OMD CEO Stephen Li on why agencies are struggling to retain talent

MUMBAI:  Stephen Li’s takeover of OMD’s Asia Pacific business as the new CEO made several headlines in October last year, after former CEO Steve Blakeman relocated to London. After all, Li’s movement from MEC as the CEO for Asia Pacific after a happening 10 year stint in the company surprised many. In addition to launching the sports and entertainment partnership company MEC Access Asia Pacific, Li also handled MEC’s multinational clients in APAC, such as Chevron, Singapore Airlines and Citibank.

At the same time anticipation grew over his upcoming new role in Omnicom Group’s subsidiary OMD, and his plans for the company in the India market, which is part of his mandate. With a keen eye for detail and a well-seasoned foresight in a new market, Li was the perfect fit to take on a challenging  and dynamic market like India.

It’s been six months since he took over the role  and now at the edge of his ‘honeymoon period’ in India, Li reflects on the goals he set for himself and the company, the progress he has achieved and the emerging new challenges of working in a market like India.   

In a candid chat with’s Papri Das, Li shares his fears on becoming too complacent, his plans on upping the ante for the agency’s performance in 2016 and why it is a task to retain good talent within agencies these days.


Q1. What were your initial goals for the India market when you took on the portfolio at OMD?

Ans: My initial goal in India was to keep the motion going, not to stagnate the progress and keep innovating. From a business development perspective, I wanted to ensure that our global clients who are currently not working with us in India, become clients here as well.  By working with the global teams in London and New York, we wanted to bring those businesses to OMD in India. Though they are old partners, the mandates would be different and the communication would require a completely different treatment in India.

Q2. Have you achieved the goals you set for yourself for India when you joined office?

Ans: We are making progress. I have been here in OMD for a little over six months now. I guess you can say in some ways I am coming to the end of my honeymoon period. Now I have got to make things happen. It is beginning to take shape in India.

Q3. What challenges have you faced in India so far on the path to achieve your vision for the company?

Ans: The two challenges that we have faced in India are at two fundamental levels. On one side is the eminent question of how do we ensure to keep developing the best possible work. Which is not always easy. Especially when you have clients who sometimes put you in a box as an agency, guided by their’ ‘I want this’,  ‘I want it this way’, ‘I want it by this time’,  ‘ I want it with this much money’. Our ability to innovate within the parameters of the clients requirement, not being  reckless and or not in a way that is totally  counter cultural, or breaks the back every time, but to challenge ourselves creatively for our clients is the real concern in India.

It is not an India specific problem, it is a universal challenge, to be honest. As a media agency we must challenge ourselves to be more creative.

Q4. Agencies are swearing by data these days. Does that take away from the creativity you are striving for?

Ans: In most industry award shows we see media and creative being judged differently. I think that our definition of creativity needs to change as well as data can be applied in a very creative fashion also.

Q5. Between your global and local clients who are more particular and restrictive about your work?

Ans: I think it’s not a matter that can be generalised into global and local clients. There are some global clients who are very open to creative innovations and willing to take risks and then you have some local clients that are incredibly conservative. It comes right back to the attitude and mentality of the agency. We have a broad sweeping set of clients from large global conglomerates to very niche eCommerce ones. It is a challenge for us to be doing equally great work across the board.

Q6. Which is the biggest challenge to a media agency right now?

Ans: How do we continue to ensure that we are attracting and retaining the best talent in the industry’ is the single biggest issue currently in our business.

Q7. What is holding back media agencies from retaining good talent? Surely, money isn't a factor.

Ans: Yes it is more complex than that. I think a lot of aspiring creatives enter the industry with the vision to make ‘good ads’. But the definition of advertising is now so broad you could even be creating communication for brands, whether you work in a media agency or creative agency, or working for  Google or Facebook, or for a digital agency or you can even do a user generated work from your own living room. Also because the ability to create is now so broad that you are no longer forced into a particular profession. Therefore as an agency that means we have to compete with so many different people or businesses for that gene pool of talent.

Q8. How are you planning to counter this issue?

Ans: As an agency it is crucial to always be seen and known for doing great work. People don’t come into this business to simply get paid well, but for the satisfaction of doing great work. They want to go back to their friends, family and peers and say, ‘look what I did’. We need to be able to always offer each individual the opportunity to do great work.

Q9. Speaking of talent, do you think the talent in India is at par with the rest of the world

Ans: There is a definitely a desire amongst the talent I see in India to push boundaries and be future facing. My question to agencies and also to clients is that are we allowing that talent to really shine, and giving them enough opportunities? When you ask them if they are looking at things from a globally relevant perspective, I would say definitely yes. India is such a connected country in every shape and form. There is very little that happens in the rest of the world that India is not aware of. I don't think the challenge is in if people have a broad view or education. I think the challenge comes back to us -- do we have the guts as agency leaders and marketers to recognize their spirit and creativity and do all we can to nurture them to their full potential.

Q10. Are you happy with the number of new businesses that OMD media has acquired in the last six months?

Ans: I am never happy with the amount of new businesses. We can always do better. In terms of OMD India, the opportunities we are getting are good. I want that to be bigger and better, and of course that is not a purely an Indian responsibility. The Indian team really puts its best foot forward to ensure it is leading as much growth as possible domestically in India. But it's the responsibility of the rest of the OMD network as well to ensure that when it comes to global clients and opportunities, they are brought to India as well. It is happening now, but I want to see more of that. That is part of the priorities for us this year and for 2017 as well. I think having a balance between a top down global growth to a bottom up local growth is very crucial for any big agency.

Q 11. The marketing scene in India is going through a disruption. How equipped is OMD India to deal with it?

Ans: We are very much equipped in that area. We are no longer looking at communication as ‘branded content’ or digital activation, but smart and engaging content. What I mean by that is its no longer enough to just entertain, we have to be able to engage audiences or consumers while entertaining them. This starts from having a deep seated understanding of consumer insights. I think media agencies have a head start in this as we already have a comfort around data and systems and processes in place for its analysis.  The comfort also allows us to measure any piece of content that we put out to be measurable. This why I think OMD has an advantage as we are already looking at it not only from the ideation and creating standpoint, but from delivery and measurement as well.

Q12. What is your target for OMD in India in year?

I think I have two primary targets for India. Firstly, I was really keen to up the ante when it comes to our award presence and our award successes. Campaigns like the ones we have done for Kinder Joy and Johnson and Johnson have already won a few awards and we hope they will be recognised in few more places as well. That is one of the targets we aim to hit. Secondly, recalling what I said about retaining talent. We plan to continue to challenge ourselves to attract the best people into OMD. That is what I am currently working very closely with the management team to do. We are looking far and wide and not just the media agency side of the business. We are looking across the segment agencies, communication partners and creatives to bring digitally savvy future facing people into the team. I will be back in India often to ensure that it's on track.

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