David Tang on the reinvention of DDB Asia: We want more cows, not more milkmen

David TangDavid Tang is the newly appointed Asia CEO of DDB, running Greater China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia for the ad agency network. After 17 years of service running the Singapore office, Tang took on the regional job following the retirement of John Zeigler in September.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Tang talks about what it’s been like to replace Zeigler, his plan to reinvent the network, the new focus on practitioners and “doers” above politicians and bureaucrats, and who his star players are now.

Have you achieved everything you’ve set out to in the relatively short time you’ve had a broader regional role?

Cut me some slack, Robin – it’s still my first 90 days. I like to go fast, but I’m here for the long haul. The first focus is on the clients, so we have up-ped the game on our key clients such as McDonald’s, J&J, Exxon, VW, Qualcomm – they deserve the best sort of ideas and people. To do that, we have to make some sweeping changes on people and bring on some key talents. And I’m excited about the top talents coming on board in 2016. We’re about 70 per cent there and I’m still looking for the other 30 per cent. I know it’s people and the team that makes the real difference, especially in Asia.

What’s it been liking succeeding John Zeigler?

It’s a bit like taking over from Darth Vader. John hired me years ago and he’s been my boss – and the force. He’s actually shielded me from the dark side and let me get on to do my best work. And he’s taught me plenty, the light and the dark. You know there is a saying, “Once your teacher, always your teacher.”

Have you always had ambitions to have a regional role, given the success you’ve enjoyed at home in Singapore (Tang was formerly DDB Singapore CEO)?

No, I’m a reluctant conscript and still a client guy. Frankly I’d much rather be working with the guys on StarHub, McDonald’s, DBS and the next pitches in Singapore. My obsession is still about the work and the Effies. Not about to give that up!

But I think this is a good move, to empower our Singapore office as a hub and get our guys to do more for the region. It’s never been seriously tried before – instead of regional bureaucrats, invest in practitioners across the region. Just so happens that Singapore has an incredibly strong team and will hire more talent on board as a hub agency.

The region has been divided into three, Australia and New Zealand, India, and the rest of the region (including Greater China, Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan), which you’re running. What’s the thinking behind dividing the network into hubs and removing the regional layer?

Let’s be honest: it’s too big a job for one person – Asia with all the challenges of China and India, plus Australia and New Zealand. Clients realise that too. We need exceptional focus on each region, if not local markets.

With three regional hubs in Singapore, Mumbai and Sydney, we could hire the sort of talent that best fits each region and do the real work for clients. We don’t need the regional layer of politicians and bureaucrats – let’s hire more creative playmakers. Between Madhukar (Kamath, who runs India), Marty (O’Hallaran, who runs ANZ) and myself, we’ve worked long enough to know how to milk the synergy and respect the differences.

Who are your key people now?

Jeff Cheong

Jeff Cheong

When I took on this job, I told a few guys they have to be part of this and step up. In just two months, Jeff Cheong, head of Tribal Asia is sweeping across Japan, HK and China. Joji Jacob and Thomas Yang have won a few pitches in Korea, Shanghai and Beijing. But more importantly, it’s about my peers running the offices in China (Richard Tan), Hong Kong (Irene Tsui and Peter Rodenbeck), Korea (Kevin Koh) and our Tokyu partners in Japan. And there are a few more top talents coming on board. We’re going to take to this like a band of brothers – and sisters. Finally, a Team Asia of practitioners.

You’ve recently said, “out with the bureaucrats, here come more practitioners and action heroes.” What do you mean by that, and what structures are you putting in place to achieve this?

We want more cows, not more milkmen. We want people with ideas and solutions, that clients will respect and like – and enjoy working with. Like James Murphy (CEO, adam&eveDDB) said, it’s not supposed to be a complicated business, it’s a business about people with passion and ideas. So I favour practitioners and action doers, far more than politicians and publicists. I’m past hiring anyone who posts the most on LinkedIn – self-publicists seldom work for clients.

There will be some structures to challenge our top talents to do more beyond their own local office to contribute to the region, and there will be some ‘hand up’ subsidy from the regional office to fund hiring local creative stars. Every key talent has to make a difference to clients.

What are you doing to reinvigorate the network, why is it necessary, and what has to make way to make it happen?

Joji Jacob

Joji Jacob

Our starting point is the clients. I go around telling everyone our clients deserve great work. I will see the client, I might even write the brief and review the work. We’re setting the Effie as our benchmark of great, effective work. Look, even Cannes is giving out Effectiveness Awards. I have Joji Jacob now driving that agenda in our Asia Creative Council.

And we’re hell bent on upskilling. We want more creative playmakers and the new solution-makers – data experts, shopper marketing, technologists, e-commerce. Clients need more innovative and breakthrough solutions. We’ve just launched three new T-Divisions: TracyLocke (shopper marketing), Track (e-commerce) and Tribal Innovation.

We will need more talent and I admit it: DDB does not have enough of the best yet. Of course, everybody wants to go to heaven but somebody has to pay for it. We’ve got rid of the typical regional office payroll, so we could staff up on practitioners. We want the action heroes that work on the clients’ business. Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai will bring on the creative stars – and hardworking ones too.

Where do you see DDB in five years’ time, how different an agency will it be?

We want to contest for and work with the most adventurous, results-seeking marketing clients. We have some of them in Singapore, Hong Kong and even China – but we want more of them. Ogilvy has most of them in Asia, but we are hungrier.

One thing wouldn’t change: We believe in a federalist, entrepreneurial spirit at DDB especially in building strong local DDB offices. Yes, it’s true we’re less of a monolithic network than others, but we believe in letting the best talent do the best work to fit each local market. It’s the DDB advantage: Strong from the local ground-up, to make a top regional network. We’ve got to write a slogan around that.

How well do you feel ad agencies in general are doing to keep pace with the changing consumer landscape in Asia right now?

We’re living in challenging but changing times. If you read the press, it’s all about the new skillsets – e-commerce, social media, data science, shopper marketing. But if you speak with most clients in Asia, especially those with local remits, it comes down to a more down-to-earth challenge. They will say we need more local insights, more local talent and more local breakthroughs. Stop ramming global campaigns down local markets, especially if they don’t work. Asians have pride and intelligence too. This is no longer the world’s backyard market.

So between the two – upskilling and more of the best local talent, we’re shooting for that!

It hasn’t been an easy year for the industry, particularly given the slowdown in China. How optimistic are you about 2016, and what do you see as the biggest challenges ad agencies face?

I’m not a prophet, I’m just a playmaker. But I’m certainly more optimistic about Asia than Europe! I think ad agencies folks are reasonably bright folks, so we will regenerate. But it’s the hunger and the people factor that will make the big difference. Didn’t DDB write the line, “We’re No. 2, so we try harder”?


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