The birth of M&C Saatchi Malaysia


This is a story I have never written before, but since this year is when M&C Saatchi turns 20 in Malaysia, the time has come…

Lara was already a shining star in the advertising industry about 20 years ago, and after doing senior spells in Bates and Dentsu, Young and Rubicam (DY&R), she was running Brand Energy, a specialist media and content environment agency which was the marketing arm of NTV7 as CEO and partner.

Lara was a driven leader and wished to be part of an international network as a CEO with a little skin in the game. My  task was to explore how Brand Energy could propel her dream.

Management team with Lara, from left: Cindy Lim, Director of Business & Growth; Leow
Men Lih, CFO; Marzuki Maani, ECD; Nisha Devina Roy, MD; Rohan Korde, Chief Strategy
Officer; Henry Yap, ECD; Doris Lo, Business Director; Yew Pong Hor, ECD.

At that time, I was running my magazine in Singapore and Malaysia and on the cusp of launching into Indonesia. And in my  line of work, I get a lot of requests from bosses looking for people. I am not a head-hunter, but when all parties are on the same page I do make the connections.

This made me a natural matchmaker of sorts.

That’s how I was key to Dato’ Borhan helming Astro Radio (AMP then), SP Lee becoming CEO of Dentsu Malaysia, and a couple more high-level moves I can’t write about.

Anyway, back to Lara…

Very quickly, I made a list of possible networks we could talk to. The list eventually whittled down to Publicis (who was on an acquisition trail), BBH (which eventually was bought over by Publicis) and M&C Saatchi which was the new tiger in the region with offices in Sydney and Singapore.

Ooh la la Lara

The first meeting was with the Asia Pacific Chairman of Publicis, Guillaume Levy-Lambert or Giom for short. He flew down to KL to meet Lara for dinner at the Ritz-Carlton. Giom was enamoured by Lara and was comfortable speaking in French to Lara, who did her schoolingin France and graduated from Sorbonne University. I left early after marvelling at Lara speaking French.

Nothing came of that encounter, but Giom went on to expand Publicis in the region with acquisitions in other countries. Giom never left Singapore, and is an amazing conceptual  artist who later co-founded The MaGMA Collection, comprising 500 contemporary artworks from China and South-East Asia built by him and his life partner Mark Goh.

A picture of when Lara turned 20

Since I was spending half my time in Singapore in those days, I next arranged a meeting for Lara to meet Ben Fennell, the CEO of BBH AsiaPacific whose offices were in Duxton Hill Singapore. It was a pleasant exchange and I could sense that BBH shared Lara’s enthusiasm as they were in expansion seeking mode.

I later had the pleasure of meeting Sir John Hegarty himself in Singapore and many years later Ben in London, when he was CEO of BBH London. The delightful Ben was very candid and shared that Malaysia was not on their expansion map.

As it was a time of much movement and flux, I sensed that when it came to mergers and acquisitions, the same suitors were talking to the same people. It was like one big jigsaw puzzle quickly running out of empty spaces that fit.

I was close to M&C Saatchi Singapore then and the CEO was a wonderful chap called Huw Griffith while another dear friend Goh Shu Fen was their Business Development Director.

Lord Maurice Saatchi, a British-Iraqi businessman, set up M&C Saatchi in 1995 after his departure from Saatchi & Saatchi, the famous agency he and his brother Charles Saatchi ran for two decades.

I sensed M&C Saatchi could be a good fit, they were humble, hungry and full of heart.

So I arranged a meeting for Lara at this newly independent network. Long story short, the magic happened and the chemistry was contagious. Soon after, the big boss of M&C Saatchi AsiaPac and later Worldwide Chairman Tom Dery flew in, and the deal was on.

With a staff number you could count on one hand, Lara was off and running. I think Marzuki and Juliana were in the original team that joined Lara. I remember coming to their office and there more desks than people. The year was 2003.

M&C Saatchi Malaysia’s 10th Anniversary

By the end of 2003, they were handling RM30 million worth of business with campaigns for ntv7’s rebranding, Celcom-In-play, Lam Soon’s Naturel cooking oil and Anta-bax anti bacteria soap, and incoming clients were Bank Simpanan Nasional, Impiana chain of hotels, and more..

Even though M&C Saatchi Kuala Lumpur began with two clients, it is today an award-winning creative company with more than 120 of the industry’s best talents, connecting specialist expertise across strategic planning, design and multi-channel communications.

Reunion at 20th

Their clients include and have included Celcom Axiata Berhad, Tourism Malaysia, BOH, Axiata Corporate and Branding, Sime Darby Property, Ford, Hong Leong Bank, MBSB, MDEC, CIMB and Etika.

Lara is also the first Malaysian woman to win the prestigious Women Leading Change Awards (WLCA) organised annually by Campaign Asia magazine. The award champions female change makers, leaders, achievers and rising stars in the media, advertising and marketing industry.

Lara says, “The very name – Women Leading Change Awards – is a great reminder that female leaders are indeed driving change across the whole of Asia-Pacific. I look forward to seeing more winners from Malaysia in years to come.”

Global advertising legend Lord Maurice Saatchi, commented, “How do you get an amazing track record like Lara Hussein in business, politics and public service?” M&C Saatchi Malaysia with its component units of Design Factory (Below the Line) and M&C Saatchi-i (Digital) drives brand transformation and has partnered with multiple blue chip clients on their brand journeys.

On the next level, Lara is strengthening the agency’s key operations team and beefing up its content production arm, Watermelon Productions. She also talks about The Source Asia, “It is a ‘one-stop’ qualitative/quantitative research agency in town, where clients can obtain the view of their customers.

Some Notable Campaigns

The agency will be independently run under the M&C Saatchi Group based in London. The branch in Kuala Lumpur will serve the needs of Malaysian clients, as well as the Southeast Asia region.”

Moving forward, she talks excitedly about her strengthened management team. Nisha Devina Roy helms the newly created role of Managing Director at M&C Saatchi. More creative firepower comes with Yew Pong Hor as executive creative director. The addition of these senior leaders continues M&C Saatchi’s momentum. Then there is Cindy Lim, Director of Business & Growth….

This story was first published on MARKETING Weekender

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