India can contribute 10% more to the region than it currently does: Stephen Li, OMD

Li, CEO of OMD APAC, believes India is a priority market not only from the point of view of demand and expectations, but also opportunity

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Oct 7, 2019 12:33 PM



It was in 2015 that Stephen Li took charge of OMD Asia Pacific as its CEO. Ask him about his biggest contribution to the organisation as a leader, and he promptly responds, “bringing in OMDness”.

According to Li, when he took charge, OMD believed in a “client-centric” approach and there wasn't really “an OMD way of dealing with things”.  “For instance, we had a way of working with Nissan, we had a way of working with Apple, a way of working with McDonald's, etc. We didn't really, at that time, have what I would call a clear sense of the OMD way. How is OMD different from other agencies, what is it that would be a red thread through all of our clients, what would make every client feel, ‘I know what I'm getting with OMD’, and there is a sense of ‘OMDness’. I think this is really important for an agency, whether it's from a client perspective or from an internal stakeholder perspective,” explains Li.

So what is it that ‘OMDness’ stands for?

“In the past, we had a tagline, we didn't have a positioning. Our tagline has always been-- OMD: Insights. Ideas. Results. This is absolutely fine. But likewise, you can say that any agency worth its salt is about delivering insights, ideas and results for their clients. So what is it about the way OMD does it? After much discussion, debate and analyses, we arrived at: Better decisions, faster. We felt ultimately time is the one currency that no one can get back. It's in many ways more important than the budget; the most important commodity that any CMO has,” shares Li.

But then how does one go about doing that? “That's where our new planning approach comes in. In the past, we didn't really have one unified OMD planning approach. We would adapt what was needed for any particular client at a particular time. Now, we have an OMD design. OMD design is our end-to-end communications process. It is our way of helping our clients to really not just uncover consumer insights, but most importantly, when we talk about better decisions faster, our process starts with what is the client's business challenge.”

“So every brief that we answer starts first of all with our interrogation and our question back to the client: What is your outward business objective? Why are you doing this? Are you trying to improve sales? Are you trying to improve marketing share? Are you fighting a particular competitor? What is it specifically that you're trying to achieve?” he elaborates.

Li believes most agencies end up wasting a lot of time asking wrong questions or not reaching the crux of the problem. “A lot of time is spent by agencies because you get things wrong so you have to repeat. Or, you talk about consumer understanding based on very broad brush strokes and realise later on that you need to refine that and get more granular. Or, understand whether that consumer even cares about that problem and if that consumer cares about the problem, at what point does that consumer interface with that problem? And really try to answer as many questions as we can before we can start the process of trying to deliver ideas and work, and therefore hopefully get there much quicker, getting it the first time,” says Li.

Using data to predict and not analyse

While data continues to play a key role in every agency’s work, Li has a unique way of using it.  “Quite often, research is used as a rear view mirror. You look at it once you've done something; you look back and ask how was it? And data tells us whether it was successful or not, and hopefully, you get some learnings from it. We look at data in a more predictive fashion. It's more of a heads-up display, rather than a rear-view mirror,” he stresses.

“So, how do we use data to form consumer understanding and therefore anticipate what's coming around the corner? Understand how sharp that next bend might be, or find out whether there are obstacles in our way rather than waiting until you've gone around the corner too quickly. Often times there are subtle differences which allow us to tell our clients that we believe that our way of interrogating a challenge and delivering a solution will allow them to be able to make those better decisions faster because hopefully there will be less false starts, fewer barriers in the way, and through that iterative process, an ability to test and learn. And therefore, the next time we do it we do things better,” he adds.

 Bringing OMDness to India

 For India, Li strongly believes that the market has the potential to contribute much more to the region than it currently does. “From an APAC revenue perspective, India is currently doing a fair job. But could it be doing a better job? Yes. Do I have more expectations from India going forward? I would say yes. At the moment, I would like to see India contribute at least 10 per cent more to the region than it currently does. For me, India is a priority market. I don't say that only from a point of view of demand and expectations. I also talk from the point of view of opportunity,” Li shares.

Also, Li feels, in India, the agency needs to up its digital game and that is what will drive the business for the country.

“From an OMD perspective, from a talent point of view, we are definitely looking to continue to upscale and build up our team in the digital arena. At the moment, we have a good digital team. It is borne out of the fact that the kind of new businesses we've been winning this year, whether it's Car Dekho or Springboard, have clients who are very much what I would call start-up, new commerce, digital-centric people,” he adds.

Li’s expectations from India are based on the “huge potential” that the market offers. “India is evolving. Our offering is also evolving, and I think there is a huge potential for us here, both in terms of domestic clients and future growth of global clients. The clients that we currently have in India, such as Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Nissan, Apple and Parle, are really helping us shape our future. All of these clients are looking at the future with very positive, aggressive eyes. They are seeing how they can shape and disrupt that future and that's an exciting time for us as agencies. I think we can definitely grow a lot faster as a result of that,” he says.

Despite last year being tough for the industry and this year more so for India because of the economic slowdown, Lisays the impact has only been marginal. Any slowdown, when it comes to ad spend, perforce has an impact on us and our clients. But again, it's not necessarily a negative thing. We are not seeing a huge drop in ad spends with our existing clients,” Li mentions. He, however, adds that seeing industry’s growth or decline on the basis of the rise or fall in ad spends is an “old fashioned way” of looking at the ad world.

“If I go back to the 90s, it was a very traditional media world that was predicated on TV and print ad spends. Now we are much more a consultant partner to our clients. The agency remuneration model now is as much about retainer fees, as it is about commissions. As a result, the absolute rise and fall of ad spend do not have the same direct impact.”

“In the last two years, there has been more scrutiny on the client's side on how their money is being spent. Every dollar is accountable. And that actually makes us more accountable. It shows us that the way we work with clients needs to be more performance and metric driven. When there is more scrutiny, agencies are forced to be smarter and more thoughtful,” says Li.

Roadmap for 2020

“For 2020, digital is key for us. We will ensure that we always lead every conversation with a digital viewpoint for our clients. The second point is talent. We have to never rest on our laurels. We've got some great people. But as we grow as a business, we have to ensure that we are constantly looking out for even more of the best people. The third point I would say is partnerships”.

Talking further about partnerships, Li says he believes in working closely with upcoming companies that have immense talent and potential. “If I look at India, at one level, I would look at start-ups because I think there is a lot that we can learn from them. For example, Unilever has been really smart, not just in the way they have their suite of agencies with them, but they have also been really smart about how they have, across the globe, tried to tap into and maximise the start-up space, including innovation hubs and bringing start-ups into the fold. They are helping start-ups and at the same time, those start-ups, with their new and fresh thinking, platforms and new technology, are then helping Unilever to develop as a company as well.”

“I want OMD to be more like that. In India, we have so much intellectual capital and bright ideas that can not only impact India but the region and the world. I want to get in on the ground level. I want to ensure that we are getting in the right conversations, tapping the right types of partnerships,” he opines.

Mandate for the team in India

When asked about his plans for team India, Li is all praise for the path and direction in which the agency is moving under the leadership of Priti Murthy, CEO, OMD India. Li believes that OMD has been a successful global agency because it can balance the right amount of local clients and global clients. It is critical to not depend on one or two huge clients, he suggests.

“My mandate to them is to continue doing what they're doing. I applaud Priti and the team. They have actually been quite single-minded. While all agencies chase new business, they actually have been quite single-minded to ensure that they are taking as much destiny in their own hands as possible. What I mean by this is that an agency overly dependent on global clients is not necessarily a great thing at a local market level.”

“For example, look at Johnson & Johnson that exited from OMD four years ago. At the time, if you had spoken to the Johnson & Johnson India clients, they desperately wanted to stay with OMD. They had no desire to go anywhere else. But because the global decision was ruling over the agency, the local clients had no choice but to move. That's an example where the work was great, the relationship was great, the local OMD team loved the client and vice versa. But yet, overnight it went away. It is really hard to control your destiny as an agency in any market, unless you have that balance of local clients. And I really applaud Preeti and the team here for that,” says Li.

“It is wonderful to have an enormous client, but if you don't have the balance and that one client walks away, you're in trouble. Taking the fiscal aspect away, I also think having the right balance of local clients ensures that you're a better, smarter agency. Because when you work with global clients, quite often you're working across global mandates. You're working across the fact that the global positioning is agreed upon, the global strategy is agreed upon, the region strategy is agreed upon and you implement them. But when you have more local clients, it allows you to develop your people in a more 360-degree fashion, because they are the ones who actually have to develop that strategy, they are the ones who have to develop the activations that go around it, and they are the ones who have to deliver all the measurement frameworks around it. So that's why I said my mandate to the team is to continue doing what they're doing. And while I can't talk about it just yet, but probably in the next couple of days, Preeti will be announcing one or two new local business wins.

 The final word

For 2020, I would say two things. Any agency or CEO who says new business isn't a priority is lying. There is always a mandate every year. Further, going back to what I was saying earlier: digital expertise. For me, 2020 is all about how we up the ante in terms of both, the talent point of view and the partnerships perspective. I would make ours a far more digital-led agency.

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