On the money: Meet Grey Group APAC CFO Ali Belgaumi

In this week's "On the money" column, we speak to  Ali Belgaumi who has been with the Grey Group for over six years. He moved to Asia to take on the role after holding the EVP- CFO role at Publicis Worldwide for two years. While Belgaumi hardly gets involved in the creative element of the job, he does partake in conversations around pitches, and says the CFO role has certainly evolved over the years to be more than just the “head of accounting.”

He adds that CFOs today must be able to help develop and deliver on a stated strategy along with the rest of the leadership team. Read the rest of his interview below

Marketing Interactive: How did you end up in the agency scene?

I am the chief financial officer for Asia, Middle East, and Africa at Grey Group. I moved to Singapore six years ago. I stumbled into advertising after graduation when I responded to a job opening at an agency in New York City for a “financial analyst” position. I had no idea what the role entailed, nor was I familiar with the agency world. Since then, I have held client finance and CFO positions in New York, San Francisco, London and now Singapore.

Marketing Interactive: What is a popular misconception people in the industry have about the CFO role? What do your colleagues think you do?

A widely held misconception is that the CFO role is exclusively for individuals with accounting backgrounds and expertise. Bookkeepers. It has now become more evident that the role is significantly more multi-faceted than that – spanning commercial operations, strategy, human resource, technology, M&A, to name a few. When I started in the industry, I was told I could never be a CFO without an accounting degree and certification. That is not the case any longer.

Marketing Interactive: In light of the current pandemic, agencies are under a lot of strain. How has the pandemic evolved your role and impacted your job?

Our primary objective during the pandemic has been to preserve and protect our people.

We have worked aggressively to do exactly that while we maintain a sustainable business operation and deliver value to our clients.

Marketing Interactive: What kind of requests from agency heads/leads are you most likely to say no to?

Requests that harm our talent, our clients and our business.

Marketing Interactive: What kind of requests do you find hard to say no to?

Requests that enable innovation and propel what we do to as an agency to the next level.

Marketing Interactive: What is the best way to get a budget from you?

If the investment delivers value to our clients, talent and our business.

Marketing Interactive: What is the biggest challenge in your role?

Conservative forecasting in an industry full of eternal optimists! On a more serious note, the evolving commercial realities of our business are a challenge and an opportunity. Gone are the days of retainers and AORs – replaced by project-based client relationships. This makes managing businesses tougher – especially when the agency mindset remains in the “retainer/AOR” world. However, this also presents an opportunity to innovate our operating models, creating more flexible borderless talent solutions for our clients.

Marketing Interactive: What is the best part of your role?

Having the opportunity to work with some of the most creative minds in the business. And, not having to wear a suit to work.

Marketing Interactive: How much involvement do you have in creative conversations or pitches and strategy or PR?

Fortunately (for the creatives) I have little involvement in creative conversations. However, I do love and appreciate the amazing work we do for our clients. I do get involved in pitches and anything else that drives our business performance. I am fortunate to have a great partnership with our CEO – where we work closely together with our leadership teams across all facets of our business.

Marketing Interactive: A CFO in an agency today doesn’t just need to be good with numbers. What other skills do you feel are needed to be a great CFO?

The CFO role has certainly evolved over the years to be more than just the “head of accounting.” As a key leadership position in the organisation, the CFO must be able to help develop and deliver on a stated strategy along with the rest of the leadership team. I advise our new CFOs and finance directors to be students and teachers of our business. Be humble enough to learn our dynamic business and appreciate what we do and be ready to teach and lead our people. Leadership skills are critical. I view the finance function no longer being a “back office” function – but one that is more visible and influential in determining the destiny of our agencies.

Marketing Interactive: What is the biggest economic crisis you’ve been through? What were some of the learning lessons?

Having spent a couple of decades in the industry, I have experienced my fair share of economic crises. My biggest learning is that these crises do end at some point – and we have to keep a long-term view of our businesses.

Marketing Interactive: What advice do you have for the agency world amidst this turbulent time?

This too shall pass. Be safe. Wear a mask!

Join us on week-long journey at PR Asia 2020 as we delve into topics such as diversity, cancel culture, future of PR, PR with a purpose and many others from 8 to 11 December. Sign up here!

Related Articles:
On the money: Meet McCann Worldgroup APAC CFO Ji Watson
On the money: Meet BBH Singapore CFO Natasha Lindsay-Barker
On the money: Meet Havas Group APAC CFO Brice Pinoncely
On the money: Meet TBWA\ Singapore CFO Alrick Dorett
On the money: Meet VMLY&R's CFO Marc Sigle