Minnie Wang
Jun 29, 2023

Ogilvy's TB Song retires as chairman of Greater China

One of Asia's best-known advertising executives and a trailblazer in the Greater Chinese market, Song's career with Ogilvy has spanned four decades. See Campaign's exclusive in-depth interview with Song about his past, present and future.

Ogilvy's TB Song retires as chairman of Greater China

Ogilvy Greater China chairman TB Song will be retiring after a four-decade-long career with the agency. Widely recognised as one of the most influential figures in the industry in Asia, Song will continue to serve as senior advisor for Ogilvy in Greater China.

Song started his career from Taipei in the 1970s and established Ogilvy Taiwan in 1985. In 1991, Song assumed the position of Chairman of Ogilvy China. Under his leadership, Ogilvy opened offices in Shanghai (1991), Beijing (1993), Guangzhou (1994), Qingdao (2015) and Shenzhen (2017).  

According to the agency, one of TB Song's most noteworthy leadership achievements in Greater China was his commitment to introducing, interpreting, and disseminating David Ogilvy's mindset and philosophy. He advocated the "Respect Individual, Respect Knowledge, and Respect Creativity" credo, which continues to be a fundamental principle driving Ogilvy's development in the region.   

Before his retirement, Song said: “The time has come for me to step back and make way for the younger generation. Looking back, the good memories far outweigh any regrets; I feel very lucky to have been a part of growing the business for all these exceptional years.” He added, “I hope we will continue to maintain an entrepreneurial mindset, our competitive advantage in driving great ideas for brands, and uphold the fundamental pillars of our culture.”

Chris Reitermann, CEO of Ogilvy Asia Pacific and Greater China, expressed his gratitude, saying:  “Without his influence, we wouldn't have achieved our current esteemed status. We take great pride in building upon his legacy and leading us into the future. Personally, I will forever be grateful to TB for getting me into Ogilvy and this market 28 years ago. He has been a remarkable mentor, a trusted sounding board, and undeniably one of the wisest individuals in the industry.”

From 2019 Man of the Time in China Advertising for 40 Years at Shanghai International Advertising Festival Awards to 2010 Most Influential Person of the Year selected by Campaign Magazine, Song has been instrumental in Ogilvy’s success and development across Greater China since the 1980s.

Campaign spoke to Song in an exclusive interview about his early experience, his long career at Ogilvy, and his vision for the future. Regarding his post-retirement plans, Song says he hopes to document his experience but doesn't plan on writing about Ogilvy. "I do want to explore my personal experiences regarding my observation and workplace," he says, noting the exact format is still under discussion.  

Campaign: Why did you choose advertising as a career when you were young? What would you like to say to young professionals today?

Song: I actually started my career by chance. Because I studied banking management, I went to a bank after graduation and took the entrance exam, but I did not receive an offer until two months after I joined an advertising agency. When the bank informed me that I was accepted and the salary was three times or four times higher than that of the advertising agency I was in, I thought about whether I should go or not. The atmosphere of the advertising agency was much more interesting so I stayed, although the salary was low. I had to borrow money from my friends every month, but it was pretty good. For young people in the industry, my advice would be to follow your intuition. If you think this route may be suitable for you, why not go for it?

You came to mainland China in the 1990s. Why did you decide to move there?

That may be because of the generation I was born in. I believe in socialism, and back in my young days, listening to rock-and-roll, being a “rebel” and wanting to try out new things was pretty standard. Since mainland China was reforming and opening up, I thought I could come, and I wanted to experience this new era. Of course, in Taipei, we were doing quite well on the business front, so when we came to mainland China, we knew exactly what to do. Then, with a deep understanding of the Chinese mainland market, we grew step by step to where we are today.

Song at his desk in the early 1990s

Did you think it was a risk or did you slightly idealise the move back then?

I saw it as an adventure with lots of uncertainties, and of course, at the same time, there was some idealism involved. People growing up in our generation were more idealistic and stayed optimistic; while there may be some risks, with an optimistic mindset you will be driven to explore new horizons and experiment with different possibilities.

What motivated you to keep working in the ever-changing advertising industry and stay with Ogilvy for so many years?

I should say that I am really lucky, because I have constantly had new challenges during my time at Ogilvy. When I was in Taipei, I did a good job, and then moved to Shanghai to expand the business. In just a few years we opened offices in Beijing and Guangzhou. Obviously as the company grows bigger, new challenges come up but their nature evolves. Although my position remained the same, I got to meet different people, work with new partners at the various stages of my career. So that’s why when I look back, I feel quite happy and lucky.

“To be the most local of the internationals, the most international of the locals.” What is your understanding and interpretation of Ogilvy’s vision in Greater China? 

When Ogilvy entered the region, our strategic focus was clear: localisation. Localising the business meant training Chinese employees to ensure they could lead local teams and progressively inform the strategic direction of the business. The second aspect of our localisation was about bringing international brands into the Chinese market and taking Chinese brands overseas. We knew that this was what localisation was about. This vision was written by Scott Kronick, our then PR general manager. It is evident that China is a special market, very different from other markets, such as the United States, India, and Europe. So it was crucial for us to understand these differences and propose a differentiated positioning. That’s been the core of our localisation strategy.

Which campaigns are you the most proud of? What’s your view on creativity in China?

Ogilvy China has produced several influential campaigns for IBM, Motorola, China Mobile and Bank of China, among many others. These were all quite powerful at the time, and showed what advertising and branding were all about. But if you look at international awards shows, like Cannes Lions, then it’s fair to say that Chinese creativity is still not differentiated enough. Even though we’ve won a Gold Lion a few years ago, for agencies in China it still doesn’t happen as often as for agencies in let’s say Japan or Thailand, markets that have a more distinct creative touch. So I hope that in a few years, when our culture, art and film industry can have more influence on the global stage that Chinese creativity will also be at the forefront.

China Mobile | M-Zone campaign 2003
Motorola | RAZR Cut Through campaign 2006

How would you describe your management style as a creative leader? How do you think that has shaped Ogilvy in Greater China?

A keyword for me has always been inclusivity. Inclusivity is paramount to maximize creative professionals’ strengths, and fill in the gaps where needed to form a team. If you are too self-centered, you will not have a really great team.

How to build high-performing teams, how to find the right people, and how to move forward with a clear direction and vision have been key priorities for Ogilvy for quite some time, and things we have been working on over the years.

What were the most challenging decisions for you to make during your advertising career?

The decisions involving people were often the most challenging ones. It’s quite hard because sometimes you may have no choice but to make a difficult decision. You have to pay the price for the decision and then think about how to make up for it. So, most of the hardest choices were about people.

You met David Ogilvy himself. What was the experience like?

I met him twice. The first time was at our global management meeting, I just said where I was from and shook his hand.

The second time was when Ogilvy Taipei received the David Ogilvy Award for a launch campaign we had done for Mr. Brown Coffee. He told me that while he couldn't understand the campaign, but since it helped the client's business grow by 30% in just a year, he thought it must be good. David Ogilvy was clear-headed, and his motto was “We sell or else”. At that time, I remember that Ogilvy Taipei got US$10,000 or US$20,000 for the prize.

TB Song with David Ogilvy in 1989

What would you like to say to the agency's new generation of leaders?

I’d say six words: Keep your vision and embrace technology. It's simple. Whether or not the vision evolves, technology is a must, including AI, ChatGPT, etc. All of these are going to change our industry a lot. If you don't fully embrace technology, you will very likely be out of business.

What would you see as the key trends for Adland in the near future? How do you think agencies should cope with them?

It's hard to say, especially since we do not yet know how big the impact of AI and ChatGPT is going to be for the advertising business. But I think there are two takeaways. The first one is that the agency structure will definitely be adjusted. Decision-makers will have to decide on who should leave, who should stay and what kind of skills will be needed to survive in this new environment.

The second is decentralisation. As third-party providers, agencies that do not embrace technology might be replaced by clients. It is important to think ahead about how to fully embrace new technologies and how to bring clients into this category. I think all these are predictable.

Over the decades, Ogilvy has trained many advertising and marketing professionals. Some have left the agency, but what they learned from Ogilvy continues to shape the industry. What are some of the most significant changes you have made around talent development and innovation at Ogilvy and WPP?

We do value people, and we invest on training them. We offer opportunities for employees to grow their knowledge and expertise. If they want to leave, we wish them good luck without hard feelings, and if they want to come back, we welcome them back with open arms. I think a higher turnover is normal in our industry, and you have to accept it.

It used to be about 25% (turnover rate), which is average, and now in some cases it can be up to 40% or 50%, which to me is abnormal. But I think turnover in general is good. Generally speaking, the turnover rate is relatively higher among creatives compared to account managers. In fact, at Ogilvy, we are proud that our senior staff turnover rate is pretty low. This is a crucial factor that has made Ogilvy quite stable for such a long time.

Song at Ogilvy's 30th Anniversary ceremony in the Chinese Mainland in 2021

(The interview has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity.)

Campaign Asia

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