Staff Writer
Sep 15, 2022

Top APAC marketers on why leading with an empathetic, people-centric approach is better for business

We spoke to marketing leaders from Google, Manulife, Haleon, and Colgate-Palmolive about how empathetic leadership can set brands apart both internally and externally.

(clockwise from top left) Sapna Chadha, VP of marketing, India and Southeast Asia, Google; Silas Lewis-Meilus, global head of media business units, Haleon; Melissa Henson, CMO, Manulife Philippines; Yves Briantais, VP of marketing, APAC, Colgate-Palmolive
(clockwise from top left) Sapna Chadha, VP of marketing, India and Southeast Asia, Google; Silas Lewis-Meilus, global head of media business units, Haleon; Melissa Henson, CMO, Manulife Philippines; Yves Briantais, VP of marketing, APAC, Colgate-Palmolive
PARTNER CONTENT
This is part of an article series for the Power List 2022, created in partnership with Twitter as part of their global #LeadersforGood initiative.
 
Spurred on by broader cultural shifts, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has been a hot button issue in recent years — and the Covid-19 pandemic proved to be the spark that lit the fire in a global reckoning of corporate working culture at large.
 
As people around the world opt to pursue a more personal definition of success, a sea change in the way we work is happening in the form of mass resignations, calls for fairer working conditions, and “quiet quitting.”
 
Global recessionary trends may have lowered the numbers of those seeking autonomy outside their existing jobs. But organisations everywhere have rediscovered the importance of engaged, enthusiastic employees. Not only is this the ethical way to do things — but it’s also simply good for business, reducing attrition and ultimately creating better work.
 
It’s a view that Disha Goenka, senior director of global business marketing at Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Power List partner, Twitter, shares. “In order for us to create a healthy working environment, leaders need to be held accountable to help maintain their team’s wellbeing,” she said. “At Twitter, we help our employees to adapt with the ongoing changes — especially during the pandemic — by allowing them to work at their own pace and spaces, because each person has their own work patterns and styles.”
“Being a leader also means listening to the unspoken words of your team,” she continued.
 
“Understanding what they are going through, their needs, and aspirations. This will hopefully help foster a more productive environment, no matter where your teams are located around the world.” 
And this isn’t an isolated example — many of Asia’s best marketers are embracing empathetic leadership. While admittedly a work in progress, they are making their organisations more responsive to the desires and ambitions of their workforce, beyond a narrowly defined career graph.
 
Driven by a sharp focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), this approach also finds expression in media and advertising choices. Here are a few examples of how marketing leaders from the 2022 Asia-Pacific Power List across industries as diverse as CPG, healthcare, consumer technology, and financial services have practised empathetic leadership.
 
More than just a seat at the table: an opportunity to speak
 
While much has been made about increased representation, it does not move the dial unless diverse voices are heard. Sapna Chadha, Vice President of Marketing, India and Southeast Asia, Google said, “It’s about making people feel welcome at the table rather than just giving them a seat.”
 
A culture of co-creation is deliberately being built at Colgate-Palmolive. Giving young staff a voice is not an end in itself but essential for the growth of the organisation. Yves Briantais, vice president of marketing for APAC said, “While not a philosopher per se, I once remember Jean-Claude Van Damme saying ‘1 plus 1 should equal 3’. It stayed with me, because too often, and especially in big companies, 1 plus 1 is 1!” It is the responsibility of the most senior member in the room to ensure that their voice is not the only one that gets heard. A culture where people express ideas, without fear of judgement, is an essential building block to a culture of creativity.
 
This has been institutionalised in a one-hour session every week where the team candidly lays bare its successes and failures and is joined in the process by Briantais who does not sit in judgement. He said, “Doing that promotes a picture of inclusion.”
 
Manulife Philippines is encouraging greater inclusivity by offering educational opportunities such as inclusivity training to employees across seniority levels, as well as actively recruiting employees and financial advisors from younger generations. Outlining these initiatives, chief marketing officer Melissa Henson said, “I believe empathy comes from culture,” and pointed out that “the skills we develop as marketers give us the natural ability be culture builders” — something she considers a serious responsibility. 
 
As Manulife Philippines’ DEI lead, Henson has led her team in driving the company’s DEI activities forward by supporting employee resource groups (ERGs), hosting internal events on allyship, and promoting self-identification, among other initiatives. Henson continued, “My role as a leader is to help my team bring our humanity and other core values to life, not just in the way we work together, but also the way we deliver and communicate our products and services.” To that end, Manulife also engages employees across generations in focus group discussions to gain insights on the employer value propositions that resonate. 
 
Empathetic leadership helps create better work and products
 
At Google, empowering local teams has helped it navigate cultural nuances in key markets. Chadha said, “Our local teams were the ones who first highlighted the importance of religion in this side of the world. Ever since then, we have leaned in on traditional and religious holidays like Lunar New Year, Ramadan, and Songkran. and built our marketing campaigns around these moments.” This year, the company launched their largest Ramadan campaign across Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, demonstrating helpfulness and innovation from products across the festive season — ranging from festive greetings on Search and highlighting Muslim creators on YouTube.
 
Google brings its agency partners on board by sharing its work and through training on inclusive marketing. Chadha said, “The entire ecosystem must shift if we want to see real change.”
Companies across the board including Haleon are diversifying the media vehicles they choose and the partners they work with — support that extends beyond mere ad dollars and goes into creating bespoke campaigns. 
 
Speaking about his journey creating DEI-driven work at Colgate-Palmolive, Briantais said, “Be courageous because it's not easy. The temptation is always to talk to the masses and to test advertising in a way that makes everybody happy. The danger is you get rid of any ideas that are polarising. It has to be part of the purpose of your brand and fit its culture and values. If you have that, go for it and try to be at the edge of the culture.” He advocated striking a balance between not capitulating and not going so far that people are unwilling to listen. “The sweet spot is where people have begun talking about something that is not well accepted yet because that’s where you can have an influence. But the transformation has to have happened before.”
 
At Manulife Philippines, DEI informs not just marketing, but policies. Domestic partners, including those from the LGBTQIA+ community can be added as beneficiaries. A financial literacy program Peso Smart was expanded to bring stay-at-home moms from marginalised communities into its ambit, giving them the financial skills needed to gain independence. Featuring employees and financial advisors who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community in external communications also sends out a message of inclusivity.  
 
Empathy can become a bulwark against attrition
 
While creating a genuinely empathetic organisation is always challenging, it is tougher still for a company in transition. For instance, at Haleon which was formed by the demerger of GSK’s consumer healthcare business.
 
Listening to its employees helped Haleon navigate these tough times. Global head of media business units, Silas Lewis-Meilus, said, “Empathy comes through understanding and hearing what people say. It was an opportunity to build relationships with new team members, hear their challenges, and potentially mitigate uncertainties.”
 
Haleon started to take listening seriously even before the pandemic. In 2019, amid a discussion on brand safety, a manager in charge of a regional business used the opportunity to discuss the loneliness inherent in the role. For senior management, this was a powerful moment and a wake-up call. It resulted in fewer top-down conversations in favour of a balanced approach.
 
Another aspect of listening was to specifically and pointedly ask colleagues about how they were doing in their lives, as opposed to their functional roles. Repeated questioning was more likely to trigger a frank conversation. It helped business leaders focus on team members who needed assistance the most.
 
Haleon faced limited attrition through COVID and the Great Resignation according to Lewis-Meilus who attributed it to “company culture, the values we stand for, and how we lead our teams.”
 

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