By M. Hafidz Mahpar

It may come as a surprise to the public, but some of the world’s best advertising agencies, creative or media based, are located in Malaysia.

Media agencies – those agencies that do media planning for advertisers – have put the country on the regional or global map on several occasions.

Mindshare Malaysia, for instance, was named Global Agency of the Year in the Mindshare worldwide network in 2005. (Mindshare is part of the WPP Group.)

Now, for the first time, a media agency here has managed to not only make it to the top of its own network but to beat all other media agencies worldwide.

Prior to this, one could already see signs that Universal McCann (UM), which is the largest media agency under IPG Mediabrands Malaysia, is exceptional. The Petaling Jaya-based media specialist had, among others, won Agency of the Year five years in a row at the Malaysian Media Awards.

But it was something else when, a few weeks ago, Recma founder and managing director Eudes Delafon paid the company a visit.

Founded in Paris in 1991, Recma is the only research company that evaluates digital and media agencies worldwide. Its research remains as the most credible barometer for quality within the global media specialist industry, and Delafon doesn’t just visit any agency.

He had great news for UM Malaysia – the agency had received the highest qualitative score in Recma’s November Network Diagnostic Report.

In layman’s language, UM Malaysia is the most competitive media agency globally. For the first time since the report made its debut in 2010, an agency in Malaysia – in fact, in Asia – has made this breakthrough.

Recma evaluated 900 agencies in 45 markets based on 18 criteria under four broad categories: compitches (competitiveness in pitches), momentum (how strong the growth is), resources and client profile.

The advertising industry is famously (or infamously) seen as focusing too much on awards, but with Recma, awards is only one of the 18 key performance indicators. The others include compitches grade over three years, overall growth, diversified services staff number, number of local advertisers and big advertisers (over US$5mil) handled, and client loyalty.

UM, whose clients include Johnson & Johnson, Telekom Malaysia, KFC, Pizza Hut and Hershey’s, is the only agency receiving a “dominant” profile across 17 criteria.

The Global Network Diagnostics Report is issued a few times a year, and in July, UM Malaysia was already neck-and-neck with ZenithOptimedia France. In the latest report, UM moved up a notch above the latter to 27 points.

“Globally we’re one point ahead, but in Asia-Pacific, we’re ahead by five points,” says IPG Mediabrands (World Markets Asia) president Prashant Kumar, who also heads UM Malaysia. (Prashant, who hails from India, has been based in Malaysia for over 10 years.) UM’s closest rival in the region is Carat in China.

The Recma report is rigorous, being based on qualitative evaluations rather than just depending on quantitative proofs.

“You have to submit first the numbers and list of things, and on that basis, they assess which scores to give. It is qualitative in the final judgment for each criterion, but it is based on numbers that agencies submit,” says Prashant.

“Secondly, they cross-validate submissions versus other competitors. Obviously you cannot claim you won a business unless someone else shows they’ve lost that business; otherwise, Recma would question you.”

No other UM office has made it to the number one spot, but some IPG Mediabrands offices, such as Initiative Thailand, have done well under the Recma rankings. “Of course, the global leadership is very excited about this achievement and would like more and more offices to try to duplicate this,” says Prashant.

On competitiveness in pitches, he says this is about how well an agency is able to retain clients and how attractive its proposition is to other clients in the market.

“We rarely lose clients. In fact, when we promise performance, we perform our promise,” Prashant says.

“When we won the Telekom Malaysia business in 2008, it was still seen as a very traditional marketer. In 2010 it won Advertiser of the Year and the Grand Prix at the Malaysia Media Awards.

“In 2009 we won the Dutch Lady business with a promise to bring more innovation to the business. Since then, Dutch Lady has been Advertiser of the Year thrice at the Malaysian Media Awards and has won two Grand Prix.”

According to Prashant, UM won four out of five businesses it pitched for. Among the accounts won this year are Reckitt Benckiser, CIMB Bank and Southern Lion.

“Each year we also declined many invitations to pitch. The clients whom we probably can be the best with are those who believe that innovation and new-age skills can add maximum value to their business. We’re not about the cheapest execution in the room, because good work costs money, However, we’re particular about delivering high value for the money clients pay us,” he says.

He adds that in Malaysia, marketing needs to protect value creation from “the claws of mindless procurement.” “Procurement is an essential function, but it is for marketing to focus on value rather than just cost.”

Within the last year, IPG Mediabrands Malaysia launched Initiative and BPN. He explains: “The demand for UM product is very high but we often face issues of conflict and confidentiality, so we need to create options for marketers. Same quality, but with firewalls.”

This year IPG Mediabrands Malaysia, with more than 240 people, is forecast to grow 25% to 30%. UM, which already has a large base, is expected to increase its revenue by about 20%. “We (IPG) will probably cross 300 people in the next six months,” he says.

Prashant says the achievement would not have been possible without the nature of clients it has and the trust they have put in UM’s recommendations. “Clients create agencies. The right set of clients can push you to be better and better through constructive engagement.”

He also notes that the agency has “extremely loyal and passionate leaders”.

Prashant says UM’s becoming number one in the world is not just about UM. “I think it speaks volumes about media agencies in Malaysia and their quality and competitiveness versus the rest of the world. We believe this achievement belongs to the entire media and marketing community in Malaysia.”

He says UM also learns from its competitors. Prashant recalls the days when UM was much smaller and Mindshare used to be Agency of the Year at the Malaysian Media Awards (Mindshare was Agency of the Year for four consecutive years).

“Having leaders like Henry Tan and Chanchal Chakrabarti (former heads of Mindshare Malaysia) as our reference has motivated us to fight harder and get better. Each year our competitors raise their games, and that pushes us to try to be better,” he says.

What industry leaders say

Merdeka LHS CEO Tony Savarimuthu:

“UM is a shining star and this world ranking from Recma is not surprising at all, as the company has led the market in its sphere and out-done its competitors for a number of years now. It has always sought to differentiate its offering to bring strategic and value advantage to marketing plans.”

Telekom Malaysia vice-president (group brand and communication) Izlyn Ramli:

“We would like to congratulate UM Malaysia for securing the top position in Recma Network Diagnostic report. We are also proud of the company’s achievement as the first media agency in Asia to grab that position, putting Malaysia on the global map! This gives our work together with UM Malaysia new zest, in uplifting TM’s image and presence among Malaysian consumers through effective media strategies; enabling TM to reach out to all our customers nationwide, regardless of market segments and deliver on our promise of Life Made Easier through our innovative products and services.”

BBDO Proximity Malaysia managing director Michelle Achuthan:

“This is testament to Prashant’s leadership. He is doing an amazing job in building UM and this is the reward. When I read about it, I was not just impressed but I was proud. We are a very small industry and if Malaysia gets celebrated at the global level, it’s good for all of us. At least that puts us on the map for the right reason.”