Dentsu Aegis Network Southeast Asia CEO Dick van Motman on making mergers and acquisitions work

Dick Van MotmanDick van Motman joined Dentsu just as the Japanese agency giant bought Aegis in 2012, to lead the region. Over the last three years, latterly as Southeast CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network, the merged company has been on something of an acquisition spree.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella editor Robin Hicks, Van Motman talks about his approach to making acquisitions, the secret to making a merger work, and how the marriage between Dentsu and Aegis is working out.

Dentsu Aegis has acquired many companies in a short space of time. What’s your approach to making acquisitions?

I think it looks like a lot in a short amount of time. In terms of the number of deals, yes, we’re suddenly up there [Van Motman referred to the M&A league table compiled in R3’s Q1 2016 review, in which Dentsu ranks fifth, just behind WPP], but our competitors have had their fair share [of acquisitions] as well.

I would say we’re approaching M&A with a different perspective. We’re not buying to keep growth going, and I would contend that some others take that approach. There’s a misperception that we just acquire. The key thing is that M&A happens within a strategic context. M&A is a not a strategy in itself. M&A is an accelerator of a strategy.

Dentsu’s most recently published numbers looked good, but as you’ve acknowledged some observers suggested that growth was largely underpinned by acquisitions and not organic growth…

Yes, we’ve made acquisitions, but our core growth – and by that I mean organic growth – has been phenomenal. It outpaces our competitors by a factor of two plus.

In the context of Southeast Asia or globally?

Globally. I think it’s a little bit too dismissive to say we’ve done M&A to obtain growth. Again, we do M&A through a broader strategic context, and that’s based on where we see the market going.

Yes, we have growth ambitions. But it’s very much about which capability sets do we have, and where are the gaps that we need to fill. We are a global player. So we need to be globally present in sufficient key markets. So some acquisitions will be about in-fill, others will be about building in additional capability sets. From our perspective, it’s about being sufficiently scaled and substantially differentiated.

Going back to the strategy piece… the agencies you’ve acquired – which include the likes of Mangham Gaxiola in Singapore, Jayme Syfu in the Philippines, Merdeka LHS in Malaysia and BWM in Australia – are strong brands run by seasoned practitioners. But would it be fair to say they’re of the traditional advertising mould?

Dick van Motman with Robert Gaxiola (left) and Stephen Mangham

Dick van Motman with Robert Gaxiola (left) and Stephen Mangham

That’s a very simplistic way to view it. For instance, Stephen Mangham led Ogilvy Group not Ogilvy Advertising. So from a skills perspective, he’s playing in that area of convergence that we’re keen on, with brand thinking at heart. We bought Mangham Gaxiola because we were bringing the Mcgarrybowen brand to Asia Pacific [Van Motman is also APAC head of Mcgarrybowen], which is also why we brought in Jeffry and Simone in Shanghai.

At the end of the day it’s about talent. If you look at the likes of BWM, I think it’s too easy to dismiss them as a regular creative agency. They’ve ventured into PR and digital. They’ve become a communications agency.

What I’m looking for to execute our strategy are people who understand all the brand fundamentals; who understand that creativity and brand is important, but who also have the ability to reinvent themselves, and want to partner in the dream that is the first global communications agency born out of Asia.

A big issue is that a company turns into a shell of what it used to be a few years later after being acquired. What’s your approach to ensuring that the culture of the acquired company remains intact and the magic isn’t lost?

Dick van Motman, Merlee Cruz-Jayme, Ronald Barreiro and Alex Syfu

Dick van Motman, Merlee Cruz-Jayme, Ronald Barreiro, Alex Syfu

At the end of the day these are people we are talking about. They are accomplished, they have dreams, they have principles and they have a culture of their own. Therefore M&A is a long process. You have to get to know one another’s dreams and ambitions, and work out what are the connecting points.

Yes, of course the financial part of an acquisition is important, but what is of crucial importance is whether it works. I’ve always said, buying is easy but making is work is not. Dentsu and Aegis coming together, and the results we’ve had so far, is a demonstration of the focus on making it work.

Throughout that process, you create an understanding between one another and start to define where the connecting points are, and where the challenges are. And that’s how we work through the M&A process.

It’s about understanding what created success for them, and what created success for us, and figuring out what the mutual part will look like, and how it will grow bigger. Your website will probably be flooded with comments saying what a load of soft crap. But again, this is a people business, and it’s a crucial part of it.

So how important is the personal side to M&A? How important is it that, say, Merlee Cruz-Jayme or Tony Savarimuthu, like you personally to make a deal work?

Well, obviously connections and knowing each other counts. Our industry is an industry where insecurity and accomplishments come closely together. So it [the personal element] helps in creating that trust factor.

But what helps even more is to very quickly give them [new people to the company] access to the rest of the organisation, so that it’s not just about you. If they see the rest of the organisation singing from the same hymn sheet, then they will see that there is a common vision and a common approach.

So, the strategy piece… Where are the gaps that Dentsu Aegis needs to fill?

Andy Greenaway


Well, I would be doing our competitors a service if I was to tell you. But let me put it this way: to start with, Dentsu and Aegis already had a robust footprint separately in the region before they merged. Combined that footprint is even more robust. But we keep looking at adding or upgrading our capabilities, either through acquisition of agencies or talent. A lot of people tend to forget that and say, ‘They’re buying a lot of companies’, but we’ve been acquiring top talent too.

Rosalynn Tay


Rosalynn [Tay, who was hired from Tiger Airways to run Dentsu Singapore in 2013], Andy [Greenaway as Singapore ECD], Nicky [Lim, the newly appointed head of Dentsu Aegis Network Malaysia], Adam [Good, the former Telstra marketer just hired to lead Dentsu branded agencies’ digital assets in Asia]. They’re all hires.

These are people who have a convergent skill set. For instance, Rosalynn was on both the agency and the client side [she worked for DBS, Tiger, Yum and Leo Burnett]. Andy was pure advertising, but then he went to Sapient Nitro. As we are continuing to live up to promise of innovating the way brands are built we will add on the capabilities as and when we need them.

How does the Dentsu Aegis approach to acquisitions work as a group? Whose job is it? Does Dentsu Inc make some acquisitions and Aegis make others to complement their businesses?

First of all, we don’t make the distinction between Dentsu and Aegis…

Sure, but some acquisitions have been led by certain companies, for instance Consider Digital came in through a relationship with iProspect, which was originally part of Aegis.

Kasper Wandi, Therese Schwensen, Dick van Motman, Nicky Lim, Andrew Turner and James Lyne

Consider Digital acquisition: Kasper Wandi, Therese Schwensen, Dick van Motman, Nicky Lim, Andrew Turner, James Lyne

That’s the nice part about a convergent organisation. Our capability sets come together, and everyone is looking at it [M&A], whether that’s Ruth [Stubbs, regional head of iProspect] or Nicky [Lim, CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network Malaysia] – we are all constantly looking at how we can continue to evolve the organisation. It’s really not just one person.

Ok, but where are the M&A decisions made ultimately for Southeast Asia? Is it Dentsu Inc in Tokyo or out of the Dentsu Aegis Network regional hub in Singapore?

We look at it jointly. In the case of Malaysia, could be Nicky [Lim] or me, and then we make sure it follows the very robust and inclusive internal approval processes of the company.

So when it comes to acquisitions it’s up to country head what they buy? But they report into Dentsu Inc in Tokyo ultimately?

I don’t want to get into that. Our model is about innovating the way brands are built, and having the right capability sets, and collaborating within a single market P&L [this was introduced at the beginning of 2014, when Aegis’ Nick Waters was named regional head of Dentsu Aegis Network] to bring fast, convergent solutions to clients. That drives our M&A thinking.

There have been a lot of departures too, for instance long-standing executives such as Miguel Ramos in the Philippines and Margaret Lim in the Philippines…



These are too separate things. You’re mixing up acquisitions and people who have moved on. I would contend that in this day and age, it’s about making sure your capability sets are up to par, so you can deliver convergent solutions at speed.

So yes, we’re constantly evolving whether we’re adding on parts or upgrading. As you go through these evolutions, sometimes you add people and sometimes you part ways.

I’m a product of that evolution. I joined as Dentsu wanted to build the network outside of Japan. I was the first non-Japanese head of the region for Dentsu. That was a first step, and we’re happy to say that there are more people have stayed or joined than have left.

What’s your view on the Dentsu Aegis merger personally, and how that’s going three years down the line? It was never going to be easy, with cultural differences between the two companies, as we’ve hinted at in our ‘Game of Thrones’ analysis piece

First and foremost, it was an acquisition. Dentsu acquired Aegis. But I think the way Dentsu went about it… they treated it like a merger. And that says a lot of things. It says that Dentsu understands the sensitivities around culture and what’s needed to really transform. And the facts are that organic growth has been phenomenal, and the number of people who we’ve been able to attract in terms of companies and talent has been enormous.

In terms of growth, can you give us growth numbers in terms of the staff to have joined the agency in Southeast Asia?

I don’t have those numbers. But the business is growing significantly globally and even more so in my region with pretty impressive year on year increases. Has it been without challenges? No, it has not been without ups and downs. But if you look at the broader picture…

Can you talk about any of those challenges, and how they’re being addressed within the company?

You’ve cited it already. The merger was about bringing two worlds together. And if you bring those worlds together, it would be naive to believe that it wouldn’t come without challenges. It’s a constant work in progress, but what’s for sure is that all our worlds got bigger, whether you’re from media, creative or digital performance.

Until relatively recently, Dentsu had enjoyed limited success outside of Japan. How do you see its transformational journey going?

Dentsu knew they needed to transform from a Japan-dominated company to a global company that happens to come from Japan. The economic realities in Japan are such that, while we are by far the market leader, the home market is not a big growth market. And more importantly our clients want to be global too, and we need to make sure we can service them as they globalise. The other part is that Dentsu has a very unique model to offer – they have never unbundled.

Years ago, Dentsu were labelled a dinosaur because they hadn’t unbundled. Now the business looks right for this day and age. They understand the interplay between media and creative, and performance marketing, content, sports, etc – capability sets that make a pretty interesting proposition in today’s world. Then Aegis was added on, and that capability set expanded. The model is right for a world of convergence and speed. People forget that there are a lot of natural similarities between Dentsu and Aegis.

But on paper at least, Dentsu and Aegis are chalk and cheese, aren’t they? A British pure-play media company joining a massive Japanese full service agency…

Actually, both agencies have a media background. Dentsu was started in 1901 by a journalist who embraced the invention of the telegraph as a way to reach more people. It was previously a media company that gave away space for free that has evolved into a content business and a lot more. Aegis started as a media business, but has built in creative elements too, such as Isobar.

Going back to the issue of bringing Dentsu and Aegis together culturally. What is the company doing to make sure that happens effectively? It’s still a relatively new merger. There must be issues that need to be ironed out…

In the context of my region [Southeast Asia] – and you can extrapolate from that – I would say that the first thing we’re doing is to recognise that we’re still bridging these worlds, and that may never change. We’re evolving and bringing in new talent, we’re mashing up millennials with old farts like me, mashing up nationalities and capabilities. It’s important to understand that, as I’ve said, it’s a work in progress.

One of the things I’m hot on is diversity. I know, there’s a lot being said at the moment about gender equality, but it goes beyond that. If you want to be a company that’s really relevant for a convergent world then we need to be about diversity, of gender, nationality, personality, skill set, out look on life. We’re consciously building, either through hiring or acquiring, a diverse company.

The CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network Australia, Simon Ryan, who was on a panel with Cindy Gallop, talked about how over seven years the business has jumped to the top of the market after adopting gender equality measures. It seems that Dentsu Aegis is keen on gender equality messaging at the moment…

When I joined Dentsu I walked into meetings and thought I’d joined the wrong club. They were all-male meetings with Japanese agency bosses. I can say that with my cultural background [Van Motman is part Dutch, part Indonesian] when I joined, I wanted to approached diversity from that angle. In today’s age, in order to make a global, relevant product, you need to have diversity, the ability to pare up a 50 year-old veteran who knows everything about the brand fundamentals but knows very little about the latest social and programmatic trends, with a young guy who knows everything about the latter and nothing about the former. And that’s what I mean by convergence, acquiring the right talent and bringing them together in a very fluid way.

For all this talk of diversity, how does this stack up with Dentsu in Japan, a country not always held up as a beacon for gender diversity.

Well, first of all, they hired me. And secondly, one of my first hires was Rosalynn [Tay].

This time next year what do you want to have achieved, either in the context of M&A or in role your personally at the company?

This is the year that we’ve seeing a lot of the foundation work we’ve done coming to fruition. We’re winning clients, we’re winning awards, we’re getting noticed. I just hope that we see more of that next year.

For me when I joined it was not an advertising gig – it was a transformation gig. It was about building a different model, creating a different company, and I hope that continues and that we have even more talent come on board.

By that you mean, you’ve done the job that you started out to do? How far down the path of transformation do you think the company is?

One of the reasons why I’m still in line of work is because every day the frustration and the satisfaction is the same. Even if you’ve been successful yesterday, you need to surpass your success today. I’m perennially dissatisfied, so that keeps me going. But I would say we’ve got a lot of traction, and we’re very far along the transformation journey. I would hope that between now and next year, we’ve completed that transformational journey, and I’ve completed my assignment.


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