Minnie Wang
Mar 11, 2024

'The lack of female leadership in Japan is undeniable': McCann's Ji Watson

As part of our International Women’s Day 2024 coverage, we speak to the CEO of McCann Worldgroup Japan who opens up about her sometimes-arduous journey to becoming a senior leader in a male-dominated market.

Ji Watson
Ji Watson

As part of our International Women’s Day 2024 coverage, Campaign looks at the state of gender representation in Asia-Pacific alongside senior women leaders. To read the other interviews in this series, click on the links below:

Danone's Sri Widowati on work-life challenges, the glass cliff, and women's advancement in corporate Indonesia


Google's Sapna Chadha on increasing women's board participation

Ji Watson, representative director, CEO, McCann Worldgroup Japan, and executive vice president, CFO for APAC, is a seasoned executive with over 25 years of global experience in finance and marketing roles across media, client-side, and agencies.

Watson began her career at Turner International in a marketing role before joining The Coca-Cola Company where she rose to the position of director, global agency management. After working at Ogilvy & Mather and Samsung, she moved to Japan in 2017 as EVP, CFO of McCann Worldgroup APAC, based in Tokyo, to oversee the financial management and stewardship of the network’s Asia-Pacific markets.

In addition, in 2020, she was appointed representative director of McCann Worldgroup Japan and was promoted to CEO in October 2021.

Watson is passionate about nurturing female leadership so it's only natural that she is the founder of the Japan chapter of the IPG Women’s Leadership Network which aims to be a force for gender equality for women within IPG.  

As a testament to Watson’s efforts in leading with diversity and respect, she was named into Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Women to Watch list in 2022. 

In our interview to mark IWD, Campaign asked Watson about her personal and professional journey so far, bumps along the road, and changes required for progress.

Let's rewind to your early career days. Tell us about your backstory and what early factors have influenced your current success.

Growing up in a somewhat traditional Korean family, I followed a path less travelled. Instead of diving straight into my career, I prioritised marriage and motherhood. However, life had other plans for me. A challenge from my husband—to take a year to learn about the value of money—catapulted me into the workforce.

Fast forward three decades, that one-year challenge has blossomed into a remarkable journey. I have criss-crossed the globe, donned various hats, and contributed to exciting ventures. From global companies like Turner Broadcasting, The Coca-Cola Company, and Samsung Electronics to creative agencies like Ogilvy and McCann Worldgroup, I have thrived in diverse roles.

Yet, the true magic lies in the people I have encountered. Generous managers as well as colleagues who saw my potential before I did were my guiding stars. They instilled in me the unwavering belief that anything is possible. Their mentorship fuelled my ascent, and today, I stand as a testament to resilience, adaptability, and the power of dreams.

Watson on family day in 2023

Tell us about the challenges youve faced as a woman throughout your career. And how did you overcome them?

The challenges I faced as a woman in my career remained largely hidden until I ascended to senior positions. At this level, the landscape shifted, revealing a stark reality: most of my colleagues and bosses were men. Numerous instances have made me aware that to thrive and compete with my male counterparts, I must develop resilience and assertiveness. Securing a presence in the room requires steeliness. As I often emphasise, senior positions are ill-suited for the faint-hearted. Having a supportive network of family, close friends, and colleagues has been an invaluable asset throughout my career. Their encouragement and assistance have lifted me up whenever I felt like giving up.

What needs to change in Japan when it comes to female leadership and inclusivity? 

Honestly, the lack of female leadership in Japan is undeniable. Period. It intrigues me to observe male leaders discussing DEI among themselves without involving female leaders. In markets like Japan, where female leaders are scarce, we urgently need a grassroots strategy to cultivate a pipeline of young female talents who will shape the future. A strategic approach that prioritises flexibility is essential. It empowers women to make informed choices, granting them a range of career options while navigating various life stages, including marriage and motherhood.  

Why do we need International Womens Day?

International Women’s Day serves as a moment for us to pause, reflect, and reassess our plans and accomplishments. Amid the hustle and bustle of the world, it is easy to become distracted and swiftly shift focus to other pressing matters. We need to take this opportunity to celebrate, acknowledge, and empower women worldwide.

DEI has become a hot corporate buzzword but doesn’t always translate into progress. Reflecting on the theme ‘Inspire Inclusion’, what's one thing that companies do not get right about DEI?   

Concentrating on numerous DEI initiatives that fail to significantly impact the desired outcomes can be counterproductive. It is essential to prioritise efforts that truly move the needle toward our goals.

How does culture need to change in the industry so more women are able to shatter the glass ceiling? 

In Japan, we grapple with centuries-old cultural norms that will likely require considerable time to evolve. It is not only our industry culture that needs transformation; government support is essential to enact policies and create infrastructure that enables women to compete on equal footing with their male counterparts.

McCann Worldgroup Japan's year-end get-together in 2023

Do you have any professional wisdom you’ve gotten that you’d like to pass on to someone starting their career?

Never compromise your core values. Always remain true to who you are, so you do not find yourself in conflict while trying to fit into a role or a company. It is essential to acknowledge that we spend a significant amount of time at work, and therefore, finding peace and joy in what we do is crucial.

Whats the biggest misconception people have about women in senior leadership roles?

As a woman in a senior leadership role, the cookie-cutter assumption often persists that you must either be single or have a stay-at-home spouse. However, I want to emphasise that it is entirely possible to balance a career while fulfilling the roles of a wife and mother.

Certainly, there will be sacrifices at different points in your career—after all, it is impossible to do it all. However, family support plays a critical role in achieving success, both professionally and personally. We need to break free from stereotypes and recognise that women can thrive in leadership positions while maintaining fulfilling personal lives.

Campaign Asia

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