Robert Sawatzky
Mar 17, 2021

After dismantling its regional structure, how committed is Havas to APAC?

Incoming boss Alberto Canteli, based in Dubai, vows to ‘be a coach and not a striker’, relying heavily on teams on the ground and plenty of travel going forward

Alberto Canteli Suarez, chairman & CEO of Havas Group Nordics, CEE, ME,  SEA, Korea & Japan
Alberto Canteli Suarez, chairman & CEO of Havas Group Nordics, CEE, ME, SEA, Korea & Japan

Often competing with larger holding companies of greater scale, Havas has at times appeared to be an underdog in global and regional marcomms arenas. But in Asia-Pacific especially, Havas has not had an easy past few years.

With APAC bringing in a mere 7% of Havas’ total revenue, compared to 49% from Europe and 37% from North America, the agency network pulled the plug on its APAC leadership structure in 2019, removing its APAC chairman and CEO and opting to have local leadership teams in Greater China and Australia report directly to global chiefs in London and New York. India would continue to report directly into global leaders, although its CEO Vishnu Mohan, would continue to run the market, along with Southeast Asia.

Any plans for improved performance were scuppered by the pandemic. Asia-Pacific became noted for it its “sharp declines” in Havas’ earnings releases in 2020, and by Q4, every region continued to improve or consolidate performances “with the exception of Asia-Pacific.”  

So when it was announced in January that Mohan was stepping down as the leader of India, Southeast and North Asia—after 25 years with Havas—many felt as though the agency network was finally giving up on the region. News trickling out of yet more staff cuts underscored the impression.

Now India, led by CEO Rana Barua, is reporting directly to Havas’ global media and creative CEOs abroad, while the Southeast Asia and North Asia remits have been handed over to Havas Group’s growth markets leader, Alberto Canteli Suarez, based in Dubai.

Already in charge of markets in the Nordics, Central Europe and Eastern Europe, including Russia and the Middle East, Canteli is now stretching out to include such diverse markets as Singapore, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Indochina, Indonesia and Vietnam.  

But why and how this new structure better serves the Asia-Pacific region is not clear to everyone.

Can the new structure really work?

Insiders at Havas tell Campaign Asia-Pacific off the record that these moves are strategic. Rather than give up on APAC, they say, global leadership simply felt it needed to prioritise its core markets in China, India and Australia and manage them directly.

Yet these same sources say there is concern in the region about the recent changes and the loss of decision-making power in the region, which is likely to create some nervousness among clients and make talent retention more difficult.  

In an interview from Dubai, Canteli is quick to suggest the complete opposite. The clients he’s spoken with in Asia are "super happy", along with employees who feel excited by the prospect of having not a weaker, but the "strongest APAC presence we have seen in many years".

As for whether he can properly manage the region while based outside of it, Canteli contends that any regional or global CEO inevitably ends up managing people from abroad, so his situation is not so different. “You cannot live in two places at the same time,” he points out. “In my case, the only difference is that my region is very big, so clearly, it implies intensive travel.”

Describing himself as a people person who loves to be close to clients and employees in-person, Canteli continues to travel regularly throughout Europe despite Covid and is counting on travel restrictions in Asia easing as the months go by.

This could of course be wishful thinking. Moreover, saying his region is “very big” is an understatement; it currently encompasses more than 50 different markets. But Canteli’s confidence in adding on to his remit is that he already has 20 years of experience managing diverse sub-regions.

“These regions are very similar to each other in the end: A big number of markets, with very strong localisation with very strong local values and cultures," he says. "But our industry is not so different from, let's say, Poland, to Singapore. The key success factors are very similar all around the world.”

Relying on local leadership

While many would counter that strong local values and cultures also permeate the industry to create substantial differences between Eastern European and Asian markets, Canteli is referring to instilling basic best practices in client servicing. He notes that the strategies and methods for managing this process remotely is what is likely to be more similar. This, in turn, involves relying on very strong local teams and leaders to support and execute.

“If we compare this to football, a regional CEO, contrary to what other people think, should be a coach and not a striker," he contends. "You need to have the best team on the ground and the best country managers.”

Singapore to remain a key hub

When it comes to coach Canteli’s roster of players across Southeast Asia, Singapore, despite losing its official designation as APAC headquarters, will remain a regional captain. Calling it a “natural commercial hub for the region”, thanks to a strong media business led by the charismatic Jacqui Lim and last month’s surprise acquisition of independent creative hot shop BLKJ, Canteli says he wants to “reboot” and “strengthen” Singapore’s role, especially as a pan-regional player and Asian contributor to international work.

That’s welcome news for staff in the city-state, whose Robinson Road office had become depleted by staff departures. Initial reporting suggested most Singapore creative staff would relocate to BLKJ, but Canteli says no decisions have yet been made about that yet, nor the future of the Singapore office. He does confirm, however, that no further cuts or restructuring moves are being planned.

Managing acquisitions and local partners

The BLKJ acquisition itself, while undoubtedly a show of strength that has convinced local clients and staff of Havas' continued commitment, can also be seen as somewhat of a divestiture of Havas’ wholly-owned agency network in the region.

Across Southeast Asia, most Havas agencies are similar local partnerships with shared ownership through acquisition: Havas Ortega in the Philippines, Havas Riverorchid in Indochina and Thailand, Havas Immerse in Malaysia and now BLKJ Havas in Singapore.

Here too, Canteli has much experience, having acquired more than 15 such agencies with Havas across Europe and the Middle East in the last 15 years. While Canteli is quick to celebrate these acquisitions as successes, he stops short of suggesting any further extension of the model in Asia.

“Affording a company is quite easy, but making it an integrated growth success within an umbrella of an international network needs some magic recipes," he says. "You need to find the balance between independence and compliance or alignment with our network. The worst thing that you can do when you buy one of these agencies is to smash them into an organization to make them feel like they’re employees.”

With BLKJ Havas, Canteli continues, founder and CEO Rowena Bhagchandani, partner Joji Jacob and their team are most comfortable being entrepreneurs and will remain so, in addition to being shareholders. That said, as a central component of Havas Village in Singapore, the agency network will be working to manage the business in concert with BLKJ, particularly on pan regional and global accounts, he adds.

North Asia and emerging practices

The need to service global clients in all Asian markets also plays a key role in Canteli’s North Asia remit, home to what he calls two of the most localized markets in the world with “some very specific personalities.”

In Japan and Korea, homegrown players like Dentsu, Hakuhodo, Cheil and Innocean truly dominate. But Canteli says it’s important that Havas continues to combine its fully owned operations in alliances with the big local players to be able execute efficiently. He also sees the possibility of making further inroads in those markets based on Havas’ burgeoning ecommerce practice.

Ecommerce and health, in fact, have been identified as important future growth engines for Havas and will be “reinforced” throughout Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan, says Canteli. The network launched its global ecommerce practice, Havas Markets, last October with a plan to put ‘commerce accelerator groups’ in all its markets, including Southeast Asia, where Canteli sees stronger growth in social and performance marketing. During the pandemic the agency’s health practice, Havas Health & You (HH&Y), was a rare bright spot as other revenues dived. Earlier this year HH&Y relaunched its global positioning and hired a prominent new chief content officer as it seeks to capitalise on the rise of consumer health-related concerns.

The prospect of leveraging these growing practices in the region partly explains why Canteli bristles at the notion that he might be a remote, hands-off caretaker of Asian markets who might not be actively involved in growing the region.

“I'm not coming here to farm what we have," he says. "Otherwise, [Havas] would find someone local, and it would be much easier for me. The Group is putting this challenge on the table to make some strong bets for Southeast Asia.”

Campaign Asia