Over four decades of learning and growing

FCB KL CEO champions the pursuit of knowledge

FCB Kuala Lumpur chief executive officer T. Renganathan is a great believer in learning.

He is among the rare breed of advertising veterans who have stayed in the same advertising agency throughout their careers. But he never stopped learning in his over four decades at the agency that began life as Associated Publicity (AP).

There have been several ownership and name changes since then, and FCB’s rich history afforded him the opportunity to enjoy new experiences.

“Even though I stayed with the same agency, it was first under local management, then American, then British, then American, and now international management. I experienced, without leaving the company, all sorts of management styles and cultures. It gave me a tremendous amount of experience,” he tells StarBizWeek.

“I had all this opportunity in experiencing all the different cultures, management styles and personalities over the years, and during the FCB period, I was sent to many places around the world to work, including New York, Manila, Tokyo and Australia. That prepared me for what I’m doing today.”

Nathan, as he is known in the industry, began as a part-time general clerk in 1969 and moved from department to department. The only department he never worked in was creative, though he knows how to judge a good idea.

Nathan had met AP’s owner, JC Lu, while doing odd jobs around his community as a boy scout. He recalls Lu playing the “Cap Cap Ajinomoto” jingle on a demo tape (Ajinomoto was AP’s first client and remains a client till today) and inviting him to join Lu’s new agency in Petaling Jaya.

Nathan, just 14, started working there part-time in April 1969 to supplement his pocket money. He was responsible for checking that ads appeared against the media copies.

Nathan began working at the agency full-time after Form 6, following the resignation of four senior managers that left Lu in a lurch.

“I said no to Lu initially but then I felt obliged to help him, and he made some profound statements: If you work with me, I’ll make sure you will hire PhDs and MBA graduates to work for you. I will teach you all about advertising,” Nathan recalls.

However, he did not stop learning, continuing his studies part time among the pioneer batch of graduates of what is today IACT College. IACT was then called the Joint Education Committee, operated jointly by the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents (4As) and the Malaysian Advertisers Association (MAA). In later years he also did his MBA.

He gradually gained more and more confidence. Around 1978 Compton, one of the largest US-based agencies whose primary client was Procter & Gamble (P&G), took a stake in AP and the agency was renamed AP Compton.

“In preparation for that, the company sent me to the US for six months, based in Puerto Rico. I worked on P&G, British Airways and Johnson & Johnson. What it taught me was real confidence. What they did over there in Puerto Rico and New York was no different than what we did in Malaysia except people were much more organised and disciplined. I really gained confidence.”

FCB comes knocking

On his return to Malaysia, Nathan was appointed general manager − one of the youngest general managers to run an international agency. He helped launch four P&G brands in Malaysia: Pampers, Head & Shoulders shampoo, Zest soap and Pringles potato chips.

Two years later Saatchi & Saatchi bought Compton worldwide, so the agency was renamed AP Saatchi & Saatchi Compton.

Lu decided there were too many changes and due to some disagreement, AP decided to part with Saatchi & Saatchi Compton.

But the agency went back to being just AP for only about six months.

As luck would have it, Bates Worldwide, which was a Colgate-Palmolive agency, was sold to Saatchi & Saatchi in the mid-80s.

“Saatchi & Saatchi was a P&G agency. Colgate said it didn’t want to be in the same bed as P&G, and they parted ways with Bates. FCB (Foote, Cone & Belding) used to handle Colgate in the US, so the business came to FCB. Then FCB came knocking in the region and wanted to partner with AP, as we had experience with P&G,” Nathan says.

AP became AP: Foote, Cone & Belding after the latter bought 30% in AP in 1985.

A couple of years later FCB took a majority stake so it became 70:30 in favour of FCB from 30:70. Lu decided to cash out, selling his entire stake about 2000-2001. Then the agency became just FCB.

FCB said it would buy the entire entity on condition that Nathan stayed on for a minimum of five years; otherwise, the final sale price would be less half a million ringgit.

Nathan was promoted to deputy managing director.

When FCB became the global agency for Samsung, Sanmsung saw it as a conflict of interest that the Malaysian office handled Panasonic. That’s when FCB set up a second brand in the market, Interface, to manage the conflict.

Nathan left FCB to run FCB’s subsidiary Interface as managing director. Within seven to eight years, Interface was so successful that it grew to twice the size of FCB.

FCB Kuala Lumpur had one more name change – to Draftfcb in 2007 – following the global merger of Draft and FCB.

“I told the global management that I wouldn’t run FCB on its own. I would do it I was allowed to merge Interface and FCB. Then I was back to FCB and Interface was rebranded Ignite (it still exists),” he says.

Nathan was made CEO of Draftfcb, with responsibility also over Ignite.

Things are coming back full circle. In March, Draftfcb globally was rebranded FCB.

Today FCB, which employs about 100 people (excluding Ignite), handles clients such as Celcom Axiata, CIMB Bank, Modelez, Beiersdorf, Perbadanan Insurans Deposit Malaysia.

FCB is one of the few advertising agencies locally that have hired data scientists to analyse digital campaigns and interpret data into an insightful nugget.

Nathan’s biggest challenge is finding talent. He fully supports the 4As’ efforts in providing subsidised training courses.

“A substantial amount of money – hundreds of thousands every year – that the 4As generates is used to benefit members by providing subsidised or free training and coaching. Almost all of its programmes are HRDF (Human Resources Development Fund) claimable,” he says.

In fact, Nathan was the organising chairman of a 4As Advertising Excellence workshop recently.

The global advertising industry is seeing changes and learning on an almost daily basis due to technology. “We are learning at the same time as other parts of the world. It’s no more like in those days where you got time to prepare a curriculum (for a college/university), write a book about it and start teaching it three years down the line. Nowadays we’re all learning at the same time,” Nathan says.

He advises young people joining the advertising industry to prioritise learning. “When you get into a place, your main aim is to learn. As long as you’re learning, don’t leave. Don’t just chase after the money. Money is important, but what you’re there for is quest for knowledge. As long as you enjoy your work and you’re learning, you should stay on. It’s all about the same anywhere you go,” Nathan says.

“I don’t deny that money is important especially if you’re in the workforce, but knowledge is more important. If you have a good boss who is willing to share, a good mentor, a good environment and a good set of clients, do not move. You can really grow.”

Nathan suggests junior staff to stay put for at least two years.

“For the first six months, you (theoretically) should be paying the company because the company is basically training you − it costs the company money. The next six months you’re just beginning to walk, so to speak. It’s only in the following year that you are probably beginning to be of some help. In two years, you’re ready. That’s when agencies pinch you. You can move if you think you can learn more somewhere else. But don’t just go for money.”