Ogilvy Asia co-CEOs on the shift of ‘great’ creativity, tech layoffs, and more

Chris Reitermann and Kent Wertime sit down with Campaign Asia-Pacific to ponder the future of creativity in a sales-driven environment; the effects of tech layoffs for the agency world; and the unavoidable embrace of sustainability consulting.

L-R: Kent Wertime & Chris Reitermann

“As soon as people hear Ogilvy, they think advertising,” says Chris Reitermann, co-CEO, Asia and Greater China, at Ogilvy. “So when we got rid of [Ogilvy & Mather] and Ogilvy PR as standalone brands, people think we don’t do that anymore. But we always did.”

This appeared to be a message that both Reitermann and co-CEO Kent Wertime wanted to drive home when Campaign Asia-Pacific sat down with the two leaders during their recent trip to Singapore.

Some seven years ago, the biggest marketing network in the world scrapped its OgilvyOne proposition that resulted in its core offerings—advertising, consulting, PR and influence, health, and experience—being consolidated under one P&L. Bringing the network together has proved to be a boon, according to Reitermann and Wertime, especially with regards to growth and efficiency.

However, with this refinement of a singular Ogilvy offering, clients still demanded specialisation. Reitermann emphasises that while integration is key, skills across different capabilities needed to be made known to clients.

“That’s something that we lost when we brought it all together and called it Ogilvy,” he says. “We always had those capabilities, but as soon as we got rid of OgilvyOne, people think we got rid of [those capabilities].”

For instance, the PR line of business, led by Emily Poon in APAC, is run as a separate team. This division picks up PR-related RFPs and will simultaneously join heads with other departments on integrated pitches. From a talent perspective, employees have the choice to move between divisions if they prefer the flexibility or stick to a specialism should they want to hone their expertise.

The rise of sustainability-consulting

A high-growth unit for Ogilvy is its recently launched sustainability consultancy. The agency is seeing growth in advising clients on what should be their sustainability programme followed by the implementation of work—whether that's an ad campaign or PR stakeholder management.

“Part of the way we work in consulting is that there's direct revenue, and there's leverage revenue,” says Wertime. “A lot of the consultants would give you ideas, but they don't have the arms and legs to do it. As an agency, we can go off and make this stuff. So we don't just say, ‘Here's what your sustainability plan should be’. We can also say ‘Now we can go and execute that plan’.”

Present day, it’s sometimes complicated to distinguish between sustainability advisory and greenwashing but Wertime and Reitermann stress that they hold themselves accountable to the network’s sustainability goals and that they take effort in understanding what “clients are actually doing”.

Reitermann argues that it’s not always helpful to make black-and-white decisions about which clients to work with because “to some extent, every company probably does something that is morally questionable.”

“A food company, you could say, contributes to obesity. So where do you draw the line?” he says. “Even in areas that would seem questionable, some of these companies try to do good. So if we can help them, then maybe it's the right thing to do.”

Wertime adds: “We always ladder up everything we do to the obligations of WPP. Mark Read has made very clear statements about his view and our goals for sustainability as a company.”

On the employee front, both leaders assure that staff would never be forced to work on accounts they weren’t comfortable with.

“That said, what I think is important is [employees] need to be informed in any of the decisions they make,” says Wertime. “I would encourage people to understand that there may be clients that have been in an area but are trying to affect change. I would like them to hear out the client first.”

A company of Ogilvy’s heft is also thinking about clients with conflicting agendas when adding to its overall portfolio. For instance, the agency might need to evaluate working for a tobacco company while also servicing a pharmaceutical company. On rare occasions, there are cases where the network might reject a prospective client based on clashed values or conflict.

The repercussions of tech layoffs

One misfortune that has reverberated across the tech world is the mass exodus of talent across platforms including Twitter, Meta, GoTo and Sea. Reitermann says this could be a good thing in the long term as tech companies will be forced to reflect on the repercussions of hyper-growth in a short span of time.

“Once gigantic organic growth goes away, companies usually get a bit more humble in how they behave,” he says. “There was a time where companies like Facebook and Google probably thought ‘I don't need agencies, I can just do it all by myself’. Now they start to realise that they're probably better off with agencies.”

He adds that tech companies used to outgrow WPP by three or four times; but it’s a “different era” now as tech companies will need agencies more than they did in the past. 

Wertime chips in: “[The tech platforms] are our clients and we’re also their clients, and our clients are their clients. So I think it's always about keeping good relations. They've got to run their business and make decisions about structure and costs, but we strive to stay very close to them.”

He points out that this pattern has shown itself in the industry—particularly some 20 years ago where CRM technology was on the cusp of hyper-growth.

“People were saying ‘Okay, I bought the stack. Now, how do I get my money's worth?’. And the answer is creativity,” says Wertime. “The biggest effect of all of this is that everyone's gotten so tech-focussed, but it should be tech and creativity coming together. I worry when people say ‘tech is so important but creativity is cheap and easy’. Creativity is the real value-add. So maybe it brings a little more focus and balance back to what we do.”

On the talent front, Reitermann hopes to see a healthy flow of tech talent rejoin the agency arena.

“For [Ogilvy], it's a big change because the tech companies took away a lot of our talent over the last five or 10 years,” he says. “We had many people join Meta, or the Chinese platforms. And [these tech companies] are not that aspirational at the moment. We can probably get a few good people back to our side of the world.”

Staff who previously left Ogilvy to join tech companies or client-side roles often do so to seek an “easier, balanced life”, according to Reitermann.

“But now, I see a lot of people coming back to Ogilvy because they say that they actually work more on tech and client side,” he says. “They are working 20 hours a day at these companies. And so, suddenly, we're like a wellness oasis for our former staff.”

Is creativity a trade-off for short-term sales?

Among many, one lesson that marketers took home in these last pandemic-stricken years is that the influence of brand and creativity will never really dissipate regardless of the situation of the real-world. The way a giant like Ogilvy approaches creativity at scale is important—but at the core of it, the two leaders emphasise that everything must lead with the foundation of a good idea.

Wertime quotes Ogilvy’s Cadbury ad in India featuring Shah Rukh Khan as an example of a campaign that uses a strong idea that is applied at scale to achieve a hyper-localised and personalised experience. Incidentally, the campaign proved to be Ogilvy’s hottest contender in APAC at this year’s Cannes Lions.

“We're all profiled with tens of thousands of data points today, and anyone is able to say that ‘Kent likes this and does that’ so they’re going to match and serve me an offer,” says Wertime. “But there’s got to be some charm in that. Otherwise, it’s pretty basic.”

With a prediction that clients are likely to shift spend away from brand-building to short-term activities, Reitermann argues that the case for creativity is stronger when times are tough. If clients are increasing spend on ecommerce activity and other lower-funnel platforms—some Chinese clients allocate up to 50% of marketing spend on ecommerce—he says that it’s tough for clients to sustain this habit while keeping true to their brand.

“If [a client] spends 50% of their money on Tmall or Lazada where everything looks the same, then how do you differentiate yourself? Creativity in those spaces is extremely important. A great experience on Lazada is not as sexy as a great film, but it’s just as important to us,” he adds. “We have to push ourselves and our creatives to appreciate [this newer] type of creativity.”

Present-day, he says it’s common for clients to only spend some 10% of their budgets on a highly creative concept such as a film. The remaining 90%, however, if being fed into lower-funnel platforms, is where the opportunity lies for a network like Ogilvy. Marrying creativity with short-term activities is key to what separates the agency world from consultancies and tech companies, he argues.

Incidentally, Reitermann recently had a conversation with those involved with the APAC Effies, and one thing that came up was the deterioration of quality in entries over the last few years.

“I know clients who basically stopped brand-tracking altogether because they didn’t have the money or they didn’t think it was important enough,” he says. “All the CEOs care about is sales. So the CMOs need to get back to focusing more on what they can really contribute, because otherwise, they'll have a tough time to justify their spend with the CEO.”

On the other hand, he is optimistic that the blend of both brand-building and short-term sales—if balanced neatly—is a good thing for the agency as it allows for real-time pivoting when a crisis emerges.

“In the good old days, you do one campaign, you run it, and nothing changes,” he says. “Now, we're able to react to things like market changes or increase in demand pricing on a real-time basis. You definitely need strategic thinking, you definitely need creative ideas, but 80% of what we do is real-time. That’s what you need in times like this. Because I don't think any client now plans a year ahead; everybody plans a month ahead or two at most.”

The two leaders concur that the best relationships with clients are the ones where the agency is able to move on from being a creative partner to being a business partner.

In the same breath, Reitermann stresses: “Great creative will increasingly be the differentiator in a more tactical world.”


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