The Agency’s Journey — Ly Viet Vu, CEO of Wunderman Thompson Vietnam | Vietcetera
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The Agency’s Journey — Ly Viet Vu, CEO of Wunderman Thompson Vietnam

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“Supernerd-turned-adman”. Ly Viet Vu, the CEO of Wunderman Thompson Vietnam, has a ready bite-sized answer when asked about his personal and professional journey. To chronicle the journey of a creative agency Ly founded with childhood friend and business partner Justin Cohen we need a much larger nutshell.

In 2007, Ly and Justin, both of whom grew up in Canada, set up Sofresh -- a digital production shop. During the first couple of years Justin divided his time between Vancouver, where Sofresh had a rep office, and the company’s Saigon headquarters managed by Ly. In that very first year the duo won a first-prize award for the online campaign they did for Pond’s in which Sofresh deployed Vietnam’s first ever interactive video. 

In the intervening years, with industry accolades rolling in at a steady pace, the agency became a major player on Vietnam’s advertising scene. Today, following a series of mergers, the agency is known as Wunderman Thompson Vietnam -- part creative agency, part consultancy and part technology company built to inspire growth for ambitious brands. Among Wunderman Thompson’s many firsts is the first LGBT brand campaign in Vietnam.

In his interview with Vietcetera Ly gives a detailed account of his professional journey, opens up about the challenges of merging two agencies and peers into the future of advertising in Vietnam.

You co-founded one of Vietnam’s most successful independent advertising agencies that was later acquired by Wunderman Thompson. What was that journey like?

The story begins back in 2007, when my business partner Justin Cohen and I first started Sofresh, a digital production shop. We quickly became very well known in Vietnam’s advertising industry and between 2009-2015 we were actively submitting our work for local and regional advertising, marketing and creative award competitions to see how it matched up against other agencies. To our delight, the awards just kept rolling in! 

While for us these awards were mostly a way to attract new clients, what we didn’t anticipate was the attention we would get from other agencies and the marketers. 

At the time, we felt our approach to advertising and creative development was quite unique. It stemmed from our upbringing as super nerds in the 90s when the internet first came out, and not built on a legacy. Justin and I were certified computer geeks; we were the ones in the internet cafes playing StarCraft, Warcraft and Counter-Strike. We were even playing online video games when Commodore 64 on a 14.4K modem was considered cutting-edge technology. I bet most people today have no idea what I’m talking about, but this experience is what drove our creative agenda and approach to client work.

The attention and recognition we were getting with the awards put us in a position where Justin and I started to get invited to these competitions as judges. We were very honored to be held in such high regard, and it’s something we will never forget.  

Our little shop of two quickly grew to become an agency of 50 people. By then, we were having meetings and dinners with the major holding companies in the industry, talking about acquisition opportunities. After all of the courtship and back and forth discussions, Justin and I decided to tie the knot with WPP -- the world’s largest advertising company. We were happy and felt that this was the right move to grow our people and the agency that we had built. Our agency name, Sofresh, remained.

In 2014, J. Walter Thompson, the world’s oldest ad agency and part of WPP, was in the process of consolidating/unifying all of their digital agencies globally to form what was to become Mirum by the beginning of 2015. As a result, we had to drop our agency name. It was tough letting go of Sofresh, as it was a name we had nurtured and loved for many years, but ultimately, a name is just a name and we knew that whatever the name, our offering and our teams were rock solid. Our work and capabilities were well known in the industry so we felt confident that even with a name change clients knew they were still getting the same A-grade work.

Then came December 2018, and a new merger was to occur -- this time between J. Walter Thompson and Wunderman -- a specialist in commerce, CRM, data, health, CX, production and technology. Ever since the merger was announced at the end of 2018 we’ve been offering unified services as Wunderman Thompson Vietnam.

Once the merger was completed, we were left with the question of identity. All these different entities and names. With different craftsmanship, different specializations and different market positioning. It was tough identifying who we really were with these changes over the past five years. Were we a digital marketing agency? An advertising agency? A technology solutions agency? A branding agency? Or a marketing consultancy? 

But we arrived at the answer fairly quickly -- we were all those things. We were the true definition of a full-service agency, who could provide end-to-end solutions using traditional and new media methods.

Finally, after a little bit of reading, some meditation, and lots of whiskey doubles, we were able to understand and articulate our identity, our differentiating factors, and ultimately our way forward, which was exactly the way the global office saw it as well.

We are part creative agency, part consultancy and part technology company. We exist to inspire growth for ambitious brands and companies. That’s the ad man in me speaking but, truthfully, it is exactly what we do and we are proud to be leading our agency to do just that for our clients in Vietnam.

Where does Mirum fall within the current structure?

Mirum Vietnam provides technology solutions for clients. We adopted the name in early 2015 and have since built the brand into one of Vietnam’s leading digital agencies. Mirum sits within the Wunderman Thompson agency network and personally appeals to the nerd in me. 

Justin and I have always been passionate about computer science and multimedia design. In fact, we both majored in these fields. Having Mirum as part of our offering means we can create awesome and innovative ecommerce platforms, digital loyalty solutions and digital innovative activation projects for our clients.

The perfect example of a project that tickles our fancy is a Pepsi publicity stunt that involved taking a vending machine and integrating a 75 inch multi-touch screen and Xbox Kinect (a body movement recognition device) to the front, have it connected to a physical WiFi router located behind the vending machine that was itself connected to the web via 4G. 


All that tech was to encourage people to interact with the vending machine as part of a dance competition to win a trip to Australia and watch a Beyonce concert live. As contestants were showing off their best moves in front of the vending machine, Xbox Kinect was capturing and rating them, with an integrated video camera uploading dance clips online for the public to vote. Oh and to get a can of Pepsi, they had to like us on our fanpage by tapping on the “thumbs up” icon that appeared on the screen. Sounds complicated but all of this was disguised and designed with an aesthetically pleasing solution.

How seamless was the merger process? Any bumps in the road?

Without getting into too much detail, the answer is that you will learn A LOT if you get the chance to orchestrate and implement the merger of two companies, but may come out at the end with a little less hair on your head. What Justin and I can share is some learnings we made along the way to make it easier for those who may be in the same situation.

Leadership & Culture is critical.

1.  Get a handle on the company culture as soon as possible.

2.  Establish your leadership team and let them lead as soon as possible with your support. You can’t do it all by yourself, so empower the ones around you that you trust to help you. 

3.  Position and show your own leadership as soon as possible and get ready to roll up your sleeves because there will be times you’ll need to lead by example. 

4.  Focus on creating a harmonious and unified culture. Identify and remove anything that might impact or destroy your culture, and do it early on.

The rest of the tasks will fall in line more or less smoothly depending on how quick you are in getting on top of Leadership and Culture. Every situation is different but this would be my advice to those who might find themselves in a similar position.  

One year after the merger, how has Wunderman Thompson’s positioning changed and what was the past year like for the company?

Our positioning remains the same – inspiring growth for ambitious brands – but we feel stronger and more sure of ourselves now than we did 12 months ago. Back then we were still two separate agencies: one focused on television commercials, brand communication and brand strategy. The other focused on social media marketing tactics, digital creative engagement ideas, ecommerce marketing solutions and technology platform builds. 

But once we put everyone under one roof, things started to move in the right direction. In the second half of 2019, we won some major client accounts in the market across several work streams and capabilities. It’s important to note that with Wunderman Thompson, we are not just in the business of providing marketing and advertising solutions but we are focused on truly addressing clients’ business challenges.

Today, our agency is a great mixed bag of skills – we have creatives, technologists, marketers, coders, data analysts, and brand strategists, all living under one roof. Learning about each other day in and day out. Finding ways to creatively collaborate and coming up with forward-thinking ideas. We have the right ingredients to cook up a value-added storm. 

Now more than ever, having a multitude of skill sets within one agency means we can meet the changing demands of clients and consumers. We are facing unprecedented changes in the way we live and work, which means we have to rethink the way we address clients’ challenges.

We are well attuned to the market environment. Our business has already evolved in response to the current situation and we are ready to deliver innovative solutions. As we speak, we are implementing a very interesting CRM solution that is perfect for a particular client in the climate we have today. Just last week, we were having conversations with clients about the future of commerce – i.e. executing social commerce activities, and as always, we love discussing ways we can create tech-driven business solutions that truly impact the business.

Part creative agency, part consultancy and part technology company. That is who we are.

Advertising industry is always in a flux. What are the strengths that have allowed Wunderman Thompson to stand the test of time and remain relevant?

We’ve lasted over 13 years in this industry because we constantly look for ways to challenge our way of thinking, to grow and push beyond our comfort zone. We are on a never-ending quest to elevate our ideas and thinking. Justin and I believe it, our leadership team believes it and our team, who are ever striving for greatness, definitely believe in it. This requires some discipline, meaning there are times when you are so deep into the day-to-day work that you need to be very self aware to mentally take a step back and reassess.

Also, we’ve always emphasized the need to be nimble and fluid. Listen to the market. Remember, we started off as a team building websites and apps, not an advertising agency. But now more than ever, one must be agile. Clients are looking for solutions that grow their business and increase brand affinity, and the ways to consumers' hearts are always changing. We must be, and have always been, prepared to adapt as needed.

One of the best things about being a part of the Wunderman Thompson network is the regional and global resources, tools and talents our teams can tap into. The intelligence tools, strategy frameworks, related business case studies from various industries from around the globe, access to technologists with unique skill sets — this is the continuing stimulus of learnings that feeds our teams’ brains and makes them better prepared for today’s world.

During the pandemic, how have you been tapping these resources and strengths to support your clients?

One area that has helped tremendously is the learnings and sharings that every single Wunderman Thompson office is doing in relation to the pandemic period we are in. From the data and the insights to the creative ideas, strategies and tactics, we get daily documents, updates and support from every office around the globe on what they are doing for their clients. 

This is giving us immense knowledge and confidence to help support our clients in Vietnam. We are able to take ideas from around the world, and apply them to our local environment and share with clients. Most of all, it provides inspiration to our teams on what we can do for our clients.

What differentiators make the agency an attractive option for your existing and future clients, particularly in the post-covid world?

We are a growth partner. Despite our advertising heritage, we are much more than an advertising agency and we see our role in providing inspiration throughout the consumer end-to-end life cycle of living, buying and using. We deliver this through building creative experiences, products, platforms and services; developing new business models; enabling new technologies; driving transactions; and guiding decisions with data.

This is why the mixed bag of skill sets we have is utterly important.

What is your long-term strategy in the Vietnamese market?

A long term strategy is not an easy question to answer at this minute. I’m not sure anybody has a clear view right now with the global pandemic affecting everyone at the moment.

Despite the current situation, we are optimistic about what lies ahead. Our belief is that this pandemic has been the catalyst for a number of trends. When we look at “The Future 100” report by Wunderman Thompson’s regional team that analyzes recent data from each office from around the globe, including ours, it becomes clear that the way we do things – as professionals and consumers – is going to change so we need to prepare ourselves for what the future looks like.

We’ve been working even more closely with our clients at this time, to come up with new ways, new models and new strategies to deal with this unprecedented period in our lives. And what we are coming up with is exciting! It’s a fresh take on an industry that has been relying for too long on legacy solutions. 

We are about the future – and we’ve evolved to service ambitious brands that are looking for growth and success. As we invite clients to join us, we navigate uncharted waters with optimism and expertise.

Bài viết này có ngôn ngữ: Tiếng Việt 

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