In-house Insights with Nick Tomlinson of Dentsu International

Q: Tell Us A Bit About Your Background And Your Current Role As Global Director Of Ethics And Compliance, And General Counsel, Asia Pacific, At Dentsu International

I began my legal career in the litigation department of New Zealand law firm Bell Gully, working primarily on competition matters and market access regulatory issues, particularly in the pharmaceuticals, telecoms and energy markets. I progressed into an in-house role at the company that is now Vodafone NZ, which was then a client of Bell Gully. I left New Zealand in 1997, spent some time in Canada, then relocated to Hong Kong in 1998. I joined Hong Kong Telecom and was with that group under various ownership for 10 years.

In 2008, I took some time out to entertain an alternative career in the restaurant business and trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Following the global financial crisis in 2008, I joined Aegis Group plc in 2009 and I’ve been here ever since. In 2013, Dentsu acquired Aegis Group plc and formed Dentsu International, one of the largest advertising groups in the world.

Q: How Big Is Your Team And How Is It Structured?

As the general counsel for Asia Pacific (excluding Japan), I run a team of more than 40 lawyers, data and compliance professionals. This team is managed through senior lawyers who directly report to me. The remit is primarily focused on five main areas: mergers & acquisitions, commercial client & supplier work, data & privacy, compliance and management of the legal and compliance team.

In March 2021, in addition to the Asia Pacific role, I took on the challenge of leading the global Ethics and Compliance function of Dentsu International including the other two regions, EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa) and the Americas for ethics and compliance matters.

Q: What Are The Biggest Challenges Facing In-House Lawyers Today?

The biggest challenges come from two opposing forces: expanding levels of business risk – including legal, regulatory, corporate and, increasingly, consumer perception risk – competing with resource demands for legal services that are better, faster, more in tune with the business and cheaper. Satisfying these contradictory forces requires rethinking what a legal and compliance function should and should not do. No longer can legal teams solely focus on contracts and corporate governance, they must also understand the challenges facing their businesses and help deliver sustainable growth. Equally, business teams must be educated away from compartmentalizing legal and compliance into the contracts and governance department, and become active partners in managing overall business risk. Striking an appropriate balance is the art of building a great in-house team that is appreciated by the business and motivating for its legal and compliance professionals.

Nick Tomlinson Bike

Q: Did You Have A Mentor Early In Your Career? Is Mentorship Important?

I was lucky enough to have strong mentors throughout my career. Early on, my mentor and supervising partner at Bell Gully instilled in me a passion for precision and excellence in legal writing and decision-making in areas of law that were novel and untested at the time. I also had the privilege of working with strong mentors both in legal and non-legal leadership roles who taught me how companies operate (both the good and the bad), how to maximize opportunities for growth and minimize or mitigate business and legal risk. Some of the most important lessons were in how to approach managing the legal function of a company – how to be respectful to the needs of the business but at the same time courageous enough to make a real difference to the risk profile. Mentorship is crucial throughout a career and I commend my senior colleagues, if they are not already doing so, to search for opportunities to become a mentor.

Q: What Are The Biggest Challenges Specific To Your Industry?

The advertising industry has been profoundly re-shaped by mobile and online technologies, social media and other aspects of the Big Tech revolution. Concentration of supplier power has never been more acute. Decreasing trust between consumers and technology presents challenges for data governance, compliance and sustainability. Conversely, many brands have never had stronger relationships with their consumers due to technology’s power to match people with their interests. Harnessing and managing that power requires unprecedented understanding of insights from data. Accordingly, while many of advertising’s important roles, such as creative directors, would be familiar to those in the Mad Men era, the many new roles require as much science as art.

Q: How Is Technology Changing The Way You Work?

It’s somewhat of a cliché to mention the swing to remote working we all experienced through the Covid-19 pandemic. Fortunately, Dentsu International had already invested in desktop video and security technologies, so working from home was virtually seamless.

However, this revolution in work has taken a toll. It is easy to look up from the laptop and realize a 14-hour day flew by. The number one management challenge for the first part of this decade will be re-aligning work that remains as productive as we’ve become accustomed to expect, without burning people out.

Q: What Do You Most Look For In A Law Firm When Outsourcing Work?

First, the expertise and excellence I look for must be additive to the expertise of our own team. Second, the partners and teams with whom we work must be responsive and engaged – egos should be checked at the door. The whole arena of alternative legal provision is an exciting trend. Combining lower cost services, better charging structures and the smart use of technology is highly compelling. I’m interested in changes and trends across the board — from innovating traditional law firms and new alternative legal providers to technology-based solutions. I’m also encouraged by the move away from traditional hourly billing towards tasked based billing. Firms adopting a mixture of alternative legal service provision, technology and insight are the most interesting.

Q: Other Than Law Firms, What Other Services And Tools Help Your Legal Department The Most?

We are presently evaluating legal management tools and platforms, and in my compliance role we are considering solutions to help us with incident management, data capture and insight generation. Generally in daily workflows, my colleagues and I capture as much as we can through platforms and technology solutions, and push away from emails, docs and spreadsheets.

In APAC we are also working with a technology partner, ThoughtRiver, to help us triage third-party contracts based on our playbooks by using AI and machine learning. This has been especially helpful when working with English language contracts in many markets where English is not the first language.

Nick Tomlinson Family

Q: What Aspects Of Your In-House Role Do You Most Enjoy?

Making a tangible difference is most rewarding. It is very satisfying when major projects are delivered, whether they are acquisitions, new business development, population-wide training, influencing the Board to adopt risk mitigation strategies, or other aspects.

Developing my team is vital to success and I take a lot of pride in how many of the lawyers and compliance professionals in my team have grown into seasoned leaders in their own right.

Q: What Changes Do You Foresee In How Legal Services Will Be Provided In The Coming Few Years?

I think legal services provision will likely bifurcate into managing throughput of similar legal and compliance outputs (such as contracts, regulatory documents, compliance assessments etc.) and sophisticated and strategic legal advice to foster business growth and risk management. The first area will require teams, tools and technologies optimized for sustainable delivery. The second will require expertise capable of advising strategically and being highly tuned to business risk.

The challenge for the profession is in development and training for legal and compliance professionals while facing pressure to optimize for delivery. Equally, professionals must be given time and space to acquire the right knowledge and experience to manage sophisticated risks and provide the strategic advice companies need.

Q: What Advice Would You Give To Young Lawyers Starting Out In Their Careers Today?

All young lawyers should first learn their craft. Finding a good mentor early in your career is vital. Precision in legal writing and thought should be a priority at the outset. I would be less focused on climbing the ladder too soon. Having the right foundation pays dividends over your career.

The second piece of advice is that courage and integrity are everything for in-house lawyers. These can be hard qualities to maintain in the face of business pressures but are absolutely key. Many companies have foundered when company officers lack the strength to avoid or mitigate predictable risks due to expedience or a focus on short term returns.

Q: What Is Your Hinterland (What Do You Most Like To Do Away From Work)?

Away from work, I am an enthusiastic but mediocre cyclist and triathlete. I enjoy travelling and setting myself personal challenges, including Ironman 70.3 races in Indonesia, Vietnam and China, climbing Wuling in Taiwan and Mont Ventoux in France by bike (pictured) and participating in the largest cycling sportive in the world, L’Etape du Tour in the Alps in France. My other interests are in cooking and wine and spending time with my family. Making hot cross buns with our girls was a real pandemic treat!


Nick Tomlinson Nick Tomlinson

The Global Director of Ethics and Compliance
and General Counsel, Asia Pacific for Dentsu
International, one of the world’s largest
marketing and advertising groups.

Nick is a New Zealander who started his legal
career at Bell Gully, New Zealand’s largest
law firm. In total, Nick has been working in
Asia for more than 20 years.


*This article is the IHC Magazine’s off-shore update for July 2021 issue. Click here to read the full magazine

In-House Community Magazine – July 2021 (e-edition) including Legal Innovation & Legal Technology Report 2021

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