Jacqui Lim on overcoming gender stereotypes when you’re an an agency leader

The CEO of Havas Media Singapore and Mumbrella Asia’s Agency Leader of the Year – Jacqui Lim –talks boardroom tokenism, work-life balance and holistic agencies with Eleanor Dickinson

Firstly, has climbing your way up the ladder been an easy journey for you?

“Previously, I was at Zenith for six years and when I first joined we were going through a bad patch. Within a month of joining, we lost HP Global and we lost Star Hub locally – and they were two of the biggest revenue-generating accounts at that time. That’s scary when you’re the last person on board; you have not done anything to prove yourself or to contribute to the agency’s growth.

“We had to go for pitches and find a new story to tell because of all the bad press we were getting. It was tough, but during that time in my career I didn’t really focus on the negatives. Instead, it became about presenting better to our clients and making ourselves more relevant to the market again. As I was new to Zenith, I had no baggage; I didn’t know what was the right or the wrong way. I just came in fresh and wanted to try new things.

“We soon started winning accounts again; we started with just mid-sized businesses. Then, about a year and half after I joined, we won the telco M1 and one of the largest banks, UOB. And it was good to be part of that team during the agency’s recovery.”

And what leadership lessons did you learn during your formative years that you now bring to your role at Havas?

“To be calm and never panic, and to never transfer worries to the team. It was always about thinking ahead and new ways to address a problem. There were never sessions complaining or lamenting about a loss, or how horrible the clients were.”

Do you think women lack confidence generally when it comes to pushing themselves forward for things such as awards or promotions? Is that a problem in the media industry?

“If we don’t put our hands up at work when it’s something we are more than capable of handling, just because we are scared or apprehensive about being viewed as overly-aggressive or too pushy by others, then that’s silly. That will definitely stand in the way of your growth.

“We should always put our hands up, if we feel we are the right person for the job or if we think we can be elevated into a bigger role. We should be encouraging the next generation of female leaders to do that.

“One of my main mantras is that we should always work hard and not expect concessions just because we are women. When I was young, I was the only female in the family. I have one older brother and all my cousins are guys, so I was the resident princess at home. In a more traditional Chinese or Asian family, there is a tendency for the elder relatives to give in to you [as a girl] and tell the boys to give in to you also.

“After a while you get groomed into thinking you might be the weaker gender, so if you want to play with the boys, you have to earn your badge of honour. That means being able to do the same things they can do – walking the talk essentially. So if we expect a lot of concessions at work all the time, then we cannot demand equality at the same time.”

Lim picks up her Mumbrella Award for Agency Leader of the Year 2017

In light of that then, how do you feel about boardroom quotas for women?

“As women, it’s always great for us to earn our seat in the boardroom. What is not good is when we are a token placement because we are female. I am a firm believer in meritocracy, so if you are good and you have got what it takes from a skills or qualification  standpoint, then you should be given an opportunity to be in that boardroom as much as a man should be. But it should not be because they need to make up a quota. That is not satisfying; we want to earn that place.”

But do quotas become necessary when it comes certain biases against women. For example, when a woman reaches a certain age and she may be likely to take maternity leave – are they not required to ensure a woman is not overlooked or cast aside?

“Instead of fixing a statistic to make ourselves feel better that we are giving all women an equal opportunity, a better way would be to facilitate and support women who are going through a certain stage of their life. If they are in their late 20s or early 30s – the age when they are going to start having kids or will have young children who need a lot of work – for example. I have two young children and I think what benefited me the most was the flexibility shown by my boss, if I needed to leave early or work from home.

“As long as I delivered the work, then they were flexible with me. My company at that time was not focused on seeing me at 8.30am in the office. Because of that flexibility, my performance never dropped and hence I as on a level playing field with male colleagues fighting for a place in the boardroom. However, if the support system is not there, then most women are not able to perform as well.”

Are there specific work programmes in place at Havas Media – soon to be just Havas – that actively help women climbs up the ladder?

“Basically a lot of our talent development programmes are about nurturing the next generation of leaders who will be succeeding us. But we are hoping to work with HR and create a lot more structured programmes for just women.

“As I and a lot of my directors are working mums, often with young children, I absolutely understand the need to find the right work-home balance. They are some of the most driven, combative, hard-working people I have ever worked with. It’s amazing how they will never miss an important day for their children, but never compromise their work whatsoever.”

On a final note, following the news of Havas Group’s global restructure and the merger between media and creative divisions, do you foresee any changes to your current role? And where do you see the industry going in terms of the merging of media and creative? Will that become the norm?

“A media person today cannot say they do not understand creative and a creative person cannot say they do not understand media because the clients see it as one integrated, holistic service. They see it as one campaign or one big idea and it needs to be supported by strong media, strong creative and strong insights. It should be seamless.

“Clients will have the choice to work with Havas as a whole or some will still have creative agencies and just continue to work with us on media – or vice-versa. That already happens and that will not stop. It’s certainly going to be an interesting time.”


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