been around for a while too. Is it because since media agencies are so similar there’s no point in moving? Or is there something is in the water at Zenith?

Well, it’s certainly not the former. If that was true, no one would move ever move to another agency.

Steve King

Steve King

There are a couple of things that contribute to loyal relationships internally. One is Steve [King]. His style is to empower. He’s there to help and guide, and you can go to him if you need advice, but he lets us get on with our job. He’s worked hard to build a very open and collaborative management team where we can say what we think and genuinely take on issues we feel strongly about. Culturally, that creates a glue that binds us as an agency.

Also key to longevity at this agency is that we’ve all had such different jobs. I’ve been with the agency since 1999. I was head of planning, then I went off to London Business School, then I became CEO. And now I’ve been given an amazing opportunity to run Asia. Even though I’ve been here for 14 years, I’ve had six different jobs.

The same is true of many others such as Tim Jones, who used to be in business development and now runs North America, and Sébastien Danet [who joined Zenith as president of its French operation in 1997].

What are the main things you want to have achieved within your first 12 months running ZO APAC?

To make sure we have a culture that creates the right conditions for growth for our people, and encourages and rewards fantastic work that delivers brilliant results for our clients. These things will unlock growth from an organic perspective. From a sector perspective, anything we can do to help media agencies get more recognition would also be a great.


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