Readman talks about his experience working in both; emerging and developed markets and the way digital is affecting media organisations.
AMBER ARSHAD: What brings you to Pakistan?
MICHAEL J. READMAN: Raihan Merchant, head of StarcomMediaVest Group, recently started a new VC firm called Z2C Limited, with the purpose of optimising and consolidating the operations of the StarcomMediaVest Group. I am part of the board, mainly looking after how we can expand in emerging markets such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, etc. Essentially I am orientating myself with the market here, meeting owners of broadcasters and senior clients, and forming an idea of what they expect from their media agencies in the future. I have a fair bit of emerging market experience and that is helping in gaining a clearer perspective.
AA: You have more than 25 years of experience working in the UK, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. How do you think the dynamics of this field have changed over the years?
MJR: I have been doing media consultancy at ID Comms (a Dubai-based company) since the last three years. Before that, I was working for Starcom Business Media Group. I was chairman of the MENA region from 2007 to 2011. There I met Raihan Merchant, and I was actually the one to sign the affiliation deal with him in 2010 between Brainchild and Starcom. I have also worked in Eastern Europe for Universal McCann from the mid 90s to 2005. During all these years, I think the one dominant change has been an increased level of accountability and transparency – and it certainly accelerated because of digital tools. I think the role that media agencies should play is being transformed as well. Traditional creative agencies are not cut out to work with content in the digital space. I think if media agencies can generate ideas and create content, they should also be producing it.
AA: That is an interesting thought. In the beginning, full service agencies ruled the roost. Then the concept of separate agencies started to dominate again. Considering the dynamics of the digital age, will it be more effective to go back to the full service agency model?
MJR: I don’t think a single company can be master of all trades. However, the current dynamics have paved the way for a new role: an individual or a team working as the ‘conductor’ of an orchestra. So a client might have a creative agency, a media agency, digital, social agency, outdoor and so on. The client can give the brief to the conductor; the conductor can collaborate with all the divisions, suggest how each medium can be used in synergy with each other, devise the optimal media plan, and then give an integrated response to the client. This is already happening in some markets – although it is a fairly new, and still sketchy, concept.
AA: What are the differences between developed and emerging markets when it comes to running operations and meeting client expectations?
MJR: Emerging markets have more enthusiasm, less cynicism and greater ambition. They have a fresher mindset. Developed markets are risk averse. They are usually more cynical and have a lot of processes in place which often end up affecting the originality of an idea or execution. Emerging markets at times don’t even have the resources to go through the processes. What I have seen in emerging markets is that both agency people and clients are excited and want to make things happen, but the infrastructure often holds them back. As for understanding media buying, I think the fundamentals are as well understood as anywhere else.
AA: What about building and nurturing teams in different regions? Is it difficult to gather teams across regions and ensure there is synergy between them?
MJR: You would be astonished to know how similar people are across the world. The same things motivate them. Working in different countries all these years, I have realised that people in media agencies think the same way – whether they are from Russia or Pakistan or Poland or Norway. Because of their inherently similar nature, it is not hard to gather teams even if one member is from a ‘liberal’ country and the other from a ‘conservative’ country. On a professional level, business etiquette and common sense is really the same. But yes, on the creative side, understanding the nuances of each culture is important, and there the presence of a local team member is crucial. At the end of the day, motivation, appreciation of their work, a good remuneration package, respect – and yes, now technology – is really all that you need to ensure synergy.
AA: How has the current decreased ad spend affected the media landscape in the Middle East?
MJR: Two major things have happened. One, digital ad spend has gone up. Clients are much more willing to explore digital, because it doesn’t require as much capital as traditional media. Second, the rate of increase in salaries has declined. People in agencies no longer make as much money as they used to; clients pay less and commissions have reduced while higher frequency of work is expected. This is not only for the Middle East region, it is happening at some scale all over.
AA: So will the size of the media and creative agency also be ‘right’ sized?
MJR: I don’t think so. Digital is a very labour intensive media. You need more people to handle the frequency that digital demands. However, you can’t pay them what you used to pay them six years ago. The emphasis on the skill sets has switched to digital capabilities. The average salary package has gone down, and the average age has gone down too. You can now get to a senior position at 28!
AA: Yet, doesn’t the lack of experience of a 28-year-old reflect in the work?
MJR: I don’t think so. A 27 or 28-year-old understands digital very well. They can go down to the most micro detail and fiddle around with each and every pixel of the content, every second of it being published, and tweak things in real time. You need more people like this, because like it is said, the devil is in the detail. But yes, they do often miss out on the bigger picture. They are at times too futuristic and distant from reality – so it’s always better to balance the experienced with the new talent.
AA: Is the advertising and media industry an attractive field for younger people now?
MJR: It’s a much, much harder and complex industry now. You have to be a lot more intelligent. You have to work tremendously hard, often 16 to 18 hours a day, in order to succeed. You can’t afford to make too many mistakes, and you are more easily replaceable than before. So honestly, I am not sure if this is an attractive field anymore. I often think whether I would want my son, who is 19, to have a career in media; I am not really sure if it’s worth it.
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