Former JWT APAC boss Michael Maedel on why Asia needs to rethink its approach to talent

Michael MaedelMichael Maedel has worked in the advertising industry for 42 years, the last 25 with JWT where he led the WPP ad agency as Asia Pacific chairman. Maedel recently joined recruitment firm Grace Blue to spearhead the company’s Asian operations.

In this interview with Mumbrella, Maedel talks about why now is not the time for him to retire, the need to bring new blood into adland and the value in Asia’s rising stars spending time outside of the region.

So Michael, why the career switch?

I decided that, after 42 years in the industry and 25 years with JWT, that now is not the time to retire. Finding talent is something I have always enjoyed, and it is also the biggest challenge agencies are facing. I am chairman of the supervisory board of a German digital agency, and we’ve always tried to import and share experiences. When Grace Blue asked me to do a similar thing for APAC, it didn’t take me long to decide.

There are plenty of recruitment firms out there. Why Grace Blue?

I’ve worked with them as a client for many years. There is an immense level of integrity in their approach. I never got the the feeling that they recycle CVs sitting in a draw or throw in a few names to see what sticks, rather they select candidates based on an understanding on what a company’s goals are.

Also, if I look at what agencies need in terms of talent, given all the changes the advertising industry is going through, just fishing in the same pond and moving people from agency A to agency B is not going to push the industry forward. In future, we will have to look at talent in a different way; the people coming into the industry will be from different areas such as journalism, shopper marketing or the client sales side.

But bringing outsiders into the industry has been done before and hasn’t always worked. Remember back in 2001 when WPP launched Red Cell, a network that promised to bring in outside creative voices such as Bob Geldolf and Italian designer Antonio Citterio as consultants to diversify adland’s approach to creativity? That didn’t go according to plan.

I remember the launch event [in London] vividly. I think that was the only time that Bob Geldolf had seen the inside of an agency. The intention behind Red Cell was not wrong, but ad agencies need more than marquee names to take them forward, they need new blood from new disciplines to adapt to the changes the industry is going through.

You mentioned journalists. Why would journalists benefit an ad agency?

In real-time marketing. When planning an ad campaign, typically a group of people disappear and go through months of development and research until they’re ready to launch. But with breaking news, you can’t disappear for 48 hours to ponder how to report a story. In that time, ISIS could have taken over all of Iraq.

Which markets in Asia are struggling most with the talent crunch? Two countries I hear regularly mentioned in this regard are China and Indonesia, two big growth markets.

There is a talent challenge across the board in the region. There is clearly more demand than supply in most markets, particularly those that are still in the first or at best second generation of talent in this business. But as there is so much demand, agencies are looking to progress careers very quickly. So agencies are hiring people from a relatively junior level who have not had the chance to build a level of experience that is helpful to clients.

Agencies these days have a small window of opportunity left to redefine their value to clients. At the moment, there is the risk that the industry is becoming more and more commoditised. We have to look at what we do as an industry to course correct. We need to be more quality focused for clients. We can’t be so Cannes focused that we forget about how clients tick. Look at what’s happening now. Agencies of record are under pressure, and clients are opting more and more for work on a project basis.

What are your views on the young talent coming through the industry? How can they be better developed?

What we haven’t done is put enough Asian talent in Western markets. It does happen on a small level, but it has to happen much earlier. Typically in Asia, you have to reach a certain level, to senior account director or higher, before you might be considered for a move around the network and overseas. If you identify that an individual will play an important part of the company in the future, you have to move them at some point. Clients are doing this much better, as they have a bigger scale on which to operate.

How junior are the people you’re talking about?

If she or he has proven themselves after two to three years they should be considered for a move.

What are your thoughts on how well the industry trains its young talent?

Training needs to be seen from a longer term perspective. You don’t train people by sending them on a three-day day workshop and that’s it for the year. It’s a sequence that’s leads to a defined target over time. It’s not an ad hoc course and a salary increase. If you’re sent to a weekend workshop, it may help open your eyes, but it won’t help to position you as an expert in a field. Agencies have to understand that training does not immediately generate revenue or return. If you send someone on a good training course, this will not mean that the client will immediately increase their budget the next day. It’s a mistake to connect cost with return.


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