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Meet the CEOs: SMG’s Jeffrey Seah

Starcom MediaVest Group ‘s CEO, South East Asia and chair, Asia Digital Leadership Team, Jeffrey Seah is a well-known face in the local and regional media industry.

Marketing speaks to the man behind the role for an in-depth view of his leadership values and more.

Describe your management style.
I would rather talk about leadership. Leadership is about service. Leaders are there to inspire a view for the collective, to facilitate solutions or to solve problems. It is being part “Pied Piper”, and part “final help desk”, especially in the darkest, loneliest hours.

Most times than not, leadership has been confused with management. Management is about doing the corporately (or dare I say, politically) correct thing.  Leadership is about doing the right thing, underpinned by values.

Values-based leadership is a mantra I subscribed to.  People are loyal to values, not the leader himself.  This is often hard to balance in the “short-termism” cultures of listed or commercial entities. Living through values is not easy to do. A values-based leader has to live and breathe values.

When the P&G ASEAN business shifted, we refused to let our staff go behind the oft-parlayed, convenient “restructuring” phrase. Instead, we drew up re-deployment opportunities for every one – not just those who were mobile.  We even called up our friends in other agencies to place the staff in areas of their strengths – but never out of pity.

It is easy to treat people with respect in times of abundance, it is more important to respect them in times of scarcity.

My management style has always been about duty – to my role and to my people. Honoring the duty moves a manager to a leader.

Describe your career path.
I started out in advertising by accident. It was serendipity. I did triple science in school because my parents wanted me to be a doctor, like all Asian parents. But I knew I was not conservative enough to be a start-out General Practitioner (the excuse I gave myself).

I studied Business in National University of Singapore.  Upon graduation, I promised myself to accept the first job offer to pay off my stock punting debts.

Ogilvy & Mather came calling.  I liked the red shoes of David Ogilvy. Then it was the red apples of Leo Burnett, followed by parting the “Red Sea” of advertising – launching Starcom, when media agencies came to the fore.

Then back to WPP with Mindshare, and then VivaKi.

What was your first job?
I was a media planner/buyer at Ogilvy & Mather – distributing free cinema tickets, magazines and media owner premiums to eager agency colleagues hovering around the old boiler room media department.

Who was the mentor who most influenced you and why?
Andre Nair, the mentor of many mentors and last of the personas of the industry – a man who lives and breathes the business, and who showed me how to live and let live.

Proudest moment in your career?
When my three kids were born. They made me all-rounded as a human being, and inspired momentum in me to do more “right” things – corporately, personally and socially.

Your biggest blunder in your career
Too many to rank.  Personally, it will have to be sacrificing family gatherings for a pitch on the first day of the Chinese New Year holidays. Professionally, (it was) turning down a CEO role in the middle of the dotcom boon in the 90s. Those stock options cashed…could have built a full new wing for the Assisi Hospice – a Singapore charity organisation for which I sit as a board director.

When you’re not working, what will you be doing, aside from spending time with the family?
Catching up with myself, my family, my hobbies, my readings and my society.

Harshest thing said to you in your career?
“Since you have been to the military as part of Singapore’s conscription, you must understand what is a bulletproof glass ceiling.”

When you were a newbie in the industry, did you dream you would be CEO one day? What kind of CEO did you want to be and how closely have you stuck to it?
Never.  There was no red thread in the persona of agency bosses then, you could not identify or ascertain what made them got there. So it was about learning by “not repeating the mistakes of others.”

Craziest thing your staff has told you?
Me: “How did you lose 3 accounts, and only knowing about it from a trade magazine?”
Staff: “Jeff, I was top 5 % in my graduating class, it is not my fault.”

One thing you would say to a newbie in the industry:
Learn three new things every day. Ok, learn 10 new things every day.

What’s the toughest thing about your job?
Balancing time.  Last year I made more than 30 business trips.. Trying to balance that with my family and societal commitments was hard.

Your biggest peeve about the ad industry
Advertising professionals should champion our profession with pride. This is something we don’t do enough of. Another pet peeve, not holding up our intellectual property enough!

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