On the money: Meet McCann Worldgroup APAC CFO Ji Watson

Ji Watson helms the role of EVP, chief financial officer at McCann Worldgroup Asia Pacific. She takes on a dual role as McCann Worldgroup (MWG) APAC CFO and MWG Japan CFO. In her role, she is responsible for providing strategic leadership on commercial and financial management to drive value and profitable growth across nine market as well as financial oversight for Japan, which is one of MWG’s key priority markets. Prior to her role with the agency, Watson was also a marketer with  The Coca-Cola Company. More here on her journey. 

Marketing Interactive: Tell us a little bit about your role? How did you end up in the agency role?

I was recruited into an agency role by my former agency finance partner whom I met while I was working at The Coca-Cola Company in the corporate marketing division. He asked if I was interested in coming to the “dark side” and of course I took him up on the challenge. This one decision completely changed my career path. I went from working on the client side to the agency side, and from marketing to finance.

Marketing Interactive: What is a popular misconception people in the industry have about the CFO role?

That our roles are mostly focused only on the traditional finance areas like accounting, controlling, budgeting and compliance. A CFO is more than a number cruncher, and is rather a key strategic partner to the CEOs and business leaders to help drive overall business transformation.

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?

Constantly making hard decisions to plan, prepare and execute for an unknown future has been challenging. Creative, out-of-the-box thinking is required to adjust to unprecedented, daily hurdles and policy changes. The focus is now on the well-being of our people and ensuring that they stay healthy and motivated.

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

I started my first agency role during the financial crisis in 2008 where my first meeting with a global client resulted in a 50% cut in our retainer for the upcoming year. Shortly after this meeting, many more clients followed suit and cut their marketing budgets. Looking back now, I realise that going through that experience was nothing compared to what we are going through with the global pandemic right now. We are operating in uncharted waters and making some very difficult decisions, but it’s our job to ensure that we will be set up for sustainable and financially healthy business as we come out of this crisis.

COVID-19 has taught us that we are able to adapt to adverse circumstances totally out of our control, both professionally and personally. We have been able to evolve and embrace new ways of working, maintaining an optimistic outlook that we will come out of this pandemic stronger and with positive changes that will help our agencies build financially sustainable businesses.

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

Due to the nature of our business, our client’s business and marketing investment decisions have a major impact on us. This can lead us to be more reactive than proactive at times and requests that are driven by reactive actions are less likely to get approved.

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

Investment requests that may require more than current fiscal year to achieve growth and/or positive return for the agency. Trying to find the right balance to prioritise for short term results while looking into longer term growth opportunities.

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

Be prepared. Know what you are asking and why we need to make the investment.

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

Managing a region with many countries that are diverse in people, culture, language, religion, and local laws that require customized approaches and solutions rather the one standardised approach. It requires constant out-of-the-box thinking to address challenges that are unique to each market.

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

People. Due to our product and service offerings across many industries and categories, we attract the best-in-class talent to work in our agencies. I am very fortunate to work with these amazing people across disciplines and learn from them.

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

I’m mostly involved in pitches dealing with commercial and operational requirements from the client procurement.

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?

- Emotional intelligence;
- Resilience;
- Integrity;
- Open mindedness;
- Influence.

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

Stay focused, plan, and execute the changes that are required for the future vision of your agency. We will all get through this together.

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