Stephen Li, Asia Pacific CEO of OMD, tells Priyanka Mehra that the media agency business is really a ‘people’ business, with no production line or factories, and what matters most is the nature of people that are bought into this business
Stephen Li, who donned the role of Asia Pacific CEO for OMD in October this year, is a strong believer in the theory that a leader is only as strong as his people. He joined OMD after a 10-year stint as regional CEO for Asia Pacific at MEC. Li has more than two decades of experience in advertising, media and marketing communications in senior leadership roles at Batey, Lowe and WPP. He moved to the media side of the business in 2005, and has not looked back since.
Incidentally, it is also ‘people’ and ‘talent’ that keep him awake at night. “This is a people business. We don’t have a production line, we don’t have factories, all we have is people. So, the nature of the people that we bring into this business should continue to evolve. For me, the challenge is to attract the best talent, and this is a very crucial part of what I do,” says Li.
Ask him if he has ever thought of going back to the creative side of the business and his instant reply is “No, I have never thought of going back”. Li believes media agencies today are best poised to build client businesses.
“Fundamentally, this is the side of the business that is the most comfortable in data, which is not afraid to bring in data,” comments Li. “It is interesting how in the last few years, I have had many CVs across my desk - from strategic planners who are sitting in creative agencies asking to move to the media side because they realize that sitting as a strategic planner in a creative agency, they are dealing in the world of ‘perhaps’ and ‘what ifs’, whereas if they come to the media side, they’ll be surrounded by people who are dealing in the rational side, in ‘what-can-be’ and ‘what-will-be’.”
On his recent visit to India, Li talks about bringing global businesses to India, with a hands-on approach to this market, the constant quest for talent, culture differences between WPP and Omnicom among other things. Here are excerpts from a conversation with Li.
The last time we spoke, in 2013, you said that the definition of the media agency was going to change. Do you think it has already changed?
I think it is changing, it has not changed yet. We are still moving down that powerful evolution. In some parts of the world, like in the US and the UK, it has changed already. Here in Asia, we are fast moving down that track. We have to... we have to keep evolving in this industry. Because, if you don’t evolve, you die. As simple as that.
How do you perceive the culture difference between the various networks that you have worked at? WPP culture is distinctly different, compared to that at Omnicom…
Well! These are first impressions rather than deep-seated points of view. As I am only a few weeks into OMD, I am still discovering Omnicom myself. But some of the things that have stood out for me are... Omnicom is interesting, Omnicom really feels like the right collaborative place. And what I mean by collaborative is that during market visits, I have noticed that there is a real sense of camaraderie, and that people are working together and are right there to help each other. WPP and GroupM were a more ‘top-down’ company, and here it is more about certain regions of the market defining what they need, why they need and how they need and making that happen. This can only work when you have very collaborative environment.
The fact that we are younger agencies also allows us to be nimble. The other great thing is, people who lead the agencies like Jas (Jasmin Sohrabji, chief executive officer, South East Asia and India of OMG) and Harish (Harish Shriyan, COO, India, OMG) are people who have founded this place in India, and that’s very rare these days—to have a scenario when you are going to the market where the entrepreneurs literally with their blood, sweat and tears have founded the place and are still impacting it every day. That adds a spirit of entrepreneurship to the whole operation.
What are your focus areas for India?
First of all, it is to ensure that we don’t lose our vitality, entrepreneurship and passion as we grow. As I always say to people, as an agency grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the spirit, to maintain the passion, and the collaboration. Honestly, bigger organizations always run the risk of politics coming in. But I think OMD in India has done a good job in protecting its culture. From a business development perspective, there are a number of OMD’s global clients who are currently not necessarily working with them as partners in India. I will try to change that and see what I can do to work together with the team here and global teams in London and New York and the rest of the world to bring those businesses to OMD in India. I also want to roll up my sleeves and help the team here to grow their business. One of the benefits of being in MEC for 10 years is that India is not new to me. I love this country and love coming here. I want to use that positively and not be that regional person who comes into a market just to say ‘Well! How are you doing?’ I want to bring all my previous experience in different aspects of the business to help grow the business in India.
What are your learnings in these initial few weeks at OMD?
I have discovered on my visits across the region many engaged, enthusiastic people. What I am also learning about OMD is that we are very flat in terms of communication, and there are very few ‘airs’ and ‘grievances.’ The other learning is that there is still a lot of potential for us to grow.
Could you share a few key areas of your mandate going forward?
There are a couple of things. Even in the short time that I have been here, I have seen some real areas of excellence. What I think is that there is enough excellence out there to suggest that we can cross-pollinate. I think we have it within us to be great agencies in every single market. I just don’t want to be seen as the agency which has size and scale, but I want to be the great agency that does top quality work everywhere.
What are your thoughts on the e-commerce scenario in India? Do you think India will soon have an Alibaba?
I am still looking at who that Indian Alibaba would be, and where it might come from. I am not convinced that this is the best thing for India. One of the great things about the Indian e-commerce scene is the fact that it is so diverse. That comes back to the eclectic mixture throughout the country as well. Gone are the days when e-commerce pointed towards Bangalore only. The other thing in India’s favour is that as a population, it is young. It is very educated. Certainly in the urban centres, it is international, eclectic and that counts in favour of a continuing inquisitiveness, driving inception of more start-ups.
In 2013, you spoke of the upcoming boom in the e-commerce space. What do you think of the growth in this space in the last two years?
Flipkart used to be a client of mine. The first time I met Flipkart, there were 20 people sitting in two rooms. And now, look at the growth of Flipkart in India. These are real examples of how much traction there is in e-commerce.
How much does OMD India contribute to global revenues?
From an Asian perspective, India is a critical market. India is definitely in my top three markets. India has both current size and scale, and future growth potential to maximize that. It would be unfair of me to rank any of the markets.