‘It is harder to retain talent than to hire them’: Stephen Li, MEC

Li, who took over as APAC CEO in 2010, says India will account for 20 pc of the region’s business in three years

May 06, 2013 01:22:00 PM | Article | Pritha Dasgupta

You became the CEO of the APAC region in 2010. What was the mandate then and what is the mandate now?

When I came into this role there were two very clear objectives. One was about how we at MEC could ensure that we are more consistently delivering the best products across the entire region; and how we can ensure within delivery of best products that we are also delivering client product innovation that can make him stand out in the crowd.

The second aspect was to ensure that we continue to bring the best talent into the agency to ensure that we have the best people to work on the best products. We are in a service industry. We are like McDonald’s. We are only as good as the products we serve. And we are only as good as the customer service that goes with the product and how intelligent we are at what our client needs are and responding to that.

And now, in 2013, I don’t think this has changed much. When it comes to the product, we are constantly evolving. And when you are in a region as broad and diverse as Asia Pacific, including a very sophisticated market like Australia all the way to a market like Vietnam (where we are just beginning), I don’t think we should ever have a feeling that we have perfected the product. Because I fear if we have that feeling then we will stop trying. So that continues to be a key point of the agenda. The challenge that keeps me awake on most nights is how we (can) attract great talent. Once you get that talent, how do you retain that talent and how do you motivate them? It is harder to retain talent than to hire them.

Tell us about the mandate for MEC India. How has India faired in the last three years?

I started in MEC in 2006 and at time MEC is India was quite small. We were young. We were a smaller agency at that time and we had a very small team. We have grown by leaps and bounds since then. The mandate was clear. From a broad, macro-economic perspective and from an industry perspective, it’s a very important market. Therefore ensuring strong growth in MEC India has been a part of my agenda ever since I joined MEC, much before I became the Asia Pacific head. And over the course of the last seven years, we have grown by leaps and bounds. We are more mature, more diverse and I think, and this is important, that we are a more creative agency (today). I think we were always a very good media agency but the advertising environment has evolved. People like Gangs (T Gangadhar) have done very well and has made us realise that there is a need for us to be creative and think beyond traditional media. The awards we have been winning at Goafest and Festival of Media are for work that I wouldn’t have imagined we would be doing in India even five years ago. So I am very proud of that.

We are in a sweet spot right now. We are now a big, grown up agency with clients like Reliance, Britannia and Zee. And we are also of a size and scale and culture which is very friendly. The next phase of challenge for us will be to continue growing without losing a sense of who we are and our DNA. Because if we lose sight of that, then we lose sight of the creative work that we do.

How much does MEC APAC contribute to the global revenues and how much does MEC India contribute to the APAC region?

Asia Pacific is now the third largest region in MEC globally. We contribute 18 to 20 per cent to global revenues. And within Asia Pacific, India is in our top five. The top five being Australia, India, China, Taiwan and Thailand with India contributing about 12 per cent. So it’s a very important market for us. But it’s not just about numbers; it’s about strategic importance of India. And it is about the future growth potential of India.

Talking about the future prospects, in terms of revenues, how much do you think India will contribute in the next three years?

In three years time, India will be at least 20 per cent of the Asia Pacific business. That’s the direction in which markets like India, China, Mexico, Latin America are growing. And let’s face it - the type of growth that we will see in markets like North America and Europe will be limited. As a direct result of that, the weightage of a market like India will only grow to the global level. It's a cliché now, but all the global agency heads are looking at Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Which are the new disciplines that MEC is looking to enter in the different markets in the region or specifically in India?

The current step that we need to get right is identifying and harnessing the real power of data. As a media agency, one of the advantages we have is that we are already skewed and disciplined in being very comfortable with data, which is fantastic. But I think the client need for data is now changing. And what we need to give the clients is real time data. As we move forward, clients are not interested in agencies that tell them, ‘Based on our understanding this is what you should be doing in six or 12 months’ time’. Clients are saying that if we are giving you access to our data to work collaboratively, they would want the agency to tell them today what they are doing and how they can change that a week later. So it’s not just about accessing or understanding the data, but making intelligent interpretation of that data at pace.

Are you looking at acquisition opportunities in India?

MEC and GroupM are always looking at acquisition prospects. At the moment we are looking at the digital space and the plethora of digital opportunities are there.

What have been the biggest learnings and challenges since you took over as the CEO of the APAC region?

One of the biggest learnings for me has been that you are only as good as the people around you. I could not begin to do this job and hope to do it well if I were not surrounded by the very best people. It is now such an evolved industry with so many disciplines. And you need experts in all these areas. And when look for that talent, we have to look beyond our backyard. Gangs in a great example. He doesn't come from a media agency background and comes from a much more broad based communications background. And that's the kind of leader we need. Because we are not talking about a traditional media world anymore. But then, that kind of changes into a challenge as well. Because the more that you are hiring good people, the more you are hiring from diverse fields, the more challenging it is to manage them. Peoples’ expectations are different. And I feel I have a lot to learn when it comes to managing people.