Interview : Michael Maedel

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Michael Maedel

Michael Maedel joined JWT in 1990 as Chairman and CEO of JWT Germany, based in Frankfurt. In 1993 he also took on the role of Area Director Central and Eastern Europe before becoming President of Europe, Middle East and Africa in 1997. Michael is a member of the Board of the J. Walter Thompson Company, New York and a member of the Office of the Chief Executive. Before joining JWT, Michael worked for Young & Rubicam for some 13 years. 

He joined Y&R Frankfurt as a trainee and worked his way to Account Director before moving to Vienna, his birthplace, in 1978 as Chairman. In 1983 he returned to Y&R Frankfurt as Executive Director and General Manager. In 1985 Michael was hired by Ted Bates Werbagentur, Frankfurt as Chairman where he remained before moving to JWT.

Michael has a degree in economics from the University of Vienna. He is married with three children. He covers diverse contemporary themes of advertising in an hour-long tet-e-tet with Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury of New Business Age.

The Suave Charmer

You wait to meet the Asia-Pacific Chairman of JWT, global advertising major, with bated breath, and in comes an unassuming tall 6+ feet lanky European gentleman, Michael Maedel, for whom Singapore is the new home now. You expect attitude, jargons, numbers, and rushed talks. And soon you find none.

“I feel an oldie in JWT, almost been there for all the 149 years of its history, and have seen the massive developments and changes that have happened therein,” he kicks off the hour-long chat with a charming half-smile.

Exciting Times

Never more significant have been the changing times ever before than this moment. He is bang-on, with economic recession sweeping across Europe, budget-deficit tackling in USA becoming tougher by the day, growing polarization of the world economic order, while good spots of growth evolving in larger parts of Asia, and some parts of Africa and Latin America. 

He, however, sees light at the end of the tunnel with a soft landing in China, India getting their act together post the next general elections, Indonesia showing economic promise, and Myanmar opening up to greater possibilities. In all of these and a few other Asian economies, the rising middle class is leading rapid changes within the domestic economies and making the world ever more inter-connected. But the times are exciting for other reasons too.

“The defining point of today is that the consumers interact among themselves through multiple channels seamlessly, and that is creating new brand stories. Gone are the days of brand-consumer dialogues. Consumers’ interactions among themselves, and brand’s dialogues simultaneously with consumers and the community continuously, are determining the new basis of the New Media era of digital brand communication,” explains Michael.

In this scenario, natural outcome is real-time communication today, “akin to a news-room situation for the agency of the future, and advertising agencies will increasingly go live to stay relevant”. A fabulous challenge this is for brand owners “who have lost the hitherto considered exclusive rights of theirs over their brands!” The feelings of the community and aspirations of the consumers, coupled with their interactions, are determining the contours of the brand in today’s era.

150 years of JWT

 “You can only be in the business so long when you care about your clients, when you stay relevant, and even when you evolve through failures, learning new insights.”

As JWT turns 150 years in 2014, Michael takes pride in surviving healthily in a fast-paced industry, being the first agency to have created a television ad, to have used research in advertising, first one also to use testimonials in advertising, and ever remaining “a group of permanently dissatisfied individuals.”

And he surely intends to see a series of activities to express the JWT values and stories of 150 years, come January 2014.

He recounts the cases of engagement ring campaign in US, Europe and China for De Beers diamond and the balloon jumping from space campaign which was planned in a day for Kit Kat as good examples of meaningful communication in line with brand positioning, long term branding, seamless transition to social media, not distracting but enhancing the brand values.

Thompson Nepal

Michael has a thumps-up for his Team Nepal, led for long and efficiently by Joydeb Chakravorty. “Being in the top of the game for a long period, with entrepreneurial spirit, spotting opportunities and jump upon them, delivering value even under extreme constraints, the JWT team in Nepal is impressive, on a sound footing and delivering value and volumes to an impressive array of campaigns for clients like Unilever, Pepsi, Nokia”.

And his advice to them? Take a long-term view, not just managing tomorrow for your clients, not being limited to fads and flavours of the day, managing uncertainties in the market better through consistency and honesty in cultivating the brand personality of each client in this challenging market.

He used this latest March 2013 visit to look at some of the good work done in Nepal, like the Pepsi Drink & Drive Campaign, in which the idea was based on local behavior and insight, turning it on the head appealing to people’s consciousness. He appreciated the Unilever work done in Nepal too. 

“With technology, a brilliant app can come from any country today, no borders for a good idea. Also, for a local campaign, the two defining criteria are: first, how does it compare with your local competitors. Our work is the best in each of its categories. Second, creativity is always a means to an end and that is better bottom-line for the client post the campaign. Ask Pepsi in Nepal and you will get the answer.

He hopes that better audience measurement techniques will evolve in the Nepali market which will justify higher communication investments in future.

Biggest Advertising Challenge

The single biggest challenge for the advertising industry world-over, according to Michael, is to evolve the current compensation model or system. Today compensation is based on cost-input model, where remuneration is based on inputs used in the process and value of media used with the advertising outcome. However, right rewarding and compensation should now be based on the value-output model, according to him, which looks at the outcome in terms of value to the client in qualitative and quantitative terms.

Relevant Consumer Insight

“Days to bulldoze your success with huge budgets are gone. Then your target audiences could not escape the campaign. Today you neither have such budgets, not the plethora of media channels of all hues allows you that luxury,” he notes. Again, bang-on! 

These are times of relevant consumer insight that goes beyond conventional research. There is the availability of massive data, but the moot question is how do we make use of this for relevant insight, and then how do we translate this insight into an engaging idea, which is then amplified through right media selection. “And there is no short cut in this process,” he concludes.

While he finds ambient and ambush advertising as good ideas at times, it is only a great, topical and relevant idea that can cut through the clutter. Even in spite of a huge proliferation of channels of communication, it is all the more important that your communication is rooted in a strong coherent and relevant idea: what does the brand essentially stand for.

Digital Communication

Though it is beyond debate today that the entire communication business is becoming eventually digital, the client side investment in digital is still low and there is a wide discrepancy between the price of the digital media and the price to the agency. 

“Garage-run digital shops will either grow is size, or disappear, or shall be acquired,” Michael sounds prophetic looking at the scenario with digital agencies today.

And he is right that digital was once considered an experimental medium and not seen as an integral element in building and sustaining brands. Not any more. Today, digital has gone into the heart of branding.

Evolving Talent

And these changing times surely need new talent suitable for the digital age and real-time communication. 

Noting that JWT historically has been a university of training and ideas of sorts, he hopes to contribute to train and retain talent in Nepal, bring back Nepali talent from elsewhere with exciting new perspectives, and is open to partner nurturing talent with educational and media initiatives, and with support from clients.

Brand Nepal

And, before he bids adieu, the idea mooted by Michael Maedel, Chairman, JWT Asia Pacific, is that of Brand Nepal, essence of Nepal beyond cliché images of the Himalayas and rafting-trekking-paragliding.

“Conceptualize the brand from economic perspective, from the point of view of attracting foreign direct investment and accelerate business activities to unleash the full potential of the nation. Build the brand through responsible communication with ground-swell of support of stake-holders. Promote the Brand internally and externally through various means.” 

This is the Brand Doctor’s prescription for which he is ready to participate in brain-storming session with clients, media and government representatives whenever such an initiative is taken up by non-governmental economic forces.

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