I started my life in Melbourne growing up in my family’s Chinese restaurant where I started working as a waiter from the age of seven.
Above all, it taught me how to be resilient.
For a seven-year old, restaurant work wasn’t easy. Things were non-stop. You had to stand on your feet for long hours serving customers. When the restaurant closed at 1am, we had to mop floors, wash dishes, clean the kitchen, clear out the grease trap (the worst job ever) and prepare the restaurant for the next day.
The restaurant was located a few doors down from a pub in a rough working-class suburb called Brunswick. Things were very different in Melbourne in the 1970s. Growing up with a Chinese background wasn’t easy against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. It took me years to understand why some of our customers would keep calling me Charlie. After having one to too many beers at the pub, they would come in drunk and abusive. When I look back, it made dealing with any tough client today look easy.
We had a small black and white television in the back of the restaurant and I grew up watching shows like Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Mash, The Love Boat, Charlies Angels and Gilligan’s Island. This is when I first fell in love with advertising. I would study every ad and could repeat the scripts of iconic ads, word-for-word, like Vegemite (a favourite Australian spread), VB (a beer), Mortein (a fly spray) and McDonalds.
This love inspired me to eventually study business advertising at RMIT University in Melbourne before moving into the agency world. This was where the real learning took place and I continue to be a student of the business.
I started as a trainee at Grey Advertising. Whilst studying at RMIT, I worked every Friday at Grey doing everything from delivering mail, faxing memos and emptying trash. I was fortunate enough to work closely with the then CEO, Paul Gardner who was the master of new business. He taught me a lot about prospecting and art of pitch delivery.
When I finished business studies, I started as an account executive at Mattingly & Partners in Melbourne working on one of Australia’s largest retailers – Myer. Cutting your teeth on an intense retail business like Myer was fantastic training.
In 1997, I decided to get back to my Chinese roots and find an opportunity to live and work in Hong Kong. As the old saying goes, ‘timing is everything’ and a role (regional account director) fast became available at Leo Burnett. So, I packed my bags, said goodbye to friends and family in Melbourne and embarked upon my first gig in Asia.
On my first day in the new assignment, I remember looking out of the window of my office and being struck by a beautiful image of a traditional Chinese junk positioned amongst the backdrop of a modern city. It was a fantastic metaphor to describe how Asia was changing quickly and sailing into a new era.
After Leo Burnett, I joined Cummins&Partners (later SapientNitro), where I was part of a team that delivered strong business growth, created several world-class, award-winning campaigns and expanded into digital and direct. The agency was at the top of its game winning back-to-back agency of the year awards. Working at Cummins taught me a lot about the importance of building a strong culture and its profound impact on driving the success of an agency.
After spending four years at Cummins as their managing director, I joined the Omnicom network as the regional CEO of PHD before moving on to take up the position of APAC CEO for Omnicom Media Group in 2013.
Before I started at PHD, I asked some senior clients at my previous agency what they thought was missing from most media agencies. The consistent response was that they were tired of their agencies coming back with the usual recommendation of TV, print and radio. There was generally a lack of thought put into their recommendations. There was no surprise, no delight, and no creativity.
For years media practitioners were often thought of as the number crunchers and buyers of media space. The folks normally brought in at the end of a creative presentation and my work over the years at PHD and Omnicom Media Group has been to change that perception.
I live by the motto that innovation delivers a disproportionate and transformational ROI for clients and media is no longer just about spaces for ads. Media is now more about platforms for ideas and innovation and as a CEO, my focus has been to instil a culture innovation, ideation and thought leadership across the network and its brands.
I’m going to ‘borrow’ from an interview I saw of Jerry Seinfeld. He was asked to speak in front of a group of university students and was asked what his rules for success were. He said: “Pay attention – observe everything that is happening around you. Fall in love – not in the literal sense but when something good happens, just celebrate the moment, like when you get a great cup of coffee, or a great parking spot – celebrate it. Bust your butt and from a work perspective give it all you can. Work hard and only good can come out of it.”
I think that is true. Anyone that is successful will dedicate a lot of time to do what they do because they love it, and they get better at it. People who work hard at what they’re doing will progress faster and learn more about themselves in the process.
Another thing that is very important to me is the ability for a leader to have emotional intelligence or EQ. Now more than ever, leadership is not about having a strong IQ but a strong EQ. How you relate to people is very important. That’s not just at the CEO level but all levels within an organisation. I like to think of my management style as being very open, collaborative and relatable. People are what ultimately drives the success of a business.
Highs and lows
What gets me out of bed is building businesses.
The challenge of building a company’s culture, it’s vision, its team, a strong P&L, a strong client mix, a broad product mix, a wide footprint and a great reputation is what’s important to me.
When I left Cummins&Partners, it was one of the biggest agencies in Australia. I started when the agency had only 23 people.
Building the PHD brand has been a tremendous experience. The amount of growth PHD has had over the past decade has been extraordinary. When I joined, PHD was only seven offices. It’s now 21 offices across APAC. In 2008, we had no regional clients. Today and thanks to the efforts of an excellent team under Susana Tsui’s (current APAC CEO at PHD) leadership, we have well-known clients like VW, Unilever, GSK, SC Johnson, Google and ANZ bank.
Over the last six years, OMD and PHD have won over 100 agency-of-the year awards across the Asia Pacific region. PHD has been awarded Asia Pacific Media Network of Year 4 out of the last 6 years.
Susana has taken the brand forward in APAC as Susana is quintessentially PHD – forward-thinking, innovative, confident and always looking to find a better way.
I have the belief that work and life is like a rollercoaster ride. Some days are great and some days are terrible. When the roller coaster is going up, its quite boring but when its going down, that’s when it’s the most thrilling. That’s when you truly get challenged and you learn the most about yourself both personally and professionally.
Dos and don’ts
Never give up, even though you have to sprint as our business is a marathon game.
It’s a tough business, so just like what I learned in my early restaurant days, you must be resilient.