Earlier this year, Susana Tsui gave up a regional CEO role as APAC chief of PHD in an eyebrow-raising move, to become the new chief of DAN China in April. In an interview with Campaign, Tsui shares her motivations and experience in shifting to a holding group position. Questions and responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What was the real trigger for moving from a regional role at PHD to head to up DAN in China?
I think a lot of people would guess “she’s Chinese, has experience, knows the language, et cetera.” But actually, the real attractiveness I think for global leaders has got to be to work for the biggest market in the world. There’s no other choice besides the US or China. The US for me is just not as interesting or as fast-paced as China. I want to be there as a witness when China increasingly becomes number one in the world.
How is DAN different from PHD and what has been your focus since coming there?
DAN has built this business on a lot of acquisitions, so as I came in there are 22 brands and 4000+ people with the key commonality that they share the same address, but there’s no streamlining. It’s very different from PHD where I had to build culture across one brand.
Across the network the 22 brands each are very proud of what they do, but how can a holdings group company benefit them? Coming from Ogilvy and PHD, they were very independent, and coming in here I want to look at what we can and cannot do [to help]. I didn’t want to change everything but did a lot of assessment and surveys to look at our network strategies. I chose to come here to really exercise my business transformation and optimisation knowledge.
What I’ve always loved to do was the operations bit, bringing innovations to operations. So it’s a very different job: looking at business transformation, building a sound business, putting in innovation and having the ability to make changes at a market level, on a much more influential and powerful level.
Did you and DAN APAC CEO Nick Waters have a main goal to accomplish in China?
Yes, Nick and I had many conversations about what DAN’s mission is in China, also involving support from DAN’s Japanese bosses. We all agreed we need to take China to the next level and the only way to do that is to transform the business fundamentally from buying strength and clout in the past to really developing products that fit the marketplace.
We always say that China is different, right? I think reconciling that is one thing, but really creating a product that’s able to service global client needs and being able to execute this in the relevance of the Chinese context is really important. This role is about underlining the business context. How do we change the network fundamentally to be able to support the growth of brands?
So how DO you transform the network while supporting brands?
I worked out a transformation plan that we’re doing across China where we centralise and consolidate and integrate as much as we can as a group. So on all the non-client-facing resources they would be centralised. And I look at it from the welfare of the staff, because if the staff are happy then they do excellent work for clients and the clients are happy and the work is amazing and profits come in. For me it’s a simple equation.
So the first stab at it was to look at people’s welfare. We needed to have one consistent benefits package for all staff. I think that is really important given that there are just so many brands to make us less clunky. It’s important to streamline.
The second thing, which is a global initiative, is the implementation of automation into our work life, things like involving time sheets and HR processes and other systems. As much as we can automate we try to automate here. Then there are new ways to revamp the middle office, how do we make sure operations, finance, HR, IT, all those operations are done in the most efficient way and for a big network it’s actually a very big exercise. So that’s kind of boring but that’s the first stage of business transformation.
So what excites you?
The most fun and what I love doing is creating new product. I’ve looked across the brands with my background from a creative agency to a media agency coming out of digital with my passion for data. One [of the new product offerings] will be to launch Merkle, the underlying foundation of data services that we have across all the brands. Automatically that would be my very first product [for China] and I’m very excited about that.
It’s been in the pipeline because even before the acquisition [by DAN a year ago] Merkle had a big hub here that did work for a lot of places, especially in the US. Altogether there’s about 800 people, so I’d like to help them integrate into the bigger network. How can we as a network leverage their CRM and data and apply it in China?
The other was to launch a much more robust tech and data-driven programmatic offer. We’ve always had our Amnet product, our real-time bidding offer, but we haven’t had the opportunity to build more tech and data around it. So we’ve revamped that and are re-launching Amnet as a group programmatic brand, DAN Programmatic.
But the real shift is that instead of getting a MD or CEO or business leader, all the guys overseeing this kind of change are all product guys. So we’ve promoted Eric Weng, previously CTO and ecommerce head at Carat to the group level who is now chief product officer at DAN China [to transform Amnet products into a new integrated programmatic suite].
Will we see more product people take more prominent roles?
You’ll hear a lot of announcements coming up that there are a lot product people at DAN now, whereas in the past it was all very conventional CEOs and MDs, sales and marketing business people. And that’s one of the areas where China is unique. We’re having product guys develop products that work in China and I think that’s really important.
What about external partners. Also very important in China?
As you know there are so many conversations about AI, data and technology that are always a challenge for brands. But I knew coming into a holdings group position you can really look at strength in partnerships that actually bed down some of these things. So we’ve heard many rumours of holding companies jumping in bed with media vendors or data companies or technology companies.
What I have quickly pushed on is to develop a much deeper relationship with iFlytek, one of China’s most advanced AI and voice recognition technology company. They use self-learning technology to enhance efficiency through automation in the government, healthcare, education and consumer segments. I think the work they’re doing is truly amazing. So [co-founder Dr Hu Yu] and I sat and talked a long time about partnerships and recent rumours about what other networks [are doing]. And I have a lot of interest to partner with BAT of China but their interest has always been to gain a bigger share of spend among clients through agencies. All agencies are treated the same with slight variances based on spend.
I feel that in the days of Martin Sorrell always saying that Google was a ‘frenemy’ I feel the same way. That’s why the focus for me at DAN is to tighten our BAT partnerships and also more importantly, to look much deeper at the relationships with other tech and data companies, true tech and data companies that don’t have an agenda but real tech.
[iFlytek was one of] the MIT tech review’s [top] companies last year, sixth in the world. How often in any of the holding companies could you go into MIT and partner with the early days of Microsoft? That would never happen But in China I’m able to talk with one of top data AI voice-activated development companies in the world and have a partnership to co-create things, like new products for our clients or for themselves, brainstorm ideas of how their company could use AI to better service the government. I’d offer up my creative and strategy people and they’d offer their 4000 engineers – it’s such an amazing collaboration.
Can you update us on the search for the next Carat China CEO?
The APAC CEO and I are jointly working on it. We’ve had several people interested. But it was partly my fault for not moving as fast because I wanted to make sure I understood the Carat brand and its products. I partnered with [interim APAC CEO] Sean O’Brien and I also wanted [new APAC CEO] Jonathan Chadwick to land so we could make a joint decision on the role. So you’ll see we will be announcing it very soon.
I really want someone who is a new thinker that challenges the status quo of what we do. The media day-to-day business has transformed so much and as all the other brands are trying to evolve and survive I really want to take the base and competitiveness that we have in China which is quite large and give it a large boost towards innovation. It’s a dead end to continue to cater to some of client conversations about trading. We already know the trading piece has been under challenge for a long time and that’s why it has to be about product – the product has to be innovative.
Is that why you hired a new head of creative solutions & innovation for DAN China? What’s the strategy behind Tim Doherty’s new role?
We have never had a group creative officer here. Purposefully I didn’t give him a CCO title – not that he doesn’t deserve it – but because I think our future in China it’s all about products and solutions. So he’s in a role where he’s nurturing our creative community as a group and looking at what are our next solutions needed to put in play for the network and to tie our partnerships together.
Creativity needs to be driven by technology in this day and age. The old school advertising creative is no longer relevant, especially in China so that’s why he’s in his role.
How much more hiring is there still to do?
At the group level it’s actually quite thin. For the first two months I looked inside all the brands and picked up people to grow the group representing the brands, building an internal council to help me.
We’ve made [well over 100] new hires [across all brands] in the last 100 days and 24 promotions. Probably the next big role will be probably a chief product officer for our media brands.