Margaret, you’ve seen three key phases in the ad industry; the one-stop shop for all needs, the surfacing of media specialists and now the digital era. Tell us your journey through these exciting progressions.....
It has been an incredible journey of almost 4 decades for me. Looking back, I think I have been a pioneer, starting from even my school days. When I started my career in advertising (inititially as an AE) I gravitated towards media and became one of the first media planners in our industry in Malaysia. I read a lot on media and applied my learnings to formalize working media disciplines. After a couple of years I was brave enough to teach media in the local professional bodies. In the mid 80’s I was with the first to use the PC for our media plans and presentations. Of course in the beginning we worked on dos and Lotus 123 and I had to write the macros for our spreadsheets as well as for our weekly TV programme selections (which came in hard copy). My biggest frustration during my stint in the ad agencies was that creative was undisputedly, king. Agencies were selected because of their creative product. Media had been relatively simple then and the client service and the creative team together with client usually pre-selected the media mix. It was probably not wrong then, because the media scene was relatively less complex. But after a major campaign where I had disagreed with strategy but had to flow with the total agency proposal, I was motivated to start Malaysia’s first media specialist, MediaBase. This was in 1991. I was convinced the global unbundling trend would happen in Malaysia and that it was a matter of time.
With MediaBase, a bigger challenge surfaced. Ad agencies considered us pirates and even petitioned against us to media owners. I no longer was asked to sit on the Board of ABC and the media committee of the 4As. And Clients were worried about offending the ad agencies and could not fathom how the system could viably work. Looking back, I am amazed I survived the early years here and I thank God that I was able to attract and get good staff and gradually from a smaller agencies base of clients I was able to acquire more direct clients. MediaBase was eventually acquired by Carat and we became part of the Aegis Media network in 1998 when the season for unbundling was ripe.
Today our business has evolved from the traditional model of planning and buying to meeting our clients’ communication needs in a fast changing environment which is digitally led. We are now providing clients with insights (brand, consumer, media) and arrive at integrated solutions and strategies to engage our consumers. My biggest challenge now is to complete our integrated offerings, train existing staff in new skills, recruit outstanding staff especially in the areas of our new disciplines, provide outstanding services and still be profitable. I currently run the Aegis Media group of companies in Malaysia and my task is to mentor the leaders and complete our integrated offerings either organically or through acquisitions.
Much has been said about the advent of Media 2.0. Can you give us your take on how it will affect the Malaysian media scene?
If you mean Media 2.0 generically instead of Media 2.0 the company, this is my take.
Media 2.0 being platform centric has enabled communities to create identities, connect and share with each other. Examples include Ebay, Facebook, YouTube, mySpace and Disney’s Club Penguin. The successful sites are fantastic with fast growing numbers adding to the community. Potentially it offers great advertising opportunities.
As we continue to look for newer and more effective ways of connecting with our elusive consumers, Media 2.0 would be a great platform with applications to amplify brand messages to interested consumers. We are already embarking with some innovative propositions for our clients in this area.
The challenge for Media Specialists is juggling between media and brand responsibilities, since some clients expect you to do both. Do you think this is fair to media agencies and to the industry? Since there are many brand agencies around looking for work of this nature?
Brand agencies are specialists and they do a great job. While we specialize in what we do best, what we all do, is meet our clients’ needs in our area of specialization – whether it is as a brand agency, ad agency, or media specialist. Holistically, there will be areas of overlap. For example, in the judging of the media awards this year, a few of the judges commented that majority of the entries were on branded content. Media specialists have to understand what the brand has to communicate about itself — the association, the look, the feel, the imagery — and we make the media communicate this about our brand.
How many types of media specialists are there really? Some have creative bundled in, some are hard-core broker operations. Please tell us more...
Firstly, there are the full service agencies with their media departments (e.g. Draft FCB and Spencer Azizul). It will continue to be tough for them to hang on to the media part of their bundled business and offer competitive media services. Secondly, there are the buying shops and smaller ad agencies who do a bit of planning focusing more on buying in their media offerings. And thirdly, there are the media specialists like Carat, Mindshare, OMD, Trapper etc., who work on a sustainable business model. Majority of this 3rd category are members of MSA.
How does it feel to be an ‘independent’ media specialist with no network affiliations to larger conglomerates like WPP, IPG or Omnicom. Or does this not matter anymore in the course of your business?
We have called ourselves ‘independent’ because we are not affiliated with any agency group. Therefore our judgement and objectivity will not be biased and we have no agenda to prefer one agency to work with in servicing our clients. Over the past few years, as our competitors gain more direct clients (i.e. outside of those handed to them from their affiliated creative agencies), this USP has become less significant.
One of the disadvantages of being an independent is that we are often left out in full service pitches.
As Founder and Past President of the Media Specialists Association, (MSA) what’s your stand on the reliability of advertising expenditure figures available in the marketplace? What should advertisers rely on?
Adex is monitored ratecard billing. Based on this, Adex is reliable. Getting reliable actual billings would require transparency in negotiations and all players – the advertisers, the media specialists and the media owners are adamant not to reveal actual rates. What each agency normally does is to use our own clients’ actual expenditure versus the monitored adex to compute how much adex is overstated by. Each advertiser should be aware of their actual expenditure, their monitored expenditure and their competitor’s monitored expenditure and use benchmarks that compare like with like.
The RECMA reports make an attempt to get the actual rates by applying market perceived discounting factors.
One of the initiatives of MSA going forward would be to get Astro and OOH adex included. And then, we would have to address how to compute digital adex..
This is the third year for the MSA Awards... how different are they from the long-running creative awards? And then there’s the Effies come October. How does the MSA Awards differ from all this?
The MSA Awards are about “Best Use of Media”. Judging is based on four criteria:
(1) The strategic communications solution which should have been arrived at based on insights leading to strategies which are original and innovative, (2) The role of the selected media, (3) The use of creative materials (i.e. how the creative was leveraged within the contact points), and (4) The results.
Over the years I’ve observed that the campaigns which have won in the media awards tend to be for major brands with visible and memorable media presence.
We are closer to The EFFIE awards than the creative awards. EFFIE is totally integrated solutions and effectiveness/results is key for both.
You helmed Carat into a bigger entity now called Aegis Media with its component offerings. Tell us about this evolution and also what transpired at your regional meet recently in China?
In 1998, we had Carat MediaBase. The following year MediaBase spun off to focus on recruitment advertising under the leadership of Linda Ang. Carat retained a 49% interest in that company. Then we spurred the start of Malaysia’s first bumiputra media specialist Pakarmedia to cater to the government accounts. Carat has 30% share of equity in that company providing training, sharing of expertise, tools and network resources. After a couple of years, in line with media and market developments, when our network was moving strongly in the area of communications planning with insights and leading in digital, we launched Carat Interactive and Carat Insight. Three years ago, we found an opportunity to start our challenger brand Vizeum in Malaysia as a JV with Naga DDB. Last year was a busy year. To complete our digital offering, we launched iProspect and our outdoor planning and buying specialist, Posterscope. During that year we also launched H Media, a unit to handle primarily Hakuhodo media business. Moving on in 2008, we introduced two new divisions – PR and Carat Express, our no frills media buying service. In one decade we have become a fairly impressive integrated group of companies.
The theme of our global meet in Beijing recently was “Acceleration”. It focused on the acceleration of changes in the old advertising model. Acceleration is the rate of change and we have to change faster than our competitors. One thing that came across crystal clear was that when we are growing and driving fast, all our component parts have to know where we are going and together head in the same direction.
Teamwork is not an option, it is mandatory. While recognizing that specialization is important, we have to stop thinking like silos and take a more integrated holistic approach in our communication solutions to our clients. Our thinking framework, our product and processes would have to be re-evaluated and re-engineered to ensure this happens. In a nutshell, we have to innovate, integrate and accelerate.
I hear of stories where media specialists win businesses with zero media commission paid by the client. How do these shops earn their income then?
From a business perspective it does not make sense to do work for zero income. You can speculate one of the two following options: (1)That the agency is trying to resolve cash flow issues. But this is short term thinking as evidenced by one agency that was famous for zero commission offers closing shop a couple of years ago with a debt of millions owed to media owners; or (2) That the agency plans to mark up media rates.
To build integrity and sustainability for our business, as one of our first initiatives MSA introduced a guideline for fees for members. It was also agreed by the council that we should compete based on capabiities rather than on rates and fees.
Does the 4As Pitch Fee principle interfere with or complement media pitches so far?
MSA applauds the 4As move to implement pitch fee. We believe that it’s not about the fee that is to be paid to the various agencies selected for the pitch but the attitude and willingness of the client to pay for ideas and work put into the pitch for their business. MSA had discussed at length whether we should also implement a pitch for media pitches. This is kept on hold for the time being as the smaller local agencies felt that implementation would be disadvantageous for them.
How can a client like Tourism Malaysia get economies of scale when it comes to buying and placing media? Is it better for them to buy direct? Should all their media be consolidated through one agency? We are talking big money here, for example in India... the Indian Ministry of Tourism was the top advertiser in the travel and tourism sector on TV, with a 24% share of the pie. It was followed by Malaysia Tourism (15%) and Madhya Pradesh Tourism (10%)...
Tourism Malaysia reputedly have a big global budget and currently have a panel of 9 – 11 agencies with whom they have allocated campaigns and markets. This is a bundled account and the selected agencies would have to deliver both the creative and media solutions for their selected markets or market. Today, majority of creative agencies don’t have media departments and media agencies do not do creative. So, there is close collaboration going on between selected creative and media agencies.
With the bulk of the budget going into media, Tourism Malaysia should also ensure that the media partners selected by market are the right partners for them. For any market – whether it is India or Malaysia, buying through one agency will always be more beneficial as they will max their clout in negoting for rates and packages. Buying direct is counter productive because agencies can do the job a lot more efficiently and the agency commissions paid by media owners do not (or should not) go to the advertiser.
At a recent Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) Workshop Prashun Dutt, media planner and independent advisor to The Sun and Utusan group said, “The best minds in media planning used to come from Malaysia, but standards have dropped.”What’s your opinion of this observation? Does this explain why we have quite a few Indian expats in our media industry here now?
In the past we used to have our media people going to Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. Because of our diversified population and the polarization of media audiences by racial groups, the traditional disciplines of media planning were easy for Malaysians to grasp and master. And I would agree with Prashum’s comments that we were more outstanding (when compared to the region) than we are today. What has changed is this: We became complacent and failed to attract the best minds and talents to our business as our business offerings grew. In recruitment, we paid a premium for experience and pinched from other agencies. In the meantime, our business needs continued to progress from media planning to communication planning with strategic insights and holistic solutions and we were working with the same pool of people.
The Indian expat comes typically with an MBA, more than 5 – 6 years experience in an ad agency as a strategic planner, is great in mathematics, research and IT skills and more importantly has the capability to articulate fluently in English. ( This is one area we Malaysians have to brush up on.) I think we can learn a lot from the Indian Expats. One of the problems we face from this segment however is that while they are ambitious and mobile, many see Malaysia as a temporary assignment or just as a stepping stone.
Tell us your perspective on how Blogs are shaping the media landscape and if there is a way forward for advertisers to cash in on this phenomenon if bloggers are willing to monetise their efforts...
Blogs thrive on the weaknesses of the mainstream media. There has been a greater awareness of blogs during and after the 12th general elections. More and more Malaysians are turning to blogs as the alternative medium to fill in the gaps. As the popularity grows and with a substantial base, it would not be far fetched for the blogs to be monetized as advertisers continue to look for ways and means to engage their consumers. The barrier for blogs being monetized is the degree of leadership and credibility which affect the image of brands involved.
With all that hustle and bustle in our industry which is clearly burdened with client expectations and impossible deadlines, is there room or time for any real thinking? Or is this something that only happens during pitches, whilst the day-to-day running remains a cat and mouse game?
I will comment on what happens in Carat and the Aegis Media companies. There are a lot of times when deadlines are impossible and we do our utmost best to deliver within the deadlines. These are the unavoidable characteristics of our industry and we have to live with it. Difficult deadlines include cancelling an ad which is about to go into print or getting an insertion for tomorrow’s Star and still must get a good position.
But on the whole, majority of our clients give us sufficient time to prepare their campaigns. We have a QC system headed by the GAD and the MD to ensure that the insights and strategy are right, innovative, outstanding etc. Walk into our agencies and you will find the brainstorming rooms alive with people discussing, media owners in the meeting rooms discussing the viabilitiy of media ideas put forward. This happens for pitches as well as for existing clients.
As a leader in the Malaysian media industry, where you do see yourself in the next two years?
MSA has a new president and Siang Ling who is in the driver seat will have my continued support whenever she needs it.
I will continue to do what I am passionate about and enjoy doing — our business. Things are as I have said earlier, accelerating. I hope to focus and spend more time completing our integrated offerings, upgrade the quality of our offerings through shared learnings, training, mentoring and staff development.