After 27 years in Asia and 12 years with McCann Worldgroup, ex-McCann APAC CSO Richard McCabe tells WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo his learnings and insights about the skills strategists need to be effective and thrive in Asia.

WARC: After working in New York, what made you want to move to Asia?

Richard McCabe: I had been living in New York working with Wired/Hotwired, which was a super forward-thinking environment, and was contemplating a move to California. But, during a journey across Asia, I became enthralled with this region. I found a vibrant, dynamic energy and pulse of change.

Asia’s ability to look forward, be positive, to keep moving and solve is what attracted me to the region. Sometimes, it may be about doing something extremely brave and other times, it could be about doing something that on the surface may not seem so breakthrough but it moves things forward. There’s such an entrepreneurial spirit and that in itself creates a dynamic that perhaps sometimes we forget about.

The region has had its fair share of ups and downs. In the last few decades, there was the dotcom bubble, Asian crisis, Sars, etc. But what has been amazing to observe is how the region can roll with the punches and then pick itself up, reinvent itself and move forward.

In my experience, I have found people in this region have a hunger to move forward. Depending on the country, there has often been a colonial history and/or a very difficult, challenging or even violent past. So there’s a desire among Asian consumers to move from that, which is an amazing ground to innovate around.

A common perception I hear is that the work from Asia is not seen as “brave”, “bold” or “breakthrough”, compared to work coming from other western markets. Would you agree?

Sometimes in the West, brave and breakthrough thinking is seen as being extreme. This is because there’s a history and tradition of pushing boundaries in art, music and theatre.

From what I have found in Asia, breakthrough thinking is often more about being clever about creativity. As a strategist, it is incredible to learn how to navigate culture and express creativity without having to shout about it.

That said, I do think that a lot of brands could be a bit braver and more confident. But I don’t think it comes from reckless bravery. It comes from having a little more swagger, comfort and confidence. This is not always the first instinct of a lot of Asian cultures. But when you can find the clients, company and the entrepreneurs that want to do it, you can do these really breakthrough and amazing things.

How have you seen Asia’s role in the global landscape change? And how do you see this influencing the role of strategy or the type of briefs strategists get to work on moving forward?

Right now, there seems to be a spirit of “what are we doing to help bring our Asian brands to the world” and we are hearing a lot of our clients asking their agency partners about how we can help. This makes it an interesting time to be a strategist in Asia. 

A lot of our markets were very isolated during the pandemic so brands, especially local ones, had to focus on their domestic market to survive.

Now that the world is opening up, marketers realised that it’s their chance to get their brands back out into the world. In order to do that, they need partners in strategy, creative and business. They need people that are cross-cultural. This doesn’t mean foreigners but people who can go back and forth between cultures. The tendency for a lot of agencies and brands is to go with the person who speaks English and that’s not always the best person for the job. We’ve made a conscious effort to pair teams with matching capabilities and experience.

We recently had a brief from China that’s trying to enter Italy and Germany. So the brief is about how can Chinese brands talk to Italians? There’s a lot more briefs in this nature, which means that strategists need to be globalists in how they think and how they can be cultural connectors.

Can you elaborate on what it means to be cross-cultural? What does this look like in action?

After spending a lot of time in Japan and China, I have found that cultural translation has become less about translating language but how to enable cross-cultural understanding, back and forth, both ways. A strategist needs to understand the behavioural elements involved in creating something together across borders, whether that’s between agency people or between clients in order for it to be understood in markets. 

We worked with Pernod Ricard on KI NO BI, which is their first brand out of Asia. They needed it to be incredibly relevant in western markets but also authentic in Japan and other parts of Asia. This required explaining things that might be obvious to the Japanese but had to be contextualised for other stakeholders without being cliched.

Our strategist really had to flex on this. Initially, the ask was for translation but we discovered it was more than that. As a new brand coming out of Asia, the way we created and launched across cultures was even more critical.

What are some other skills you think strategists need to thrive in Asia?  

In a region that is least like a region, an openness to realise how much other markets might have in common with yours is hugely valuable. This includes listening for those cues and asking for examples such as whether they are experiencing anything similar in their market. We have incredibly monolithic cultures also, which are old and storied. But there has always been a connection across Asian cultures.

WARC is a champion of marketing effectiveness. But in your experience, what does being effective mean in Asia? How can we continue to advocate for it and educate clients in the region?

Effectiveness is about understanding the journey you’re going on, where you want to go and thinking about the solutions and steps that you need to get there.

The other element of effectiveness is about recognising the impact that you’re making along that journey. It’s really critical to not just think about the output but the outcome.

Thirdly, did what you create as a solution really solve a problem and does it have an impact? Is that impact recognised? This is critical when we think about what effectiveness should mean, especially in Asia.

For strategists looking to start or hone their career, why should they choose Asia to grow?

Asia just looks forward. It doesn’t get so hung up on the past, which means that there are opportunities for younger people and anyone with that spirit to make an impact much faster and much earlier.

This confidence can be richly rewarded. The fact that Asia does look so forward means that they’re always looking for new ideas and solutions and they’re generally very open, no matter how people might complain about certain countries perhaps being more restrictive or conventional. How do you navigate deeply ingrained cultural norms and traditions and still be able to create amazing things?

Another exciting part is that there tends to be a flatter hierarchy and smaller teams in agencies, so strategists are able to be exposed to more senior clients that want to understand what is happening on the ground with consumers. In Asia, you can have a junior strategist who’s only three years into the industry presenting to the CMOs because they are the best one to speak to it.

For me the best part of being a strategist is that we get to learn every day and create every day.

In my time in Asia, I was always learning something every day and partnering with amazing people create some truly meaningful and innovative work. I feel that Asia is always challenging and always rewarding in equal measure, and I will be thrilled working on projects crossing into this incredible dynamic region going forward. Asia will always a part of me, so it’s not goodbye – it’s see you soon!