Inspirational Leadership

Levent Guenes, Chief Growth Officer of Havas Group APAC, is no advertising rookie. After 16 years at Havas, he says that he still feels privileged to work with great people every day. Here he explains the unique opportunities in APAC, the most interesting thing about working at Havas, and tries to describe his job in a way that even a young child could understand.

Tell us a little bit about your background and what you do at Havas.

It has been an amazing ride of almost 16 years at Havas since I first joined as financial controller at Havas Germany in Düsseldorf. Being a trained finance person and an operator at heart, I’ve evolved over the years, especially since moving to Asia in 2009. For the past eight years, I’ve lived in two vibrant hubs, Hong Kong and Singapore, and have evolved from being a finance person to regional CEO for Southeast Asia.

Today, I work as Chief Growth Officer, covering our inorganic growth responsibilities and Vivendi partnerships for the entire group in the Asia Pacific. While I’m still supporting some of our agencies on select clients, my primary focus has shifted more toward mergers and acquisitions and setting up an infrastructure for those Vivendi partnerships in the region.

What’s the most interesting thing about working at Havas?

This is a question that I am often asked by potential candidates, during interviews, and, interestingly, it’s young candidates asking this more often than senior candidates. My answer is usually the same: It’s the interesting people that we get the privilege to work with every day. There’s nothing like working in an environment where you are given the chance to thrive as an individual and be surrounded by friends. It’s very special.

How would you describe your job to a young child?

I have issues explaining this to my parents, let alone a young child. My mom once asked me what exactly I do, and I told her that I am working for one of those companies responsible for creating the very useful and informative consumer recommendations interrupting her favorite TV soaps. You should have seen the look on her face.

What do you feel is imperative to know when talking to potential clients?

Always be one step ahead. It requires a lot of energy and effort, but it’s certainly worth it. At the very least, be prepared—and be yourself. There’s nothing more embarrassing than being unprepared for any meeting, especially if you are meeting an existing or potential client. We have an amazing network, and I often compare all our existing assets with different colors of Play-Doh. There is nothing we can’t achieve. Compared to our competitors, we’ve got a lot more to play with. So be creative, and play.

What defines a successful client-agency relationship?

One thing I have learned over the years is never promise what you can’t deliver. Given economic pressures to meet our targets, we tend to oversell sometimes, which is a major mistake—especially if you are thinking long term. Every relationship is built on trust, and once damaged, it’s difficult to get back. While it sounds generic, it’s the number one underlying principle in every relationship. If you gain the client’s trust with every aspect of his or her business, you’ve taken a major step toward a partnership of equals. And really, that’s what we all want.


How does marketing in Asia Pacific differ from other regions in the world?

I could go on and on about this—there is no right or wrong answer here. Asia is a region where mature markets exist side by side with emerging ones. It’s the region where markets are leapfrogging from no-G to 4G overnight and where you have the largest and most active social media population in the world. But, you also have the sleepy backwaters, where time sometimes seems to simply stand still. The marketing landscape in APAC is exactly a reflection of that, and it is most certainly the least homogeneous of all regions around the globe—not surprising, given that 60% of the global population calls APAC their home.

So, it’s our job to make sure that we meet both local and regional requirements in terms of applying our clients’ objectives and the network’s standards. Not a single day goes by where I’m not blown away by the results of a research project or a study.

As an agency it’s our job to identify commonalities, but also to point out differences, and in a diverse region like APAC, the differences can be quite astounding.

What’s something you feel agencies will have to provide in the future that perhaps they don’t provide now?

I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but it makes my heart bleed to see agency networks and their services become commoditized. A large part of our industry has made the major mistake of simply withstanding change over the past decades, which is now haunting us like never before. Progression is rapid; we need to embrace change and be more daring in what we do if we want to ever catch up.

I love what Albert Einstein said: “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

A great start would be to stop developing identical services; rather, join forces and be more innovative at using technology and new ways of thinking, creating, and working. The Villages are great places to do this. Our clients expect consultants rather than agents. We need to be able to meet this demand.

What qualities do you feel are absolute must-haves to be a successful leader?

First and foremost: Be close to your people if you want them to be close to you. Be respectful, and be fair. And spend time with them. If you want your people to go the extra mile, you need to make them feel like a part of the team—that doesn’t work if you sit in your ivory tower and rule your agency like a kingdom.

What’s something that you’re most proud of in your career?

Southeast Asia and what it represents today. When taking over as CEO for the region a couple of years back, I found that the region was barely making a mark in the global Havas network, and certainly not among the competition in SEA. We were creatively weak and not really making sense financially, if looked at in isolation. Today, just three or four years down the road, we have doubled in size in terms of revenue and people, we are winning serious global awards—such as our latest Cannes Lions for Singapore, we have added five markets, growing from four to nine, and are winning prestigious clients such as Porsche, Netflix, Samsung, Unilever, and Energizer, with new opportunities knocking on our door each day. From being a region with four different markets operating side by side, we have become a true network and force, expanding our collaboration across borders and supporting each other wherever possible. But this surely isn’t the end of the road. So watch this space.

Tell us about an epiphany in your career that you can share. Perhaps something that changed the way you think about your professional journey?

That would most definitely be the moment when I professionally arrived in Asia. I would not necessarily call it a culture shock, as I was born a son of Turkish immigrants in Germany and have been a foreigner all my life, so I was pretty much used to it. But Asia was different.

I remember clearly that my attitude toward working in Asia and with Asians was a slightly different one back then. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I was looking down on Asians, but I certainly thought that Western standards had to be the norm. A lot has changed since then and thankfully, I have been exposed to people who have opened my eyes and taught me the right things in life.

What inspires you?

I try to spend a lot of time with people who are much smarter than me, which is not necessarily difficult. But who inspires me most is my beloved wife. Her energy, drive, and attitude are really special and carry me through good and bad times.

How do you inspire others?

I try to always be positive and be myself. I cannot tolerate people who are not authentic. This sometimes leads to certain issues, but deep inside I do believe that I am a good person, and it always turns out well in the end. But being a good person requires effort, and I try to take time for everyone, No matter the background or level of seniority, my nonexistent office door is always open and people know that. Does it distract me sometimes? Yes it does, but it is worth every minute I spend with people. It also requires being open and honest about successes and failures. In the end we’re only human, and that makes us real.

What do you hope to learn in the next five years?

I’ve got a lot to learn, and there certainly are a lot of things I want to achieve in life and at Havas. Specifically, I would love to learn one of the Asian languages. Japanese has always had a very special place in my heart since my very first trip. Or even Mandarin, which would be the smarter choice given where the world is heading. We’ll see. Ask me again in five years’ time.

What advice do you have for those who are at the beginning of their careers?

Be patient and be resilient. Life is a roller coaster, and so is business. Be happy with who you are now, and let your positivity inspire your career path, as most things are often neither good nor bad; it just depends on your perspective.

No matter how it turns out, it always ends up just the way it should—either you succeed or you learn something. Appreciate the positive outcomes, and learn from the rest.

Listen carefully to what others say and always communicate clearly. Make people feel that they are important to you, and inspire them by showing them that they are. Keep your eyes focused, ears tuned, and your mobile phone off. In a world that can’t move fast enough, someone who can find time to listen to others is always appreciated.