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'We are not talking advertising any more'

twitter-logoChitra Narayanan | Print Edition: March 1, 2015
Gustavo Martinez, Global CEO of J Walter Thompson
Gustavo Martinez, Global CEO of J Walter Thompson (Photo: Vivan Mehra)

After a year of playing shadow leader to Bob Jeffrey, Gustavo Martinez took formal charge as CEO of the world's oldest ad agency J. Walter Thompson on January 1 this year and tweeted that he had "big shoes to fill". Last year, says Martinez, who joined JWT from McCann Worldgroup, was all about listening as he travelled the world meeting clients and branch offices. Only 10 weekends were spent at home. But now it is time for action and charge, and the first set of changes have been announced with the India leadership seeing a restructuring. BT's Chitra Narayanan caught up with Martinez in Delhi over breakfast. Excerpts:

Q. You are, perhaps, the first Hispanic to lead an agency. When do you think Asians will become global heads of big ad agencies?

A.  Let's not say Asian, let's say emerging market. I am the first non-Anglo Saxon. That itself is a pioneering kind of thing in the agency space. I am from Spain, born in Argentina and spent all my working life in Latin America. Now look at the names of my competitors - they are all Brits or Americans.

Q. What's the thinking that a person from an emerging market would bring versus an Anglo Saxon?

A. An open mind. People from Argentina, Brazil, India, etc... we are all dealing with so many threats every day. We are more open minded, more nimble and we are happier and having more fun on a day-to-day basis.

Q. Is the fun still there? Isn't the ad business getting brutal and hyper competitive?

A. Tell me another industry that does not go through competitive crisis. After the Lehman crisis, all sectors, all clients, everyone went through this. Some years ago we heard Microsoft is going to conquer the world, now it is somebody else. But every day you need to be a pioneer.

Q. You finished meetings at 2.30 a.m. last night one hears, and here you are at 8.30 a.m. How does it feel to be an always-on CEO?

A. Always-on is the future. It's not only the consumer that is always engaged, but the marketer - our client. We receive calls on Sunday morning. We met a client yesterday at 9 p.m. and he had his suitcase with him to fly off somewhere. If I am always on, my boss is always uber on. Sir Martin Sorrell is the uber ultimate CEO.

Q. Does it scare you being the oldest agency and also being so big?

A. That the nimble modern agency could topple you... The Google CEO famously said two guys in the garage are going to discover the next big thing. Definitely we need to consider all the competitors. We need to be consistent. We have got the experience. We have this philosophy of trying to pioneer something every day. We are not an old agency of 150 years, but a $2-billion start-up. It's reinvention every morning. The DNA of our company is that we are pioneers. We were set up in 1864. Every day there is a new spirit to pioneer a relationship with a client. I spent the last three days visiting clients and our company offices and seeing the capabilities we have to deliver to a client. It is a challenging moment. But we are recovering our real role as a consultant.

Q. Is advertising dead?

A. That's going too far. I would say what we are seeing is a rebirth of communication as a whole. In J. Walter Thompson, we are not talking "advertising" any more. We are talking "business communications solution". It can be a CRM platform, an ecommerce, to a digital app, to a new storytelling through YouTube. The scope of our work is now broadening. And agencies are embracing the journey as they know they can have bigger roles with clients. For this we need to hire new talent. People who never would have been interested in the advertising business or communication business, people like technologists, journalists, philosophers, are helping us offer compelling solutions to clients. We have technological creativists - such a different profile. We have J. Walter Thompson intelligence - we got data, trends, research. If you go there it looks more like BCG or McKinsey than an ad agency. We have a trends forecaster.

Q. You are present in 90 countries. Where does India figure in the JWT scheme of things in terms of growth prospects?

A. Oh India is definitely in Tier-I, among top 5. China, India, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Indonesia are for me the key markets from where the growth is going to come.

Q. Which sectors are going to lead the growth for you globally?

A. Retail is going to see an explosion. Travel and leisure, luxury, financial services, and health-care.

Q How are you changing at JWT to catch the growth?

More than change we are evolving.  India is a perfect representation of what we are doing globally. Our portfolio in India is quite big. We have social media companies, we have Encompass, we have Hungama, we have such a broad portfolio... Globally, we went back to the J Walter Thompson company name, because we are creating a holding company under which there will be digital, ecommerce, mobile, shopper marketing, data, all of these platforms. It is acquiring fantastic momentum.

Q Are clients open to an integrated solution from one agency or would they prefer to go to different agencies?

A. The feedback from clients is positive. They are now overwhelmed that so many things are happening at the same time. Clients need somebody to make this easy and digestible. They are looking for someone to funnel all these possibilities.

Q Almost the first change you have done after taking over as CEO is to change the India management (Tarun Rai has just taken over as CEO South Asia while Colvyn Harris who was earlier in that role now becomes executive director, global growth and client development). Why was that done?

A. This change of management is to on the one hand take advantage of Colvyn's experience for the global growth agenda, and on the other hand take advantage of Tarun's experience in advertising and media to bring a fresh perspective to our agency business here in India. And I mean Media with a capital M now - mobile, media. Tarun has the perfect profile for the challenges we described that clients and agencies are going through. He will bring the digital savviness we need and also as a person who has been to B-school and been on the other side, he has those skills. He is also ex JWT so that is an advantage.

Q Any other structural changes we will see in JWT India?

A. Every time there is a new CEO there will be changes , but we need to give Tarun a  little bit of time to present his changes.

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