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Mad wo(men) of marketing: Meet Godmother’s Linda Locke

Often referred to as the godmother of advertising, and famously known as the “Dragon Lady”, Linda Locke has spent over 40 years honing her advertising and marketing experience. This saw her rising through the ranks from Batey Advertising to Leo Burnett and Saatchi & Saatchi, where in 1984 she took on the CEO role, while remaining as ECD and APAC chairman.

Active in the marketing industry, Locke is currently founder of Godmother Consulting. She takes a look back at her career in the ad world.

What is the toughest thing about being a female boss? 

I cannot say there was anything especially difficult because I was a woman. It is a tough job for anyone. In general, I found clients were respectful of the position rather than being focused on my gender. The only time it was an issue was when managing Korean male clients. I would send my male deputy managing director on the basis of, “If you can’t beat them, join them”.

We would discuss the strategy before he went and he would come back and debrief me and we would work out the next steps. At most it would be fair to say balancing being a mother and being in the senior management with the stress and demands on your time was the hardest part – more so because the job required me to travel every month.

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

Yes, of course. I was the “Dragon Lady” didn’t you know? Ha ha. I was called a b*tch and probably more. It is true that when men are tough it is seen as a positive trait, almost attractive, but women are regarded as being flawed or somehow defective and unattractive for being strong and tough. In fact, we are downright frightening to some men.

Would your career experiences as a topnotch ECD and CEO be different if you were a man?

No, it would not. In some ways it was easier, especially if we were advertising more female products or selling to women decision makers. Conversely, it might have been more difficult dealing with male-oriented products and services such as beer, armaments, IT, military organisations and cars, but I found that if you had done your homework and could argue knowledgeably, clients would listen. After all what they care about is whether you can solve their problems and sell their products.

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

In my experience it is less of a local issue as staff and clients in Southeast Asia seem to be quite accepting of females in senior positions. It was more challenging at the international networks I worked for, as politics seemed rife and egos came into play.

The perception that maybe women were not up to the job or might not be fully committed did seem to raise its head from time to time. The most powerful way to plough forward is to do an excellent job and build strong client relationships as that ultimately is where the power is. If you are making the company money or are controlling the money via the client, you are in the strongest position within the company.

Have you had to face gender bias in your role?

I would say it has sometimes worked in my favour as male clients seemed to enjoy having a female senior management person to work with and even harmlessly flirt with! I have had male staff try to bully or manipulate me into giving them promotions or letting them get away with unacceptable behaviour or requests. I have also had senior male bosses try and intimidate me and control me – it didn’t work.

How did you overcome gender bias?

I just worked harder to prove them wrong. Won business and awards, raised standards. Sometimes it really is about standing your ground, fighting your corner and knowing when to walk away. I had a boss who tried to break an agreement that meant my staff would be denied their bonus. I threatened to resign. We won a massive number of awards that night and my staff got their bonus.

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

I personally had to let an account person go when I discovered she had taken to sitting on the client’s lap – literally. I also had sexual advances made to me by a senior management person, but used humour to defuse the situation. Overall though, I do not recall of many instances of sexism and harassment in my time in the industry.

How do you aim to make a difference?

As I always have – lead by example. Fight injustice when needed. Use whatever smart strategy that works to get a good result.

Toughest thing about getting to the top?

The long hours and the stress take a big toll on your health and personal life.

Biggest issues plaguing the ad world?

Being able to create real measurable value that clients are willing to pay enough for. Without doing the work and really understanding the client, product, competition and landscape so that they can be true business partners, agencies will continue to be seen, bartered with and paid, as suppliers.

A tip for ambitious women:

Be sure it is what you really want. It is not for everyone and involves a lot of personal sacrifice, passion, drive and commitment to be successful. I do think, however, women have a bit more empathy than men, and intuition, and that can work to their advantage.

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