Saturday May 5, 2012
What’s next for Chan?
By M. HAFIDZ MAHPAR
ONE gets a feeling that Jennifer Chan, who has spent three decades in the advertising industry and became the first Malaysian woman to head an international agency, is ready for a new phase in her career.
The StarBizWeek interview with her does cover her recent appointment as BBDO/Proximity Malaysia chairman emeritus, but there is also an undercurrent that she may be seeking something different than advertising.
Chan, who has been with BBDO/Proximity for 14 years, says in the interview that she is “very flattered” to be made chairman emeritus in February.
“I guess the time has come for me to pass on my biggest asset, and the biggest asset I have is really my knowledge and my vast experience. I've worked not only in Malaysia but also in Hong Kong (five years), Japan (two years) and Taiwan (three years),” she says.
“Working in each of those countries has taught me how to build business and how to build brands with many different people. With the three decades of experience and knowledge, it has come to a point in my life that I feel that my biggest asset is probably better utilised by passing it on to younger people rather than by continuing to be in an executive position. So BBDO regional and worldwide management agreed that I should take a backseat not to run the company on a day-to-day basis but rather to mentor.
“My role as chairman emeritus is to mentor the team and help look after the clients I had brought in, like KFC.“
One wonders whether Chan, who herself says she has a high energy level, would be satisfied to be in a role with no fixed schedule (she would be called in only whenever needed). Does she see herself leaving? “I don't spend so much time with them anymore, so eventually I will explore new ventures,” she says.
So how long does she expect to be chairman emeritus?
“As long as I am needed,” she replies. “It can be for two to three months, or three years. Nothing is carved in stone.”
Chan says she is learning to enjoy life a bit better. “I'm spending more time with my family, friends and community, things which I couldn't do previously due to the long hours at work.”
But she also notes that she is “exploring opportunities as a consultant and new business ventures”, now that she has the choice.
Asked whether she is sad not to be hands on anymore, Chan says she does not. “After three decades in the same industry, it makes me want to look for new challenges.”
So, what areas is she interested in? Surprisingly, her answer is: “I don't know.”
“There could be an area where building brands can be helpful. I love cooking for friends and clients, but I don't think I'll start a restaurant.
“Whatever area I will look at, it's an area that will benefit a lot from my knowledge of building brands and companies.”
Chan certainly has a distinguished career in advertising, with a long list of accomplishments.
As she was good in writing English and English literature, her friend suggested that she join an advertising agency as a copywriter.
Chan recalls: “I didn't know what a copywriter was supposed to do. I thought a copywriter copied what other people wrote. I said to myself, That's not a bad way to make a living!'”
One of her friends introduced her to Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing, who was then just forming his own agency, Wings Creative. He hired Chan as a junior copywriter, but two weeks later, he pulled her into his office and said, “You are the worst writer I had ever met!”
At first Chan thought he was going to fire her, but then Lim said, “Instead of being a writer, would you want to consider becoming an account executive?” Knowing that it would be better than not having a job, Chan said yes.
Chan moved to PTM Thompson (now JWT) as account executive a year later. She learned fast and climbed up the corporate ladder quickly.
After three years at PTM Thompson, she was sent to Hong Kong as JWT account director and rose to client services director during the five years there. JWT Hong Kong, a small agency when she joined, grew to become one of the top five agencies during those five years.
Chan was part of a team that pitched for and won the IBM account for the whole of Asia-Pacific. Hence she helped JWT Hong Kong to grow, and in the years to come she would help build other small agencies.
Her next posting was at JWT Japan, where she encountered some discrimination from her older male colleagues.
Chan was asked to handle Kellogg's in Japan because the regional chief marketing officer (CMO) of Kellogg's, a Canadian woman, had a reputation for being a tyrant. “Within months we became friends because I understood what it was like for a single foreign woman living in a country like Japan,“ Chan says.
Because the Kellogg's CMO trusted Chan, the Kellogg's brands in JWT's portfolio started to grow and sales rose dramatically. “I grew the Kellogg's business in JWT from an unprofitable piece of business to a US$60mil (billings) business. Everybody in the agency later wanted to work on Kellogg's!” Chan recalls.
She was then sent to Taiwan as a client service director to help set up a JWT office there from scratch. “We pitched for and won Ford in the first year, a huge piece of business. That win catapulted the agency from nothingness to fame and being a sizeable agency. In the two to three years that I was there, JWT Taiwan was the fastest growing agency in the whole JWT network,” Chan says.
After being away for 10 years, she returned to Malaysia in 1994. She was promoted to JWT Malaysia managing director the same year, becoming the first woman to head an international advertising agency in the country. In the three years that she led JWT Malaysia, the agency rose from 10th to third ranking in billings, and its creative reputation grew as well.
Then she was headhunted by BBDO. Chan says it was a tough decision to leave JWT because BBDO Malaysia was just a small agency in 1997 with a few clients, including KFC. But having been with JWT for 18 years by then, she thought it was time to try something else.
Today she is firmly associated with BBDO/Proximity, where she accomplished many things. “In the 14 years I've been there, the business has increased six times, and the return to shareholders has grown 32 times against the cost of equity,” she says.
“Generally speaking, every year the profit margin was double-digit. And BBDO Malaysia has always kept in line with the required budget. I was hungry to make the agency do well - I was hungry to grow the agency, hungry to be number one in creative reputation. Hence, I made sure we had the right talent and did whatever programmes to fulfil that hunger for growth and great creative reputation.”
In 2008 BBDO/Proximity won the top prize at the Kancil Awards as well as an astounding 12 gold awards. It was the eighth most awarded individual agency in the world in 2009, according to the Big Won report.
Chan says she would not rule out continuing with advertising, but “it'll probably be more interesting for me to try different things.”
Asked how she would like to be remembered, Chan says: “I'm very proud to be the first woman to lead a multinational ad agency in Malaysia and pave the way for women to rise to the top in advertising and to consider advertising as a serious and respectable business.”