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Mad wo(men) of marketing: Meet DBS’ Karen Ngui

The advertising scene is infamously known for the love of its mad men. In its glory days all through the sixties, and some may argue as recently as 10 years ago, women weren’t key decision makers. In many parts of the world, many might argue they still aren’t.

Closer to home, fighting hard to be heard is also an issue women in the boardroom and in leadership positions have had to overcome. Stereotypes still exist in our very much self-proclaimed modern society. Determined women get constantly labelled as “dominating”, “aggressive”, “bossy” and “bitchy”. Sometimes these labels take a creative turn with word plays such as “ball buster” and “ice queen”.

And that’s exactly what spurred this issue and our inspiration behind this new series. Here, we speak to women who were powerful enough to overcome the labels and the world of the mad men, and sought their views across a range of issues from leadership to sexism. We hope their voice and opinions will inspire both men and women to speak up on the issues they believe in, and demand for only the best in our marketing industry.

First up we have Karen Ngui (pictured), who joined DBS in June 2005 and is currently the head of group strategic marketing and communications. Known to drive high standards, Ngui leads media and issues management efforts across the DBS Group. She is responsible for managing and enhancing the bank’s brand positioning.

With more than 25 years of experience in corporate branding, marketing and communications for financial institutions, she tells Marketing what it takes to survive in this field.

What’s the toughest thing about being a female boss?

I would say the most difficult thing about being a boss, not just a lady boss, is being perpetually time scarce. So much to do, so little time. This is always a challenge, but with modern technology, I am able to work from anywhere, anytime. As time is of the essence, it is essential to prioritise well and find the right balance between family and work commitments.

Being in an organisation that provides a great deal of flexibility, and recognises performance makes it possible to find the optimal balance. However, having the privilege of working with like-minded individuals from varied backgrounds who thrive on doing well, makes work much more meaningful and enjoyable.

Staff members aren’t always the kindest to opinionated female leaders. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s imperative to do the right thing and maintain the courage of one’s convictions. I may be known to be tough, but I am fair, and as long as my conscience is clear, I do not bother or entertain “noise” from the naysayers. I take my work seriously, set high standards for myself and my team, and would rather let the quality of our work speak for itself to quell any negativity.

What are some of the biggest challenges women on top in the ad world face? 

The pace and intensity of change in today’s world is getting increasingly daunting. As such, it’s important to have an insatiable appetite for learning, to be adaptable and agile, and to have the discipline to apply one’s learnings in this age of digital disruption.

Have you had to face gender bias in your role?

No, I haven’t. Regardless of gender, the most important thing is to be really good at what you do well. We have to accept that all of us have different qualities and we should focus on playing to our strengths. It’s really about the person who can do the job best with their experience, work ethic or talent. If you are good at what you do, your work should speak for itself – whether it’s done by a woman or a man.

Sexism and harassment in the ad industry: Is this an issue in Singapore?

I’ve spent most of my 30-year career in the banking industry and have not been subjected to gender inequality. In fact, on the contrary, DBS is a great organisation which believes in building a strong culture – a culture of respect and empowerment. The bank also believes in meritocracy and strongly advocates women leadership.

In Singapore, women form 60% of DBS’ overall workforce, and 40% of our senior management are women. Women also make up 30% of our group management committee, which sets the strategy and direction of the bank. In fact, we were one of two Singapore companies named in Bloomberg’s inaugural Global Gender-Equality Index.

Building a strong organisational culture with the right values is very important. We should all focus on excelling in our respective areas of work and not hesitate to speak up should one be subjected to the slightest form of sexism and harassment.

Toughest thing about getting to the top?

Sometimes, you have to make unpopular decisions and more often than not, these decisions have far reaching consequences. At the end of the day, you can’t please everyone nor do you need to. In the final analysis, it’s imperative to do the right thing and not just follow the path of least resistance.

Biggest issues plaguing the ad world?

The entire world, not just the ad world, is undergoing massive digital disruption. As the pace of digital adoption increases, more people are consuming content differently and making purchase decisions differently. Our smartphones know more than ever about us and over time, they will provide rich data that will enable us to provide contextual information and quality content. Marketing is an art and a science, and over time, mastering the science aspects, while not losing a handle on creativity, will become increasingly important.

A tip for ambitious women:

I think people should aspire to not just become bosses, but to do work together with larger teams and cross-functional groups to collectively create an impact, make a difference and leave a legacy. You should know and believe in yourself. Play to your strengths and in areas where you are less familiar with, don’t hesitate to ask for help. It’s important to always have a point of view and articulate your thoughts clearly.

In today’s rapidly evolving world, besides having a good mix of academic intelligence and emotional intelligence, we also need to possess a good level of digital intelligence. To all the young women out there, why not reach for the stars? I urge you to enjoy the journey as you find meaning in what you do, make firm friends and lots of wonderful memories.

To read the rest of the series, check out the April 2018 issue of the print magazine.