Opinion

DDB Singapore boss David Tang on 15 years in charge, the ‘initiative work’ game and why he’s like Matt Le Tissier

David TangDavid Tang is Singapore’s longest serving ad agency boss. He has led DDB as CEO for 15 years and is one of the few local heads of a network agency in Singapore.

In this interview with Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks, Tang talks about a decade of dominating the Effies, the dearth of planning talent in Singapore and playing the ‘initiative work’ game.

How much of an advantage is it for a local agency to be run by a local in Singapore?

It’s a question that amuses me, since I get asked it a lot, but it has serious implications.

It makes me wonder why there aren’t more of us, and why the industry isn’t producing local talent who can run network agencies here. Why do so few networks lack the belief that Singaporeans should be part of their top talent tier?

Frankly, yes, I think it’s a big advantage. Why? Because a local has the ability to tap into the local client mindset. The prime minister gave a great speech recently about Singapore’s ambitions and the value of collaboration. You need to have grown up here, and be plugged into what’s happening locally to really understand how to tap into the social and commercial ecosystem. If you post a CEO in Singapore who’s going to bugger off in two years it’s not going to work. You’re not going to get the work your clients deserve, and you’re not going to win the business you need to survive.

I’ve been here 15 years. I’ve put in about 5,000 days with DDB Singapore. But it’s not just about me and the fact that I know the CEOs of the big local companies. An agency needs stability throughout the company. Neil Johnson [DDB Singapore’s chief creative officer] has been here for a long time too. You need a core of ten good guys to run the business who stick around and form a solid team. Fleetwood Mac made 13 albums and put in 10,000 hours of practice before they had a top ten hit.

Mumbrella recently reported that DDB broke the rules of the Cannes Lions for entering a campaign – which won a Lion – without the client’s knowledge (although Cannes has said that the entry eligible). We also ran a piece about how widespread scam is in Singapore. What’s your view on “initiative” work?

We started the Effies [Tang brought the now global effectiveness brand to Singapore in 2003], and we live or die by the real work we do for our clients. I’m obsessed with the Effies.

But I don’t think we’ll ever stop doing initiative work, or rather innovation work. Of the 99 per cent of the initiative work we do, only one per cent is entered into Cannes. We play by the rules. Clients must be aware of the work we enter and sign it off. It’s a fair deal and all the agencies knows that.

DDB was a late starter in the game. A lot of the work we do is core, serious work that we enter in the Effies. But the reality now is that what you achieve at Cannes is attracting the best young creative talent.

There has to be an outlet for creative expression – some for client projects, some with interesting new work that clients will back. The StarHub National Day campaign [a tactical idea to create an unofficial National Day anthem – the official version was panned in social media] was initiative work.

If we didn’t do work like that, advertising would become a sad, money business. For too long the agency model has been based purely on the money a client is willing to spend. Agencies need the conviction to believe in an idea that goes beyond a brief. Clients will remember an agency that delivers beyond a budget.

But I do think that an agency should be judged by the work you do everyday. Lee Clow said that at one stage Cannes was like an exhibition of speculative shots of advertising.

Which is why I believe in the Effies. They’re like the NBA. You’re playing against other teams and competing with real work. This industry has too many award shows. Agencies should choose the awards that reflect what the industry is really about – doing effective work for our clients.

DDB Singapore has dominated the Effies for ten years in a row. For the sake of the credibility of the awards, isn’t it time someone else won Agency of the Year?

You can’t stop Barcelona competing just because they keep winning! Every year I think we’re going to get beaten to Agency of the Year.

The other agencies are catching up, which spurs us on to produce better work. But I would love more agencies to challenge us. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to find new ways to surprise the market.

We have disciplined ourselves to enter no more than 13 submissions each year – don’t ask me why I chose an unlucky number. But this year, I felt that we had to submit 15 entries, because we had such a strong range of campaigns.

In the 15 years you’ve been at DDB Singapore, what’s been your proudest moment, and what’s been your biggest regret?

David Tang with the cupMy proudest moment recently was when the LionsXII won the Malaysian Super League this year [Singapore started competing in the Malaysian football league in 2012 after an 18-year hiatus]. StarHub [DDB’s biggest local client] sponsored the team. It was hard working helping to put the team together. I was at the stadium to lift the cup. It was a dream come true.

Longer term, I look around and see a team that took years to form. I’m really proud of that.

Neil Johnson

Neil Johnson

Neil [Johnson] and I have worked together for 15 years. Joji [Jacob, group ECD], who joined us four and half years ago, has been climbing the creative rankings. And then there’s Jeff Cheong [VP of Tribal Asia and head of DDB’s digital operation]. Well, he’s the reason we lost the Singapore Airlines pitch in 2008 [Cheong was at TBWA at the time, DDB’s Omnicom sibling, which won the pitch].

Not winning SIA is my biggest regret. We came second, but should have won it. But you never give up. It took time, but we eventually brought Jeff in, who’s one of the brightest digital talents in the country.

I remember wandering around my neighbourhood a few weeks after we lost that pitch. The Omnicom management had said to me they were happy that they had two agencies in the final three on the shortlist [the other was Publicis, which was run by Matthew Godfrey and Calvin Soh at the time]. But to be honest, that didn’t make me feel any better when the result was announced.

Who’s your role model?

Tim Evill

Tim Evill

I do miss Tim Evill [the former vice chairman of DDB APAC and CEO of DDB Hong Kong]. He put some fun and madness into the agency. He had days when he couldn’t take it anymore, which happens to the best of us. But I respected him hugely.

I grew up in the era of Jack Welch [boss of General Electric between 1981 and 2001]. He was my role model in my consulting days. And love him or hate him, Steve Jobs is another. He studied Chinese caligraphy, typography and design. He was a genius who knew how to learn from people and bring different skill sets together.

So do you have ambitions to replace John Zeigler and run the region for DDB?

Matt Le Tissier

Matt Le Tissier

Look at Matthew Le Tissier. He played for Southampton for his entire career [despite offers to play at Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur] and eventually played for England.

Being a regional CEO is not something that you can grow into. It should come naturally. I don’t think I’m naturally drawn by title or ambition in that sense. I’ve always believed that the guy who’s best at the job should get on with it. John [Zeigler, DDB’s regional head] is terrific at marshalling the offices and as long as he’s in the job, I’m happy that’s he’s driving the region.

The question is, what sort of good or influence could I bring to the regional role? We are building a strong hub out of Singapore, and can grow out of other offices. But it’s not just about being bigger, it’s about being better. In the early days, when DDB started out in Singapore, we were ranked 16th in the market. It took a while to build a team and define the work we wanted to do to get where we are now. The challenge for the network is to grow strength in depth at a local level.

If you could hire anyone in Singapore, who would it be?

Social media people are top of our hit list, as are technologists and planners. Social media is a tough recruiting exercise. We have plenty of writers and craftsmen who can produce great print ads and digital ideas. But people who can create great content for social media are harder to find. You can’t buy them in. You have to build them from scratch.

Who do you fear most in pitches?

At the moment, I would say BBH or JWT have talented young teams. But anyone can beat you in a pitch on the right day.

Prospective clients are not just looking for an interesting idea on the day. They want strength in depth.

Last year DDB group contested 40 pitches. It’s hard work, but I don’t think anyone in the industry is under any illusions that it’s not.

What are you goals for DDB over the next 12 months?

We make three interesting bets every year, in which we invest five per cent of our profits. One or two might not work, but we need to take risks to take the agency forward.

Right now, we’re looking at new ventures in digital, technology and social media. One of our biggest bets is in technology to drive our digital creative work forward. We’re building four portals for our clients, something we couldn’t do five years ago.

We’re also building our social media capabilities. There are lots of social media listening agencies out there, but not enough who know how to use the space to create great content and grow a client’s business. We’ll be bringing in new talent to help us on that front.

We also need to ramp up our planning capabilities. Planning needs completely redefining in this market. There was a time when planners were revered. They’d go into a pitch and really make a difference, and lay the foundations for great work. But these days it’s difficult to name the top five planners in Singapore.

We lost Wendy Ong [formerly chief strategy officer, who was with DDB Singapore for 13 years] to UOB Bank [where she is ‎executive director, head of group retail marketing] and now our best planner is our chief creative officer, Neil Johnson. He’s got a degree in mathematics, started out as a suit and then became a writer.

In the next three to five years, we need to find young planners who will dominate our industry in the future. And it’s my job to groom the next generation of planning talent. We’re looking for the intellectually honest and courageous type who can make a difference in pitches and push the work into interesting new areas.

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