Features

How I got here… Tim Kelsall, Kantar’s Asia lead

From a life dedicated to research and sport to battling to achieve ‘work-life integration’ and running ultra marathons, Kantar’s Tim Kelsall takes us through his journey over the years and what makes him tick

Education

I grew up in the north of England and had a glorious childhood with the sea and countryside close by. My parents always encouraged my sister and I to throw ourselves into as many things as we could, to try out new things and gain lot of experiences.  Hence life was full of activities and learning from playing the piano (quite well), the trumpet (less well), being terrible at football, excelling at swimming and everything in between.

As I look back, this was important as it taught me to be open to new opportunities, to be slightly fearless and not to be afraid of finding out that you we are not good at everything. Who is?

As a ‘fearless’ boy

It taught me to appreciate the importance of sticking at things and putting the effort in to get better and better until you achieve something. For example, I wasn’t allowed to give up piano lessons until I had reached grade five – that was the parental deal. This has really shaped a lot about how I approach things generally.  

I was educated in the United Kingdom and throughout my O-levels, A-levels and my degree, I always just followed my passions and the subjects that I enjoyed. At that stage I hadn’t set my heart on a specific career, so I kept my options open and collected knowledge and experiences that would give me choices later in life. 

That said, my passions were English and history, as I enjoyed the fantastic stories of great world events from the past. This never felt like learning. The real fascination for me was in why people do the things they do and how, as a society, we end up doing some amazing things – and likewise some horrible and stupid things. Again, another thing I take with me through life is ‘learn from the past to be better for the future’.

After completing a history degree, I went on to do a master’s of social science – which nurtured my interest in figuring out ‘what makes people tick’. Boom. That then landed me a career in market research and the rest as they say is history.

My start

I started off my career as many people do, straight from university and joining the graduate programme at Millward Brown (Kantar/WPP) in the UK. I had chosen Millward Brown as I loved the work we did, specialising in brand and advertising effectiveness.  In my master’s degree, I had done my thesis on the impact of advertising on culture and role models. What I loved about Millward Brown was the intellectual rigour about understanding communication effectiveness, but in the commercial world.

There were so many super-smart people at the company (arguably the smartest people in the industry, all in one company), who were so expert in what they did. I learnt so much about brands and communication as well as a best-in-class client-servicing approach of ‘love your clients, do great work, and the business will look after itself’. We were really taught to be curious and to challenge both yourself and your client.

I also met a great bunch of people, many of whom I am still in touch with. Millward Brown’s HQ was famously in Leamington Spa in the middle of the UK, so pretty much everyone moved there for the role. There was a big graduate intake so it was very collegiate and a bit like an extension of university.

This is where I think I learnt my craft and my passion for delighting clients. We really prided ourselves on being the best, working with the best clients and delivering the best – just a relentless client focus. The whole business focussed on delighting clients.

It was also a great time to be there, as it was a time of international expansion of the business. This coincided with worldwide brands taking more global approaches to marketing, and looking for partners in this. So, it was a super cool time to work on top client relationships around the globe for the likes of Unilever, PepsiCo, GSK and so on.

I was then offered an opportunity to come out to work in Singapore to build up the office here. Based in a shophouse in Chinatown we were a small and young team putting Millward Brown on the map in Asia.

This shows how much the world has shifted. I recall working on some early advertising campaigns for multinational brands, which were entering China for the first time.  Creative ideas were of course typically developed in the west and were television-centric. They struggled to connect with Chinese consumers, who at that stage were hungry for facts and information about brands they were encountering for the first time. Today, we all look to China.  

I was also lucky enough to work on the client side for Scottish & Newcastle (Beck’s, Foster’s) in Scotland and that was a critical learning phase for me in understanding the application of insights to drive business decisions. It really taught me the importance of clarity of thinking. Who has the time to read big PowerPoint decks? The role of the insight leader is to distil this down and bring the consumer voice to the table in a simple and compelling way.

Still with some wanderlust, I had a spell in innovation leading the redevelopment of our creative development solutions, which was based in New York. While I was in the United States, the pace of change in digital communications was just starting to ramp up and we were fast adapting our offer. It was great fun and really exciting being at the forefront of this.

Then while I was in New York, I moved into a Kantar headquarters role to head up our client strategy team, managing relationships across all the 12 operating brands for our top clients. Some six years ago, I moved to Singapore in this role.  

A couple of years ago, I also took up the leadership of the business in Malaysia as CEO to help transform things there. Juggling the two roles is tough, but hugely rewarding.  What I really enjoy is running the agency and being really hands-on.

During my career, I have always been proactive in putting myself forward for new opportunities to round out and stretch my skills and learning – be it taking secondments with clients and working on site, spells in R&D developing client solutions or most importantly, taking assignments within the international network and leading teams in Asia, Europe and North America. This has all given me a truly global perspective of the business as well a macro view from across different functions.

Approach

The main lesson I have learnt is to seize the opportunities that you can, as well as having a clear vision of what you want to achieve in your career and making sure those opportunities and experiences help you to get you where you want to go.

I think you also need to adapt your style. You must truly understand the culture and people that you are working with. This takes time and I don’t think there are shortcuts. The best way to do this is by immersing oneself with your people and your clients in a market and investing the time.

I think it’s also important to respect the local ways of working, but also to share new perspectives from other parts of the world.

Highs and lows

Highs:

A career with Kantar has been on reflection a real high. I have had the opportunity to work in Europe, America and the APAC region with some amazing clients. But at the end of the day, it’s a people business and the people you get to work with make the difference.  

Having a shared passion for what we do is most important thing. This is our passion for our each other, looking out for another, the business issues that our clients are searching for, and a passion for the business and its future direction. It creates energy that I think is infectious and helps galvanise everyone behind a common goal.

Having clarity and vision for where we need to head and what we need to achieve is critical for a business as well for personal success. This then must be backed up by practical and tangible strategies for achieving goals that enable you to make it happen.  

This is what makes me able to run 100 kilometres as a hobby. Set a big goal, break it down into manageable parts, know what you need to do each week and stick at it. This is what I apply to business life and it gets results.

Lows:

How do you achieve work-life balance when being agency side, you are always at the beck and call of the clients? I hear this so much from young people entering the business and it’s the downside of the great industry we work in. I don’t think we can change that, but what we can control is how we manage it.  

So, people ask me how I cope. To be honest I think we need to reframe our thinking as I don’t think a ‘balance’ exists. Today, our clients need us to be on most of the time, but this doesn’t mean working 24/7. It’s about getting work-life integration.  

You must make some time available and have a flexible approach. Technology really allows for this. But it’s important to make sure you make time for yourself – even if it’s just a short amount of time each day. It’s important that you recharge and re-energise to keep a healthy mind and body. It’s so easy to become burnt out or run down without the balance.

So, in my spare time I love sport and I race in triathlons, ironman contests, marathons and more recently ultra marathons. I have represented Team Great Britain at the ITU World Triathlon Championships a couple of times. A lot of people always ask me how I find the time. Well, it means a lot of early mornings – as I get training in before the work day and evening takes over.  

What I love about sport is that I learn a lot from the people I train and race with. It’s about setting stretching race goals, developing a plan, training hard, getting the right balance with work and having fun. For me, there is nothing better than a long run around McRichtie Reservoir or the East Coast in Singapore.

Just put your brain in auto-pilot and go. It’s pure recharge. Some of my best ideas come to me on a run. Coming back, having figured out a tough problem that I hadn’t been able to solve, is inspirational.

Dos and don’ts

I take inspiration from my sport. You must do the training – you can’t just show up and expect to win. Like a marathon, it’s a long race, so be prepared for the unexpected and above all, you must be prepared for a sprint finish.

At the Kuala Lumpur marathon

And enjoy the victories. Going back to my early days at Kantar Millward Brown I genuinely believe this; do what’s right for your clients and the rest will follow.

Tim Kelsall is the Asia-Pacific chief client officer at Kantar, a research company owned by WPP, and Malaysia chief executive officer of Kantar Insights

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