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PHD’s Susana Tsui: The ad industry is no longer just about the extroverts, things have moved on

With the rapid rise of technology, media agencies now need to start celebrating and promoting the likes of data scientists and coders – argues the APAC CEO at PHD, in a conversation with Mumbrella Asia's Eleanor Dickinson

Firstly, have we become too preoccupied with addressing the gender balance and in turn become neglectful of other important areas in relation to diversity?

“Yes, the industry is too occupied with gender equality as opposed to diversity. It’s so easy to tick the diversity box by simply classifying it as gender equality. People say we need to hire more women, but in my company, 80 per cent of the team are women. Out of 15 of my CEOs in the regional market, only three are men. It has nothing to do with me hiring more women as an agenda, but because there are more women out there doing well in the media industry.

“But an area that’s also important is having a range of different cultures. So in the Asia-Pacific today, you cannot have a management team that’s just from the West. Asian representation is really important, coming from different countries. Having an imbalance of a certain race in a network just doesn’t work anymore because there are so many key markets in our region. For example, there are some networks that are very heavy with Australians. Others that are very heavy with Indians. And some networks, who I used to work for, that are very heavy with British.

“But now I think there is such a balance of power in the East: technology and e-commerce mean that China is going to be a superpower in no time. You have such hardware development in India and then Singapore, and Hong Kong, as central hubs. So you need to be much more balanced with the way you select teams.

“Gender equality is important, but it is not the only thing. Generational diversity is important because we are hiring so many young people now. They are criticised for being self-entitled, but they have been sheltered by our generation – the parents. And that explains this sense of self-entitlement as we like to blanket cover it. For them though, it’s not self-entitlement, because we brought them up that way.

But, in order to foster any creativity or innovation, you need to have that generation spread and you cannot have a meeting anymore where everyone is director level who are all the same age. In pitches, we fall into the trap of sending our most senior people into pitches and then there’s no diversity in the room – which is problematic when you have a younger brand.”

What about people skills and technology, that’s important too today right?

“Alongside the cultural and generational diversity, I would say attitudinal diversity is the third most important element. So more than 50 per cent of people we hire into the network come from different personalities than the ‘usual’ types you expect in creative industries. I wouldn’t say they have exactly become more introverted, but definitely more ‘left-brained’ [logical and analytical].

“The advertising industry celebrates extroverts: people who can present storytelling. But the focus is now a lot more on data, so we’re hiring people who are data-scientists for example – people I would not imagine interviewing 10 years ago. I barely passed maths in school, so hiring a data specialist is scary for me; and I don’t want to to stereotype them as being more introverted, but they are definitely more logical.

“Meanwhile, when they look at me and my advertising generation, they see fluff. They don’t see concrete. So we all have to find that balance and work with all these different people because it’s important for the future of marketing.”

Would you say then that there is a gulf between the different types of people across the media industry?

“Yes there is a gulf. It’s a big challenge because were not used to it. I have been in digital for a long time, about 20 years, but it’s only in the last 10 or 15 years that digital has become mainstream.

“Other people, not myself, did find it difficult trying to understand these digital people. They talked technology, a lot of jargon and acronyms. Now 10 years on, this is the norm and I think it will be difficult for a lot of people. Now to really understand the media industry, it’s not going to be people from advertising at all; even the digital guys are not data people. There are a lot of coders now.

“If you go into the mindset of a 55-year-old agency expat boss: I’m totally stereotyping now, but you probably came from New York or London or Sydney – or Melbourne – and then you really work hard, get to know Asia and how to do business here really well. Then suddenly everything is digital and it’s totally new. They have to know what data-cleansing is now, data auditing and a whole string of new words that you really have to understand. These are the kids who we need to work with to understand how the industry in Asia is really moving.

“Everything I have said has been stereotyping and so I am guilty of unconscious bias, but what we are trying to push in PHD, either through PR or internal training, is how we make people comfortable where they work. There needs to be a common culture and belief, and for us it’s about being curious. Being curious is what’s kept me going through 20 years of my career. So if you are a curious person, you will embrace the change and keep going. Because some of this techy stuff is actually quite fun.”

Are we likely to see this new generation rise up the senior ranks at a quicker pace than that of the previous? And are they ready for it?

“I think there will be a fast-track up the ladder, especially for people with more specialised expertise and disciplines. But at the end of the day, as I’ve learnt with my own career, wisdom can only be earned through time. You are not born with experience and wisdom; you have to learn it.

I wouldn’t say a person could get to a position of leadership without having the experience of business. Because at the end of the day, in the marketing business per say, the conversation is very much geared to doing business; you have to be able to talk to C-suites about either return on investment or meeting business objectives. You still need to do the years to do the business.”

You mentioned the stereotype that millennials are entitled. Another criticism that’s often bandied around is that they expect to rise higher and too quick than their skills and experience allow. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?

“I think that’s totally unfair. I think people misunderstand a lot of the millennials and that people in their 30s are a lot brighter than the generations before them, simply because of wealth and education. A lot of the older generation did not study marketing and communication, or have a degree. I think it’s fair to say they expect things – but why shouldn’t they? You have to provide a culture in which people like to come to work: it has to have an interesting product and the company has to be interested in its staff. And I think a lot of the time, companies do not provide a culture that these young people to thrive in.

“Blaming them is so easy when you do not understand the new generation. And these are the next breed of leaders and we need to respect them. We’re no longer in the old days where we only respect people more senior than we are. Mutual respect with everyone is the type of culture that the new breed needs to thrive. They can’t be successful in a constricted environment

“Here in Asia we have launched a self-service training tool because in every agency I’ve worked in, staff always say that they need more training. So I put money, resources and time into training sessions and nobody attends – they’re too busy. So instead of stuffing it down their throats, I made a set of training sessions they can complete in their own time. And this is what I mean about respecting the new generation: create platforms that are suited to them and how they were raised.”

And have you seen a big uptake from your workforce to do the sessions?

“I only just launched it, but I have said that people need to take three out of the nine courses before the year end. They’re all videos; they’re very easy and that’s what I mean – you have to give them content they love. If they don’t complete three, which I think is quite reasonable over 12 months, then no review and no pay rise. But I hope the material is entertaining, but it’s up to the staff to complete it.”

The media industry in Asia in particular does seem to have succeeded to a degree with addressing the gender gap at senior level, with many female executives coming from here. Why do you think there has been such success here?

“I’m not sure. It could be that a lot of the boys have gone to the creative agencies. I also think that the majority of Asian cultures have more of a ‘left brain’ and media agencies need a lot more thinking: a lot of it was just spread sheeting and it requires a meticulous process. And I think that’s why there are a lot more. In a creative agency on the other hand you have a lot more ‘right-brained people’ [more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective] to come up with creative concepts.”

And on a racial level, outside of Singapore is the balance right across different markets?

“On the one hand, when English is not the first language, you see more of a tendency to ship in expats. And sometimes it’s not necessarily because of their experience, it’s because we simply do not understand the culture, the language or how the business is run in that market. We tend to put in place a lot of people who are similar [to us] into local markets that are more extreme in terms of culture and language so we have that link to the market.

“Also in an emerging market, there isn’t always the calibre of people on the ground that we can simply train. So we need to import people. In Indonesia for example, it’s hard to groom local talent because the good local talent will have gone off to form their own start-up. Nobody wants to work for a big agency, so we have to import people.

“My philosophy with expats though is that they are there for a certain number of years – not more than five usually – and their job is to train and build business. You’re lucky if the expat wants to stay, but your biggest achievement is leaving that market in the hands of a good local leader.

And in Singapore, do you think the there is a trend towards more local leaders taking over leadership at the agencies here? And, as a result, do you think we will see fewer Western bosses over the coming years?

“That’s a natural phenomena. If we look through history, we shipped in white-collar workers from the West because of the lack of talent to run these agencies. But now, 30 or 40 years on, there’s a real blend of talent and education in Asia. The bar has been raised. So it’s become a phenomena for us to no longer being required to ship in expats into the region. I surely would not want to hire an expat into a position I could fill locally with the same skillsets.

“It’s economy of scale too. Now in Asia, you do not see expat packages in the way you used to. It’s no longer a region of hardship: Asia has evolved; talent has evolved as well. I think that’s the aim for a lot of networks too.

“I think what some people would say to me is that my China team is all white, and I am the first to admit that. There is a reason for that: it was due to a client’s needs. But the expats leading it are not fresh off the boat; they have been in Asia a long time. But for a business’s sustainability, you need local talent because there are only so many multinationals or even regional briefs.

“It’s so strange for me to see Western people come into Asian markets and say, ‘this is an adventure’, because it’s not – it’s business. It’s not play, it’s people’s livelihoods.”

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