Five questions for Universal McCann's Manpreet Singh

And other people news in Greater China

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SINGAPORE--Interpublic Group of Cos. turned to an Asian media veteran in Singapore, Manpreet Singh, to beef up its Universal McCann (UM) operation in China, where the company has struggled to keep pace against stronger rivals like WPP Group's MindShare and Publicis Groupe's Zenith Media.

Mr. Singh, 46, will relocate to Shanghai after Chinese New Year as the media agency's new CEO, China, working with marketers like Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., UPS, L'Oreal, Mastercard, Exxon-Mobil, Johnson & Johnson and SC Johnson. In his new position, he succeeds David Liu, who recently moved to Taipei as chairman of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna operation in Taiwan.

Since 1998, Mr. Singh, a native of India, has run WPP Group's MindShare office in Singapore. Before that, he was a media executive at JWT in Hong Kong. Most recently, he was CEO of GroupM's other media networks, such as Maxus and Motivator.

He recently spoke with AdAgeChina Editor Normandy Madden about his decision to join Universal McCann in China, and his plans for the agency,

AdAgeChina: You worked at MindShare quite a while, since it was launched. Why did you decide to leave now?

Manpreet Singh: I left MindShare as of the end of last year for a couple of reasons. Personally, I wanted to get into China. Second, the opportunity that came along that got me into China was more exciting than anything that had been offered by MindShare. I really think Universal McCann is the happening agency now. MindShare is so large. It was hard to leave, but it was not moving at the pace I wanted to be at anymore.

AdAgeChina: And why China?

Mr. Singh: China has been a growth engine for Asia/Pacific, and it will continue to be. It's an interesting, large, tough market, culturally diverse, fueled by the Olympics. It has a number of different cities, so planning will be far more interesting and exciting compared to Southeast Asian markets. Given what was going on in the region, my only choices were India or China. India is also growing at a fast pace, but I’ve worked in India before, so China was my first choice.

Second, I have worked in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong, so I have worked in Chinese markets before. I know culturally, they are devils [laughter], but it’s really the last bastion for exciting experience. If you want to be a part of the people and the market in a new place and understand it, you need to make a long-term commitment. It takes time to learn and understand a new market and new clients. When I came to Singapore, it was also new for me, and very diverse, and I committed myself to a long-term stay. Now I have made that commitment to China.

AdAgeChina: Certainly in China, Universal McCann has had a tough time getting established. Do you think it will be difficult to build up the agency?

Mr. Singh: Universal McCann has had some senior management changes in the past year, starting with the arrival of [New York-based CEO] Nick Brien and then [Singapore-based president, Asia/Pacific] David Morgan, and that speaks highly of the coming changes, their determination to get the right people into place, and investing more into growth markets. That’s one confidence level.

My challenge is to build up the UM brand, bring in new knowledge for clients and staff. All businesses are cyclical, I think the next thing now is UM and Asia/Pacific across the board. UM has set up a lot of new planning tools, a new communication planning system, ROI disciplines, more digital expertise.

But UM has gone through a difficult phase, it's had a few leadership issues. I need to establish that I’m there for the long term and want to understand staff issues. I will also be getting my hands dirty straight away, I plan to pull my feet up and take a deep dive.

AdAgeChina: You're from India, Asia’s other powerhouse economy. How does India compare to China?

Mr. Singh: India has been hot for the past three years, but China has been hot for almost ten years, and it’s still hot. Ad budgets are much larger in China compared to India, but both media markets are fairly open. China is far ahead in some key sectors, like consumer products. But India is catching up. GDP growth is about 10% in China, while in India it's about 9%, touching double digits now.

AdAgeChina: Working in China depends a lot on maintaining good business relationships. Do you think it will be difficult for Chinese to accept an Indian?

Mr. Singh: Singapore is multicultural and multiethnic, but is dominated by Chinese, and about 2/3 of my clients there were Chinese. I’ve worked in Hong Kong too and I was also accepted there. I don’t think today it’s a question of race or color, it’s about the skills that you bring to the organization. Sure, there are always other factors at work, but people in business will always accept people who can add value to their bottom line. I started learning Mandarin almost a year ago, so hopefully I can communicate a little bit. Initially, I want to bring more energy into the office.

Other people news in Greater China

[shanghai] Focus Media Holding, China’s largest out-of-home multiplatform media company, has promoted Tan Zhi to president, from senior VP, based in Shanghai. Before joining the company in October 2005, he was CEO of Framedia, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Focus Media. He succeeds David Yu Feng, who resigned as president but remains co-chairman of Focus Media’s board.

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