M&C Saatchi Malaysia CEO: ‘I’m not just here to have a good time, play golf and then leave’

Lara Hussein has led M&C Saatchi Malaysia for more than decade, helping spearhead it to becoming one of the network’s most profitable agencies. Mumbrella Asia editor Eleanor Dickinson caught up with her about being in the agency for the long haul, Malaysia's post-election prospects and why Malaysian Airlines decided against rebranding

You’ve led M&C Saatchi for 15 years now, which is quite a long tenure for an Asia-based CEO. How does it feel to mark this anniversary? Any plans to move on after this time?

“Somebody asked us the other day if we were going to do a big 15 years celebration and I said no, I don’t feel like celebrating. I feel like it’s been a long time, but there’s still so much energy. And if we celebrate every milestone, we just look so old. We were always the new kids of the block among the networks. Now we’re among one of the older ones. Even here, the traditional agencies are much older than us; Leo Burnett, Ogilvy, McCann are much older than us. I want people to see us as young and fresh and different, and what one of them. I can see myself being here another five years. I’m not tired – I’m motivated. I’m the consistent factor, while my management dynamics change over the course of time.”

Other agencies have spoken of a sense of uncertainty in Malaysian market with the election looming. How has that affected business?

“It does seem that way and we depend so much on local business – we don’t have any global accounts. Our local clients are government-linked; everybody is waiting and seeing. We all want to get the elections out of the way, so we can have a new start and a new beginning. Everyone is geared towards the election, but nobody wants to spend. It’s quite quiet; there is momentum, we’ve had pitches non-stop, but there’s nothing big out there.”

Are you optimistic for better prospects after the elections are over?

“The market is looking good now. The economy is growing, there’s a lot of key events happening like the World Cup, Asian Games and the Commonwealth, so a lot of brands will ride on that. I think it will be better than last year; 2017 was challenging. A lot of key clients dropped out and that affected our numbers, but we still delivered a healthy profit. We didn’t grow. Now, brands are taking advantage of any opportunity they can to be visible. I’m optimistic.”

M&C is largely known for its big statement branding advertisements, but those are the types of campaigns that have been sidelined over years of digitisation. Has that been a concern for you?

“Yes definitely. It’s a function of what’s happening in the industry. A lot of clients are spending on digital, so you can’t make the kind of money you used to be able to make. It’s what I try to explain to London and London understands. There’s no way clients are going to spend big production money anymore. We’re remunerated differently now and with digital being a core part of clients’ business, then you’re not going to make that big margin. Digital is very cost-efficient; you only need to do small productions.”

Is your agency well-adapted to meet this shift? Many often point the finger at creative agencies for being behind the digital pivot.

“It wasn’t like we sat on our bums and waited for this to happen. We could see the way the industry was moving. Even eight years ago, we started hiring digital because of the need of a client we had, which was a telco [Celcom].

“Now we have about 40 people [on digital]; we’ve been growing it exponentially for years and trying to catch up. Yet while we understand what our offering is, we do need to take it to the next level. We do digital creative, ideas and communication. We do social, but we don’t do anything beyond that. We don’t do tech, we don’t do media, we don’t develop apps. But looking ahead, that’s more what I’d like for us. I don’t want to get into media, but maybe more at technology and how we can use devices like AI – more digital tech and user experience. Finding the people is hard though.”

Often traditional creative agencies are criticised for either not using or not having enough data capabilities. What are your thoughts on adoption by agency networks?

“To a certain extent, but I don’t want us to get over-intellectual or over-analytical about data. I believe creativity will never die. I want to stick to it as it’s what we do best; it’s in our DNA. Data is just to make it more effective. We have a data analyst who specialises in social listening and understanding the customer journey, but we still believe in research the traditional way and talking to our consumers. We don’t go into heavy, structured data that our clients have.”

For you, would you say over-using data can inhibit the creative process, especially given the idea that the best work comes from the ‘gut instinct’?

“Yes and that’s partly why I had a hard time finding a new planner. I didn’t want someone who was over-analytical. M&C is about keeping things simple. Anything that helps us understand the consumer is better, but that’s about it. People over-complicate things and I wish people could just keep things simple. Honestly there’s just too much showing off and too many egos. Everyone is trying to outsmart one another; new buzzwords and now the new word is AI. Let’s just be realistic. Especially for Malaysia. We’re nowhere near this level. It’s good to talk about it if it’s going to make our lives better, but there is just too much talk. Whatever it is, it’s important to stay true to the creative process and coming up with something original.”

Moving on, M&C won Malaysian Airlines three years ago after the two terrible tragedies. At the time it was stated the airline wanted an overall rebrand, but that hasn’t been the case. What strategies were adopted instead?

“It’s been very challenging because when we first got the account, they wanted to rebrand and change the entire airline, image, logo and everything: just create a new airline and refresh. But when we did research and spoke to stakeholders, everyone felt very endeared towards Malaysian Airlines. Malaysians didn’t want a new airline; they wanted it the way it is. There was no issue locally.

“But for foreigners, especially from Australia and China, it was very negative. They didn’t want to consider the airline. It took ages to get the airline back into their mindset. We had to stall brand-building and just get bums on seats. The strategy for the past two years has just been sales and encouraging people to come to Malaysia. ‘The airline that knows Malaysia best’ was our strategy for the past two years. Then give them really good offers. Now we’re ready to talk about the brand experience and be more brand centric; talk about hospitality. It would have been crazy to do that before. We’re just trying to win their confidence back. We’re working on a big campaign using us: Malaysians. That’s what we know best.”

Looking ahead, what’s M&C’s main plan for 2018? How do you plan to end on a higher note than the year past?

“We’ve started on a good note. We’re pretty complete in terms of resources and we’ve got a pretty good team now. I want to make sure our anchor clients are happy, but then we have to really try hard and win new business. And now we’ve got really good creative people on board, I want to make sure we profile them. M&C Saatchi is not really know for being a highly creative agency; we’re known as good all-rounders, integrated, strategy, but I think our creativity needs a bit of spark because that’s what’s lacking. I’d like to see more awards for creative and just really be there at the right time and place with new business.

“There are so many players now; so many small players and clients are very picky now about who they work with. Each pitch has eight-to-10 agencies, so it’s about differentiating ourselves and being ready. It’s always tough; clients don’t land on your plate. But I believe our current relationships are healthy and strong and everyone knows I’m not a transitional CEO. I’ve been here 15 years and I’m a founding partner. People who join us know there will not be a big shake-up; they know I’m passionate about the business and not just here to have a good time, play golf and then leave. The agency is like my little baby and that’s the spirit I want to carry on.”


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