Q&A: Vincent Digonnet – The Advertising Industry isn’t Evolving Fast Enough, Especially in Asia

Digonnet, APAC CEO of MullenLowe Group, believes Asia is the fastest, most agile region in the world, but contends that the advertising industry isn't evolving quickly enough.

Within five months of joining MullenLowe Profero as APAC CEO, Vincent Digonnet stepped into an even bigger role as MullenLowe Group’s APAC CEO. Since then, he’s been building MullenLowe’s “hyperbundled” operating model everywhere from China and Japan to South East Asia.

In addition to redefining MullenLowe Profero’s offering, he has restructured MullenLowe Group’s offer in China, Japan, and Greater Mekong. Next, he hopes to spearhead innovation projects in Asia that will pave the way for other MullenLowe offices globally.

Digonnet started his career in Paris and London before finding his way to Asia, where he led Euro RSCG for eight years. In 2005, he became a tech entrepreneur in China and later joined digital agency Razorfish. As a result of these experiences, he believes Asia is “a powerhouse of innovation”.

He will soon take on a new responsibility as Chairman of the Young Lotus Workshop at AdFest 2019, which runs from 20 to 23 March in Pattaya, Thailand. Next year’s Young Lotus participants will be mentored by Digonnet and other MullenLowe leaders, where they’ll learn why, as Digonnet puts it, the advertising industry “simply isn’t evolving fast enough. Especially in Asia.”

Barbara Messer recently caught up with Digonnet for an extended conversation on his “big picture” vision, innovation in Asia, problems facing the ad world here, and more.


What’s your “big picture” vision for MullenLowe APAC?

I believe Asia’s time has come to lead the rest of the world in terms of business transformation. Asian markets are being driven by an increasingly tech-savvy, mobile-first population and will set the pace that our industry will need to evolve and adapt to.

Also, the models, tools, and frameworks to date that are taken as best practice and conventional wisdom in Asia are actually devised in the US or Europe – from design principles, the way interfaces are modeled to the technology platforms themselves.

The biggest challenge the advertising industry faces is that it simply isn’t evolving fast enough. Especially here in Asia.

And yet a market like China is in a constant state of invention, no longer imitation, meaning that a lot of these ways of thinking are outdated before they are even pressure tested.

The big picture for MullenLowe Group APAC, therefore, is to become the spearhead for our global organization, leading transformation of our skill sets as well as our organization in Asia for other markets to follow.

You’ve described Asia as a “powerhouse of innovation”, particularly China. In what ways is Asia ahead when it comes to innovative thinking?

It’s a different way to think about innovation. In mature markets, innovation often seems to equate to shiny new toys without necessarily much purpose. What Tencent showed with WeChat, their ‘super-app’ is that you can provide an all-in-one solution that is an answer to everyday life – a life tool. Pragmatism and solving problems is at the heart of it all.

There is also no legacy technology-wise to deal with in Asia, and you have a fast growing and technology savvy middle class – with an innate agility and much faster technology adoption rate.

The most important lesson that I took from my experience in China is that technology changes all the time, and you can’t hang your hat on one single piece of technology, or you’ll simply die.

Conversely, the mature European and US markets already invested in CRM, logistics and other tech systems years ago. So although ahead of the curve back then, they’re finding it much more challenging to evolve to meet the constantly-changing behaviors of today’s consumers with so much infrastructure weighing them down.

Asia can leapfrog ahead, and that is exactly why Asia is so inspiring in my view. It’s the fastest, most agile region in the world. So when you’re in the business of digital transformation, it’s the best place to be.

You took a break from ad land to become a tech entrepreneur in China. What did you take away from this experience?

The most important lesson that I took from my experience in China is that technology changes all the time, and you can’t hang your hat on one single piece of technology, or you’ll simply die.

When I first began working in China, I remember being astounded by how advanced the Chinese technology ecosystem was becoming in terms of social commerce. I knew that one day they would be leading the world. So far, this has proven true, and we’re seeing Chinese technology companies like Alibaba, WeChat and Baidu leaving Western companies scrambling to catch up.

Your role covers MullenLowe offices across the Asia Pacific. Where will you focus your attention in 2019?

Hyperbundling for us at MullenLowe Group means the development of centers of excellence in order to drive specialized skillsets for each market, which will have an impact far beyond their own geography. With this structure, each market has a critically important role to play in the overall growth of our APAC operation. Different markets = different talents, diverse ways of thinking and new ways of doing.

Our intention is to demonstrate to our young creatives that they need to be aware of and exposed to ideas and capabilities outside of their own core disciplines.

Hyperbundling only works if each market is aligned to share their capabilities and skillsets with each other. So my focus in 2019 will be further building on the foundation of collaboration and knowledge sharing within the Group in order to help each market to grow and evolve, not just as an individual entity, but as a collective whole.

MullenLowe will host the Young Lotus Workshop at AdFest 2019. Why did you agree to come on board as Young Lotus Chairman?

The biggest challenge the advertising industry faces is that it simply isn’t evolving fast enough. Especially here in Asia. The pace of change when it comes to consumers is incredibly rapid – we recognize this as a Group and have been on our own transformation journey. At the heart of our strategy is the need to continuously evolve our approaches in order to keep pace.

Asia can leapfrog ahead, and that is exactly why Asia is so inspiring in my view. It’s the fastest, most agile region in the world.

As a result, I’ve seen first hand how challenging it can be to modify the behavior and culture of an organization. I believe the biggest change in our industry overall will come through this new generation of passionate, creative and adaptable digital natives.

A mentoring programme like ADFEST’s Young Lotus then becomes critical. It helps nurture the industry leaders of the future and give them a solid grounding of the various approaches and strategies I believe are required to drive modern communications forward.

What will young creatives learn from the experience?

Our intention is to demonstrate to our young creatives that they need to be aware of and exposed to ideas and capabilities outside of their own core disciplines. “T-shaped” individuals are the future of organizations like ours, with a wider appreciation, understanding, and skillset than the typical ad agency of today.

That includes areas such as data science, experience design, and technology – that when applied in the right way along with creativity, offers solutions where it matters most for our clients. Namely, delivering against business objectives. This is central to our approach at MullenLowe Group and is an appetite we look for in everyone who joins us.

Without giving too much away, I can also say that we believe the best learning occurs through real-world experiences. So we’ll be working with Google to present the teams with a real-world client challenge. It will need to be solved using a breadth of different disciplines, with the winning concept going through to implementation.

 What’s your proudest achievement, professional or otherwise?

In a time of constant change and disruption, I would say that my proudest achievement is to be still married to the same person after 40 years, and to have raised three children with her who are happy in their lives and in their careers, are fit for a world which is fast becoming a global village, speak more than three languages, live all over the world, and now have multi-cultural families of their own – making family reunions feel like a mini-United Nations.

Barbara Messer
Barbara Messer
Barbara is a Sydney-based content strategist, writer, editor, and communications consultant, as well as a frequent contributor to Branding in Asia

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