Three steps to heaven: Interview with Saj Manzoor, CFO of McCann London

Saj Manzoor works for McCann London, one of the UK’s largest advertising agencies. He is now also COO and here he tells Director of Finance about his working life.

How do you judge success?

Success can’t be determined through a spreadsheet alone. There are three key factors that are critical to our business, and if those three things aren’t working in harmony then commercial success won’t follow. Firstly, we are a people business and so need to create a culture within the organisation that energises, retains and attracts the best and most diversified talent.

At the same time, we must deliver client value: establishing strong partnerships so that we can deliver strategic solutions that address client challenges and objectives. And last but not least, we have to deliver great ideas which provide creative and effective solutions.

Which projects have you particularly enjoyed working on?

My role requires a holistic view of the company, so in a broad sense my 20 years at McCann Worldgroup has been one huge, challenging and constantly evolving project. But looking at McCann London’s recent work, we’re particularly proud of Survival Billboard for Xbox, which was Europe’s most-awarded campaign of 2016. The campaign took one of the oldest methods of advertising (the billboard) and totally modernised it through an interactive digital campaign. The result? Dwell time increased from an average of eight seconds for a standard billboard to eight minutes for Survival Billboard.

How has the role of the FD evolved in recent years?

FDs used to be seen as the guys who held the combo to the safe; they wrapped themselves in the comfort of balance sheets and didn’t step away from their desks. Now you need to be a true business partner, both to the CEO and to the company. I’m very lucky to enjoy a relationship at McCann London that allows me to support the business and all of its functions on the frontline. It’s about staying connected to what we do and being involved at every level so that your impact and influence are felt well before the number lands on the spreadsheet. It’s certainly not just about adding things up. And the passion I have for the advertising industry doesn’t come from a spreadsheet or P&L.

What underlines your approach at McCann?

I’m not a political or hierarchical person. If an account executive comes to me for help I give them the same attention as I would give my CEO. We all stand in line together and it’s important to talk to people and understand the breadth of the business. I also appreciate people who come to me with solutions rather than problems.

What particular challenges does the finance function face at McCann?

I’ve got a fantastic team which has taken me a few years to build up. When I arrived the team was very functional; but I’ve been able to create a team of proactive, interactive and commercially-minded people who understand the importance of fostering strong internal partnerships.

The challenge for me now is finding the right talent in the existing marketplace: people with strong interpersonal skills who can talk about finance without sounding like a finance person aren’t always easy to come by.

And how about the challenges in the wider advertising industry?

As a member of IPA [Institute of Practitioners in Advertising]’s finance business group and as treasurer of the Advertising Association I am lucky to be in a position to help tackle industry challenges alongside my peer group.

The key challenge for the marketing communications world is the gradual dilution of our offer – there are no longer the clear lines of delineation that existed 20 years ago between, for example, advertising agencies, PR agencies and even tech giants who are now creating their own content.

While the growth of technology brings great opportunity, that overlap can be confusing for clients and our challenge is to prove that creativity gives us the edge. Creativity is at the very heart of the agency; it’s our way of life.

But this presents our other major challenge: we sell ideas, but what value can you put on an idea? If a creative took three minutes to come up with a ground-breaking strategy that tripled the client’s share of market and grew their business, is that worth only three minutes of billable time? Our goal as an industry is to become a true partner to our clients – and that means sharing both the risk and the reward.

As Tom Lewis, finance director at the IPA, said: “If effectiveness is all about creating value for our clients, agency business growth is about capturing a share of the value.” Others are endeavouring to achieve that, but we have 100 years’ experience on them.

How would you sum up McCann’s recent performance?  

We have excellent talent and strong client relationships – many of which span more than a quarter of a century. This is because we deliver work that has a tangible effect on our clients’ bottom line

And this is now being recognised through accolades in the wider industry: in 2016 alone we accumulated over 160 awards and were named in the Gunn Report’s list of the Top 10 agencies in the world. Long may it last…