Mahatma Gandhi once said, “our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.”
Mention diversity in the workplace and you will generally get a positive response from executives. This is because most of them understand the benefits of a diverse workforce. As part of our blog series about diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI), we spoke with some of our female leaders, on how they broke through the gender glass ceiling and got to where they are.
This week, we had a tête-à-tête with Simone Tam, CEO of dentsu Hong Kong, who is also CEO of dentsu Hong Kong’s Creative Line of Service, to speak with her about how she landed in the world of advertising, her rise to C-suite and how she balances being a mother and business leader.
Q: Many women in the advertising and media industry, even those in the western and Pacific countries, lament about the glass ceiling. This seems to be a legacy from the Mad Men era. Do you think this is the same in Greater China?
Simone: I have seen a surge of women stepping into leading positions in our industry over the years, but the fact that we are discussing this indicates that there is still some work to be done. I think there are many reasons for it. In this part of the region, society and women themselves can’t seem to shake off traditional expectations. Expectations that a woman should prioritise marriage, give birth by a certain age, be the primary caregiver to children, et al. Let’s be honest. Such expectations hinder career aspirations. Hence, if and when people see a woman rising through the ranks and assuming a leadership role, they get asked all the time, by their family, friends and even herself, “is it really worth it?” Of course, you get some crazy ones like me, who would say, “ABSOLUTELY!”.
Q: You wanted to join the tourism industry as your first job but landed in the agency world instead. Did you start your career aiming for or knowing you’d become a creative head honcho of one of the largest ad networks in the world?
Simone: While I probably didn’t think I would end up in a group CEO role, by the time I passed my probation as Account Executive, I told the Managing Director of the agency I worked for then, that I wanted to take his job eventually.
Q: You have been on the jury panel of some of most highly contested awards in the creative and advertising circuit, most recently for Spikes Asia. What were some of your observations?
Simone: First of all, I feel very privileged to be invited to be on the jury panel. The Spikes Awards 2021 was the third awards show that I participated in the past 12 months in this capacity. I was very proud to see so many pieces of outstanding work from around the APAC region. Being a juror always reminds me that I am very charmed to be in an industry where we can help shape societal culture through consumer trends.
In every awards show, there are always some clear trends and obvious boxes to check when we evaluate the entries. Firstly, does this campaign encourage diversity and inclusiveness? Secondly, if there is a good cause to it, does the work fit with the brand purpose (so we know if it’s authentic)? Lastly, if technology was involved, was it there for the right reasons?
Q: You are a mother of two teenage boys. How did you manage to strike a balance between building a successful career and raising a family?
Simone: Boys are easier to raise in my opinion, especially when they get to this age. When they were younger, all I needed was to find energy outlets for them. I’d throw them a ball or into a pool. Now that they are older, they want personal space, so I just need to play more of a supporting role and give them my full attention on the occasions when they are in the mood to talk. I also make it a point to follow the NBA (National Basketball Association) and show interest in their favourite E-sports teams.
My parents and my sister have been instrumental. I got divorced when my second child was only 15 months old. My father gave me the courage and support to go ahead with the divorce. My mother came over to prepare dinner for my kids whenever I needed to work late, which was most nights.
My sister lived with us when I took up the Greater China role for mcgarrybowen (now dentsumcgarrybowen). In that role, I had to be in Shanghai for the first half of the week and Hong Kong for the second half. I did this for five years. Technology had also been a key enabler in helping me strike a balance as I was able to do video calls with my kids on the days where I had to travel.
Q: What is one piece of work/campaign that you are most proud of in your career?
Simone: There are so many pieces I am proud of. But an example of the kind of work we want us to do more of is Intel China’s “Sound of Silence” from a few years back. Intel China was one our very first clients after I joined the network. This campaign was one of our business pitch ideas and the client loved it so much that we were awarded the business and ran with the campaign. We came up with the idea, the technology and created the solution and the content. I love it as it was an idea led, insight driven, tech enabled solution, and it is for the greater good of mankind.
Q: Who inspires you most in your personal and professional lives?
Simone: Jeffry Gamble, Chief Creative Officer of dentsu Hong Kong. Jeffry and I work very well together, although we sometimes have the most heated debates. And yet we share the same passion and values of simply doing the best work we can. We have worked together for close to 10 years now, and I am still in awe of his talent. He inspires extraordinary thinking, challenges the gaps in our briefs, and provokes with the simplest and yet hardest questions in the room. Jeffry is the most strategic creative professional I have ever met. I feel very fortunate to have him in my team.
Q: What’s your favourite coffee?
Simone: Café Latte: hot with no sugar. Subtle yet bold, like me.