Frank Reitgassl – now group head of Brand Strategy & Development at Zurich Insurance – reflects on his time in Asia and the growth of the strategy discipline since, having served as a judge for the WARC Prize for Asian Strategy in 2014 and 2015.

I miss Asia. I miss Singapore. And I will always remember my time here as one of the best in my career and life.

I joined Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) as a planner in 2006. When I left eight years later in 2014, my boss and great “strategy uncle”, Charles Wigley said in a good-bye speech: “Frank came as a boy and is leaving as a man”. And even though I liked to think I was a man when I joined in my 30s, he was probably right. As always.

The discipline of strategy/planning has made a similar development during that time, and from what I can tell from afar, continued to make strides since.

When I joined, the strategy discipline felt in its infancy. Clever youngsters wanted to work in banks and other aspirational jobs, definitely not in advertising. Creativity and challenging thinking weren’t encouraged in schools and universities. Therefore, planning departments were mainly populated by expats, with very few local, Asian talent. Clients were often not prepared to pay for strategy and only saw value created in the creative departments of agencies.

The role of planning was often reduced to research and the “unearthing” of consumer insights as inspiration for eccentric ECDs and their hard-working bees. Strategy award papers were often flimsy, post-rationalised stories about small campaigns (e.g. numerous launches of new limited-edition burgers by fast-food chains etc.) that often didn’t stand the test on the global stage. And Asian offices of international agencies were looked at as offices that “just don’t do the same quality of work as their US or European equivalents”.

I vividly remember an argument on a judging panel, where a member asked to be less strict, because a case study came from Vietnam. But this changed rapidly.

When I left eight years later, I was proud to hand over the best planning department in Asia at that time. It probably still is. And yes, of course, I would say that. It was a department of great, clever, young talents from Thailand, Philippines, Singapore (and Austria!). Many have moved on since to run planning departments in agencies across Asia.

We had founded the Account Planning Group (together with Neil Cotton). We collaborated with Singapore’s Economic Development Board and universities to develop talent for the discipline of strategy. We launched a BBH Brand Consultancy offering that attracted clients purely for brand strategy and positioning work. 

We had won global strategy awards (e.g. Global APG for the Axe Wake Up Service in Japan) and numerous other local and regional awards, like the WARC Prize for Asia Strategy, which boosted the credibility of the strategy discipline in the region. And today, Asian agency offices are often a driving force of the modern, non-traditional creative output of many international agencies.

This is obviously mainly down to the overall economic development of the region and many other factors. But I’m happy that I had the opportunity to be part of it. And I’m a tiny, little bit proud to maybe have made a nano-contribution to this impressive macro development.

I was asked for a message to this year’s judging panel. But I don’t think they need my advice, considering what I just described. But I would hope that they are stricter than ever. The discipline has grown up and needs no more molly-coddling. Strategies and creative work must be judged to the same standards as elsewhere in the world.

Everything else would not do justice to the great strategies and strategists of Asia.

This article is part of a special content programme marking the tenth anniversary of the WARC Prize for Asia Strategy. To find out more about this year’s Prize, click here.