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BMW’s Althaus on how to deal with talent shortage

“Talent crunch? It’s not a problem.”

It is our first meeting, but the conversation with BMW’s global director of brand management and marketing services, Steven Althaus shifts quickly.
The outspoken marketer starts off by quizzing me on the current trends we’ve been seeing in Asia’s agency landscape. Coming shortly after meetings with several agency leads bemoaning talent issues, this comes up in our conversation. How agencies are finding their footing for their business models is another.

The German national had his early days in advertising leading ad agency Springer & Jacoby; before heading client side at German finance and insurance firm Allianz; then moving on to lead Publicis’ German and Austrian operations; before making a high profile move to his current role at BMW in January 2013. At Publicis, under his reign as CEO and chairman, the agency was streamlined, together with the management board.

It seems Althaus’ penchant for pushing for change continues now in his role at BMW.

Firstly, in his outlook on hiring. Continuing on the issue of talent shortage, he says: “There’s no such thing as a talent crunch if you are looking beyond the obvious. If you are always looking for the same kind of talent – like a square peg in a square hole, looking to recreate the marketer from the 80s and 90s then yes, you would have that.”

Every company would have a number of topics it needs to have a voice, an opinion on. Then the company needs to find the right people it needs to have a seat at the table of that discussion, he adds.

“CMOs are simply looking for the best people – we are searching for great ideas, and these can come from anywhere. I can only ask everyone to go beyond the traditional silo of thinking,” he adds.

The same goes for his approach with agency partners. One other trend in recent years is the blurring of agency roles – for example, PR or media buying agencies looking to be more like ad agencies and vice versa. To Althaus, this is good progress. A convergence of ideas, just the way industries are going, is a good thing.

“In the automotive industry we are influenced by trends from consumer electronics. What holds true for individuals also holds true for industries. There are a great number of individuals, no matter what age they are, who are looking for this “cross fertilisation” of industries. I find this approach more robust,” he says.

It comes back to agencies or people that can help the company to express BMW’s stand, which Althaus sums up as mobility, urbanisation and sustainability.

“This goes way beyond a briefing that a company expresses. We really need a journey partner, someone that comes proactively to us. Which is why we need more than just agency labels. We will speak to someone who understands the business needs of a client and takes the client forward.”

Experiencing BMW

BMW currently has a marketing council at the global level, and partners with several key agencies for larger communication projects. New York-based KBS+, Germany-based Serviceplan and Interone under Omnicom are its key agencies. But the brand largely works on a localised approach.

Its new campaign, BMW Stories, alludes to this approach. It uses crowd-sourcing, inviting consumers to tell their BMW stories locally. “These are ideas of the people, not an ad agency,” Althaus describes the campaign, in another interview.

The other focus for Althaus in BMW’s marketing is experiential. He talks about BMW World, its showcase of its cars. In Singapore, this was held at the Marina Bay Sands Expo where the company also flew in its global executives for the event.

“BMW World has been about driving the cars, touching the brand and meeting the people. I’m a very strong believer in a very simple brand management approach and keeping the brand aspirational. Do things that people aspire to; keep the brand experiential part and cut out the crap in the middle,” he says.

“Do Asia’s agencies have low self-esteem?”

At some point in the interview, after discussing the industry’s pain points for awhile, Althaus finally asks me a fairly polarising question: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like Asia’s agencies have low self-esteem. Do you think so?”

It’s a large question, and there are arguments for both sides.  There are several individuals and hot shops in the local agency scene that are carving out a name for themselves, but there are several other incidences which hint otherwise. I recall interviews such Scoot’s Campbell Wilson wishing for more outspoken agency partners. How about the debate on whether Asian agencies are creative enough?

While he doesn’t answer the question himself, Althaus thinks it shouldn’t: “Asia’s employment rate is incredible. Look at other markets, such as Italy (Italy has an unemployment rate of 43.7% for those under 25 years, as of June 2014). Now that’s a whole generation of youths lost.”

The marketing industry needs a strong push from Asia, adds Althaus.

He believes it is a moment of opportunity for the communications industry.

Digital transformation is affecting everyone, so what does this mean to the way companies market themselves? he asks.

“Agencies need to help companies understand how people are using, for instance, Facebook? How are they buying, who do they trust?”

“The communications industry is uniquely equipped to understand and spoonfeed back to corporations what digital and digital communications mean. Most corporations are looking to change their communications models in the face of digitisation. Communications agencies can help to foster this change.”

“So there are two ways you can deal with this. You can either wait for those companies to come up with a brief and execute it. But if you are close to companies and have a relationship you are actually able to come up with a phenomena of next generation thinking into the organisations and help them to understand how the business is going to be shaped and positioned.”

“That’s why it’s a great time to be alive.”

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