Ronald Ng talks to LBB’s Laura Swinton about his newly-created role as Isobar’s global CCO and why it’s sink or swim time for the industry
At a time when it seems that agency networks are shedding global chief creative officers, Isobar is bucking the trend. They’ve just created a global CCO role for Ronald Ng, who has joined the Dentsu Aegis-owned network from Digitas.
“This may sound like I’m justifying my role, but creativity is non-negotiable in any organisation,” says Ronald of the continued importance of the global CCO. “The networks and businesses that are most successful are those that have out-thought and out-played the competition with breakthrough creativity. The creative bar at Isobar is high. And when things are working well, it’s time to crack new codes and take everything to a whole new level.”
Over the past two years, Isobar has experienced phenomenal growth – it’s more than doubled in size, with a headcount of 6,500 people across 85 locations. Ronald has come on board to make sure that the network can sharpen its creative edge as it evolves. “As we continue the momentum with solid leadership across all capabilities and regions, we want to ensure that bigger also means better,” he explains. “And creativity is core to driving our transformative mission forward as an experience-led network.”
As agency networks and holding companies feel their way through a bumpy environment, Isobar has been leaning into experience and business transformation. They may have their roots in ‘digital’, but Ronald – himself with an extensive background in what we might have called ‘digital agencies’ a few years ago – thinks that perhaps that label is less useful in an age where tech is ubiquitous and the value lies in how it is used to help clients’ businesses. And that ‘how’ lies in creative thinking.
“Digital is table stakes. And technology is democratised as we all have access to the same things. It’s how you embrace and apply digital and technology that makes the difference,” he shrugs.
So how does he think of Isobar then? He describes it as “an experience-led agency that’s built for the digital economy”. When customer experience and brand are so inseparably enmeshed, an agency should go beyond one-off campaigns or products and consider every element that informs that experience. “Every component of the brand ecosystem needs to add value to people’s lives and culture. At the end of the day, clients don’t care what agencies call themselves. What’s important is that we help them transform their businesses, amplify brand love and sell a lot of products.”
If technology and data are a given, Ronald believes that it’s creativity that will emerge as the competitive advantage that will allow agencies to survive and clients’ businesses to outthink and outperform the competition.
“It’s sink or swim time,” he says, frankly, of the state of the industry. “Change, uncertainty and disruption can be viewed as problems, or opportunities. If Blockbuster had embraced those three challenges as opportunities ten years ago, they may still be around today. Technology has enabled many brands to be successful, but creativity has separated the real winners like Netflix from the losers. And it’s no different for our industry.”
Indeed, he says, it's the attitude to creativity that attracted him to Isobar and its ‘gang’. “We have a collaborative gang here that genuinely believes in the power of creativity,” says Ronald. “And creativity is not proprietary to the creative department, but more an overall spirit that drives everyone here whether they’re in the tech, data, strategy, delivery, business or creative team. By having an entire organisation focused on a shared mission, great work happens.”
It's a philosophy that seems to be doing well for Isobar recently. Not only is there the aforementioned growth, but the network has been picking up all sorts of industry accolades. The VR experience Aeronaut won a Grand Prix at Cannes this year – of which the network is understandably proud. But it’s the work of the Isobar China team on KFC that demonstrates the potent combination of creativity, technology, experience-thinking, particularly when the client is looking for radical change on a structural level. For KFC, the team created new brands and products, changed everything about the in-store experience (from payment to how visitors could interact with the music), and built a digital platform that now has over 130 million members and is now the biggest owned-media platform in the country.
The ambition, certainly, is to continue on the path, working more closely and more deeply with client businesses. “We have no plans to slow down. We engage with clients earlier than most competitors, connect the dots across more innovative touchpoints, execute and, most importantly, convert. We’re there from challenge to creation to commerce,” he says. “Through purposeful experience-led transformation, KFC is now a tech company disguised as a fried chicken business with amazing results to show.”
For now, Ronald is only into the second week of his new role – he says he is currently in ‘study mode’ and is excited to dig into the different regions and their ‘cultural uniqueness’. In his new role, he’ll be working closely with global CEO Jean Lin, and when it comes to the importance of creativity, the pair of them are in sync and ready to take off. “Our conversations have always been around how creativity is key to making every customer’s experience with a brand delightful and inspiring. Jean has a well-known appreciation for creativity. She’s probably the only global CEO who has been Jury President at Cannes not once, but twice!” says Ronald, sounding like he’s truly ready to get to work. “With me on board now, the goal is to connect the dots between our different skillsets to take our work to the next level.”