Steven Waugh, Group CFO TBWA: The virtues of discipline


“Managing growth is a lot of fun, but also a lot of work,” says Steven Waugh, Group CFO at Johannesburg-based advertising group TBWA. The Scottish trained Chartered Accountant worked in London for most of his career and is therefore in an excellent position to assess where South Africa is currently at. So what about B-BBEE, minority shareholders and cost cutting? And are our accountants really as brilliant as they think they are? Waugh started his career in the music and film industry at Time Warner and BMG Music. “That gave me a very good grounding, because a record company has everything: production, marketing, publishing and challenging people.” However, salaries for finance professionals in the industry were “terrible”, according to the Scotsman. “So it was time to grow up and move on.” For eight years Waugh was the CFO of a group of digital and marketing technology agencies within the advertising and marketing holding company Omnicom. “We were at the forefront of the digital revolution with growth of crazy – 30 to 40 percent per year.” It was a lot of fun and a lot of work, Waugh recalls. “In our industry it is all about staff target levels. If you hire to far behind the curve, you make good margins but it’s not sustainable. If you hire ahead of revenues, it’s too expensive. So do you hire permanently? Do you use freelancers? You have to continuously balance the quality of your staff – and its skills set –with the type of contracts you have. The hire/fire routine is definitely one of the most difficult things to get right.” Although it’s common knowledge these days that great CFOs and Finance Directors do much more than crunching numbers, this is particularly true in the advertising and marketing world, says Waugh. “The accounting itself is not too challenging, but you have to get far more involved in the operations of the agency,– legal, IT, building administration and HR. You are a generalist, tapped into the commercial side of the business. Often finance people run the sales meetings, which sounds bizarre. We make sure the meetings happen, actions are followed up, send out a warning if revenues are dropping off, and release funds if additional staff is required on new wins. We make sure the business ticks. We’re the discipline in the company.” Waugh resigned and came to South Africa in 2011, when his wife was offered a job at Old Mutual. “It was a huge risk for me,” he says. After a short stint at Omnicom affiliate Interbrand Sampson South Africa and a voluntary project with an enterprise development fund for young black entrepreneurs, Waugh found his feet at TBWA. “It’s been great and similar to some extent to my previous time with Omnicom, but there are more regional aspects. We deal with affiliates in the rest of Africa and South Africa itself is much more regionalised than the UK. My senior team is more spread out and I travel more, which I had to get used to.” Obviously Waugh has noticed some marked differences with London, like South Africa’s onerous labour laws, the challenges of dealing with SARS and the amount of paperwork required to bring on new clients and suppliers. “I found all the red tape and administration quite frustrating. There is so much paperwork and in the early days of working in South Africa, little things like every page on every agreement requiring a signature drove me quite mad. I was definitely worth avoiding some days” The Scotsman was also hired to “bring a more commercial dynamic to the finance team”, he explains. “The quality of accountants is very good, but they often just provide numbers for the senior management to interpret. It is my focus to get them to be more commercial and I strongly believe that this increases job satisfaction and performance.” Procurement personnel now play a much bigger role in the marketing divisions of large clients than in the last few years and it has a bearing on agencies like TBWA. ”Sometimes the role procurement plays is a positive one, especially where they ensure that marketing departments operate in accordance with processes that we have agreed, but the time it takes to negotiate the contract can slows things down considerably. It can take many months to get fees finalised and the initial excitement on the client win can be dampened during the elongated process. Procurement has also required agencies to be focused on cost cutting. “It is the name of the game in South Africa, like it became in London, says Waugh. “Procurement personnel come to me and say they want 10 percent more work output for 30 percent less cost. And that has actually happened three times to me already this year. A huge part of what I do is to find cost savings, ensure that we buy efficiently for our clients, and pass on cost savings whenever possible. Every cost is under the spotlight and we are constantly monitoring our productivity and effectiveness.” Waugh says he has helped the company to slow down at the right moments. “I am working closely with senior management to ensure that we don’t make fast decisions that look good initially but don’t fit in the medium to long term plans.” Waugh is enjoying the entrepreneurial spirit of South Africans (and of course the weather). He’s been intrigued by ownership structures in the country, often involving minority shares for founders or B-BBEE trusts. “Black empowerment is absolutely key for business, but often very challenging and complicated. The challenge in the marketing industry is that there is a small pool of black talent, which leads to issues of affordability and the loss of talent that you have trained.” It has helped Waugh to come in as an outsider, he says. “Being a foreigner can be positive, especially when it comes to implementing transformation. I have no axe to grind and look neutrally at the process. I am actively working towards a black finance professional to take over from me as Group CFO and I have brought in new software to track every month our B-BEEE score and how key decisions, especially hiring decisions affect our score. We have tough targets to improve our scorecard ahead of the change in the codes and are embedding them into all areas of the organisation. This is one of the projects that I am most proud of.”

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