Asia Head: Glenn Osaki, APAC President
Ownership: Publicis Group
Asia Offices: 32 wholly owned; Partner: 15
Asia Revenue: Undisclosed; estimate US$130 million
Asia Headcount: 1,206
It may be a company focused on communication, but MSL was surprisingly reluctant to tell PRWeek much information about itself. In addition to keeping revenue numbers secret, the agency also declined to disclose existing or new clients. However, on the topic of awards it was more forthcoming, highlighting a win at the PRWeek Awards for Best Campaign of the Year with the Always brand’s groundbreaking ‘Like a girl’ video and social effort. So at least we know Procter & Gamble is one client.
In APAC, regional president Glenn Osaki says the agency had an "extraordinary year" with new business numbers "in the hundreds" in terms of new accounts gained in the past year. Osaki is a man who is constantly on the move. He spends as much time in India as he does in China, and when PRWeek met him in Shanghai, it was just hours before he had to head off to visit the office in Vietnam. But it’s a necessary task given MSL Group has 32 offices across Asia, which has expanded largely through local acquisitions.
"One of the things that is really unique about MSL Group is that we are really an entrepreneurial type of company," says Osaki. "We’ve made eight acquisitions in the past five or six years. Making so many acquisitions, you connect great agencies, who are best in class in their field, but there isn’t much connecting them. So we needed to build a common culture, a common vernacular, a common way of working."
This has been MSL’s intent over the past year. It has introduced a new firm-wide methodology called iQube, which aims to form an integrated strategy across the group, and is the work Osaki is most proud of for the year. This is a key issue, given not only the geographical spread but also the diversity of agencies within the network. Along with public relations, the MSL Group includes a wide variety of services across its subsidiaries and agencies. Its Mainland China brand Genedigi, for example, has an integrated approach across not just public relations, but sponsorship programs, roadshows, content creation and others.
The group even has a factory based in Shanghai, capable of producing items needed at these events. "We’re probably the only agency to have a manufacturing facility," Osaki points out.
But that level of diversity brings its own set of challenges.
"When agencies are as diverse as that, it’s difficult—they might all try to solve a client’s problem or issue or meet their objectives from different viewpoints," says Osaki. "So what we did was create this iQube methodology in a way that works for all the different agencies. We all came together and asked what is a model that would work for all parts of us, from a traditional public relations agency to an experiential agency."
Whatever the approach, it certainly seems to have been a year of success for MSL. The group had a winning run of luck at the International Business Awards in October, winning 16 out of 17 "Stevies" for its Asian office.
Its acquisition spree is far from over, and the future for MSL is about spotting new opportunities in different regions and skillsets. Alongside this, the agency claims an emphasis on newer, emerging trends in the industry.
APAC projects the network recently started include development of insight reports on Asian trends and building up resources to boost big data and analytics capabilities. It created two ‘Centers of Excellence’, one in India and another in China, to pioneer these skills. That has called for MSL to bring in new staff, among them Benjamin Koe, regional director for strategic insight and impact. Koe joined in October to take up leadership of the centers.
Designed to offer insight in several languages, more than 20 different thought leadership pieces took shape last year. Examples Osaki highlights include looks at WeChat’s power, analysis of India’s general election, and the rise of mobile messengers. All these play into themes that drive business for clients across Asia.
"Everyone talks about creative content, and that used to be more about a news release, a speech, or a report," says Osaki. "But now as we are developing a lot more for use in social media and digital—it could be infographics, video production, photography, imagery. Our office in Japan has even been doing some campaigns where they use a lot of manga illustrations. All of that is content that we can create and although advertising agencies also create that kind of content, we come at it from a slightly different angle—we come at it from the news side. We’ve always seen ourselves as content creators.
"Since we’ve always started from that place in terms of storytelling and news angles, it tells a different type of a story."
The expanding demand for digital skillsets means that, like the rest of the industry, MSL has put more of an urgency on "hiring more and different types of people", Osaki explains, who can bring different skills to the agency, which, at the bottom line, is mainly creative content creation with digital know-how.
But human resources, as a division of the agency construct in general, according to Osaki, has been a neglected area in Asia. Agencies "historically, are not as good at that", he says. "Even in the West, I think our HR practices could be stronger and more focused on talent development."
To address the situation the new framework has introduced a series of training and talent development programs that stress manager-development, simulation trainings, and assigning employees from all levels to different offices globally. Along with talent development and retention, Osaki contends the practice helps create a sense of a shared workplace.