McCann Health’s brand new Global Chief Digital Officer on AI, ‘meta skills’ and the Blade Runner-esque charms of Hong Kong
When Marcus Sigurdsson was a kid, he may not have been a stellar student but his ceaseless curiosity meant that he was forever finding out new and unusual things. That curiosity has served him well. He was always keen to explore the world beyond his native Sweden and, soon after graduation, ended up moving to Shanghai on a whim. He’s worked on consumer insights for brands, been an agency planner and then moved into the worlds of digital and healthcare – all roles which have benefited from his inquisitive nature. Until recently he was Regional Chief Digital Officer for McCann Health in Asia Pacific, but this month he stepped up to the global role. And as the likes of data and artificial intelligence factor ever more prominently in the world of healthcare and marketing, it seems like a great time for the network to make the most of this inquiring mind.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him to learn more.
LBB> You’re moving from the Asia Pacific role to the global role – what are going to be your priorities for the first few months?
MS> You’d think there would be some complex plan with intricate goals, but in reality, it is very simple. We believe in something that we call ‘idea centricity’, that everything we do is to generate great ideas, and my responsibility towards our clients and colleagues is to make sure that we maximise the opportunities that emerging technologies and digital brings to our creativity.
To make this happen, my first priority is to listen to and to understand the capabilities and ambitions of each market. I’m very lucky to get to work with a group of amazing creative minds and I look forward to learning from them.
LBB> Will you be heading to New York for the role? If so, what are you going to miss most about living in Hong Kong?
MS> I’m quickly learning that location doesn’t matter much - you will spend your time where the most action is, and then you have somewhere you live apart from hotels. For now, I’ll remain in HK, but the day I leave, I’ll miss the incredible combination of Blade Runner-esque cityscape and nature.
LBB> You’ve been based in Asia since 1999 – what first led you to think that you’d like to work in China? And what came first, the inkling that you’d like to work in China or were up looking for a job in business intelligence?
MS> Actually, I never really planned to go to China… I started to do a few semesters abroad at university and travelled a lot until I graduated. Then one day, when I was 24, I realised that I was starting to settle down and panicked. I was seriously considering a move to South America but bumped into a friend from school one day who lived in Shanghai and said it was amazing. Three months later, I landed in Shanghai with a suitcase, not enough money and even less work.
But I’ve been passionate about business and competitive intel since university, so it would’ve been my focus wherever I ended up.
LBB> What piece of advice do you wish you’d had when you were starting out?
MS> Learn the “meta skills”, how to write good emails, plan your tasks, use your software suite, master PPT, ask good questions, etc. because that is 80% of your workday.
LBB> And you’ve had an interesting career, starting out in insights for Ericsson, being an agency planner then heading into digital. What has driven those career choices?
MS> Thanks! I always wanted to work on something that would allow me to be curious and creative at the same time. All the roles you mention have one thing in common, help an organisation/brand to understand the context they exist in, identify the optimal course forward and then let your mind run wild with ideas for how to stay on that course.
LBB> Where did you grow up? And what kind of kid were you? Judging purely on your career, I’d guess that you were quite inquisitive…?
MS> I grew up in a suburb of Gothenburg in Sweden. A pretty awesome place back in the day with lots of nature. Yes, quite inquisitive and curious! I was a pretty mediocre student but passionate about reading and learning things. I was lucky enough to have a few understanding teachers.
LBB> So the health category is one that has traditionally been separate from the rest of the ad industry and the typical narrative is that it’s not so exciting because of the rules and restrictions. However, now thanks to the evolution of tech and data and the growing role that agencies play in business innovation, healthcare seems to be getting really interesting and a space where you can work on projects that really make a difference… I was wondering what your experience has been from the inside?
MS> That is a really good question! You are right, in healthcare you have the opportunity to make a difference and I seriously believe that communication plays a fundamental role for global health. Lifestyle diseases and patients not adhering to treatments are huge global issues and in both of them communication is essential to help people to lead healthier lives.
At McCann Health, we now talk a lot about data as a new creative craft and how data can be used tell a better story.
LBB> How has working in the health and pharma sphere changed how you think about your own health?
MS> It hasn’t really… apart from quitting smoking the day I joined…
LBB> In particular, it seems that AI (and its diagnostic potential) have huge implications for the health category. Are you seeing this play out in the conversations you’re having with clients and the projects you’re working on?
MS> Yes, we had already started in 2015 to work on predictive modelling but uptake has been slower than expected. But AI is now quite a frequent topic clients want to talk about and we are lucky that we got an early start and have also been blessed some great network partners.
LBB> On the other side, the industry can be quite inclined to jump all over new tech fads without really considering their relevance. How do you sift out the genuine game-changers from the shiny baubles when it comes to tech?
MS> When I was an analyst at Gartner I worked on hype cycles and someone taught me that technology takes a longer time to happen than you think, and has a larger impact than you can imagine. So, keep your ears close to the ground and talk to a lot of smart people and you’ll notice a higher signal to noise ratio.
For example, AI and VR has been around for decades, but it’s not until now that it’s delivering on the innovation trifecta - desirable for a person using a solution that is technologically feasible and economically viable.
It’s really important that we never lose focus on what is desirable to the customer and the problems that need to be solved. If someone is willing to pay for a solution, it is only a matter of time before someone makes the tech feasible and viable.
LBB> Outside of work what are your passions?
MS> Spending time on the ocean or in the mountains.