As an engineering graduate, Ma actually started his early career working in a factory for five years in the late 1980s. He then earned an MBA at China Europe International Business School before venturing into business in 1991.
“I actually like more creative and communicative things," he said. "I am not very good at and interested in engineering work. That’s why when I had a chance I chose advertising to be close enough to creativity and communications."
Ma entered the industry at Dentsu Young & Rubicam, starting from senior account manager, to become account director, where he stayed for four years.
Step by step, he has moved across the table to the client side, He entered Pepsi China as regional marketing manager for North China in 1995. After four years he joined Wrigley China in Guangzhou as head of marketing, and moved on from there after another four years to become marketing director for Greater China at Cadbury China.
"The reason for me to move from advertising to [a] client, I want to do more business impactful things," Ma said. "And only in business you’ll have a chance to have the total picture."
Advertising is only part of the strategy operation of a business, Ma added, as marketers have to deal with sales, retail, customers, manufacturing, R&D, and logistics.
"At the end of the day, if the business result is not good, and the reason is out of stock, shortage of supply, what can you do as an advertising person?" Ma asked.
Perfetti van Melle is an Italian family business that entered China in 1994. It is a leading player in the candy market. In the lollipop segment, its Chupa Chups brand is a dominant player, with more than 50 per cent of the China market. The company's Alpenliebe brand makes up 70 per cent of Perfetti annual sales in China, followed by its Big Bubble and Mentos brands.
Ma appreciates that as a family business, the Perfetti van Melle board of directors always has reasonable expectations about business results and a high tolerance for less-than-ideal results.
Ma praised the company as entrepreneurial, innovative, willing to try new things, quick to act on opportunities, and also very people-oriented. The challenge in a family business is that it may be less disciplined, with fewer refined processes to ensure that best practices are followed. "This kind of company needs your experiences and competency," he said.
Ma uses the analogy of martial arts: A master follows a set of rhythms and mixes up different arts to show off their best kung fu. At Procter & Gamble and Unilever, you only belong to one type of martial art, he continued, but there is no transferrable kung fu. At Perfetti, they need people who are integrated masters. The best news is that for experienced people, this kind of company provides lots of space to grow.
With the global recession, China is still enjoying a nine per cent GDP growth in 2011, but Ma pointed out that the biggest challenge for doing business in China is the short-term focus of many businesses, including some of his large retail partners.
The China market is so dynamic, and people mobility is so high, it makes everyone very short-sighted, short-term oriented, very material and result driven. It's not wrong, he said, but if it is too short-term driven, then you are damaging your future for today.
Having worked on both the agency side and the client side for so many years, Ma has advice for clients choosing agencies, all of which centers on choosing the right agency based on the business needs because not every agency is strong in every area. If you are in more of a planning stage, it's better to choose an agency with more planning capability, he said. Likewise, if you are a brand that desperately needs a cut through because of limited resources, then you need to look for a strongly creative agency.
Whatever the case, look for agencies that suit your business needs and not agencies that are just big. It is not always the case that the most creative agency is the best agency, nor that the biggest agency is the best agency. Mutual trust and mutual respect are very important as well. "If you don’t even trust and respect the other, what is the need to have them in your life?" Ma asked.
On the client side, marketers shouldn’t dictate and impose subjective views on agencies, Ma said, but agencies also shouldn't be too stubborn, defending creativity for creativity's sake.
Dialogue between clients and agencies should be open and objective with mutual respect--like reaching the yin and yang balance in Kung Fu.
Ma Lin Min's CV
1991-1995 account director, Dentsu Young & Rubican
1995-1999 regional marketing manager for North China, Pepsi China
1999-2003 head of marketing, Wrigley China
2003-2006 marketing director, Greater China Calburg China
2006- now marketing director, Perfectti van Melle China