Originally trained a chemical engineer, Joseph Tan (pictured), currently CEO of MullenLowe Group Indonesia, did not stumble into advertising until a few years later with a marketing degree. This was after realising those confines of a laboratory in a white coat was not for him.
He started with an internship in an advertising agency in Australia, and has never looked back since. 25 years later, Tan has regional experience at various agencies such as Dentsu, TBWA and Ogilvy under his belt and has had the good fortune of working with the industry’s luminaries, he revealed in a recent conversation with Marketing Interactive.
Since then, he has been the CEO of MullenLowe Group Indonesia for over a decade, which has garnered hundreds of local and international accolades for their work, along with the privilege of working with 50 of the countries’ most-loved brands.
His first managing director’s role in an international agency at age 29 also had a profound effect on his career. Through this experience, he learned first-hand how success has to be forged through learning from multiple “soul-wrenching failures”.
Born in Singapore, Tan identifies as a budding chef, proud father and struggling drummer. After surviving his first triathlon during his search for a new challenge, Tan started training for longer distances and in 2014, fulfilled his childhood dream when he crossed over the finishing line at his maiden Ironman Triathlon race in Western Australia.
In this edition of Meet the CEOs, we sit down with Tan to talk about his greatest inspirations, and his hopes for the industry.
How do you describe your management style?
I don’t think I have a predominant management style. Different situations requires different types of leadership or management. Much akin to Bruce Lee’s “Be like water” I believe today’s leaders need to be versatile, spontaneous, flexible, adaptive and progressive.
Leading by example is key, and I like to exemplify the values I want to instil in my team.
I can get into the trenches with the troops to support or observe from the distance to give space. I like to huddle with my team but would not hesitate to be totally “hardcore” when situation demands it – like a ruthless football coach. I strive to bring out the best in my team, whatever it takes within means and reasons.
Who was the mentor who influenced you the most and how?
It would have to be Tham Khai Meng; current global chief creative officer of Ogilvy. Before Ogilvy, we used to work in an agency renowned for having world class creative talents but being a harsh place for suits. I remember his criticisms, words of wisdom and constant encouragement.
He taught me about art direction and even talked me out of trying to become a copywriter. He is eccentric but visionary and highly-driven. If anything else, he inculcated the importance of creative integrity in me. He told me then in 1996 to watch that space as he would be the first Asian to helm a global creative network. It became a reality 13 years later.
What has been the proudest moment in your career?
A couple of years back, we took the entire agency to Paris for our company outing. Everyone including receptionists and office boys came along. Late on the first night, I visited the Eiffel Tower and the temperature plummeted to 10 degree Celsius. I saw three of my office boys there, inadequately layered and braving the cold to admire the tower light-up for four hours straight. I urged them to head back to the hotel but they refused.
One of them said to me “I am still in a dream and I don’t want to wake up. Everyone in my village can’t believe one of their own has made it to Paris. I want to savour every single minute here and take this experience back to them.”
I will never forget those words and until this day I remain immensely proud that we are able to share priceless experiences with every single one of our employees.
What inspires you the most?
I’m most inspired when I am taking part in an Ironman Triathlon race. You are surrounded by 1,200 highly driven, positive, physically and mentally hyper-fit athletes who are going to swim 3.8km, cycle 180 km followed by a 42.2km marathon. All to be completed back to back in less than 17 hours.
At the starting line, you see fellow triathletes that are 85 years young, physically-challenged with only one leg or some with no limbs at all beyond their knees or are blind. When we are all racing together, all these disabilities dissipate as we are bonded by this gruelling journey to feel infinite. I never fail to get awestruck by this unwavering will and the human spirit. It reminded me that once we believe our mind is stronger than our body, anything is possible.
What’s the toughest part of your job?
Seeing what was originally a brilliant idea being bastardised to become absolutely insipid. It’s still heart-wrenching after all these years.
What has been the harshest thing said to you?
In my 25-year career, I have been subjected to countless verbal abuse and harsh comments; mostly justified, some uncalled for. For this it would have to be “you are a (non-compliant expletives) WH*RE! You will agree to anything just to get money”.
It was related to a tedious project I was working on and I didn’t have the tenacity to protect the integrity of the idea. I relented to the client’s ridiculous request and the outcome was a catastrophe. My creative team went through hell and the work was reputation-damaging for the agency. It was a career defining lesson for me. Sorry and thanks, Khai.
What do you do in your free time?
Training for my Ironman Triathlon races, cooking for my family and catching up on my hobbies. I love to collect anything vintage. I have an old soul and get easily nostalgic. I have a huge vinyl collection and love listening to them on my 60 year old turntable. It transports me back to my youth and rekindles my love for English Indie
How do you ensure a proper work life balance?
My kids keep me in-check. They are my work-life-balance-alarm. If they don’t go off it means I am doing something right. Daily dinner with the family is my sacred way to touch base with everyone’s on-goings, and kudos should go to my lovely wife for keeping me sane amidst the constant madness.
What is your favourite vacation spot?
Would have to say Japan. I am totally in love with their art, culture, design, quirks and cuisine. It is a country obsessed with rituals, details, originality and complete dedication to their crafts. My family and I always get spiritually rejuvenated after a trip there. I am totally hoping to be reincarnated as a Japanese after I die.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone just starting out?
“First be clear then be clever.”
What issue would you like to see the industry change in 2018?
Truly demonstrate what we do is the perfect union of art and science.
Our job is to be the best storyteller for brands backed by science and engaged/amplified through technology. Kind of like Cambridge Analytica x Quentin Tarantino x Apple.