Kevin Ramsey, a larger-than-life New Zealander, has just been made
the chief operating officer of J. Walter Thompson East Asia-Pacific. He
has weathered the economic downturn that has dominated the region for the
past two years and now finds himself at the helm of an operation that is
well placed to grow from the economic recovery.
Ramsey, whose relentless swearing is of Tourette’s proportions, explains
that because JWT had such a broad infrastructure in the region, it was the
most vulnerable when the crisis came. It forced the network’s regional
president, Miles Colbrook, to scrutinise the efficiency of the region and
subsequently led to ’considerable re-engineering’, according to
’This has been pretty successful. 1999 was our best year in the region -
helped by the economic upturn but also by being a lot leaner and meaner
and more efficient as an organisation. We are now optimistic that the
worst is well behind the region and believe it is time to get aggressive
again. My appointment is evidence of this attitude,’ he says.
He now has ambitious plans for growth: ’I think Asia-Pacific is less than
20 per cent of JWT’s revenue. My goal is to build revenues here to
one-third of the network’s revenues within three years.’
It is the kind of bullish attitude you would expect from a former star
rugby player - Ramsey used to play for Auckland.
’I got a law degree at Auckland University. I pride myself that I managed
to combine the lowest marks possible to get through with the least amount
of work possible. I was playing rugby seriously at the time and was far
more interested in this, and the hell-raising that went with it, than
work. After university I went brick-laying but the winter was too cold so
I looked for a cozy, warm job and advertising seemed perfect.’
He began at Charles Haines, now FCB. He says he only got the job because
the agency’s boss, Ray Dalton, was a former All Black. After five years he
moved to Colenso (BBDO) but quit when he didn’t get the top job and went
to set up his own agency - Angles - with four other partners.
After five years, Angles - by then the largest independent in New Zealand
- merged with a then-slumbering JWT.
JWT must have been impressed by him. Ramsey recalls: ’Chris Jones (chief
executive of JWT Worldwide) asked me if I would consider going somewhere
else and in 1995 they bought me out and sent me to Detroit - I suppose to
have a closer look at me.’ Ramsey must have passed muster because a year
later he was running the network’s Australian and New Zealand
The nebulous meaning of the title ’chief operating officer’ makes it
appear that Ramsey is in some kind of limbo - albeit a very powerful
It seems likely that he is being groomed to eventually take over the
region from Colbrook.
JWT has a fixed global strategy, according to Jones. This includes
aggressively improving its creative product, building the company’s brand
beyond straight advertising, and driving growth. Ramsey says he wants to
rejig the network’s historic reliance on packaged goods and automotive,
shifting from the old economy to the new one with more clients in
technology, telecommunications and finance.
Ramsey believes his core challenge is cultural diversity: ’Getting to
grips with different markets which, in terms of our business, cover the
wide spectrum from very mature to almost virgin and everything in
Then we have to structure a business model in each place that provides the
appropriate product offering for now, but that can change as the market
Jones has faith in Ramsey. He says: ’He loves the work, the product. He’s
keen on great work. He’s also a great businessman.’
Ramsey is positive about pulling the varied Asian outposts of the network
together: ’They’ve all got used to me. Being a New Zealander I tend to
call a spade a bloody shovel too often but we always seem to be able to
enjoy a beer afterwards.’