Wunderman APAC boss Martin Conneen on brand war rooms, why clients still need agencies and agencies need a profile

Martin ConneenMartin Conneen is one year into his role as Asia Pacific president of digital and direct marketing agency Wunderman.

In this interview with Mumbrella, Conneen talks about the challenges that face brand war rooms, why clients will always need agencies, and why even a large, established network like Wunderman needs to raise its profile.

Wunderman positions itself as a digital agency and yet much of the business is still about traditional direct marketing. How do you see yourselves as an agency?

Seventy per cent of our business is digital. Clients are struggling to figure out how to embed digital into their organisations and how to roll out digital initiatives, and that’s where we can help. A lot of clients are looking at what to in-source and what to outsource, and what combination to use.

Take social. We work with a client heavily involved in F1. Looking at the research, most of the social activity about the brand goes on at the weekend. But most agencies are not structured to respond to social queries at that time. There needs to be change in how the industry approaches social, and matters are made more complicated by how different digital literacy levels are across Asia.

A number of clients have been setting up digital command centres; Philips, MasterCard and Tourism Australia. What do you make of the trend on the client side of taking more control over digital and content?

The aim is admirable – to get integrated resources working together. But longer term, you get conflicts. Are the staff at the digital command centre working for the brand or the agency? What happens when an individual wants to rotate and work on another brand? Inhouse teams tend to encounter problems with longevity, because they don’t have as much diversity. A lot of people work agency-side to be challenged by different opportunities, and you don’t get that so much from working on one brand.

The question with a brand war room is, can you execute it well? They may save time and money, but are they good for the brand in the long run? War rooms are also very hard to scale.

Trying to roll out war rooms across 80 markets – it just doesn’t work that well. Some centres of excellence take part of the function are inhouse, such as a production studio to turn around content quickly, but they have different agencies supporting that function across the region. Apples does this.

Most clients have some core expertise inhouse, such as CRM and digital, and a lot of clients have been trying to build an inhouse analytics capability. Some clients don’t want to give information to their agency partners – with an e-commerce function in particular. But you can’t do everything yourself, or life begins to get cumbersome.

Is there also the risk that if agency people go to work in an in-house set up they don’t come back?

Indeed. Take China. Clients are taking people from agencies to build their own digital or loyalty teams. People feel that the grass is greener on the client-side and they move. Churn rates in China are around 30 to 50 per cent sometimes much higher. People are leaving after six months or a year, many have seven different jobs in seven years, and if you look at a résumé in China there’s typically a lot of fallacy. Are they really a great strategy planner when they’ve moved around so much that they’ve missed out on training?

We’ve seen it happen a lot – when we put people on-site to help a client run their e-commerce for them, after six months the client wants to hire them full-time. But it’s great for people to see what life is like on the other side, and it’s a different challenge.

Are there ways to stop people leaving to go client-side in this way?

If a group of agencies are working on similar clients, you can put a non-solicitation contract in place. So you can be strict but ultimately you want people to stay at your agency because they enjoy it, not because they’re under the threat of legal action. And not putting these measures in place will help you later on, because you never know where they’re going to end up later on in their careers.

Wunderman is a big agency that is known to produce good work for big clients such as Ford and Microsoft, but keeps a low profile. Why so?

I’ve been at Wunderman for nine years in various markets including the UK and Japan, where I worked for seven years. I’m a year into this role. We do promote our work and new staff, but we are certainly quieter than other networks. I would say that we have substance in our conversations, and less bluster. A lot of clients are surprised about the depth and breadth of our network. But yes, it’s helpful for clients to read about our approach to new trends on, say, loyalty, digital and retail. We do plan to have more of a profile.

So just how big are you, and what are clients asking you for?

We have 1,750 staff across the region – 1,900 including our joint-venture partners. We are biggest in China, Australia, India, the Philippines and Vietnam. We still do some traditional direct marketing work, for instance for Land Rover in China where we do print and lead generation. But if 70 per cent of our business is now digital, the core tenets of CRM become even more important. Clients want a reappraisal of the principles of CRM in the digital context, and we’re seeing lot of requests for more support on the data side.


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