Profile: Robert Morgan, Clemenger

It’s hard to find someone like Robert Morgan in any kind of business these days. Starting out in market research at ACNielsen, Morgan has essentially been an advertising guy all of his serious working life and, quite remarkably, has spent the majority of that time with advertising and marketing communications group Clemenger Communications.

“In this day and age it’s unusual for someone to stay in a company for that long, but I’ve loved every minute of being with Clemenger,” says Morgan. With annual turnover of $1.6 billion, Clemenger has operations that span the full spectrum of marcomms including direct, design, data, sales promotion, public relations, market research and media.

Morgan joined Clemenger in 1979 as an account executive, proving worthy of being appointed a director of the company in 1984, and five years later being chosen as managing director of the Melbourne office. Under his directorship, the agency achieved considerable growth and was named agency of the year six times between 1993 and 2004 by various trade publications. In 1998 he became executive chairman of the Clemenger Communications Group.

While claiming his career to be the sort any kid would dream of, it’s strange that Morgan originally chose to embark on a degree in Marxist/Leninist politics and Keynesian economics. “Could you think of anything less interesting?” he jokes. “And there wasn’t a marketing component to the economics degree in those days, so we had to learn on the job. I was lucky to work for a market research company and then work on some really fantastic marketing brands. I was very lucky to work on great accounts like Campbell’s, MasterFoods and Mars, all those really top classic FMCG brands. Then I got to work on cars and banks. I grew up in the business learning as I went.”

Morgan believes the success of Clemenger Communications is due in large part to a firm commitment to creativity. In an era of media fragmentation where viewers, readers and listeners have chronic attention deficit syndrome, it is imperative to attract their attention – it is no longer a case of simply commanding it.

“The biggest challenge is cutting through, being noticed and being able to connect,” explains Morgan. “You’ve got to have a dialogue with them rather than lecture them and, no matter what the distribution channel, you need to have the most compelling content to deserve their attention, so creativity is more important than ever. You’ve got to find ways to get them to engage. That applies whether it is online, television, radio or even experiential.

“Any worldwide agency that exists purely on the fact that it has a network, in the long-term will disappear or decline because clients, whether they are global or local, need really strong creativity at a local level. I think the next generation of talent is multi-dexterous. You’re going to see people working simultaneously online and offline. Our model is to be totally driven by vision.”

The company is unique in that it is majority owned by over 500 staff in Australia and New Zealand, the balance by BBDO Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group. Morgan thinks that this local ownership allows Clemenger Communications to gain an unfair share of the best creative talent. “As long as we never forget that our core business is creativity and we continue to get the best people, we will continue to drive success,” he says.
“We have also diversified the agency away from core advertising. Over 50 percent of our revenue these days comes from non-advertising activities such as PR, design, digital, experiential or field marketing. All of our companies have this passion for creativity held together with a protocol for working together.”

Started by Peter and John Clemenger with their father, the company is still pervaded by a strong family culture. But despite some old-fashioned values, Morgan loves to have new people and new influences. With staff retention a major issue for agencies, he continually sources new creative talent through the Clemenger University, which has run for the past 10 years at the Melbourne University Graduate School. The best and brightest graduates are put through a number of Clemenger Communications’ companies so that they come out rounded rather than one-dimensional. Such a process has resulted in what Morgan regards as a powerful dream team of leaders.

Providing staff with the ability to realise career aspirations within this part of the world, Morgan also recognises that people these days are quite itinerant and so has been able to arrange movements between disciplines and even between countries across the globe, aided by the fact that Clemenger Communications is still part of BBDO Worldwide and Omnicom.

“We’ve got 500 out of 1400 people who are shareholders,” says Morgan. “But that doesn’t alter the fact that you still get the kid who wants to try his or her hand in London. We can’t help that; all we can do is hope they come back to us. We work as best we can to keep them through the network, but there will be very few people like me in the future. I was lucky as I got some good breaks in the company. We own it, we run it here, we’re in charge of our own destiny making all the decisions. It’s an absolute dream. I’m the luckiest man in this business.”

A lucky man with an eye on the ball, Morgan has never lost sight of the job at hand. He recognises that the opportunities are infinitely more numerous and exciting than when the agency started. Although times are more challenging now, the company’s margins have never been better and the accolades prove their competitiveness in the space, winning awards at this year’s Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.

“Awards also help us to attract the best people,” Morgan says. “Creative people like to be measured in terms of their peers. Regional and global awards give us a real measure as to how good we are. Consumers will not let you off the hook just because you are local.”

Morgan’s work is an effort to turn the tide on what he believes to be a slip in the standard of advertising in Australia. He pinpoints about half a dozen agencies in Australia and New Zealand that consistently do good work. The rest of them he views as too caught up in research and lacking interest and passion, taking the spontaneity and brilliance out of creative work.

Up against the huge budgets of the US and Europe, Australian television commercials will always struggle to compete for production quality. Lack of funds shouldn’t hinder the ability to be creative, however, and Morgan truly believes in the power of the traditional television commercial. “It gets you where you want to go pretty quickly,” he explains. “I accept it isn’t the be all and end all, but it’s exciting and challenging and we would be mad to say television is finished.

“That said, I love all the new work we’re doing in the digital area and we’re putting a huge effort into it. We’ve got over 250 people working on digital and it makes up about $40 million of revenue out of $250 million. So it’s significant, but it’s new and we’re learning and making mistakes.”

While marketers are trying to determine how significant mobile will be as a marketing channel in the future, Morgan is aware there is a dollar to be made from it and, although still in the early stages, it’s going to become more and more important. “The direct marketing component of it is really clever – when I am driving past a store and reminded there’s a deal on, using handhelds for updates and news. The difficulty is dealing with the format of it. You can’t cut down a television commercial. You have to make it especially.”

Embracing less traditional modes of advertising is serving Clemenger well. Earlier in the year, the company used a more experimental channel for the launch of Gillette Fusion for Procter & Gamble, organising a cricket match that was broadcast on the Nine Network. Morgan came up with the idea and worked with the media, both online with promotions and mainstream.

“Getting the chance to work on some of the great advertised brands is the best thing anyone can do,” Morgan believes. “If you get the chance to work on a Procter & Gamble, Mars or a Pepsi, they make your mark.”

Keeping up with the latest trends and being aware of what others in the industry are doing is at the core of Morgan’s work ethic. Being close to Omnicom enables him to travel and see where Clemenger Communications lies vis-? -vis its competitors both in Australia and overseas.

While the country is regarded in a global sense as the follower of the UK and the US, it is Morgan’s belief that Australia can do the best work in the world. “I think we do some really fresh stuff,” he says. “We don’t have the money to mount the kind of productions that they do in the UK or US, but dollar for dollar we do some sensational stuff.”

Striving to achieve great work that ‘knocks your socks off’, Morgan prefers to push the envelope rather than play it safe. As he explains, “The most important thing is that we constantly make sure our offer is contemporary and that we’re not falling behind, driving our companies hard to digitise or die, forcing our people to work together because companies want it. There are always elements of competition, but a dog eat dog relationship is counterproductive. Clients get the best work when agencies feel confident.”

Morgan argues that a marketer must really understand the way people think and become a social barometer in order to survive: “One of the things we all forget is that the market isn’t in the café latte strips of Sydney and Auckland, but in the suburbs. Nothing beats spending time in the stores or the dealerships or talking to consumers. The more we get out of our comfort zone, do a bit of coal face, observe people’s behaviour, the more we are able to market to the environment.”

A firm believer in loving the business you’re in, Morgan ardently immerses himself in the world of advertising, staying tuned during television ad breaks, avidly reading the newspapers, listening to commercial radio and mucking around on the web. He always uses his clients’ products. “If we make money out of them we should be using their products. It’s basic respect,” he says.
Ensuring Clemenger Communications stays ahead of the hungry pack leaves this head honcho with very little free time on his hands, but Morgan isn’t complaining. “I’m lucky,” he says. “I’m in the industry that’s right for me and I’m in the right company.”