Q&A with Edelman Malaysia boss Robert Kay: The holding company model drains creativity and culture

Robert KayRobert Kay, a seasoned creative agency practitioner who over three decades in advertising with the likes of Saatchi & Saatchi London, Batey Ads in Singapore, The Campaign Palace in Australia and latterly Leo Burnett Kuala Lumpur, is eight weeks into his role running PR agency Edelman in Malaysia.

Why the switch? How does he feel the ad agency world compares to the PR? Kay was in Singapore to talk to Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks.

So Robert, now that you’re on the PR side, how do you see creative agencies coping with industry change brought on by digital?

I think there’s a will within creative agencies to change, but I’m not sure their DNA allows it.

How do you mean?

The core product of the classic creative agency is the big idea. There’s a reticence to sacrifice time for a potential lack of quality. But the world will not wait for ad agencies to catch up. The DNA we have here [at Edelman] is closer to the classic news cycle, so it is perhaps better placed to react and adapt to the rigours of modern marketing.

Sadly I think creative agencies have lost their seat at the boardroom table. One of the interesting aspects of Edelman is that we still have our seat. We provide advice on important business issues, not just brand issues.

How do you find that the PR and creative agency world are culturally different?

At times, I find it quieter than I’m used to [at Edelman]. Is there that raucous collective focused around a big idea? Maybe not yet. But we’re heading that way.

Let me come at is from a slightly different angle. If I compare your average 27 year-old in an ad agency compared to the same age group at Edelman of comparable education and years of experience, there’s an intellectual rigour at Edelman I have found to be refreshing and surprising. That’s not to say that creative agency staff are not intelligent, but there’s a kind of robustness to the thinking in comparatively young staff here that I’ve found rather surprising.

Then there’s the creative temple issue in ad agencies. Now, PR people haven’t traditionally seen themselves as fundamentally creative. They see themselves as the poorer cousins of creative agencies, which is an issue we need to address. We have a positive energy here, and it’s about how we harness, develop and nurture that culture, which comes from a different place from pureplay creative culture.

Are you looking to hire more creative people at Edelman?

Yes, if you look at the people we’ve hired, and the people we’re looking to hire, we want to bring more creative people into the agency.

Are you in market for a creative director? Would that be the first creative director that Edelman has hired in Malaysia?

It would be our first in KL, yes. We’re looking for a good ideas person. A writer would fit in faster, but we’re looking for someone who is a great ambassador for creativity in all of its manifestations, who can see a creative idea that can play out in a variety of different ways.

I’d like to believe that we have greater permission to experiment here, although we should never lose sight of the core. Edelman has been built on managing reputations, and there’s still the need for that strong strategic approach. The outcomes need to be potentially very different and that’s what makes it fun. Frankly, I wasn’t getting as excited in ad agencies as I was 20 years ago.

Why isn’t advertising as fun as it used to be?

It has a lot to do with the holding company mentality. I’ve got a lot of respect for Martin Sorrell [the head of WPP], because he actually gets the business he’s in. But, and this is a sweeping statement, the holding company model with a constant focus on the bottom line does eventually have an impact on the energy levels of creative people. Shielded though they might be, it still has an impact on creativity and culture.

The other reason creative agencies are losing energy is fragmentation. Take my own ECD partner for two and a half years, Eric Cruz. He’s now at AKQA in Shanghai where he has a slightly different canvas on which to ply his inherent creativity. He can weave his magic in new and surprising ways. If you’re a traditional agency, especially an MNC, there’s a need to incorporate, say, creative technologists or other new skill sets into the business. But the P&L model doesn’t allow it. At Edelman, we have more flexibility to explore with different skills.

What do you feel about the move to a much smaller company?

When I was with Batey, we had 600 people in 13 countries. Then I took a sabbatical, did some sheep farming and looked after my mother who wasn’t well. When I felt it was appropriate to get back into the business, I went to TBWA\RAAD Abu Dhabi managing a small operation there. At Edelman, we have 80 people. It’s small enough to get to know everyone, but with the scale to deliver traditional and new creative outcomes for clients.

What’s your view on Malaysia right now, with consumer confidence by some margin the lowest in Southeast Asia (according to the latest Nielsen confidence study)?

We did done some research around views on the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Malaysia. You can tell there’s a job to be done in Malaysia to convince people of the merits of TPP. I’m not disagreeing that there are some confidence issues. But look at what Malaysians have gone through over the last 20 years. They’ve faced adversity before. They had the resolve to say no to the IMF and work through things on their own – that does point to a resilience and a backbone that people looking from the outside should be aware of. I’m not as negative about consumer sentiment as some.

Where do you see the business 12 months from now?

I’m just two months in. The first thing to do in a new role is to get your head around the talent and start to define the opportunity. We’re lucky that we’ve got the leadership regionally and globally to support a blueprint to get things done. But they are respectful enough to allow you the freedom to build something relevant. I’m working on that blueprint right now.


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