The regional ECD: Is the age of the ‘lone genius’ really over?

Earlier this week, news emerged that Graham Kelly would be moving on from Isobar, where he was Asia Pacific executive creative director. The agency has been vague on whether it will replace the role or scrap it altogether, as PR agency Zeno did when Kestrel Lee left a few months ago.

With this in mind, Mumbrella asked a few ECDs and CEOs for their view one of the most contentious roles in advertising in Asia. Does the regional ECD have a future in this part of the world?

The chief creative officer’s view

R. Balakrishnan, chairman and chief creative officer, Lowe Lintas India



To me, it doesn’t make sense at a global or regional level. Asian countries are very distinct and hard to group. I’ve discussed this with Piyush [Pandey, Ogilvy’s national creative director and executive chairman] at length. It is fashionable to say that if you understand ideas and creativity, you can create great advertising anywhere in the world. But I do not think that is true. I know a lot about England, for instance, but I don’t really understand the country in the truest sense of what makes an English housewife tick, or truly understand the English sense of humour. It would take a long time for me to sit in that market and really understand the culture. In my view, the era of the global and regional creative director is over.

The regional CEO’s role

Nirvik Singh, Asia Pacific CEO, Grey Global Group

Nirvik Singh

Nirvik Singh

The fact is that there are global clients and there are local clients. There are no regional clients, at best maybe a few transnational clients. In this context agencies have to decide what is the role of any of a regional ECD.

I would describe the role as the ‘creative torch bearer ‘ for the network. The person should be in charge of the daily quality control of the work; they should be a beacon in attracting talent across geographies.

In today’s communications landscape, the ECD can become a facilitator and curator of multi-cultural collaborations for different disciplines across an entire region, and can help elevate the creative output and reputation of the network.

Too many agencies hire regional ECD to get new business or win awards – that to me is short term and, by definition, a marriage heading for trouble.

The local/regional CEO’s view

David Tang, Vice Chairman, DDB Asia, CEO, DDB Singapore
David Tang

David Tang

We are all prone to put too much expectations on the lone regional superstar, as if we’re looking for the next Alexander the Great. Time and again, it’s proven he will need his troops, his artillery, real clients and a superb base camp – where the real work eventually gets done by a well–engineered team. I think every thriving regional network in Asia will need a hub or two or three – with highly-specialised skillsets especially in digital and data – beyond just a regional creative lead.

The age of the lone genius is over. Come to think of it, even Alexander didn’t do it alone and didn’t last that long. We shouldn’t give anyone a job only to be surprised it didn’t last long.

The former regional ECD’s view

Former APAC ECD of Zeno, now Greater China ECD for George P. Johnson, Kestrel Lee

Kestrel Lee

Kestrel Lee

There is no point in hiring a regional ECD for traditional ad agencies because their rites of passage do not benefit any agency. Most of the senior creatives of such agencies made their name scamming for print, guerilla and one-off ideas, which are not the type of creative solutions that clients want or need these days. They want integrated ideas across paid media, technology, PR and brand communications.

For specialist digital and boutique agencies, hiring a reputable regional ECD is essential as they lack the talent pool and reputation to contest for the limited pool of quality clients and talent in the region. Such ECDs must be those rare few who have won awards consistently for real work and preferable integrated campaign work that cuts through different types of media and is now critical to helping clients solve their business problems.

However, in most cases, a regional ECD will be ideal as long as he or she pulls her weight in helping to win new business. After Zeno lost almost all of its accounts due to global alignment, I was able to help the agency win back 90 per cent of the agency revenue by helping them win regional and global social accounts such as Intel, Lenovo, Procter & Gamble and Sands China.

Graham Kelly, former APAC ECD, Isobar

Graham Kelly

Graham Kelly

There’s a couple of key areas the Regional ECD can add value. The obvious one is to be the creative champion of the region: someone who can encourage, mentor and support the local ECDs on an ongoing basis. Another is to spearhead the drive for regional business. This is especially useful in digital where large clients are starting to consolidate local campaigns into pan-Asian ones.

The local ECD’s view

Sathi Anand, ECD, Saatchi & Saatchi Malaysia

Sathi Anand

Sathi Anand

Asian markets today are dynamic and their consumers are becoming more and more savvy. They don’t buy thematic one way communication like before. Local businesses today need quick fix solutions with strong local insights. I really do believe that the traditional role of the regional ECD is becoming far less important for the business needs of local clients in today’s Live Creativity environment.

That said, the role will still have huge importance if the agency is servicing a global piece of business because the brand needs structure, uniformity and consistency throughout all communications across the region. Hence, the regional ECD sets the tone and becomes the guiding light of all the work across all countries within the region. I believe the role could still exist depending on the type of business a specific agency services. As for Malaysia, we are becoming much less reliant on regional businesses and are more focused on acquiring local businesses, which is proving to be a successful venture for us.

And here is what some of you thought, in no uncertain terms (we like readers who don’t sit on the fence…), about the role of the regional ECD in Asia.


Methinks “regional ecd” is probably the most redundant and mindless expense for any agency network. These folks dont bring anything valuable to the table. Harrassing ECDs for their proactive/scam campaigns months before Cannes is something a secretary could do. And have you noticed how tightly they always seem to clutch their phones in meetings…..praying they ring so they can rush off to avoid saying something intelligent in meetings.

Mark Tan

Not every regional ECD is redundant. There are those who actively win new business while gunning for better work. The key question to ask is what is the most recent work linked to the ECD in question. If the piece of work is about 5 to 10 years old, probably not the best candidate for a regional ECD now.


It’s pure fantasy to think that a regional ECD is there to ensure creative consistency among all offices in the region….they don’t spend enough time in satellite offices anyway and cant wait to get the hell out after a day. Right now the role is just to be the eyes and ears of the global creative director and do gunning for scams at award time.

Unnatural geographic

Regional ECDs are today’s endangered species. Once found in huge numbers in the watering holes of Bali and Phuket and business class airport lounges of Asia, their numbers dwindle during the annual migration to the South of France in May. Fed on a regular diet of ideas offered by worker bees, regional ECDs exhibit pesudo- alpha male behavior by flinging their dung around to mark their territory. Well known for producing nothing worthwhile for their tribe, regional ECDs are notorious for consuming many times their bodyweight. Usually invisible, their presence is only made known with mating calls to headhunters and future employers via press releases in trade channels. Although harmless, they have been known to eat their own and cannibalization is common. When confronted in unfamillar situations, they are known to stare into their iPhones and play ‘busy’.


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