How I got here… Andreas Vogiatzakis, CEO of Havas Media Malaysia

From life on the family farm in Greece as a child to working as an adult in the ad industry across the United States, Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia – Havas Media Malaysia CEO Andreas Vogiatzakis has seen it all


I was born in July 1966 in a small village in Crete, Greece. My family was making a living from the farm, vines and olive groves – self-made, but not rich. 

Vogiatzakis aged six, already getting creative

Life was no breeze, but we had enough to get by. When at school, I’d focus on my books and homework, although on weekends and during school breaks – when work was needed – I contributed. I hated the farm life back then. Vine yards and olive groves sounds idyllic, but they are cold and muddy in the winter, plus hot and sweaty in the summer. 

When I was 12 years old, two things happened that became catalysts for my journey ahead.

Firstly, my progressive elementary school teacher introduced us to math and geometry, which was outside the curriculum then. Instantly I fell in love with both subjects. Math and geometry were guided by logic and creative thinking in a structured framework. 

I loved it. My dream was shaping up and after high school, I wanted to enter the Athens Mathematics University – then one of the most prestigious schools in Greece.

That same year in May dad died. I was 12. School was almost over, summertime on the horizon, and yet the world seemed to have sunk a little. Now I was the man of the house, not even a teen yet, and I had to help; as mom needed all the help she could get. I did not know if I should cry or tighten my lip and my fists, and fight. I did both. And life was never the same again.

After three more years in the village, we moved to Athens, where I could go to high school. Athens was a dream come true for me. Another three years passed by and my dream of the math university became a reality  I was successfully admitted in the top rank.

Life is funny sometimes though and when you think you have reached your dream, things can take another turn. And so it was. A month in the university was enough for my love of the academic world to vanish, just like a small cloud in windy skies. And so I quit the math school, to the dismay of the family, and I set sail to Florida to study advertising and make a new start.

Four years later, I graduated from the University of Florida, an advertising major with a 4.0. Not because academic success was my goal, but because I loved every single minute of it. I adored what I was doing and I have done ever since.

My start

With a thick 100-page research paper on Nielsen people metres under my arm, I set sail for New York where I landed a job at DMB&B. There was intense training, amazing bosses (good and bad), weekends full of work and constant learning. We had desktops with Lotus notes instead of Excel, but no email and no internet.  Yet life could not have been better. I was happy. I was living the dream.

And as all good things come to an end, the time came that I had to leave to serve in the Greek army; a mandatory requirement that I had postponed for years.

Life in the Greek Army

And after a goodbye limo ride with my colleagues to a lunch at the Playboy penthouse in New York followed by Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, March of 1991 found me in an army boot camp in mainland Greece. There were yelling sergeants, endless marching, early wake-up calls, daily push ups and keeping watch at 3am while holding a loaded M16. 

After a year of shooting guns and learning how to throw grenades, life brought me back to advertising. At JWT in Athens this time, as a media supervisor for all the agency’s international clients. Life was good again. Then one fine day in February 1997, change was afoot once more.

Just when I thought all had settled, DMB&B knocked at my door and asked me to go to Japan and set up MediaVest. Boy, if anyone would have told me earlier that year how I would end up loving sushi, slurping ramen and learn Japanese by Christmas, I would have thought they were hallucinating. Yet, on September 4 in 1997, I landed in Narita. Life has never been the same since. Asia became my home.

Japan was formative for me. It taught me perseverance, respect for the team and resilience. Media Vest was launched, and a series of mergers and acquisitions followed. DMB&B rebranded to D’Arcy. D’Arcy was bought by Leo Burnet. B|Com3 was formed. Dentsu took a 20 per cent stake and Publicis acquired it all in the end. Meanwhile, Leo Burnett’s name was off the door and rebranded as Beacon Communications. 

A roller coaster. New bosses, old bosses, more bosses, good bosses, bad bosses, alliances, politics, successes and failures. All the ingredients that define you and make you grow. 

Looking back I remember Kei Ueno, the Starcom Japan chairman, who handed me his knowledge with generosity. Keith Moran, my regional MediaVest boss. A profound guy who taught me to be efficient and effective: to do the right thing. And of course Jack Klues, the global CEO of SMG then – an amazing media man, smart, appreciative and compassionate.

Taiwan came next, MindShare was calling. Inheriting an established company and a solid team with a heart, I had to see it reached its full potential. Armed with all the lessons from the land of the rising sun, I was determined to make this even better, with the guidance of Mark Patterson – a supportive boss and mentor. 

The Mindshare Taiwan team

Taiwan was no-nonsense.  To lead people you must lead their heart, they taught me in Taiwan. It worked. Mark was my guide, and through the thick and thin, we built an amazing company – Chungi – that became the foundation that gave birth to GroupM. Looking back, I’d do it all over again, perhaps with a little less drinking but then again gambei-ing (bottoms up no matter what you drink), builds relationships and business. However, it also brings the troubled taxi rides back home late at night (thank god taxis are always trusted, safe and accommodating in Taipei).

With GroupM well established, it was time to go and OMD Malaysia was calling. The Japanese ikigai – with a love and pride for perfection – coupled with the anarchy, roughness and beauty of Taiwan had prepared me well for Malaysia. 

OMD was a challenge and a blessing. And PHD was new and had to grow. Some 10 years in the Omnicom Media Group allowed me to put all that I had learnt to the test. And with one amazing team, we did it all.  OMG moved from strength to strength, year-on-year, leading the industry, influencing it, winning clients, accolades and support.

Resilience, stamina, determination, discipline and a thirst for success and fun were the driving levers for me. Bosses become critical to your success. This time it was due to Barry Cupples – the OMG APAC CEO at the time – one incredible man of action. He was firm yet kind, direct yet flexible. Onwards and upwards we always go, he said.

Good times at OMG

After 10 years and counting this time, another amazing man called me. Vishnu Mohan gave me the challenge to build a brand new media agency almost from scratch. Havas Media Group Malaysia was on the horizon.

My love for building would not let me resist the challenge. So 20 years ago in Japan, with minimum experience, I had done something similar. But switching from a structured corporate life to start-up mode, with many unknowns, many challenges and many opportunities was scary.

The first few months were daunting on all fronts, internally and externally. Yet it all worked perfectly. The team we built was like no other. Determined, agile, young, smart, hungry, loving and fun. Havas Media Malaysia has exploded in a short period of time to become a reckoned player in the market and an award-winning agency,

It speaks volumes of the work and the culture one small team has managed to accomplish against the established giants in the market. From zero to hero, a chili paddi, full of passion, energy and life.

It’s been 52 years of learning and a life journey across six countries and three continents.

My approach

For me it’s all about the heart, the team and the 5Ps.

To lead people, you must lead their heart. And this principle goes beyond empathy:

  • Stay humble. It pays off. Keep your ego at bay. As leadership expert Ken Blanchard says, humility does not mean you think less of yourself but that you think of yourself less.
  • Listen well first before you speak. As the author Steve Covey says, we need to seek first to understand and then to be understood, because people don’t care how much we know, until they know how much we care. When you do speak, apply Socrates’ triple filter test: Is it true? Is it good or kind? Is it useful or necessary? If not, stay quiet and carry on. This will save much struggle and regret and will make us wiser.
  • Sweat the small stuff. In fact, sweat everything. No shortcuts. Don’t only focus on the bigger picture, if you want to succeed. If we want to make it perfect, we must sweat the small stuff. People care about the small stuff.

Support the team and nurture it at all costs.  The team will lift you higher. No one else will.

  • A ‘my way or the highway’ attitude won’t get us far. The team is always stronger than any individual, and it is also as strong as the weakest link. Make sure you help strengthen the weak links. As the Chinese proverb says, you can break one chopstick, but not a bundle. So turn the M upside-down and reshape the ‘me’ into ‘we’. And keep competition outside of the team. What sinks the ship is the water inside, not outside.

The 5Ps.

  • People, product, profit, persistence and patience. Kei Ueno in Japan taught me the 3Ps, and he was adamant that they need to go in that order. People first. Product next. And profit will follow. So true. I see companies reverse the order and fail. Along the way, I added 2 more Ps in the series, as persistence and patience are determinants of success. They served me well. Nothing comes easy, especially in the ever changing technologically advanced world of ours.

Highs and lows

Japan was magical. I fell in love with it in an instant. But the love was not reciprocated completely. To my Japanese colleagues I was another gaijin (foreigner), who was sent by headquarters to tell them what to do.  Or so they thought. And while they were socially wonderful to me, at work they shut me out. I was a media director in a nice cubicle. As courtesy they assigned a secretary for me, to make me feel good I guess.

And so one month into Tokyo, I thought I had made the worst mistake in my life. And I thought of leaving. I was going to quit on Monday, call New York and cut my losses. Thinking about it over the rainy weekend in Shibuya, still living in a hotel, I thought of how to return to JWT Greece.

But my feeling was not right. I knew something else was the issue for my colleagues to resent me in that way. So I decided to stay and try. I made my secretary my first media planner and I worked hard to understand what made my colleagues so reluctant  Within a couple of months it all changed. I was not there to teach them, I was there to be taught. 

But they did not know that. I had to show them. I remembered my mom telling me, when you go to a new home, do not talk about the home you left, you praise the home you are living in now instead. And it all worked like a miracle. 

Media Vest was formally launched, the one man and one woman unit expanded. We won accounts and awards, made P&G proud on several occasions, developed our own optimisation system (Miser, the first ever television optimsation tool in Japan),  and eventually merged Media Vest with Starcom – forming SMG, with Dentsu’s partnership.

It was the yin and the yen coming together during that one rainy weekend in Shibuya. I went from feeling miserable and ready to quit to deciding to stay. This lead to the best ever chapter in my life to unfold. 

Dos and don’t’s

I picked up a few principles that became my guide along the way. Here they are:

  • Find what truly inspires you, and follow your heart. We can Google to get an answer or a job vacancy, but we can find our passion only in our heart. Find it and follow it. And don’t be afraid to quit something you once loved, if you have fallen out of love with it. Just don’t stay there and complain.
  • Life is not fair. Accept it. It’s a fact. Life is what we make out of it. Complaining won’t get us far.  Positivity will. We often make this false assumption that people will recognise who we are, recognise our talent and our achievements. But that’s not true. The world is not checking to see how good we are, how well we are doing or what we dream of. We don’t control 80 per cent of what happens to us, but we control 100 per cent of our response to it. 
  • Learn, unlearn and re-learn, as my favourite author Alvin Tofler says. Embrace Change. And remember, knowledge stays with us no matter where we go, not the company we leave.
  • To succeed in change, we must build character. And character is revealed by what we do, even when no one is looking. 
  • Never give up. It is said many times, but it’s true.
  • Always maintain your integrity, uphold your values and speak the truth. No matter what’s at stake and what is promised. While speaking the truth can hurt, it is the only way to move forward positively and reach greatness.
  • Pay it forward. Remember that the young ones are where you were once and they might come to where you are now. Give them the guidance to be successful. Momose-san, a Dentsu senior director, told me once that while eating a fruit, I must ensure I pay my respects to the person who planted the tree, and in turn, to plant one for others. We must make sure that we do the same for the generations to come.
  • Be resilient. Be a hunter and a farmer. Adopt your leadership style as circumstances demand.  Momose-san also taught me to be adaptable to situations. The westerners, he said, are hunters. They hunt, they kill, they eat, now. Here we are farmers, he said. We plant the seed, nurture the tree, protect it as it grows, and when the fruits are ready and ripe, we enjoy them to the fullest. Of course he admitted that sometimes being a hunter is mandatory. Patience, resilience and good judgement, was his winning recipe, the Japanese way.
  • Make the buck stop at your desk. Assume responsibility. We are flooded who people who say what needs to be done, but do nothing themselves. They talk the talk but never walk it. And the moment we make the buck stop at our desk, that’s the moment greatness begins.
  • If it’s to be, it’s up to me. My favourite phrase of them all, which I stole with pride from Annette Nazaroff, a great teacher and trainer in the Taiwan Mindshare days who said so to me once. It became my mantra. Priceless.

Andreas Vogiatzakis is chief executive officer at Havas Media Group Malaysia


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