Features

FCB International CEO Luis Silva Dias on the agency’s new plans for Asia

With a mandate that extends across 60 countries throughout Asia, Europe and Latin America, FCB International CEO Luis Silva Dias talks to Mumbrella's Ravi Balakrishnan about recent changes at FCB in Singapore, Bangkok and Korea

Towards the end of last year, there was a lot of talk about FCB winding down in Singapore. What actually happened?

“You know better than I do that there is news, and there is social media news.

“We did close a small operation in Singapore. It was a financial operation, a back-office of FCB International, now being handled by London and New York.

“It used to be here because our chief financial officer was here. Once we changed that, the operation made no sense.

“But because it is part of FCB culture, there was a lot of love for people who were parting company and a manifestation of that on social media.

“We continue to think Singapore is a very important and relevant market for us and our clients. Some of the first news we will have on the region this year will be about Singapore.

“We have a small, nimble operation that will go through some transformation towards growth and scale. It is tied with some of our business plans for the region, which I cannot talk about right now.”

What about your operations in Bangkok? With the acquisition by YDM, is that still a FCB company?

“Even previously, FCB Bangkok was an affiliate. At some point, our former partners wanted to let go of their communication companies and so we got into a joint venture with YDM for the new cycle.

“It gave us a chance to grow in capabilities, scale and talent. FCB Bangkok now operates integrating the other offerings from YDM. It probably makes us the best digital and mobile marketing company in Thailand. Hopefully you will hear more news on this.

“The other such operation was in Korea, where we had a small business that serviced international clients. We did a joint venture and have gained scale. It is called FCB IB with a different offering all together — operating with a more integrated model which is what I prefer.”

Does YDM have the majority stake? What exactly is FCB’s role?

“In terms of ownership, yes, it is locally a majority stake. But as it was before, it remains an FCB company. The culture, operating model, team and clients are ours.”

How have the last few months as CEO at FCB International been?

“It was seven or eight very intense months. But it wasn’t a revolution. I was already a part of FCB International — everything was very collegial in terms of management.

“The biggest challenge was and has been coping with diversity of markets, cultures, operations and consumers: over 60 offices from Buenos Aires in Argentina to Seoul in Korea.”

Which of these markets are doing the best? And which are the ones that have some way to go?

“That’s a trick question. It is a little unfair.

“In this industry, you are always going up and down. If you are stable, it means you are dead. But 2018 has been a fantastic year; the best I can remember from the time I joined in 2000.”

What made it such a great year?

“There are many dimensions. It was a year of growth: we achieved revenue targets that we set up five years ago, when we restructured and reframed the agency.

“We are very relevant within IPG; no mean feat considering the other agencies, McCann and Mullen Lowe, are very strong.

“We are at the peak of what I consider the most important aspect in any organisation: our culture. The proof is we continue to attract people who align with our guiding principles. We are also getting back people we had lost like Javier Campopiano (CCO of Mexico) who did the famous ‘It’s a Tide ad’.

“They left at some point for whatever reason but eventually returned, confirming we are on the right path.

“Our product has been very consistent. We have received accolades not just in our traditional markets but across the world, creating some of the most talked about and awarded campaigns. In every market, we are, if not actually there, close to a Top 3.

“Some of our agencies are a bit more responsible for this than the others.

“If I were to celebrate an operation — as we are doing this March — it would be India. It has excelled at every level, above expectations.

“Our leadership will spend a week in Mumbai this March. We could have done it anywhere but we needed to celebrate their accomplishments.”

How is the FCB of today different from the Draft FCB era?

“It was a very interesting and profound process. It integrated some of the things that are central to conversations in the industry today.

“Crossing a traditional creative agency with the tools and assets of the biggest direct marketing operator in America was essential for our operating system, but it also meant we had to learn a lot.

“Today, everyone is talking about data and a data driven world. But we began that conversation almost in the analogue era, in 2006 to 2007. Those assets gave us some edge over the rest of the industry.

“Creativity was always a big focus but the ability to combine it with accountability was completely new. Too new to the industry perhaps, and maybe we didn’t do such a good job of explaining what it meant to the market.

“The merger was so big and the transformation so huge, it made us focus on ourselves. And when you do that, you sometimes run the risk of losing focus on product delivery to clients.

“It’s not that we didn’t excel but the delivery was not as consistent as it should be.

“In some markets, it was amazing and in others it took too long to incorporate the cultures and the operating systems. You can see that happening in other companies now when there’s talk about the integration of VML and Y&R and JWT and Wunderman.

“The good thing is we did it at the time because it felt right and we were trying to create a new model agency. It was not because we had to, or because a holding company was the reason to do that.

“It will be interesting to compare the results between us and all of the other agencies.”

Considering there’s a lot of consolidation happening across agencies in holding companies like WPP and Publicis, do you foresee that happening with IPG and its agencies as well?

“In the last decade, we have been witnessing a big branding mistake. It’s now endangering very traditional, consistent brands in our industry.

“The branding mistake is to put holding companies like WPP — which started it and went deepest — above their own operations.

“Tell me why, for god’s sake, should WPP be more important than Y&R? Why should it be more important than JWT? Why should Publicis Groupe be more important than Leo Burnett?

“It will kill the operating brands and the companies where the culture is. And where the assets are: the talent and expertise.

“A holding company is a financial machine. It exists to service a small number of people who are investors and managers. It should not be the front face of the other companies.

“I am glad to say IPG really understands its role as a holding company. It understands its assets are in FCB, McCann, Mullen Lowe and many other agencies

“And it does understand the work they have to do: to support and create the conditions for the best performance in these agencies.

“The ambition of IPG is not to have IPG as the front brand. It is not to consolidate.

“That branding mistake was never really understood by the industry. Also, because it was a slow process, we are only now starting to see some results. And we are starting to understand that maybe it was not such a great idea.”  

What’s sort of a role do traditional ad agencies have in a data driven world?

“As a creative person, I believe data is a tool for creativity. It gives me the possibility to be more personal, local and relevant with the creative product and measure what I do in real time.  

“It is not just shouting from a window but an ongoing conversation with the audience.

“I don’t see why it is considered a new thing. It was one of the essential pillars of our operating system at Draft FCB

“The only difference now is about the tools and not the principle itself.”

What would you have to say to someone like Martin Sorrell, who is questioning the role of the traditional ad agency and its approach to creativity?

“I wouldn’t say anything. I don’t remember him ever creating an agency. He bought agencies. He is an expert in a very specific field.

“I understand where he is coming from. He needs to create a new cycle for himself and also address his past. This is the best way he can do it.

“But I don’t think it serves the industry, quite frankly, to try and separate what much needed integration in our operating system and in the creative product we deliver.

“I don’t think having someone like Sir Martin Sorrell talking like that will help clients understand what they really need.

“I wouldn’t question (the role of) creative agencies. I don’t even know what that term means. If they are not creative, they are not agencies and will die very quickly.

“A different question is finding the particular agencies who can orchestrate within this model.”

Moving on, FCB in some markets like India has a lot more local than global clients. Is that a model you are happy with?

“Across FCB, we say we are the most local of the global networks. Our global business is a small part of every office’s P&L. If the operation wants to be successful, they need to be very good in knowing their market, consumers or brands.

“That gives us a very entrepreneurial style of management. Every team from management to the lowest level in every operation really know what they are doing.

“It gives them a little more margin than they are used to. The own the business, the relationships, the expertise and knowledge.

“They don’t feel they have to restructure because someone in New York lost a client.

“That’s not to say we don’t like global accounts. The ones we have are very relevant and consequential; in the way we act and operate. But we like the recognition of being the most local of the global networks.

“Local creativity makes a huge difference. You need to have local talent and cannot depend on two or three hubs around the world.”

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