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PHD’s new CEO Susana Tsui on life after Ogilvy, how to succeed as an Asian woman and why size doesn’t matter

After almost eight years at Ogilvy, Susana Tsui is one week into her role as Asia Pacific CEO of PHD.

Susana Tsui

In this interview with Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks, the Hong Konger talks about why she left Ogilvy, how PHD is different, and what it takes to succeed as an Asian woman in advertising.

You were at Ogilvy for a long time – as regional president of Neo@Ogilvy then COO of OgilvyOne. You were tipped to make it to the top of the network. Why did you leave?

I was too comfortable and needed a new challenge. I got to the stage in my career where I felt I needed to test myself, to see if I could make it outside of the digital world.

What does it take to make it as a CEO?

It’s not about hitting the numbers – it’s about personality.  I’ve been told that I have the passion and energy to make it as a CEO, and I think I’ve always known that I’m a bit different. I’m not the mainstream type. I think that suits the PHD brand, and I’m tenacious enough to take the network where it needs to go.

I see myself as a people’s manager, and I’m proud of that. Politics is important. That’s how you win people over – how you relate to people. You could be a great CEO at one company, but if you don’t fit in with the culture where you go next, it won’t work.

So how does the culture at Ogilvy compare with PHD’s?

I think the biggest difference is that at PHD there is the belief that anything is achievable. The vision of a company like Ogilvy gets lost because of the network’s sheer size, its complicated matrix reporting structure and the simple fact that there are so many people. The bigger the agency, the easier it is to lose focus on your culture and what you stand for.

I really think that PHD is a different sort of agency that takes a different approach. They are courageous enough to hire a different sort of person. They want to make a bigger play in digital, and that’s why they hired me.

You are among the few Asian women to run a multinational network. Do you think you’ve had to fight harder to make it to the top?

Asian women need to stop believing there is a glass ceiling. It is only real if you believe that it exists. What matters is how confident and determined you are, and how you balance your life in the way you want to live it.

There will probably always be more men than women in the business world. That’s nothing to be afraid of. Women are good at managing different situations simultaneously, and that’s an advantage in business. I connect with clients better because I’m a woman. This business is about chemistry and being relatable.

I love being Chinese and I love being a woman. I have no qualms about either. I know how to be firm when I need to be. Business is business.

So what’s your top priority in your new role?

Cheuk Chiang

Cheuk Chiang

Injecting digital at the forefront of the agency. That’s the first thing. Cheuk [Chiang, who was promoted from Tsui’s role to CEO of Omnicom Media Group Asia Pacific] has done a good job of building the foundation and culture of PHD. Now it’s time to push on to the next level.

It’s hard to tell one media agency from another, other than by trading clout. I know that it’s a very female thing to say, but size shouldn’t matter. Anyway, our clout comes from OMG. The opportunity for us is to combine digital with our strengths in creativity and innovation.

Neo was never big. It was always a challenger brand – and so is PHD. That’s one of the reasons why I took this job. It’s a similar challenge, but in a bigger field.

How important is ego in your job?

It’s important for a CEO to have a big personality. You’re leading a tribe of people who need a clear, strong vision. If that’s what you call ego, I can’t see anything nothing wrong with it. I’ve never met a CEO whom I admire who is wishy-washy.

You’ve been an MD, VP, COO and president. This is your first job as a CEO. Who is your role model?

Kent Wertime

Kent Wertime

Kent Wertime [former boss of OgilvyOne, now chairman of Ogilvy Japan and COO of Ogilvy APAC]. He’s the most pragmatic person I know. People who don’t know him might think he’s machine-like and cold. But he has a big heart. He’s a very intelligent man who can unpick a market place with frightening ease.

You’re very young for a CEO. You’ve only just turned 40. What’s been the proudest moment of your career so far?

Bringing media back into a creative agency with Neo. At the time that was unique. Digital was kept separate by agencies, and digital wasn’t yet a part of everyone’s lives. Ogilvy saw what was coming, just as PHD gets what’s happening now. The world is not about media per se, it’s about communications. It’s not about paid media, it’s about engaging with consumers in new and interesting ways.

What’s the one decision you regret in your career?

Everyone make mistakes. The trick is to realise what you’ve done wrong and correct it quickly. I was talking to a batch of Ogilvy interns recently, and one of them was worried about the pressures of an industry like advertising. He is 21 years old. I said to him that for bright young people, there should be no concept as failure. You need to have the courage to realise that if something goes wrong, you can correct it. It’s not the end of the world. If I had been given that advice when I was his age, I would probably have got to where I am now in half the time.

I’m not the sort of person to make rash decisions. But I’ve given up a lot of my personal time for work, and if I would do it all over again I would find more time to do things that make me happy.

What advice would you give to those who want to follow in your footsteps?

Be honest with yourself. I’ve met many people, especially women, who say they want to do what I do, but are concerned that having a family would to get in the way. It shouldn’t. It won’t, if you’re careful about how you manage your time. I’m sure people think that because of my career, that’s why I’m single. Well, family and responsibilities don’t go away when you have a time-consuming job. You just have to find the time for them. It’s hard, but not impossible. It goes back to the glass ceiling issue. It only exists as a problem if you believe it to be real.

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