Leo Burnett Singapore boss Josh Grace on Aussies in Asia

Josh GraceJosh Grace is MD of Leo Burnett Singapore. The Australian moved from the network’s Sydney office, where he was COO, 13 months ago.

In this interview, Grace talks to Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about life as an Australian adman in Asia.

What were your first impressions of Asia when you first moved here? Is it as different as you thought it would be?

You’re always going to make assumptions about what somewhere new is going to be like, and they’ll not always be right. I really believe Asia is the future – the centre of where everything important is going to happen in the world in the next 10-20 years.

I moved here for my kids too. Australian kids need to understand the enormous change that’s going on, and that Asia is at the heart of it. We, as Australians, can get stuck on an island at the bottom of the Pacific. We’re connected in some ways, but in others we are unconnected. Asia gets more dynamic, interesting and influential day by day, and Australians need to get a grip on that reality.

What’s the pace of working life like in Singapore compared to Sydney?

It’s pretty similar. Advertising is a hard game. It’s an industry full of energy and youth, and it’s a lot of fun in some regards. But the pace of work and demands on people are getting harder and harder, and the business is getting more complicated. I’m not sure that the pace of the business is all that different wherever you work in this region.

What’s the main difference in lifestyle between Sydney and Singapore?

The main thing is how you get away from it all. In Australia, you tend to get in your car, drive and go camping. In Singapore, you get on a plane and fly. Singapore is a great place from which to explore Asia.

What do you feel is the reputation of Asia among Australians back home? Do you feel that Australians see Asia as a backwater?

Most Australians are aware that there’s a lot happening up here. But there’s the comfort factor of being at home that keeps them there. For many, Asia is too fast and there’s much change going on. For others – like me – this is exactly what they’re looking for. The pace, the excitement, the energy.

Yes, there are still Australians who look to the US or Europe as where they want to develop their careers. But things are changing. Most Australians have a more worldly view than they had in the past.

Don’t you find Singapore to be a little, um, flat compared to Sydney? How have you found the lifestyle adjustment?



I’ve heard that said, but I don’t think it’s true anymore. There’s a creative renaissance at a street level now happening in Singapore. There are lots of little districts starting to open up. The shops and restaurants here are no longer so formulaic. And people here are starting to show a creativity and passion for life in different ways. A lot is changing here. You just need to get out of your condo and look around.

What about the media in Singapore? Don’t you find the Straits Times to be somewhat strait-jacketed compared to the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian?

I don’t tend to read the papers anymore. I have a clipboard on my phone that gives me news from around the world. I couldn’t tell you whether whether the press in Singapore is good or bad.

Australians do well in Asia, but I hear that many get homesick and want to go home. Do you get homesick?


Bronte beach, Sydney. Missing this?

It feels like I’ve only just arrived, but of course it’s down to the individual. You’d be lying if you said you didn’t miss home at some point. Some people come here and love it. For others, it’s just not for them and they’ll leave. You have to have the attitude to make the most of it and make a difference where you can.

Singapore has a suspect reputation for scam (ads made purely to win awards). What’s your view on the scam culture here?

I’m not a fan of that culture in any market. We don’t subscribe to scam here. It’s certainly not something our ECD [Tim Green, who moved from Leo Burnett Sydney to replace Ted Lim, now at Dentsu, in April] would do. We have an important role as the creative arm of a client’s business. It’s something we take very seriously.

Where we are prepared to go beyond our clients with creative work is with pro bono work for charities. But we will still treat that as paying work for clients. It’s important for the culture of our agency to make an effort to give back.

What’s the toughest challenge for Australians moving to Asia?

The most difficult thing, of course, is leaving your friends and family behind in Australia. But home is really not that far away. And Singapore is en route to a lot of destinations Australians like to go. On the personal front, there’s a natural adjustment phase you and your family has to go through, and I’m still coming to terms with that. From a work perspective, I’m lucky to move within this network. Leo Burnett is a great network for looking after its people, and the work transition hasn’t been all that dramatic.

What about the working hours? How are they different? Australians sometimes have a reputation for spending more time on the beach than at work…

I’d say the number of hours we work are similar, but in Singapore things start later. People come into the office in Sydney around 8-8.30am, whereas in Singapore they get in around 9-9.30am. That might be because Aussies want to leave earlier so they can go for a surf after work. Here, I get into work at 7am and it’s an hour before anyone else gets in.

What sort of person do you need to be to make it in Asia?

The key thing is empathy. You have to be open minded to different cultures. You can’t come in and think you can transplant Australianness in Asia. If you have a natural empathy as part of your DNA, you’ll do okay. If you come in with the attitude that you know better, you won’t get on here.

You can bring skills that you’ve developed in other markets, but you need to listen and understand how things are done here, otherwise you will find it very difficult to adapt.

How long do you think you’ll be here for? Are you here for the standard two-year stint before moving on?

Two years would be unfair – I would not be doing a service to the people who work for me. Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m very team focused. When I discussed the role with my boss [Leo Burnett’s APAC president Jarek Ziebinski], I thought it would not be fair for me to work on a fixed contract. My job is to set up the agency as a sustainable business and ensure there’s another generation coming through to one day take over.

In my mind, there’s no time frame for how long I’ll be here. My job is nowhere near done yet. I’ve got ambitions, and those ambitions will take several years to fulfill.


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