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‘If you don’t use fame as a currency, you might as well close down’ says Lou dela Pena on reviving ‘third-hand car’ Publicis Singapore

The boss of Publicis Singapore told the story this morning of a two-year journey to transform an advertising agency she likened to a “third-hand car” and a modern-day “Titanic” into a startup-like company run by millennials.

Lou Dela Pena at DScoop Asia

Lou Dela Pena at DScoop Asia this morning: “In the creative field, if you’re not relevant and you’re not top of mind, and you don’t use fame as a currency, you’re nowhere.”

In a candid, open presentation at HP’s DScoop event in Singapore this morning, Lou Dela Pena, who joined Publicis Singapore from TBWA as CEO in February 2014, and was promoted to CEO of group agency brand Publicis Communications at the beginning of this year, said that to transform the agency she had to completely uproot the company’s culture, and fire key staff that generated revenue and were close personal friends.

In a talk in front of 800 people, Dela Pena, who twice began sentences with the words “please don’t print this”, began by painting a dire picture of the agency she took over 33 months ago.

“I came from a very sexy brand – the Apple agency (TBWA). It was like getting out of a Ferrari to drive a third-hand car,” she said.

“We were old fashioned – and this is an understatement. We were very traditional. We were only doing print ads for real estate companies. We weren’t famous for anything.”

“In the creative field, if you’re not relevant and you’re not top of mind, and you don’t use fame as a currency, you’re nowhere. You might as well close down,” said the outspoken executive.

“Plus we weren’t making a lot of money,” she added.

In a presentation she said was “not about us” but about the principles for business transformation, Dela Pena said that she had to “disrupt everything we did” to rejuvenate the Publicis Singapore brand.

One guiding principle was to adopt a way of working she described as like “speed boats”, small, agile teams that work quickly to solve problems, as opposed to the “Titanic” approach of the past.

The agency also changed by renovating, removing the smoking room, changing the “terrible” grey carpet, and installing a bar.

“I came on board in February, but even in January I was obsessed about having a bar. We wanted a communal, convivial space,” she said.

Publicis took a different approach to recruitment, hiring “hybrid” talent and people who wanted to join an environment geared for change.

“There’s something special about dissatisfied people. Not cynical people or negative people. Dissatisfied people,” said Dela Pena.

“I interviewed 10 people a week for 10 months. I found myself gravitating towards dissatisfied people, who wanted a place where they could grow and could flex themselves.”

“We were intoxicated by the idea of potential – the attitude of leading the change for clients, and helping them to grow.”

To this end, Dela Pena said the average age of agency staff has fallen from over 30 to an age range where 40% of the agency is 28 or younger.

“Publicis in Singapore does not have a millennial programme. Publicis Singapore is run by millennials. We empower them as much as we can, and nurture them,” she said, adding that young people in the agency do not need “permission” to make key decisions.

Dela Pena’s talk was big on the value of culture, although she declared that Publicis is “not a democracy.”

“We don’t believe in democracy. Not everyone gets a vote. We believe in meritocracy – which is not very common in Singapore. Whether you’re a receptionist, account director or GM, you have to earn your right to say something,” she said.

On building culture, she said: “You need a shared sense of purpose. It’s not just a slogan. In the creative field, if you’re at Netflix, Ogilvy or Uber, culture is your DNA.”

“We want to get brainwashed. We want to know what the DNA of the brand is. We want to drink the Kool Aid. It’s important to us,” she said.

Lou Dela Pena talking at DScoop:

Dela Pena: “As we’re changing, we will leave people behind.”

Dela Pena was forthright about the tough calls she has to make since taking the top job.

“A year into being a CEO, I had to let go an extremely good friend of mine,” she said.

“I don’t know if anyone has had the misfortune of doing that, but I was talking to my boss, and I said I need to do this, but I don’t quite know how to do it.”

“He said, some people are only there for a season. And that was a very hard lesson to learn – the idea that as we’re changing, we will leave people, clients, and ways of working behind – because the rate of change is exponential.”

“If you’re top guy who is given a remit to change, there has to be the appetite to make the right choices that are often painful and difficult,” she said.

A big cultural change Dela Pena has instigated is to “not think like an agency.”

“The ad agency world in Singapore has a certain way of doing things – we wanted to see ourselves as a startup,” she said.

“We took away silos, we had loads of conversations, we had standing meetings. We failed a million times,” she said.

“We weren’t exactly that profitable in the first year. But to turn this around in 10 months in a highly volatile industry like advertising in Singapore? We had to experiment and do-learn-do.

“We lost 13 pitches before we won our first pitch. It was brutal. At end of the tenth month we won our first piece of global business. We even asked ourselves then – shit, did we even do that?”

Dela Pena claimed that Publicis Singapore, which has grown from 70 to over a 100 people in two years, is now growing four times as fast as the average agency in Singapore in a stagnant market.

“Next year is a recession. There are lots of jobs disappearing. But next year our profitability will double – and that’s unheard of. Because we’re constantly challenging ourselves and experimenting.”

“We are cognisant that we need to change daily. That’s how volatile it is, and how vulnerable we are.”

Since Dela Pena took over from Dean Bramham in 2014, Publicis Singapore has won new accounts including Accor, Scoot, Nikon and Audi, and hired creative talent including Troy Lim and Jon Loke from Ogilvy.

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