Possible’s new APAC CEO Paul Soon on life after XM, the challenges facing digital agencies and why military strategy works

Paul SoonThere was a collective gasp when the news broke in December that Paul Soon would be leaving XM – now known as Mirum – after almost a decade at one of Asia’s most-loved homegrown digital agencies. He’s now just one week into his new job as Asia Pacific CEO of fellow WPP digital network Possible.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Soon talks about why he left XM, why he didn’t start his own agency, and how his experience in the army will shape his approach to strategy at Possible.

Many people thought you’d start your own agency when you left XM. Why didn’t you?

There were just too many options and confusion around what agencies are meant to be today. I didn’t feel I could do enough to create a differentiated proposition for a new agency in all honesty. I get the personal brand thing. But I wouldn’t want to build a brand around just what I have done but am looking for something more solid.

On another note, I also felt that I have not completed my tour of duty within WPP.

What sort of response did you get what the news emerged that you were leaving?

I think everyone supported the change, and I feel genuinely happy that I made the move. I don’t feel that I’ve left anyone in the lurch. When I joined, Ken [Mandel, who ran XM as CEO from 1999 to 2006] recommended that I come back to run the company. Then, I felt a great responsibility of carrying on a business that Ken and others had grown. That’s always been motivating for me – not letting down the folks who built the business. When I left, it was fantastic to hear people say that I’d done a good job. It was sad, but there was also a sense of relief that I’d made the switch to something new.

You were at XM for a long time, as were many XMers. What will you miss about the place?

Obviously the people. Also, the ability to go into markets and generate excitement simply from saying the brand name XM. But at the same time, I am totally excited with my next adventure in Possible. The people here are just as passionate, talented and committed.

What do you see as your biggest challenge in your new role?

Well, this is day four for me. Ask me in three months’ time and my answer will be different. The biggest challenge I see now is how to build a sense of collective confidence. We need to go to market as one, and present a compelling story of who we are. We need to be challenging the market more, and not be shy of letting people know what we stand for.

So, what needs to change about Possible?

Not a lot needs to change, but we need to amplify the good things. There is a lot of talent here, and we need to build more confidence around this talent. We’re a sleeping giant in many ways, but we have big ambitions. My job is to amplify those ambitions and instil some fear in the marketplace when Possible walks into any pitch.

Paul Soon on Possible's balcony in Singapore

Paul Soon on Possible’s balcony in Singapore

A sleeping giant? How big is the agency?

As a global company, we’re one of WPP’s biggest digital networks with global clients such as Shell. In Singapore, we have about 130 staff and we also have an office in Shanghai. I think we don’t really know our own potential as of yet. It is truly an exciting time. Just like when Clark Kent first discovered his super powers! While at XM, I would have loved to have had some of the capabilities we have here.

How do you intend to approach your new role differently to your last?

Possible logo

My approach has always been very hands on, and if I was at XM and still in that environment, I would have continued down the growth path and that would be that. But as a 40 year-old I would be still doing the same thing.

Coming here with whatever experience I’ve gained over the last 15 years can be applied here at Possible. And hopefully through the process of meeting new talent, I can build something different. I would never do it the same way again. I’m going to shed my skin and grow new skin, and I want my staff to do the same.

What in your view are the biggest challenges that digital agencies are now facing?

One of the biggest is building an agency brand. As an industry, you’d think we’d be better at it, as our business is building big connected experiences. We want to produce work that works, but everyone says that. I want to continue my journey in terms of building a network, but I also want to look at how brands are made and pushed today – but not in the traditional sense. It needs to be updated, and my opportunity is to think about how.

We’ve just hired a writer from Interbrand, who thinks about brands in a more holistic way. I believe that we’re unique in that we have an in-house media capability too. Brands need that from a content perspective. This ties back to what I was saying about collective confidence. We should be able to go to clients and translate what we have into something meaningful, that ultimately drives loyalty. But putting it together will take time. We need the right clients too.

View from Possible's balcony at Harbourfront

View from Possible’s balcony at Harbourfront in Singapore

What are the sort of skill sets you want to bring in?

The strength of the company is in innovation around building connected consumer experiences, performance marketing, mobile and e-commerce. These are things that a good digital agency should have. But I’m looking for a creative who’s strong on the brand side, and a planner who values the data that we have, and can translate it into a strategy that drives long term results.

Possible is currently only in China and Singapore today, and acquisitions will come into play. But what is really exciting is working out how we can make what we’ve got already really strong and yet be further differentiated through our acquisition strategy.

So what’s the biggest challenge for digital marketers right now?

The biggest challenge is that clients are going through very different journeys. They’re trying to figure out what the right marketing mix should be, what agencies they should work with, and what category they’re in. And that’s not easy. The biggest conversation we should be having is really about getting the fundamentals of marketing right. We need to get back to fundamentals of what makes a great business. If we keep talking about innovation without really knowing what it means, we will get lost.

Possible's office in Shanghai

Pizza time at Possible’s office in Shanghai

So, what are your aims for your first 12 months at Possible?

First, people and culture. I want us to punch above our weight, not with one super star, but as a team. Second, I want to get our processes right. We want to be nimble and adopt the global boutique approach, and this should reflect the nature of our clients’ business. We will work in small groups, going in hard and fast to make strategic strikes at problems, in much the same way as a military unit does [Soon is an officer in the Singapore Army]. In these units, you build areas of creative chaos, but within these constraints. The beauty of military training is that is gives you a clarity of purpose.


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