Redefining the future of advertising (2023)

Savarimuthu looks to put his own stamp on 4As’ role in the industry

Last Friday, Tony Savarimuthu, CEO of McCann Worldgroup Malaysia, took over the presidency of the 4As (Association of Accredited Advertising Agents Malaysia) from Datuk Vincent Lee, who has helmed the association for the last six years.

During his tenure, Lee, who is group executive chairman of Foetus International, more than doubled the association’s membership from about 50 members in 2005. He was also instrumental in establishing the mandatory pitch fees for 4As agencies in 2005, the Malaysian Effie Awards and, in partnership with Interbrand and The Edge, Malaysia’s Most Valuable Brands awards. The council under his leadership also established the Boomerang Training Accreditation system to ensure 4As members invest in training to raise industry standards. Now, Savarimuthu, who was vice-president of the 4As throughout Lee’s tenure, is tasked with carrying on and developing the initiatives Lee set in motion as well as putting his own stamp on the association’s role in the industry. What do you hope to achieve during your term as 4As president? The well-being our members is of paramount importance. We want everyone to be financially successful and our work to be seen to be effective, and noted on the international stage. ‘Growth Through Creativity’ is going to be the main theme for the next two years. However, the big task ahead is to redefine the future of advertising in our country. Advertising agencies are the first port of call for brands and need to be hard-wired to deliver the main currency which brands trade in: creativity. Both agencies and clients need to spend more money understanding consumer movements, playing with technology, and talking and listening to millenials. I believe you’re part of a Future of Advertising taskforce?Yes, I and six other industry players — not all of them members — are part of it. It was something that we have been discussing for months and so far, we’ve completed one conference on Jan 10 titled ‘Agency 2.5: How agencies are transforming the future’ which featured Tim Williams of the Ignition Consulting Group as speaker. We are planning another on the value of creativity but we can only drive the agenda, ultimately it is up to our members to take note of the changes and transform their business.

How do you view the role of the 4As and your role as its current leader?I’ve served on the [4As] council for nine years, including three terms as vice president. I’ve developed a number of programmes and worked with Lee. He’s a true blue ad man with an enormous amount of passion and drive for the business. The role of the 4As and its leaders is to set the benchmarks, and help our members contribute to the development of brands in Malaysia and be a beacon for Malaysian brands to be successful globally. We must also be an active participant on retaining and attracting creative talents to drive the service sector and building the creative economy.

How can Malaysia improve its creative economy and attract talent?We can’t only look to the government, industry leaders need to encourage better remuneration to match international salary scales. We are losing top talent to more competitive markets because of this. On the government’s part, to attract creative talent, why not implement a tax benefits system for creative professionals?

What about addressing the need for talent within Malaysia?There are many colleges offering programmes in the creative arts, and business courses related to marketing and advertising. The main issue we have, however, is to keep the industry top of mind with potential talent through our various programmes. We need to promote ourselves better in the media, to parents and to future talent as a source of employment which is creative, exciting, fulfilling and financially rewarding. Ultimately it is about the work. If the work is creative and people are applauding it or moved by because of its sheer emotional appeal or ingenuity — it will promote and retain talent better than anything else. What are your immediate and long-term goals? We have to keep the current programmes going, which is one reason we have expanded the council. Everyone who sits on the council is a CEO or MD and has immense experience. The long-term goal is ensure that both the strategic planning and creative credentials of our members are of a high standard. We have many world- class creative directors, some of whom have taken on regional and global responsibilities and ventured abroad. We need to build a larger pool of strategic planners. The long-term goal of the 4As is to help redefine ‘The Future of Advertising’ in our country and by doing so, ensure the prosperity of our members and the brands under their care.You brought up the Kancils, MMVB and Effies as a means of raising industry standards. Do you feel that any/all of these awards need to be further refined? How so?I think we have redefined it each year. Each of the programmes have evolved to include education and advocacy of creativity, brand value and effective advertising in all its forms though the media and member programmes. And of course the Kancil Awards which we have redefined over the year by recognising new categories, inviting a world-class jury.Will the 4As be addressing the industry’s falling profit margins? A concerted move towards performance-based compensation perhaps?Margins are a hot topic of conversation. There is definitely revenue erosion and it is a global phenomenon but the main holding groups have had both ups and downs and each has sought to redefine and transform their business by managing costs, investing in talent and new revenue areas like sponsorships, branded entertainment and content development. Currently, the association is working on performance-based remuneration guidelines.

Revenue models have changed — clients like Unilever and Coca-Cola have already placed agencies on a performance-based compensation scale. We need to redefine our remuneration strategies and get paid for intellectual capital. While it is easier to charge for strategy, ultimately we need to move beyond science and structure to deliver true creativity in Malaysia.

It’s been more than five years since the 4As introduced its mandatory pitch-fee system. How has it shaped the industry since? Will things continue as they are? It has definitely shaped the industry and ultimately for the better. I believe we have had more professional management of pitches since the introduction. Clients are also looking for a better fit in terms of agency selection based on their needs. Many also choose to work with local and entrepreneur-owned agencies due to the close attention given by senior practitioners who have embarked on their own but have the benefit of multinational experience. One way which clients identify partners like this is via agency immersion, rather than calling for a pitch. Agency immersion allows them to get to know the agency’s operations through interviews with agency staff and senior executives. When a pitch is called, the pitch fees inspire a need to shortlist, and in an industry where talent is short, it is costly to spend too many man hours working on pitches. Major pitches can cost an agency upwards of RM500,000 and tends to burn out agency folk!

This article appeared on the Media & Advertising page, The Edge Financial Daily, Mar 31, 2011.

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