The first thing that strikes you about John Koo - who was appointed managing director for South West Asia, Cheil Worldwide, in March - is his apparently never-ending reservoir of energy and enthusiasm. That seems even more remarkable when he mentions that it is his 23rd year with Cheil Worldwide. “It was my first job and most probably will be my last,” he says.
It is the challenge that every new profile brings with it that keeps Koo excited. Prior to moving to India, he spent six years as the managing director of Cheil Worldwide Italy where he is known to have been instrumental in bringing about an explosive growth for the agency. It now ranks in the top 10 in that market by size on back of some heavy-duty business wins.
And as much as Koo would like to replicate that success in India, do not expect a pitching spree just yet. Koo is not the sort of agency head who makes sweeping changes for the sake of making headlines.
“Cheil is Samsung’s sister agency and not its in-house agency. Though my first mission in India is to change this perception, I don’t believe we have to go crazy in trying to accomplish that goal. We are making some radical changes towards restructuring of Cheil India and it is just a matter of time that the agency will emerge as one of the strongest integrated agencies in India.”
The first step towards meeting this goal has been to put geographical distance between the agency and Samsung with setting up of an independent 31,000 sq. feet local office in Delhi. “By next year, we plan to have independent presence in Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru so as to truly have a national foot-print,” says Koo. “According to our math, we are already within the top 10 agencies here and it is my job to make it one of the top three in the next three years.”
Talent acquisition is equally high on Koo’s to-do list. He has been busy talent-scouting for roles that are bound to crop up as the agency expands its national presence, as well as to give its businesses greater traction with strong leadership. In the six months as the MD, Koo has appointed 80 new people taking the total strength to around 200 people including various leadership level hires. However, he is in no rush to fill the spot left vacant by Agarwal, the erstwhile COO of Cheil India who recently moved to Zee News as CEO.
“While I appreciate all the work done by Alok in the four years he was at Cheil, I am now looking at a more decentralized structure where each vertical has its own leader on par with the erstwhile COO,” explains Koo. “With people like Rajesh Bhatia (interactive); Vikas Khanna (activation); Manish Shukla (retail) and Nima Namchu (creative) looking after the key functions, among others, I have begun the search for a local MD who not only is well-known in the industry but also has the hunger and spirit to drive an agency like Cheil to become the top three in the next few years.”
Koo admits to have met most of the A Listers in the industry and is now onto the second rung, but he still hasn’t found the right man. “I am a patient man. I will wait for the most suitable candidate,” he quips.
Retaining talent has been a challenge for Cheil ever since its inception in India and Koo admits that keeping ‘gems’ after having found them is one area that needs serious looking into. He is working towards overhauling the remuneration structure where performance will be awarded generously. “The new Cheil team comes from a wide breadth of experience and backgrounds. My job is to provide them the Cheil vision and keep them comfortable. Other than that, we have people who know how to get things made and go out on their own,” he says.
To break away from the image of being Samsung’s agency, Koo understands the importance of bagging some diverse and well known businesses. But he vehemently opposes the idea of expanding market share by taking on clients who see Cheil as an option only to handle conflicting businesses. “There is a clear direction from the headquarters – to bring Cheil India up to the level of the Samsung brand. While there are ways in which I can gain instant market share, that won’t be acceptable to me,” he says.
Piggybacking on the skills he has mastered in Italy, which according to Koo has uncanny similarity to the Indian advertising market, Koo is aggressively putting a penetrative strategy in place. “I am here to shake up the market by offering highly differentiated services,” he says.
Cheil Worldwide has been gaining traction all across markets as a one-stop digital destination, and it is showing in the award recognition it is getting from the industry - including 12 Lions at Cannes 2012.
Koo has identified retail and shopper marketing, within the purview of digital, as the thrust areas in the coming year. “While other agencies are still talking about how habits are changing in a digitally enabled world, we, with our vast Samsung-based knowledge and resources, have been breathing it day in and day out,” explains Koo. “Shopper marketing will be the front office of our agency, which will open doors for new businesses to walk in and avail of our integrated offerings.”
While Koo maintains that Cheil is not an in-house agency for Samsung, he fails to understand why clients in India would not want to tap into the expertise and the scale of business they have achieved with Samsung on their roster. “Samsung is one of the most digitised companies in terms of IT, product development, marketing and retail, and we have an enormous competitive edge because them. We are proud of that USP,” he surmises.
The Flip Side
Home: Palm Springs, Gurgaon
How do you relax: With my wife over our favorite bottle of wine
Favorite hangout: DLF Golf Club where I play with my client
Favorite gadget: Galaxy S 3
Favorite App: Galaxy S torch app is very useful in India
Social media: Linkedin, Facebook
Favorite holiday destination: Maldives
Mantra for life: Live life in your own way