Throughout her years in the advertising industry, Dentsu International HK's CEO Simone Tam has always prided herself on being a good listener. Prior to joining Dentsu, Tam worked with many leading advertising networks such as FCB Hong Kong, Shanghai and San Francisco, where she rose through the ranks from account executive to managing director. She then moved to DDB and held the role of group CEO for both Hong Kong and Guangzhou operations. In 2015, Simone joined Dentsu Mcgarrybowen, where she led the Shanghai and Hong Kong offices as the Greater China CEO.
Tam believes that a mark of any good leader is to listen to their employees - without judgement. As such Dentsu Hong Kong is an organisation that often launches internal surveys to get feedback from employees. This is then used to create a positive culture and environment at work for employees to excel in. Tam also says that good management is all about making improvements and finding better ways to get things, transform the businesses through inspiring people to change and innovate.
In this interview, we find out more about Tam and what drives her.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What was your first job? What was your first role in advertising?
I couldn’t wait to start my first job! I did my final examination on June 17. I reported to work on June 18! I was hired as assistant account executive (can’t get much lower than that!), at an agency called Bozell at the time, which later became FCB. I was assigned to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, and I was very lucky, my first boss was the legendary Tim Isaac, who retired as chairman of Ogilvy Asia Pacific back in 2012.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What was your first impression of advertising?
I fell in love with the people; smart, creative and fun. I appreciated the thinking and hard work behind every single piece of work, despite most ideas did not see the light of day.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Who was the mentor who influenced you the most and how?
There have been so many. Tim Isaac of course, who personally led the HKTB business when I joined the industry many years ago. I was so lucky having someone such as him who taught me the fundamental principles. And that account management was much more than client servicing and project management. We needed to be strategic, creative, good with people, responsible, organised, detailed minded, and strong in numbers. Then there were amazing bosses such as Dionne Kung and Sylvia Lee, both were my direct team leads, and two exceptional female leaders who taught me you can be tough but you cannot be personal.
Then there was Gary Tse, former CEO and chairman of FCB Greater China, who was the one who interviewed me, hired me into Bozell/FCB and mentored me throughout my 17 years with FCB. We remained close until the day he passed away in 2012.
Then there was Richard Thomas and Dick van Motman. Both saw my potential better than myself.
And recently, Cheuk Chiang who has shown me through his leadership style that true leadership is one that comes with empathy.
I am so grateful that I have had all these amazing leaders to learn from.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What's the harshest criticism you've received and how did you cope with it?
I had been for probably, for the first 20 years of my career, been my own worst critic. I used to spend hours focusing on what my weaknesses were and spent sleepless nights worrying about what others thought of me. I had drained valuable energy that could be used more productively. Until one day, funny enough, I looked up, the writing was on the wall, literally. It was at DDB, before I joined Dentsu group, and one of the famous Bill Bernach’s quote was written on one of the walls, it read, “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.”
From then on, I was able to sleep much better.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Describe your own management style now as a leader.
Maybe because of that inspiration, I became confident in having a point of view and bringing about changes that may not be popular with some people. Because of this, I believe I probably live by “transformational leadership style”, in particular the last couple of years at Dentsu.
It’s all about making improvements and finding better ways to get things, transform the businesses through inspiring our people to change, and innovate. I believe only if we are open to transformation, we can learn, innovate, and change for the better as people, as an agency group, as an industry.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What's one thing you wished employees understood about being a leader?
Good leaders would listen if only employees would share.
The truth of the matter is, we do want to hear and understand their voice. This is why we often launch internal surveys to get feedback from our people, so we know the areas we can work on to create a positive culture and environment for them to excel while they are with us.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What do you do during your free time?
I spend most of my time with my parents and my two boys, if I could do every second of it with them.
My parents are aging fast and my boys are growing up way too fast. I value and treasure every minute with them. Doing nothing in particular, chatting, watching Netflix, NBA, my boys’ Youtube and IG feeds. The last year has been focusing on researching university for my elder one.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Where do you find your inspiration?
People around me. There are so many amazing people around me, be it our clients, my partners, my team; I often find what they say truly interesting and inspiring. I have a love for people's stories.
If you have something to say, I am there listening. I find the most authentic ones have the best stories in them.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: If not in advertising, where would you be?
I wouldn’t know and wouldn’t want to know. A lot of people say advertising is not like it used to be. I am glad to see that advertising has transformed.. It’s gotten more interesting. With data, we now know our consumers much more deeply. Data doesn’t make boring ads. Data gives us more information about the consumer, and from there we can have a more insightful strategy to resonate with them.
We never used to know which half of the advertising work, now, we know which piece works, and why. It used to be a TVC, now it can be an entertainment or gaming solution.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What advice do you have for someone looking to start a career in the industry?
You need to know it’s really hard work, your family and friends would never understand what you do, but you still love it.
MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What issue would you like to see the industry change in 2022?
The industry is going through probably its most difficult challenges in the decade of talent shortage. Some talents have relocated, some have gone to the client’s side, some have jumped to e-commerce platforms with their rapid expansion, and some have joined tech companies and gaming start-ups. And this shortage of talents has had a domino effect on agencies: shortage of resource, title and salary inflation, disruption of business for both clients and agencies, frustration on both sides and client losing trust in agency partner. I would love to see agency leaders come together and solve this constructively as an united industry.
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