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5 Minutes with… Gordon Domlija


The Wavemaker Asia-Pacific CEO chats to LBB’s Laura Swinton about arriving in Beijing in 2008, navigating China’s tech environment and bringing tacos and margaritas to Shanghai

5 Minutes with… Gordon Domlija
Gordon Domlija has a more rounded view of the industry than most. Starting out at Saatchi & Saatchi London, where he worked in media buying, he moved to strategy, then comms and account leadership. He headed to China in 2008, just as the Beijing Olympics launched a bold and ambitious vision to the world. Since then he’s thrown himself into the rapidly evolving market.

Gordon’s also led Wavemaker in Asia-Pacific since its creation in 2017 – and after a few short years, it was the second largest agency network in the region. The network’s success has hinged on taking each market on its own merits and appreciating the importance of culture and relationships within each. In China, where Gordon’s based, he’s in the midst of one of the most innovative and rapidly shifting tech and media landscapes in the world, while Indonesia’s entrepreneurialism and India’s combination of innovation, data and storytelling make them particularly exciting markets too.

But Gordon’s rounded approach to life extends beyond the media and marketing world – he’s a keen footballer, a dad and has even dipped his toe into Shanghai’s brutal food and beverage scene. This translates into how Gordon approaches leadership and how he thinks about the individuals that come together to make up the Wavemaker community.

LBB> What first drew you to advertising as a career?

Gordon> Initially, an obscure 1x2 black and white recruitment ad in the Media Guardian. Leaving university with a degree in Politics and Economic History prepared me for precisely nothing in the real world, so applying for jobs in industries that required no formal training or prior experience seemed as good a place as any to start. After passing the rigorous interview process in The Dudley Arms, Paddington - despite failing to correctly answer the classic ‘what’s 60% of 6?’, it really was about the people and how much fun it all was, while still being ‘work’.

The Dudley Arms. Epicenter of global TV Buying 1994-1999

LBB> What important lessons did you learn early on that really stuck with you?

Gordon> Be open to change, take opportunities when they arise, and don’t sweat it if you don’t know the answers - [the] truth is that no one does. And when it’s your round, get it in before the first person has finished their drink. That last one is probably quite time-and-place-specific to London media agency land in the 1990s. 

LBB> Early in your career, you moved around between strategy and buying and account management - what drove that and how do you think that rounded foundation influenced you?

Gordon> Even back then, things changed regularly; your clients, your boss, your teammates, often with little warning and invariably out of your control, so you were always having to adapt to new situations and circumstances. Becoming comfortable with change and, to some degree, not allowing myself to get too attached or settled with specific clients and roles, developed a sense of independence and self-belief that would remain constant when everything else was not. This definitely made me more open-minded to considering opportunities as they arose through my career, no matter how far out of my comfort zone they initially seemed.

LBB> You first moved to China in 2008 - the year of the Beijing Olympics which feels like it was a real catalyst moment for the country - what was the country like back then and what was your experience like in those early times?  

Gordon> It was amazing. With the Olympics, it felt like the country announced to the rest of the world ‘China is open for business’ - and I was right there, in the thick of it. Whatever industry you were in, wherever you went, you could feel the energy, and the desire to get somewhere fast. There was no time to theorise or slowly evolve, everything was about action and taking giant leaps to propel yourself forward in technology, infrastructure and commerce. 

At times it was chaotic; no research or strategy, we had to plan, execute and learn in near enough real-time. There were no quiet periods to analyse data, you would jump from one campaign straight into the next because as consumption in the country exploded, presence - and not perfection - was the key to brand growth. Thinking about it, given how much has changed here, many things have not changed at all. 

Alien Employment permit, 2008. Mr Domlija has aged like a fine wine since then. 

LBB> In a relatively short time period, Wavemaker has really, well, made waves in China and across Asia-Pacific more broadly - what’s been the strategy behind the growth?

Gordon> The strategy has always been about creating distinctiveness. Wavemaker was not born with inherent advantages of scale and connectivity - even the way we launched across 2017 and 2018 was market by market, with each market picking its own date, based on level of preparedness. While unorthodox, it also set a precedent. Wavemaker’s strength comes from our markets, our culture is organic and that is where growth comes from. 

In this region, pitches are won and business is grown by the talent we have in markets, so our story in each market has to be competitive, compelling and deliverable. What it doesn’t have to be is homogenous. Unless you have lived and worked in this region, it is impossible to grasp the breadth and diversity here. So, you empower your leaders to build a business, talent, capabilities, infrastructure and processes that are right for now and the future based on their specific environment. Every leadership team in every country can tell you ‘Why Wavemaker?’ – that approach has been wildly successful for us. We know our audience, and likewise, we know we aren’t for everybody, but that’s really ok. 

Tuesday weekly team photoshoot, Shanghai. 

LBB> There’s a lot of talk around the world about a talent crunch - what’s your take on the scale of that issue in Asia-Pacific? And what’s Wavemaker’s approach to talent retention and talent growth?

Gordon> The world continues to change and people’s expectations of work and life have rightly changed along with it. Industry is built on a level of subservience and adherence to a set pattern; privileged, detached people in executive corporate positions setting agendas, tasks and ways of working for those below them because they know what’s best. Invariably their definition of what’s best is what’s best for them. I have stopped being astounded by the lack of empathy and understanding of corporate senior management to the general workforce, employees are often just numbers on a spreadsheet, dispensable in meeting financial objectives. People see this and question it - as they should. There is no corporate loyalty to people, despite all the fluff about culture and care. So why should people be loyal to companies? The talent crunch is natural and organic, it will be a huge problem for those companies that can’t adapt to how people want to work and live. 

At Wavemaker, I believe we do better than most in this area. We respect individuals, we support flexibility in work as much as we can, and try to provide an inclusive and open environment where everyone, regardless of their position and role, has the opportunity to learn and grow - to enjoy what they do and hopefully have fun for however long they are with us. 

When it’s time for people to move on, we wish them well and support their ambition however we can, taking pride in our contribution to their career development and personal growth. 

Understated and discreet winner of solid gold awards

LBB> China has been the birthplace, or at least the earliest adopter, of so many tech and media trends that have swept the rest of the world. Do you think that the characterisation of China as this crucible of new tech and tech adoption is accurate - and if so, what’s behind it? And if not, what do you think is the more accurate characterisation?

Gordon> The environment here has been such that technology can be developed, incubated, adopted and scaled quickly compared to other places in the world. The planning, infrastructure and investment from government, the protection against external interference or influence, a new generation desperate to be seen and heard and, crucially, a population willing to enter into a value exchange - giving up personal information and privacy in order to enhance life experiences and convenience through entertainment and retail. 

It’s fascinating to see the development here and the pace at which it is still moving. Likewise, from a marketing perspective, to see how quickly investment has followed the shift of attention, and the impact that is having on communications planning is incredible. [It’s] unlike anything anywhere in the world. 

LBB> And what are the nascent tech and media trends that you and the team are seeing getting traction now on the ground in China?

Gordon> While we marvel at the extraordinary feats of technology and engineering in China, the thing that unfortunately sticks with me most is the level of surveillance, tracking and monitoring of everything you do, on and offline. While this byproduct of technological advancement is hardly exclusive to China, the scale, sophistication and exportability of these developments are unique. The power to control behaviour, action and the ability to function in society is truly unprecedented - and coming to a street near you soon. While in Shanghai lockdown, I re-read 1984. It now reads like a fact-based instruction manual for modern government. You were probably expecting a bit more of a lighthearted answer here about social commerce proliferation through Douyin and Kuaishou enabling addressable audience at scale. Same coin, different side. 

LBB> It’s been a challenging few years to say the least - and it seems that we’re facing a whole new suite of challenges in terms of rising food and fuel costs around the world. What sort of conversations are you having with clients around this and what do you think the outlook is for markets across the region?

Gordon> Most conversations with clients are fairly pragmatic. We have faced one uncontrollable challenge after another in recent years, and broadly most people are just trying to find their best way through it to manage business and people. For this industry, in the worst cases, the result is a tightening of client expenditure and squeeze on agencies through pitches and contract renewals designed to minimise the financial impact of supply chain issues, inflation, raw material costs etc. This can significantly reduce agency revenue, particularly if an agency is not sufficiently diversified in service offerings and capabilities. 

My main concern, however, is how we best support our employees, who, like working people across the world, are suffering with rising prices for basic necessities - having to make choices every day on how to best look after themselves and their families, while invariably being asked to work longer and harder to support corporate efficiency initiatives. Demonstrating empathy and understanding, and offering flexibility in how, where and when people work, is how we support our colleagues - and is the most important thing we can do at this time. 

I could really go off on one now as to the legitimacy of the pathological pursuit of profit by corporations, but that’s a whole different interview. 

LBB> Your remit covers the whole Asia Pacific - which markets are particularly exciting right now?

Gordon> That’s like asking someone which of their children they like most. Obviously, I am excited at the potential and opportunity for each of our markets, but two are particularly top of mind for me right now. Indonesia is performing phenomenally for Wavemaker. The combination of relative economic stability, infrastructural development and a young, driven and entrepreneurial population has seen our office in Jakarta become one of our major global hubs, with genuine global leadership in the field of addressable content. We have doubled the size of the workforce in the last two years, and the potential build on this capability and expertise is massive. 

Wavemaker Indonesia launches a fully integrated media solutions “Beauty Tech Labs” exclusive for L’Oréal Indonesia

The other market is India. Wavemaker is already widely recognised as the best media, digital, social and commerce agency ithe country, certainly judging by our ever-expanding trophy room. The creativity, innovation and use of data and technology in emotional storytelling is unrivalled anywhere in the world. This is how we build depth of connection between people and brands, and how we reinforce our value and strengthen relationships with our clients. 

Wavemaker India continuing their avalanche of success at Cannes Lions Awards 2022

Most of all, I’m really excited about a future where I’m able to visit each market again and spend time with the people who are shaping our agency, business and culture. Three years grounded in China has made it necessary to redesign how I add value and support the markets. It’s worked well, but I’m more than ready to get back out there. 

LBB> Outside of the agency world, I understand you also co-owned a bar and restaurant. Tell me about that - what drew you to it and what’s the place like?

Gordon> I have longer roots in F&B than I do in advertising, having grown up around the restaurant and nightclub trade I am very comfortable in that space. Unfortunately, my last venture into that world, ‘Bordertown Cantina de Bebidas y Tacos’, went the way of 85% of restaurants in Shanghai and is now consigned to the past tense. Esta muerto. Which is somewhat surprising as between me, my Texan wife and my Texan business partner, what we don’t know about tacos and margaritas is not worth knowing. But it’s a tough business - far harder to make a success of than advertising, and really not something you can do part-time. 

Maybe after I’ve finished with this advertising side hustle I’ll get back to it in a more focused way.  

Bordertown – it never got much busier than this!

LBB> I see you’re also really into football too. Why do you think it’s important for people working in advertising and media to have interests beyond the industry and what do you think it brings to your day job?

Gordon> I can only speak for myself here, but my job has never defined me or who I am. It is something I do, fantastically well as it happens, but it’s not what makes me, me. These days, keeping interests that take me away from the day job is increasingly important. Solo interests that completely detach me from work, such as boxing or cooking help with focus, while football - playing and watching - just takes me into a different community, with people who have absolutely nothing to do with, or any interest in the industry. 

I love not talking or thinking about work, it makes me better at work when I do focus on it. The same goes with family. There are much more interesting things to talk about, which is why after all these years my parents still tell me that the way people calculate how many people watch a TV program is by how many people switch on their kettle when there's a commercial break. 

That’s not a bubble I’m ever going to burst. 

Competitive, yet approachable, in life outside work. 

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Wavemaker Singapore, Thu, 01 Sep 2022 16:45:00 GMT