DigitasLBi APAC boss Roy Capon on the digital talent crunch, Asia’s fear of failure and why the old networks are ‘crippling themselves’

Roy CaponRoy Capon is regional CEO of DigitasLBi, an agency with 1,000 staff in Asia born out of one of the biggest digital restructuring moves yet by Publicis Groupe – the merger of Digitas and LBi in February last year.

In this Q&A interview with Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks, Capon talks about confronting the talent crunch, the region’s most exciting markets, the hollowness of the word “innovation”, and why a lack of desire by traditional agencies to “step off the hamster wheel” is limiting marketing spend on digital.

Digital marketing spend in Asia is still a lot lower than one might expect for such a tech savvy region. What do you think the main reason for this is, and how can it change?

There’s still a huge desire for traditional campaigns – client organisations and people are geared up to deliver for this, and they are well versed in how to deliver it, so it’s still the de facto norm. This is being fuelled by very short-term demands, while there’s limited long-term planning. So there’s no desire for change or to step off the hamster wheel.

And I think there’s still no one offering a definitive understanding around measurement and returns. It used to be CTRs, CPAs and now it’s moving to sometime even softer metrics like engagement. Attribution modeling (not to open a can of worms around methodologies…) is getting us all a little closer to ROI, which has to be the ultimate measure. But there’s still a role for clearer KPIs and returns across the consumer journey.

Which market do you think is the most exciting for digital marketing in Asia right now, and why?

It’s a well trodden example, but I have to say China. It’s paving the way between the intersection of the consumer, marketing and technology and simultaneously turning well established business models on their heads. If you look at WeChat (Weixin) and the ability to set up shops using their payments API.

But you can’t discount India and the speed of digital adoption being fuelled through the availability of ever-cheaper smartphones or the hyper social behaviours of consumers we see across Southeast Asia.

Which piece of industry jargon irritates you the most and why?

It’s not really jargon as such, but I find the word ‘innovation’ liberally used by both agencies and clients. Unfortunately it’s generally in the context of a bad promise – ‘we want to innovate’, we will help you ‘innovate’, we innovate for our clients, etc. It’s a bold statement and not everyone is geared up to deliver on this promise.

What’s the most impressive (non-DigitasLBi) campaign you’ve seen recently in Asia and why?

The Philippines Smart TXTBKS campaign was great, and Dumb Ways to Die was just incredible in the way it took off. If you take APAC as a whole, Australia and NZ are probably doing the better work on big brands in the digital space – possibly the result of them being slightly more ‘mature’ markets.

You are just short of two years into your role running the region for DigitasLBi. What’s been the hardest challenge so far, and how are you tackling it?

There is one fundamental challenge that we face day to day, which is actually getting harder and harder as we grow across the region. This is across all areas of our business, which is made even more acute when you offer a diverse set of services, across paid, owned and earned media. Talent.

It doesn’t matter if it’s in strategy, creative, UX, media, technology, data – finding quality talent with the right level of experience is extraordinarily difficult in this region. This is a global problem, but I think it is compounded in APAC because of the varied state of digital markets – some are mature, some nascent. Couple that with the exponential growth and maturity of digital, technology and marketing – even in some of the more nascent markets, particularly China – and this creates a huge skills gap. Demand is outstripping supply.

The problem is further compounded when you are looking for a maturity of skills in more specialized areas such as UX, e-commerce and data. We are trying to tackle the talent crunch with the way that we’re structured. We have a highly connected network of offices and people around the world, which helps us manage talent better. We also have a relatively flat structure, which gives us high visibility when it comes to knowing and managing our people.

We are also fortunate to have a strong network of people and old colleagues we can call upon all over the world. So when we’ve set up in markets (in the last two years we’ve opened offices in Sydney, Singapore and Tokyo) we already have people on the ground who know the market inside out, have their own network, and are people who we know culturally fit our business. This has been key to our expansion over the years.

Just as important is a culture of collaboration. We operate ‘centres of excellence’, which means we don’t need to cookie-cut our services and skills across all our 17 offices in APAC. Rather than looking at a talent pool in one location and in one country, the team know they can look out to a network of a 1000+ people in APAC, or 6,000+ globally.

We are building a centre of excellence for front-end design, UX and data in Hong Kong. We have over 150 technologists based in India, 50 e-commerce experts in China, 400 social media specialists in Greater China and Singapore, and media expertise in Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia.

We are also fortunate that, being such a young network, we don’t have ingrained behaviours and we support collaborative working between the offices by having a single P&L for APAC. The older network agencies are crippling themselves with the continued desire to run identical agencies, with identical sets of skills through single market P&Ls that only vary in scale (and in talent). We believe this narrows the field on talent, stunts growth and limits your ability to service clients properly. Here, no one is constructing their own empire and running their own agenda – the agenda in our business is making sure APAC as a region grows and that everyone has access to the best talent.

What’s the biggest mistake marketers are still making in Asia in their approach to digital, in your view?

I think there’s a couple of things at play here. One is that digital and by extension technology is in many cases still seen as an addendum to marketing. It either sits in traditional campaign thinking (‘boom and bust marketing’, filling some ad space) or buried in the back office with the IT department.

There’s a gulf emerging between some clients in the region – the ones who are embracing the need to transform the way they go to market (and in fact the way they organize themselves as a business) versus the others who are propping up and trying to hold onto the marketing status quo, which is collapsing around us.

The clients who understand that the consumer is constantly in-market and is always looking (actively or not) for product and services requires an ‘always-on’ approach and a different understanding of content, content production and distribution are fewer than you might think. I’m talking about clients who have real guts and stamina for change.

In some organisations it’s just a handful of people who are trying to turn the Titanic and need agency partners who can help them turn the ship faster. But it’s not just clients but also agencies who are clinging to the status quo.

Instead of ‘servicing’ clients, agencies need to work in partnership with brands to devise new ways of adding value to the customer experience, whatever that may be. This means developing new ways of working centered on imperfection, iteration and the recognition that failure is a crucial component of success.

Failure in many cultures, especially in Asia, is seen as a negative rather than embraced as a fundamental part of the process. That is a very big culture change, and most companies simply aren’t structured for the challenges of the digital age, with marketing departments often working in silos. We think it’s the job of agencies to help their clients organise for change so that they can harness new technologies and keep pace with their customers.

The changing client-agency dynamic means developing new remuneration models that uncouple time from money and allow agencies to be paid for the value they deliver to their clients’ businesses rather than the hours they spend on a particular client.


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