'We are not having an imperialist approach': Cheil's Global CCO

For an agency that grew up in the 21st century, it is not about geographic replication, says Cheil's global CCO, Malcolm Poynton.

A honorary coach for the New Zealand yachting team, Malcolm Poynton, global CCO, Cheil Worldwide Network joined the agency at the beginning of 2015 as the network's first ever global chief creative officer.
Having built and led teams responsible for award-winning firsts as diverse as Unilever's smile activated ice cream vending machine or Foot Locker's Sneakerpedia Poynton is recognized as the industry’s leading digital minds.
Prior to joining Cheil, Malcolm was the European CCO and a member of Sapient's global leadership team. In his first 18 months with Cheil Worldwide, Malcolm has steered the network into the Gunn Report's Top 20 Creative Networks and post their record new business success by winning global accounts including Etihad Airways, PZ Cussons, Abbott and UN Women. In his first visit to India after joining Cheil, Poynton took time out to chat with Campaign India. Excerpts from the interview:
Cheil is not as recognized as the established agency brands. What are some of the challenges on that front?
We are the world’s only network that grew up in the 21st century. We look at the McCann’s and JWT’s and others who have been around for nearly a century. These are networks that are built out of geographic replication. If they did something in New York or London, they would replicate it in every other market across the world in exactly the same way. What is different for Cheil is that while growing up in the 21st century, we view ourselves as a network of specialisms. That liberates us from a network of not having an imperialist approach where everything comes from this one central place and it’s the same everywhere. It’s about being specialized to the local market conditions and we can be deep in technology or be deep in social, participation or activation.
When an agency was created for a single client (Samsung), does breaking out of the mould become a daunting task?
I think from that point, the thing that gets you to break out is to do your best and most innovative work for your foundation client. In that sense, our journey with Samsung has been exciting in different markets to make Samsung shine so brightly that it attracts others to work and partner with us.
Actually, that’s what helps every agency. Another example is Wieden and Kennedy’s foundation client that dominated them for the first two decades was Nike. But today, less than 10 years after that domination, the agency is seen as a rounded offering of clients. 
For Cheil, that is an incredibly powerful journey that lies ahead of us. In some markets we are well ahead of that. In markets like China we are well balanced in terms of non-Samsung business and Samsung business. Even in those markets, the truth remains that Samsung is close to our heart as a foundation client. Those are special relationships.
How far is India in that journey?
It enormously varies from market to market. I would typify by saying that there are three stages in that journey. At the other end of a balanced market like China you have a nascent market that’s beginning the journey where the foundation client is nearly 100 per cent of the business. In between that you have the evolving markets where India definitely is in that space. The growth that we are having with adidas and other clients, the signs are extremely positive and the growth is coming faster and faster. 
We do not have a stated objective where Samsung will be just one among a hundred clients. We are mindful of balancing who we are. Agencies grow the best when they have special relationships with some key clients. We do not want to be a holding company that loses count of the number of clients that they have. You cannot have good relationships when you are that big. It becomes a business transaction in that case.
Which is your biggest operation?
It’s best to point that our three largest operations are all in Asia. Probably not surprising if I mentioned South Korea. Then also, there is India and China. China grew faster because our journey with Samsung accelerated faster in that market. India is growing and catching up very quickly. 
When you have a foundation client that dominates your business, does it hamper getting talent on board who would aspire to work on a wider spread of clients?
In the market, it’s true when you are approached by a holding company who says we will put together a team of people from different agencies to call it team Intel or something else. In that case you tend to get less exciting talent. I would say that’s true.
But we have a real advantage. There are two things in our favor. We live in a world where there is nothing more important or relevant to the millennial generation than mobile technology. A lot of people are excited to work on Samsung as a brand because of that. It puts us in a different light than we are putting together an agency that will only work on this car brand or shampoo brand. It’s fundamentally different because it’s not just a packaged good but it’s something that has an incredible relevance to their lives and it’s rapidly evolving. Hence it’s impossible to not be excited about that category. Our journey gets easier every time we do a great piece of work it creates more enthusiasm to join the party. 
Most agency brands are identifying unique positions for themselves. What is your positioning?
We create ideas that move. The industry has got caught up and obsessed in some aspects of the digital revolution which are a distraction and are the driving the conversation to efficiency and where you reach and when you reach a consumer, such as programmatic and those kind of conversations. The truth is what you do and what engages and moves the consumer emotionally in order to act and translates into revenues for the client. That’s in the face of an increasingly cold and technical world that people discuss consumers. You hear terms being bandied around like a user. Since when did we remove emotion and talk about people as a user—a number in a machine. If you treat them like a user in a digital conversation, they are not going to engage as you are not going to respect them as an emotional being.
We are consciously striving to create ideas that move and engage people. They could be in a digital space, a traditional space, activation or retail space. But if you don’t set out to move consumers you are not going to be as effective. Even when we demonstrate technology we talk about the emotional benefit that it can bring. If we are talking about a great camera on a smartphone that helps you photograph in low light, we will not tell consumers about the iris rating of the camera. We would rather show them the Instagram account where one can take great pictures as opposed to one who cannot take good images. That’s so much more engaging and a human story. 
We live in an era where one bad experience in one category could have a spillover effect on the rest of the brand portfolio. When an incident like the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 catching fire happens, how does an agency like yours counter the negative publicity and bring back customer confidence?
When brands are challenged by product withdrawals be it cars or other cases. In this case, we worked tirelessly with Samsung in markets where the product was launched to behave responsibly and ensure consumer safety.
When consumers understand that the brand is more than selling you the latest gizmo, that the brand is committed to the country and its development then bouncing back is easier. Consumers understand that at the pace we move these days on product development, there are unforeseen or unfortunate manufacturing flaws that you may have to overcome. So forgiveness comes a lot more easily if they understand the brand’s contribution to your culture and society. You are not seen as a North American conglomerate who is trying to squeeze every cent of profitability.

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