Ken Mandel joined Grab in 2018 as regional MD and head of GrabAds and brand insights, and has since been working with clients to create hyper-personalised experiences for consumers and grow Grab's ad offerings. Before that, he spent more than a decade in the adland working at Publicis Media, Ogilvy, XM-JWT and Bates & 141.
Mandel spent at least a decade at Bates & 141, XM-JWT and Ogilvy before joining Yahoo as regional MD for Southeast Asia in 2008, according to his LinkedIn. He was later promoted to regional VP for APAC. He then became founding APAC MD of Buddy Media which was later acquired by Salesforce in 2012 for US$800 million and eventually became the APAC MD for Salesforce Marketing Cloud. He also worked at Hootsuite as APAC MD and founded his own venture capital firm JAM Ventures in 2011.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: You've been with the digital advertising and tech industry in APAC for several years. What made you build a career in the Internet space?
Mandel: There was a TV show years ago about the early days of the Internet. I was living in Myanmar at the time [when it aired] and I had also seen it a few times when I came to Singapore, and I thought this Internet thing is cool. I was involved in the Internet early in 1994 but it was sort of on email. When I moved to Bangkok, I was using the same email account I had when I was in Canada and I realised that I could still talk to all the same people on a daily basis at no additional cost. I thought that was pretty powerful.
As the web developed, I was very keen to get involved and I remember coming into the Singapore headquarters; I was working for Bates & 141 in China at that time and I was the GM of the Myanmar office. There was a room within Bates in China with about four or five people who were building all these cool Macromedia websites and I went in there one day and said: "What do you guys do?" And they said: "We are the digital agency for Bates, we are called XM, Expanded Media." And I thought that was so cool.
One thing led to another and eventually, I asked if I could join and I did in 1999 as MD. I was then MD of XM for over six years and it was amazing because it was during the early days when we were doing microsites for brands such as Nokia, Coca-Cola, Visa, Heineken and Chanel. We were really experts in the field.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: You moved from XM to Ogilvy and left the agency world after over a decade. What triggered the move?
Mandel: I started very early and so I think I was always itching to do other things. Before XM, I was with Bates so I spent some time in advertising and I loved the agency world. But I felt like there were other things out there that i could learn. When I was still at Ogilvy, I probably spent about 50% of my time with clients and on business, and the other 50% of my time evangelising that digital was important within the agency itself.
I remember a very senior Ogilvy executive saying to me one day: "The stuff that you digital guys do, it's cute. It's kind of like fart jokes, it's kind of funny. But you know, that's something people really shouldn't do in public." To be fair, that was the view at the time. You had plenty of these smart senior traditional agency individuals who were threatened by the Internet. In the early days of the Internet it was like the Wild West, there was no clear path to ROI. We lived through this crazy dot com period; back in 1999 there was the dot com boom and XM was riding that wave. Then a few years later, the NASDAQ crashed and that really made a lot of senior executives go: "Phew, we don't have to learn this Internet thing because it's over now."
But the reality was, consumers were still getting on the Internet and so I spent quite a long time evangelising and educating my colleagues that this was important. It got to a point where I felt if I kept doing this, I'm not really doing justice to my own job because how am I going to learn? Yahoo knocked on my door a few times and I said no, but then I said I'll go for the interview because I remember talking to a senior recruiter and asking her why she is always offering me agency jobs. She asked if I looked at my CV and added that my list of experiences were mainly from the agency side. But I said I don't consider myself an agency person and she said: "Well, if you don't, you really should get a broader experience."
So I called the Yahoo recruiter back, went for the interview and left the agency world. I got very deep into search and really understood what search was about. But I didn't really understand how it all came together and it was illuminating to see how Yahoo, even though it was fully an Internet company, how it thought about the Internet versus when I was on the agency side.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: After Ogilvy you were with Yahoo, Salesforce, Hootsuite, and even founded your own venture capital company JAM Ventures. What made you return to the adland in 2015 with Publicis Media?
Mandel: I think it was Matthew Godfrey who said it best. He was like "Why? What are you doing? We all admire that you escaped". And I said: "No, I know I want to go back to the agency world". I thought I was going to change the business model. Many times, even when I was at Ogilvy, I was thinking I could actually make this business model work. And you know, the agency model is tough, you end up selling the execution rather than the idea. The idea kind of gets given away for free and if you win the pitch, you get to execute your idea. This is very different from a McKinsey or Bain & Company that just sells the idea and does not do any execution.
I met then Starcom CEO Laura Desmond and when I was a younger Internet punk, I looked up to her because I thought she was more of an Internet adult than me. I clicked with her and what they were doing at Starcom and had this vision that one day, publishers are going to be eCommerce players. Also, I had been out of the agency business for 10 years and that really appealed to her and John Sheehy, current global brand president of Starcom who was ultimately my boss. It was a global role and I thought, I've never done a global role and I could do it from Singapore. So that was how I ended up at Publicis Media as Starcom's APAC president for global client network practice. It was fun but at the same time, the agency business had not really changed that much since I had left.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: A few years ago, many were of the opinion that advertising is not as attractive an industry as it once was in terms of drawing the talent needed. Do you feel that's still the case?
Mandel: The advertising business model has been broken for a long time. You are doing all these pitches and giving all these amazing ideas pretty much for free and hope you win the pitch and get to execute on your idea. So that is challenging. I still think though, that working at an agency is one of the fun things you can do - the breadth of projects you get, the diversity of people you meet and work with, and the clients that you get to work on.
If I think back to my agency days, you know that that was really important for ultimately getting me to where I am today because I got exposed to so many different companies and business challenges. I just love to chase and meet clients to understand their business issue and help them solve it.
So I still think the agencies will attract talent but they have a lot more competition, especially given how much of the agency business is now digital.
Agencies are now competing for the same talent as the publishers and companies such as Facebook, Google, TikTok and even Grab. As a result of the massive digitalisation and transformation through the pandemic, there is only going to be even more demand for digital talent. So that's where it gets tough.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: It seems like you have a real love affair for the industry. Where do you see yourself in the future? Is adland your home?
Mandel: There are different shades of advertising. I feel like I did make it out, perhaps out of the agency world, although I did go back happily. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll go back again. The thing is I never make it far. You're right, even if I get out, I didn't make it that far away. What Salesforce does was I think the furthest I made it out but I was running the marketing cloud. So how far did I really make it out? And then, you know, I love it. I love the energy around advertising and marketing. I like the people, I like the diversity of people, I love working cross-functionally. That, I guess is my fate.
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