It is a very rare thing to see a person — and a woman, no less — rise through the ranks for almost two decades within the same company in the fast-paced and frenzied world of advertising. But ad woman and recently-appointed managing director for TBWA\Singapore Mandy Wong is living proof that it is possible, and that passion and hard work do pay off in a great number of ways.
With a background in fine art and design from Malaysia, 48-year-old Wong started her career in the late 1990s as a visualiser with a Malaysian advertising agency. Seven years later, she took a short industry hiatus to raise her two children while helping out in her mother’s fashion business.
Wong returned to the industry in 2005, officially joining TBWA\Malaysia as an account executive working on the global Tourism Malaysia account. She did exceedingly well, and that the company relocated her to the Singapore office, where she progressed to become the brand custodian for the Standard Chartered account across Asia, Middle East and Africa.
The proudest moment of her career was winning the pitch for Caltex as Digital Agency of Record in November 2013 with a regional remit. “I had always thought my skill sets were limited and confined to traditional platforms. At that time, the digital scope with our clients was very much focused on website builds only and less on integrated campaigns with digital marketing. Stepping out of my comfort zone and leading that pitch changed my mindset on what I could do. It was also a big step up for me into a subsequent group brand director role,” she says.
After leading the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) portfolio for four years, in 2019 TBWA\ Singapore made her managing partner. This year, she was promoted again to managing director, overseeing other global brands like IKEA and Singapore Airlines, to name a few.
Wong (second from right) and team at the Marketing Magazine Agency of the Year awards
Under her leadership, TBWA\Singapore has received the highest honour in regional and global advertising and marketing awards including Marketing Magazine’s Overall Agency of the Year 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021, Campaign Asia’s Creative and Integrated Agency of the Year from 2018 to 2020, and Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies 2020 for the TBWA Global Network.
With experience across multiple global and regional clients, Wong has grown steadily into her leadership management role and is now second in command to the CEO, presiding over all aspects of the business — people managment, financial planning, productivity and operations.
She is also leading a newly-launched mentorship programme at TBWA which aims to prioritise the support and well-being of the agency’s over 200 employees. Currently, professional training sessions for mentors are underway to ensure they are well equipped with knowledge and tools on how to be a good mentor.
“We’re calling it the First Mate programme — the reference being to officers on a ship as we at TBWA call ourselves ’pirates’. It’s catered to anyone in the agency who is keen for mentorship support,” she explains.
While Wong is clearly a role model to the agency, her journey to success was not always a smooth one. She says: “Starting at any new job has its struggles such as a new environment and culture, new processes, job expectations and a new team to work with. The beginning of my career at TBWA certainly was not easy. I was slightly older than most account executives in the agency.”
“Coming in from an art background, learning to use new office system tools and corporate language was new to me. But I was very fortunate, I had an amazing supervisor who really put the pressure on me to learn fast and yet supported me through the steep learning curve,” she says.
Company culture is also key to why Wong has stayed this long at TBWA. “The creative environment, the people-first culture, the energy, the open structure, the diversity and the creative work was and still is exciting and continues to give me a rush every day. I love that each day is different and unpredictable,” she enthuses.
“But the biggest reason why I have loved and stayed with TBWA has been the supervisors and mentors I have had and continue to have the privilege of working with. They make such a huge difference when you are so eager to learn. The leadership from the top have truly led by example throughout my time at TBWA, and this is what I love most about the company.”
To her, the managing director role is not only a testament to her years of hard work and dedication, but that gender should never be a setback to unlocking your achievements – contrary to what you see on TV series Mad Men — and that women can be just as influential in leadership positions. “The days of Mad Men are mostly long gone. But the fictional portrayal does give some accurate insights into how a great idea has the power to change and build a brand. Thankfully, this still continues in our industry, and is one of the most dynamic examples of how our business is able to shape and help the world’s biggest brands to succeed,” she says.
With great power comes great responsibility. Wong personally feels that it is her duty as a role model to nurture the next generation of future leaders in the industry. “Creative agencies work incredibly hard and there is no doubt it is demanding and intense. But the agency world has come a long way and we are now much more aware of the need to take care of our most important asset: people,” she adds.
In this interview with Options, she shares her feelings on women in positions of power, the changing landscape of advertising pre- and post-Covid-19, and her all-time favourite commercials.
See also: Striking a Balance
How has the role of women changed in the world of advertising?
The industry is moving away from its reputation as being heavily male dominated, although there is much room for improvement. I would say in the last five years, I started noticing this shift where we are seeing more and more female CEOs, chief creative officers, and chief strategy officers taking the lead in agencies.
In 2015, TBWA globally launched its Take the Lead initiative, setting a global ambition to promote gender diversity and increase the ratio of women in leadership roles relative to men across the TBWA collective by 20% by 2020. The intent was to make real, meaningful change within our company to become a more balanced and inclusive culture at all levels.
Last year, TBWA\Singapore’s combined efforts around increasing female talent saw the ratio of women in leadership roles to men increase by 59%. In the strategy team itself, the number of women in leadership positions increased by 300%. And now in 2021, we have surpassed our goals and achieved 50% of women in our management team and 43% in our leadership team.
We are also seeing more female creatives than we used to as creative departments are historically more male dominated. This shift is certainly happening and has become even more rapid in recent years since focus on equality has been dominating corporate ambition and governance. I’m proud to say TBWA\Singapore now has a 45% representation of female creatives in our agency.
In support of International Women’s Day, TBWA\Singapore ran a social media campaign to celebrate its team of female creatives
What are your observations of the advertising industry over the last 20 years?
The industry has changed significantly in the last two decades. For us, we’re always looking to evolve so that we continue to create work that has a cultural impact and brings creativity to the different channels and platforms where consumers spend their time. But many of our innovations are also a reaction to meet client’s changing expectations to help them deliver growth.
At TBWA\Singapore, while we continue to focus on our core capabilities in strategy, data, and analytics, integrated creative solutions and brand management, we have also grown our business in the innovation and tech space, user experience (UX), user interface (UI) expertise and short and long form content film production.
Needless to say, the impact of last year’s pandemic has expedited this shift for the industry. It makes the difference between thriving and surviving.
Having said that, there is also a sense that the industry has lost some of its intellectual sparkle and high ground. The confidence of what an ad agency used to be about is becoming more commoditised. Agencies sometimes get treated by clients like a vendor and not a partner. We’ve also lost some of the fun in this industry, shadowed by the pressure to chase for revenue and as a result, some of that creativity at times gets compromised. In my appointment as managing director, I hope to work closely with my team to uphold some of the values which I think are important for the integrity and soul of our business.
Are digital ads the way forward?
Digital ads add to the mix of our channels we reach and engage with our audience, it doesn’t replace anything. What it does is give us better opportunities for targeting and that works in the interest of our clients (spend efficiency), and our audience (relevance and interest). If we think about when TV came along, it wasn’t the death of radio, or when video came about, it wasn’t the death of TV!
So, in this case, digital really is just another add to the mix, albeit an increasingly important one as format and platforms continue to evolve.
What, in your opinion, makes a good ad?
Simplicity in messaging and an ad that makes you think and feel. It needs to be relevant and resonate with audiences, creates emotional engagement to be part of the audience’s world — as equals without being condescending.
As audiences now have more sources of information, advertising needs to be real, distinctive, and differentiated. Not to mention in tune with current times and has a sense of responsibility.
Some of my favourite ads are videos like STB’s “Passion Made Possible” brand film for its authenticity as it had no “talents” involved and instead showed the world the real people, soul and passion of Singapore. One that always makes me laugh is the “M1 Free IDD in Mumbai” ad made back in 2007. The simplicity and the humour were on point and the core message was clear. I also like “The Epic Split” featuring Van Damme to promote Volvo Trucks. Targeted at not your everyday consumers, this business-to-business (B2B) ad completely broke conventions of how product demonstration was made.
Singapore Tourism Board “Passion Made Possible” brand film
Volvo Trucks’ “The Epic Split by Van Damme”
How did Covid-19 impact advertising?
Covid-19 has impacted most industries and businesses. The difference would be whether it’s a positive or negative one. Some clients dropped spending and some grew. The pandemic changed the way we reached our audience and how our audience would experience our client’s brands.
Choice of media changed significantly, there were no cinemas, no out-of-home advertising, no ads on buses, for example. We saw a huge shift to online, e-commerce space and even back to traditional TV. People had more time to consume media so growth of content and long form storytelling was quite evident.
For us, timing with the right communication that is not tone deaf is critical. Consumer sensitivity right now is heightened, and people are more focused on things that truly matter — health, safety, mental well-being and connection with loved ones.
How did you manage to run the business remotely?
When Covid-19 hit last year, one of my main tasks was to lead the agency’s transition to remote status. TBWA\Singapore was one of the first companies in Singapore to set the standard for best practice in a remote working environment.
It was imperative to embrace technology and virtual communication at a rapid pace while maintaining a strong and connected culture and heighten our internal and external communications.
You can imagine that as a creative agency, we engage in a lot of external production such as film shoots, photography, post-production, casting and location recces. We have been able to find a balance between embracing the virtual world and easing back into the physical world that requires the demands of heightened logistics with careful safety procedures in place.
It was also important that we helped maintain a good balance of work and flexibility amidst the daily intensity by introducing initiatives such as regular all-agency surveys, or what we call pulse checks, which led to us blocking out time for mandatory lunch hours and introduced a no meetings Wednesday, to keep schedules clear and save us from becoming “Zoom-bies”. These proved simple but effective measures to help improve the mental well-being of the agency.
While our business is in excellent shape, I’ll admit it hasn’t been easy. Human interaction and face to face engagement is critical in our business. Especially so in advertising where our work needs to be emotionally driven. So, there is always the risk that personality and emotion are being filtered out when we talk about our creative work or when we present ideas.
We are, at the end of the day, a people business, so to not be present in person has been a challenge. We have hope that this will change very soon!
PORTRAIT PHOTO: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore; INSET IMAGES: TBWA; Visit Singapore; YouTube