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Shoot for the stars: Steve Blakeman’s parting advice to Asia

After almost a decade in the region Steve Blakeman, erstwhile the CEO of OMD APAC, has relocated back to the UK to take up his new role as Managing Director of Global Accounts at OMD based primarily in London and Paris. In an exit interview of sorts, Digital Market Asia caught up with Mr Blakeman last week to know more about the best and worst experiences of working in the region, in his tour of duty here. Excerpts:

What would you say your most significant achievement has been whilst working in Asia?
Let’s face it – results matter more than anything else in this industry. In the last four years, OMD has thrived and grown beyond expectation. When I joined OMD in 2011, billings were around USD 3.2 billion and this has risen to over USD 5.2billion during my tenure. In that time we’ve managed to retain all of our key global accounts, secure the majority of our regional assignments and significantly bolster our local business. China (led by Arlene Ang) and India (led by Jasmin Sohrabji) have witnessed exceptional growth and the teams in both countries have done an exceptional job in handling such rapid progress. Australia too has witnessed a tremendous run of success and it is particularly gratifying to see them at the top of the recently released RECMA rankings.

What are some of other highlights of your time here?
Winning awards has always been a primary objective for me. I see it as a proxy for success. When I first joined OMD my enigmatic boss, Barry Cupples, gave me a very clear objective: ‘win OMD more awards Steve. Lots more’. He threw down that gauntlet and I eagerly picked it up. Back in 2011, we had won around 40 awards. After a concerted effort across the region, I’m delighted to say that in four years we have increased that number to almost 300 awards. And along that journey our wins for APAC have included the Cannes Lions Media Agency of the Year 2013 and Festival of Media Global Campaign of the Year 2015 amongst many others. Our office in Hong Kong typifies what can be achieved. Certainly not our biggest office in terms of billings but they punch above their weight when it comes to winning awards. So much so, that last year the Hong Kong office was recognised as the ‘smartest’ media agency in Asia Pacific in the WARC 100 survey”.

If you could pinpoint out your key influencers in your time in APAC, who would they be?
That’s a really difficult question to answer, as there have been quite a few. And equally I don’t want to forget some of the incredible people who have influenced me along the way. I guess special credit has to go to the likes of King Lai who initially brought me to the region way back in 2006. We had originally met in Paris in 2001 when we were both working for Initiative on the Unilever business. He remembered me when an opportunity had come up in APAC several years later for a strategic role and the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been very lucky to work with some of the best people in the communications industry. Of course, global players like the aforementioned Mr Cupples have had a huge influence on my career. And more recently, Cheuk Chiang, CEO Omnicom Media Group APAC, who really encouraged me to push my strategic roots to ensure that OMD retains its position as the world’s most creative and innovative communications agency. Prior to that, at IPG, I was incredibly influenced by the statesmanlike Jeff Cressall, the pragmatic Daniel Simon and the all-action Henry Tajer, who has since become Global CEO for IPG Mediabrands.

It sounds like you have had a faultless time in Asia but surely it can’t have always been a breeze? There must have been times when it wasn’t that good. So tell us when was it terrible?
Terrible? Well, on occasions it has been even worse than that. A personal low point was the Festival of Media Asia 2012 in Singapore. A long story but I had the supposedly ‘brilliant’ idea of attempting an official Guinness World Record for the most number of people interacting with a presentation on a mobile or tablet. In principle a decent idea, right? The problem was that the software wasn’t quite up to the job and we couldn’t pressure test it before the event. And almost inevitably the nightmare I had the night before became a reality on the day itself. The system failed right in front of around 600 people. I can laugh about it now but it wasn’t funny at the time and I wanted the stage to swallow me up. Do I regret it? Well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger I guess. We are all so risk averse these days that we are terrified to take any kind of chance. I say shoot for the stars. That’s where glory lies – although clearly not on that occasion!”

To conclude Steve, we have to ask you about your regular contributions to LinkedIn Pulse, and also Digital Market Asia for your column #sowhoknew. Given this new role, will you still be able to pursue this?
Writing has always been a passion of mine and I have made a personal commitment to keep pushing out content on Digital Market Asia and other channels at least once a week. Given the time pressures we are all under, it’s tough to fit it in sometimes but I think it’s important to maintain a voice. And so far so good, as the views keep racking up. At last count it was well over a quarter of a million and the content has connected with a wider audience after various articles being picked up by channels such as Yahoo Finance, Business Insider and Fox News.

Noor Fathima Warsia

A veteran journalist in the Indian marketing, media and advertising fraternity, Noor Fathima Warsia took on the role of Group Editor -– APAC for Digital Market Asia in May 2013. Noor has focussed on tracking trends and developments in the Indian media industry.