Colleagues called him ‘Lord Ma’.
Ma, who retired in 1994, is remembered as one of the trailblazers in Ogilvy & Mather, who crossed over the Great Wall of China in1980s, forming the country’s first international agency. And today, the country’s largest.
“Alfred is the pioneer of modern advertising and marketing in China, and he had helped many [international] brands establish their foothold in the early days,” Tony Tse, ex-general manager of Ogilvy China, shared with Campaign.
Ken Roman, Ogilvy’s former worldwide chairman, said that Ma, then in his 40s, had no qualms moving from the Hong Kong office to the “China Department” — a Beijing hotel room.
The China team was just two: Ma and Harry Reid, then regional director of Ogilvy Asia. “More than any other person, Alfred was the father of Ogilvy & Mather in China,” Roman emphasised.
Today, Ogilvy & Mather holds an esteemed position in the market — highly lauded for its creative work, it is the first Chinese agency to win a Cannes Lion in 2004. In the latest R3 study, it was voted China’s top creative and effective. And since 2014, it is a regular on Campaign’s own Agency Of The Year awards. The agency is now over 3000-strong with six offices in China.
In the ‘80s, China had just begun opening its doors, gingerly, to foreign trade, and the country’s infrastructure was not ready for worldwide players.
According to Reid, many business negotiations ground to a halt at the lack of valid Chinese corporate law and general business regulations. There were no international hotels. Taxis were unheard of. And it was illegal for foreigners to use the Renmenbi.
In those nascent days of China’s juggernaut economic power, Ogilvy China scored its first international clients. In 1979, shortly after China’s economic reform, Ogilvy ran the first watch advertisement on a Shanghai newspaper for Rado. Local entities, The China Native Produce and Animal By-Products Import and Export Corporation (CNPC), were also among their major clients even though these campaigns were run out of its Hong Kong division with on-the-ground support from local associate agencies.
Ma ensured that the agency stayed ahead of China’s lightning pace. His first steps were to enlarge the agency’s creative resources, as well as establish closer links with the associate agencies. As more clients sought Ogilvy’s expertise, it became clear local client-servicing was required.
In 1986, Ogilvy’s base in Beijing eventually moved out of the hotel room into a proper representative office at the Noble Tower. Ma hired staff to work on projects for international clients such as Boeing, American Express, Rado, Philips, Mercedes Benz, Compaq, ZF, and Kraft (Tang). Two years later, Ma moved to Shanghai to head a second Ogilvy representative office that had opened at the Rui Jin Building, servicing clients like SC Johnson, Seagram and Unilever (Ponds).
Today, Ogilvy is a powerhouse of six offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Chengdu and Xiamen. “Ma had the drive and personality to get to the right people in those early challenging days, in order to sow the seeds for Ogilvy to prosper, as it has most certainly has done since,” said Reid.
“Alfred Ma, or ‘Lord Ma’ as we called him, was an awesome figure with his build, commanding authority and his wisdom winning respect,” recalls CC Tang, who used to work under Ma in Ogilvy Hong Kong. He is now the Hong Kong chairman of Havas Worldwide and its chief creative officer of Greater China. “Alfred was always a committed mentor and coach, and indeed a silhouette of Lord Ma has burned into my mind.”
David Kan, the former ECD of Ogilvy Hong Kong, calls Ma “a big shot with a big voice”.
“His presence was undeniable. He spoke no nonsense. He trimmed his words but they still carried a lot of weight. He cut to the chase.”
“I might have some big arguments with a few directors. But never with Alfred. On business matters, when we disagreed, we resolved it. When I was stuck, I sought his advice.”
Bosco Leung, the retired financial director of Ogilvy Asia, remembered his travels with Ma through China. “When I shared a room with Alfred in a rudimentary guesthouse — he would lie in bed talking about the day’s meetings with Chinese officials, analysing their position and questions on Ogilvy’s plans. Later, the channel would change to his renowned loud snoring!”
Kenny Wu, former general manager for Ogilvy China, calls Alfred his dearest teacher — “Helping me out in my advertising career and life.”
He could be both one’s superior and poker buddy. He could lead in the boardroom and later pass a basketball to a teammate on the court. He could be wise and cheeky. He was a supportive mentor and a good listener.
The boss was one of the boys, betting on student athletes competing on the fields opposite their office and playing banker during the evening poker games (which he often won). Sometimes, he’d show some moves at the basketball court —
a lone accounts head shocking a court of creative and studio artists with his lay-ups and hook shots despite his larger frame.
“Alfred worked so well with all levels of agency staff. Always kind and thoughtful — especially in my case when he protected me from having to drink maotai at the banquets!” recalls Leung.
Most anecdotes concerning Ma are like Leung’s — an account of his sharp competency paired with stories of his nonchalance with maintaining stature.
TB Song, Ogilvy and Mather’s Greater China chairman, remembers how Ma was always “full of hope for China’s advertisement prospects. He added, “Faced with the difficulties of an expansive environment, Uncle Ma exhibited only tolerance and insight. He deserves much of the credit for creating a joint venture in Shanghai.”
"Many of our current colleagues at Ogilvy may not know of him," Song said. "Our enterprising spirit has always been the foundation of our developments in China — and Uncle Ma is the best example."