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Stephen Li

CEO APAC | 10 May 2013

Clients are now becoming quite brave in terms of the choices that they might take, but I think it is still a slightly risk averse bravery. Clients are not in a position where they can endlessly experiment, so they need to know that if they are being brave there is a strong likelihood that there is going to be some kind of success at the end of the day

Stephen Li, CEO APAC, MEC, joined the agency in 2005 as CEO for South and South-East Asia. He was named CEO for Asia Pacific in 2010. In addition to operationally overseeing MEC’s offices across the region, Li is also the Senior Client Leader for MEC’s multinational clients in APAC, such as Chevron, Singapore Airlines and Citibank. In 2007, Li launched MEC Access Asia Pacific - the sport, entertainment and cause partnership company. Together with his management team, he sets the vision for the future of the agency in what is the company’s fastest growing region in the world. Li has earlier worked as Managing Director of Lowe Hong Kong for four years, successfully unbundling the Lowe media offering and merging it with the FCB media department to form Initiative Hong Kong. Prior to joining MEC, he was WPP's Regional Director for Team HSBC. Over the years, he has worked on clients such as Mercedes-Benz, Johnson & Johnson, The Coca-Cola Company and Alfred Dunhill.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Priyanka Mehra, Li talks about MEC India’s growth strategy and approach, the agency’s emphasis on e-commerce and rural communications, MEC’s leadership approach, the agency’s contribution at the APAC level and more…

Q. Where does MEC India stand in terms of contributions in revenue?

From an Asia Pacific perspective, India is now about 15-18 per cent of our total regional revenue, which ranks it as our third biggest market in Asia, behind China and Australia. In terms of growth potential, India and China are my two big growth markets for the next two to three years, amongst others like Indonesia and Vietnam that are coming along now, but if I look at both a combination of current scale, combined with growth potential, India is right up there as a crucial market for us at the global level as well. When I look at the global strategic importance of India, it’s a very important market for MEC.

Q. How would you define MEC India’s growth strategy and approach going forward, as well as areas of focus?

Maintaining the balance between organic growth, ensuring diversification in an integrated fashion, which allows clients to have an increasing confidence in what we do, as well as drive new business growth.

When I look at 2014 from an MEC perspective and industry perspective, there are huge waves of growth opportunity in India, specifically with regards to the importance of rural communications and how we are taking it beyond the urban centres, and tapping into the vast area of consumers in rural centres.

E-commerce is another area of immense growth, it has already grown a lot in the last three to four years as smartphone penetration increases amongst the younger population. E-commerce is set for an explosion in India, no matter how many shopping malls get erected today, the reality is that the way consumers are responding to brands has changed, convenience is taking over as a driver in purchase decision dynamics. It is no longer about how much money the consumer has, but the time he has during the day, and e-commerce solutions allow for this convenience and preserve their precious time.

Q. Do you think that clients in India are also taking that step ahead when it comes to experimenting with innovations and new media tools?

Clients are now becoming quite brave in terms of the choices that they might take, but I think it is still a slightly risk averse bravery, if I can put it that way, which is why I have been saying that it is extremely important for agencies to step into the continuum and give clients the right amount and right quality of data and information, because they know they have to be brave, be different and not just go down the tried and the tested road. Because the communications landscape and the environment is constantly evolving, and the need for change is absolutely important. Within the realities, we know that marketing budgets are not limitless and clients are not in a position where they can endlessly experiment, so they need to know that if they are being brave, there is a strong likelihood that there is going to be some kind of success at the end of the day. I think that is where we come in, so we should provide the kind of solutions and expertise that can help them to make those decisions with more confidence. At the end of the day, whether you look at it from the client’s side or the agency’s side, you could say we could all be doing things quicker, but I think reality dictates that ultimately it has to be measured, and what you don’t want is to be is reckless. I think it is moving at a pace, but I think that you will see that pace will increase, as agencies grow and as clients develop confidence.

Q. What are the best practices in India that the rest of the world could benefit from?

The emphasis will now begin with communication in the rural space; a lot of the learnings can be absolutely priceless to markets such as Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, parts of Eastern Europe. Countries that are developing are dynamic and growing and can teach a lot of lessons to the developed nations.

Q. What is the leadership approach going for forward for MEC at the APAC level?

We believe that you are only as good as those around you. One of the strengths we have is the consistency of our leadership, we are not an agency that frequently chops and changes leadership at the regional, global or local level. You see agencies, wherein every year there is some new leader in play. MEC India is a good example of consistency, we are looking at how we can further bolster our cohesion; our focus is on finding and retaining the senior talent and optimising the right talent at every level.

With inputs from Saloni Dutta

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