Susana Tsui on her first nine months at the helm of PHD Asia Pacific

Susana Tsui

Susana Tsui is nine months into her role running media agency PHD as Asia Pacific CEO, having joined from Ogilvy.

She was in Cannes to catch up with Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about her impact on the agency since taking the reigns, her plans to shape the future of PHD, and why she arrived in Cannes in a helicopter.

So, Susana. You arrived in Cannes via helicopter. Why, and what sort of message do you feel that this sends to clients?

Everything in Cannes is driven by vendors. This is not about me being a Prima donna. I took a ride with some people at Salesforce.

Most people in the market have a lot of admiration for PHD, its culture, its people and its product. But some says that agency has not quite kicked on to the big league of media agencies in Asia. What do you say to those critics?

Our relatively small size means that we’re nimble, and our philosophy has always been around being planning led. As a region, Asia is still catching up in terms of communications planning, especially in clout-driven markets where share of voice is still really important. But clients are catching up now, and there will be a greater need for communications planning that will play into our hands.

In a sense, we’re kind of like a Naked Communications, who will never be an agency like an Ogilvy & Mather. We don’t aspire to be a giant like Mindshare, and that shows in the type of people we hire.

What about a market like Australia, where a perception that PHD has not reached its full potential persists?

I would say that there is a misunderstanding of what PHD is all about, but it all depends on the speed of change in any given market. I spend a lot of time in India, China and Indonesia, markets where CEOs need to be to keep on top of unfolding trends – these markets leapfrog, and you need to be at the forefront and have local expertise. You can’t replicate what you’re doing in Europe or the US, whereas Australia falls into that mature market bucket.

Look at RECMA [the media agency measurement rankings]. We don’t tend to win big buying pieces of business, but then again we are fuelled by Omnicom Media Group, which has clout. It goes back to talent and finding people who do exceptional work and are the right fit for our brand.

How would you say your first nine months have gone for you and the agency?

We have won business, although some of that business we can’t talk about due to conflict. And the network is not quite mature enough to publicise those wins and work the channels. We’re still a new agency – we’re like a toddler. You can tell a story about yourself, but the story has to be meaningful, which is why we’ve been careful with what we tell the market.

What has been the biggest challenge of the job so far?

For me, the big challenge has been adjusting to a different culture – moving from a big, well-oiled machine [Tsui had a senior APAC role at OgilvyOne before moving to PHD] to a network that is more entrepreneurial.

We’ve made leaps and bounds in integrating innovation and technology into what we do. Internally, we’ve really come together as an Asia Pacific network, and we’ve tapped deeper into our global resources.

Like all new agencies we’ve tended to want to grow locally for a long time, but now we’ve formed a regional network committee that enables us to hit the ground running, and quickly. We’ve also built comms planning hubs in Singapore, China and Australia.

How long did it take you to adjust to the PHD culture and way of working?

About three months.

If you could have done anything differently in your first nine months, what would you have done?

I would have been a little less conservative, and taken a few more risks.

In an article on Campaign Asia, it was suggested that your presence has yet to be felt at the network. How do you respond to that?

It was not unfair to say that at the time, as I’d only been in the job for a few months. But with any network, it takes six-12 months to actually see change from a new CEO. Hopefully by the end of Cannes, you’ll see that impact taking shape. Our client wins are more focused on communications planning strategy and the future. Soon, clients will understand more and come to find us. But it’s not all about the numbers. It’s about the offering and relationships. You will see change in the maturity of our offering translating into results.

There are loads of people in this industry who are opposed to change; the bigger networks are keen to protect their positioning around clout. But this business is not about agencies and clients, it’s about how consumers are changing. We often forget that consumers are not at the end of the queue, they’re at the beginning.


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