On the money: Meet TBWA\ Singapore CFO Alrick Dorett

CFOs are not the usual breed of personalities you'd often see fronting industry events or on the covers of trade magazines. But as the pandemic pushes on, with no end in sight, this year agency CFOs have been shoved into the limelight managing budgets, cash flow and balance sheets. Alrick Dorett, current the CFO at TBWA\Singapore, is one such individual. 

Working behind the scenes through the pandemic, is the veteran with over 24 years of experience within the industry - 23 of it has been with the TBWA\ Group. His role is one which has evolved over the years, with him first starting out as the sole personnel managing finance in the Singapore office. Over time the role has expanded to also cover regional and global markets, which has ultimately led him to his current role of CFO of TBWA\ Group Singapore, the chief operating officer of TBWA\ Singapore and Malaysia, and the chief pricing officer of TBWA\ Asia.

"In truth, it isn’t the titles that matter to me. What I am very passionate about is how I am affecting change in the various roles I play within the organisation," said Dorett in a conversation with Marketing. We take a look at what shapes Dorett as he helps the agency tide through 2020.

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?
I can proudly say that it is the TBWA\ collective spirit that is and has been my anchor through this pandemic. I have been working with our current CEO, Ara Hampartsoumian and our managing partner, Mandy Wong, for the last six years. We are constantly communicating, and have become more agile in the way we strategise and make decisions. When the pandemic started, we (Ara, Mandy and I) immediately formed a mini leadership group, to include our ECD, Andy Grant, our HR director, Jolene Huang and finance director, Aileen Ng. This was our core crisis management team.

We have been meeting online twice a day. This has allowed us to implement our Business Continuity Plans quickly. In order for this to work, everyone contributes and has an equal say. We are not always in agreement, but we talk it out, provide perspectives, and ask for help from the larger leadership team and from outside the organisation if need be.

Marketing Interactive: What are some of the biggest crises you’ve been through in your career? What were some of the learning lessons?
Right now for a start, COVID-19 would have to be the biggest challenge I have had to navigate through. But I have worked through the SARS Pandemic, The H1N1 Virus, The Financial Crisis of 2007, and seen clients and our people come and go - so I have seen a lot in 23 years. My advice for handling a crisis: 
- Understand
- Discern
- Act fast
- Review
- Move forward

Marketing Interactive: What is a popular misconception people in the industry have about the CFO role? What do your colleagues think you do?
The CFO in most industries have a very wide role beyond just focusing on financial performance. This goes beyond overseeing Human Resources and IT that comes with the territory. It is really about being involved in all aspects of the organisation’s business and working actively with my management team to move the company forward.  

For example, at TBWA\, the CFO is tasked with developing a Business Continuity Plan which affects the entire organisation.  You need to know and understand every part of the business, be involved across disciplines and discipline heads and specific individuals to help you develop a robust plan.

A CFO plays several other roles that are non-financial: 
- Be part of the conscience of the agency;
- Be the person that handles all legal queries (internal or clients), copyright infringement, legally vetting creative work and engaging on staff issues;
- Analyse potential policies that may negatively affect the organisation;
- Help drive the corporate agenda while keeping it transparent.

In actual fact, these days, I spend very little time on the numbers and day-to-day financial management. I have been blessed with a very capable team and a finance diirector who manages our numbers with me and the business leads. Most of my time is spent working with business leads and dealing with client’s contracts as well as pricing issues, such as pitch pricing strategies and managing and providing direction on investments that shape the business in terms of skills that we need and how are we going to afford it.

It is clear to my colleagues, peers and even my bosses, I will always have a point of view and perspective on everything going on across our business. My colleagues past and present don’t see me as the CFO or COO even if they know that is my official title. But they would all agree that I am true to my word.  

I am tough, but I am very fair and have heart.

Marketing Interactive: What kind of requests from agency heads/leads are you most likely to say no to?
I seldom have to say no (I hope nobody disagrees). Although where I used to sit (pre-COVID-19) with Ara and Mandy, there is a yes and no buzzer at the table! I will find the funds if I believe in something that will contribute to and improve the agency’s output. For example, upskill, new skills or upgrades. Most of the NOs come from our finance director (sorry Aileen J).

Marketing Interactive: What kind of requests do you find hard to say no to?
I believe in being fair, and if there is a good business case, I will say yes, and I will find the necessary funds for it. Alternatively, we park a request, and when we can financially make it happen, we will.

Marketing Interactive: What is the best way to get a budget from you?
Working with me is the best way to get a budget from me.  I love a well thought-out plan, because I will be poking holes at it, so involve me at the start or come prepared for a lot of questions.

Marketing Interactive: What is the biggest challenge in your role?
Being relevant. Being a part of a group of companies for the last 23 years, I have had to learn how to adapt. From the start when I joined an 11-man agency named TEQUILA; to be bought over by Omnicom; the merger with TBWA\; moving to HK to be regional controller; moving back to Singapore to be CFO, then COO, Singapore and Malaysia and then CPO, Asia. It doesn’t all happen, by remaining still.

You have to reinvent yourself, be current, be a part of something bigger than yourself, and genuinely want to make the organisation you are working for the best it can be.

If you look at the role of a CFO in a pre-COVID-19 vs our current COVID-19 era, everything about the way we do business has had to change, and so too the way a CFO manages a business. I am obviously re-calibrating and using everything I have learnt to adapt once again to an ever-evolving role. I often say to our team that there are enough of us in this agency that share the same goal and want this place (TBWA\) to succeed. I am blessed with wonderful colleagues and a leadership team that share this purpose.

Marketing Interactive: How much involvement do you have in creative conversations or pitches and strategy or PR?
The TBWA\ culture believes that an idea can come from anyone. With this I am constantly exposed and encouraged to contribute ideas – be it to our "Creative Wall of 10" – our democratic creative practice where everyone in the agency is invited to crack a brief, or to our culture initiatives and contributing to PR efforts or HR initiatives that need support. In all pitches, my finance director and I are involved from a pricing strategy. As I have said above, I will always have several perspectives of any part of the organisation. I respect people and their views and likewise, I will contribute my own too. 

Marketing Interactive: What is the best part of your role?
The people I work with at TBWA\ Singapore and around the globe. I love the feeling of being part of an organisation that wants to improve, that challenges me and lets me be the person I am, because when one is happy, you put your everything into it.

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?
I believe a CFO today needs these qualities:
- Leadership
- Team Player
- Problem Solver
- Have a point of view
- Look outside your industry
- Be knowledgeable and well-read
- Empathetic
- Reliable
- Not afraid to ask for help
- Making tough decisions when you need to
- Adaptable

Marketing Interactive: What advice do you have for the agency world amidst this turbulent time?
Adaptability is key. At TBWA\ we believe in disruption as our core offering to help clients transform their business. We practice what we preach. Having a solid management team that is aligned and working towards a better future while always adapting is key. 

For our industry as a whole, what we need to do now more than ever is to stand united, despite our differences and competitive nature. We need to come together to solve some of our industry’s biggest challenges. This is an open invitation. Let’s start by having an honest conversation and get close to issues that affect us as an industry. Let’s take control of the things that are hindering true progress and focus on what we are best at.