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Starcom SEA COO: Talent is not the problem, industry is looking down the same ‘rabbit hole’

RangaThe regional head of operations for media agency Starcom MediaVest has declared that finding good talent is not a problem in Asia, rather agencies are all looking down “the same rabbit hole”.

In an interview with Mumbrella, Ranga Somanathan, the agency’s Southeast Asia COO, said that one of the marketing industry’s biggest challenges in Asia was creating a more diverse talent pool.

“I believe talent is not an issue,” said Somanathan. “I sincerely believe that the issue is that we are all looking down the same rabbit hole and trying to get a different type of person to work with us. It is a nonsense.”

The COO, who has responsibilities across Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, said the industry needed to look at the diversity of talent and methods of retention.

“We spend a lot of time with the universities and the millennials have a great work ethic, but the reason they are not able to realise their potential is because we are not aligning them on the purpose. That is where there is a massive disconnect,” he said.

“It is the organisation’s responsibility to create the next gig for you before you feel the need for the next gig. Too often it’s that you’re doing a fabulous job on this client, the client loves you and so you stay in the job for a longer time even though you don’t feel more gratification. Therefore talent is lost.

“The definition of longevity of talent has totally changed now. The organisation tends to recognise five, ten or 15 years as long service, but our internal conversation and recommendation has been around making it 12, 18, 24 months.”

“I think talent is not the issue. It is the way we look for it,” he said.

“The way you reward needs to be different; $500 isn’t a big deal for a lot of these guys. What they are looking for is not another job, rather one that fulfils them.,” he said.

Somanathan cited his experience running Starcom’s operations in Indonesia and Malaysia, where he asked headhunters and recruiters to bring him more varied candidates.

He said: “When headhunters came to us to discuss deals, I said I’m not going to negotiate with you on how much I am going to pay, but you are going to put on my table the best talent that you come across. If I hire then I will pay you rack rates. But if I brief you for a resource then I will give you just $500. Immediately I ended up getting on my table people who the headhunters felt were pretty cutting edge.”

Somanathan referred to a candidate he hired from a web hosting company who only stayed with the agency for nine months, but completely altered Starcom’s approach to performance management.

In a wide ranging interview, Somanathan also spoke about the need for publishers in Asia to have less of a sales focus and instead show to clients that they were eager to solve their problems.

“[Publishers] are moving fast enough from a sales mindset perspective, but that is their problem,” he said.

“My biggest pain point with digital publishers is that they are sales-focused; ‘let me make a quick buck, let me sell you a masthead – agency people slow things down, so let’s go get things out of the client directly’, etc. That is creating a bit of a erosion in client confidence.”

“The client feels excited to deal with the publisher directly, but then when the publisher goes to them with a sales mindset they don’t feel gratified and end up feeling burnt,” he said.

“A lot of publishers have sales folks who come from aggressive print sales teams and their mindset has always been a perishable commodity – if I don’t sell today I’m going to get screwed. They are not selling audiences, they are selling high-cost real estate, which is perishable.”

Somanathan said the sales focus was “eroding client confidence”, and that there needed to be a change.

“Publishers need to have a change in attitude. They need to be more solution-focused and able to lean on all the data streams they create to go to an agency or a client and say this is how I create a meaningful solution for you,” he said.

Nic Christensen 

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