Thailand-based CEO Mark McDowell talks delegation, growth mindset and riding the curve of the pandemic to success

Primal, a data-driven online marketing company based in Bangkok, has risen to become one of the region’s fastest-growing marketing firms—recently expanding to Malaysia—and works with brands like Land and Houses, Raimon Land, Le Cordon Bleu and Under Armor. The company is helmed by CEO Mark McDowell,  Campaign Asia’s “Young Achiever of the Year (2018)” in Southeast Asia and a member of the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. The upstart CEO recently spoke to us about how he manages one of the region’s best upstart marketing firms—everything from seo for businessGoogle ads, pandemic struggles to mentorship and the importance of delegation.

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A lot of companies, especially in the media, struggled during the pandemic. How did Primal react to that situation? 

MM: There is a perfect analogy for how Primal responded to the situation, and it comes from Bain & Co. They describe how the very best companies respond in a recession. Think of a recession as a sharp curve on an auto race track. It’s the best place to pass competitors, but requires more skill than straightaways. The best drives apply the breaks ahead of the curve (or take out the excess costs in our case), they turn hard towards the apex of the curve (so they identify the shortlist of products that will form the next business model), and then they accelerate out of the curve hard (spending before markets have rebounded). 

So, for Primal, we asked for discounts across all of our suppliers (taking out excess costs), and that includes a lot of the software and tools that we use. We’re talking 70-percent discounts and above. We also pushed out supplier payment terms as far out as possible to delay that potential cash leaving the business. We also trimmed all the budgets that applied to things that would be happening if we were all in the office together—things like fun activities. 

On point number two (shortlisting projects that will form the next business model), these are things like initiating work-from-home. We also implemented new ways of working with the teams using the tools we use online. We’re also working on the boring stuff that makes our business more efficient, like improving our processes. 

Point number three (accelerating out of the curve), we noticed Facebook CPMs (cost per mille) down by 70-percent. Google ads were 50% cheaper at one point, too. People were not buying like they normally would, but they still wanted content—engagement increased by about 60-percent. Content demand was up 5x, which meant it was a good time to build your audience with ads about content or pushing content as much as possible. 

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Why is it so important that companies have a strong feedback structure and growth mindset?

MM: That’s really what is going to drive you to improve. If you have an organization, and there’s a lot of people with fixed mindsets and people aren’t willing to change or adapt to improve, you’re really going to struggle to build the positive culture and performance that you need out of your team. 

That’s why it is really important to hire people with a growth mindset, because that is basically going to enable you to build a feedback culture where feedback and being direct with people is accepted and is what people want. So we do that as well for Primal. We continuously ask customers for feedback and I see that as an opportunity to make us better because we are connecting with them. We get to hear their thoughts and we take all of that feedback seriously, whether it’s positive or whether it’s negative, because that’s what’s going to drive us to improve continuously. 

We try to deploy that as well within the company to ensure that we’re continuously improving. It doesn’t have to be huge improvements over time or big changes, but it’s being better than yesterday and improving by that one-percent and really just continuing to create that safe environment where we can support each other.

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You’ve said that you see a lot of managers working in their teams instead of on their teams. What do you mean by that? 

MM: I think I notice in a lot of managers, not only here but in other companies as well, they end up spending a lot of time in the operations, in the day-to-day. For us that might be client work, and for business owners it might be working on specific projects. This tells me that they are not delegating well enough, and the reason being is that they are working too much in the team and not on the team, or in the company and not on the company. 

Delegation is actually a skill, and to delegate well is extremely important for those higher up in the company. Why? Obviously, delegation is really about efficiency.  Managers and business owners need to spend their time on the 20-percent that’s going to impact 80-percent of the results for the company. If they focus on the day-to-day too much they are just helping to keep things running, but they are not focused on strategy and what to do next. 

A good general rule of thumb is that if someone can do 70-percent of the work and the manager can do the other 30% then it is worth delegating. I highly recommend taking a look at your to-do list and figure out which tasks have you working too much in the company, or in the team, and what are the things you could be doing to work on the team or on the company. 

It’s also important to delegate well, and delegate to the right people. Usually if you give people the responsibility they are going to rise to the occasion and want to do something that might be higher than their job grade because they want to prove themselves.

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Can you talk a little bit about the difference between mentoring and coaching in a work environment? 

MM: One of the biggest key drivers of growth for a company is the knowledge and learning of their own staff. As much as companies try to do training, learning sessions for the team, external training, webinars and workshops, nothing beats self-learning as well as learning through a mentor or a coach. 

There are some key differences between those two. For me, mentoring is more of a one-on-one relationship driven by the mentee to inquire and get as much out of the mentor or their own learnings as possible. It could be a less experienced person asking a more experienced person to mentor them, and that sort of relationship is established where the mentee is going to be driving the direction of the conversations and getting the knowledge they need out of that particular person. 

In terms of coaching, the key difference to me would be that it’s driven by the coach. The coach knows what is important to succeed at a particular thing. The coach is basically driving that knowledge down to the person being coached. 

I think it is important, with one-on-one training, that these particular relationships are established at the beginning, because then it is going to define who is going to be driving those sessions and the relationship between who is learning and requesting that information.

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The pandemic, and how it has lingered into 2021, has dealt massive blows to industries across the world, and especially media-related companies. This conversation with McDowell has highlighted potential strategies and management solutions to not only survive rough and unprecedented business climates, but also how to use them as opportunities to restructure, grow and actually improve businesses.

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