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Girl Guides: Jean Lin on why 'everyone has a glass ceiling regardless of gender'

By Jennifer Faull

May 28, 2015 | 5 min read

Jean Lin took her experience as Isobar’s global boss, overseeing work emerging from 69 offices across 42 markets, and applied it in her personal life to tell her children bedtime stories digitally. Jen Faull catches up with Lin to discuss technology as an enabler, glass ceilings and the energy of her role.

Glass ceiling? What glass ceiling? The term, at least for Isobar’s global chief executive Jean Lin, is not one that resonates. She believes limits are not set by gender but instead formed simply by your capacity as a human being.

“Everyone has a glass ceiling regardless of gender. That’s your capability, how far you can take yourself and there is a limit to everyone. That’s how I see glass ceilings,” she says.

Lin has only ever worked for two network agencies; firstly Ogilvy & Mather, where she spent just over eight years, and then Isobar, where she rose from regional director in China to global chief executive in little over a decade.

However it is the period around 1999, between leaving Ogilvy and joining Isobar, that is probably the most interesting in her career so far.

On maternity leave, stuck at home under the watchful eye of her mother – whose belief in “all these ancient and mysterious things” meant she wasn’t allowed to read in case she “overused” her eyes – Lin would sneak off and pretend to take naps in the only room with a computer.

“My mother had no idea I would surf the internet,” laughs Lin. It was during this time away from the Ogilvy tradition, which sometimes prevented her from “thinking out of the box”, that Lin realised the vital role digital would play in the future and recognised the changes the advertising industry would inevitably face.

Just three months after her maternity leave came to an end, Lin launched her own agency – Wwwins Consulting.

Her dream was to drive a new way of thinking when it came to digital, but she never wanted to “own” the agency behind it. Within a few years, Dentsu Aegis – the network Isobar sits in – came calling and bought her business to create Isobar China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. She led the regional office before becoming Isobar’s global chief strategy officer, then chief executive of the Asia Pacific region before taking over from Mark Cranmer last year as Isobar’s global boss.

“I’m still based in Shanghai because the energy of the Chinese market gives me a lot of inspiration,” she says. “But globally, you can see that what’s happening in Korea just now can be used in China in a year, and could be used in Malaysia in another six months. That connection is the most stimulating to me. Having the luxury of seeing those excellent ideas across markets gets me up every day.”

Amid an increasingly erratic workload, which involved frequent travel coupled with two small children, being a “traditional” mother was simply not possible, explains Lin. But she remains convinced that being fulfilled at work and being present at home is not an either/or choice.

“I think a lot of people give up what they feel will make them happy in preparation for something that might happen in the future,” she says. “And a lot of us give up because of the guilt.”

Her own solution was to lean on the lessons learned in advertising. “Heartbroken” that she couldn’t read her kids bedtime stories every night, Lin started a blog where she could virtually tell them stories every evening. She would post each night for her son, who was aged six when she started, to read to his two-year-old sister.

“I wrote that blog for seven years,” Lin says. “I made use of what I know best; advertising, storytelling and digital and creating an environment that’s different. That’s not traditional.”

She reveals that her daughter, now older, recalls things that have happened to Lin on her travels that inspired her stories. “I ask her, how do you know that? You were so young! And she says, I don’t know. I just do”.

Her son, meanwhile, affectionately calls her ‘Mom 2.0’. “I’m not a traditional mother who will be at home cooking, or picking them up from school. But I’ll always be there. Technology enables this to happen.”

However, she agrees that there simply aren’t enough women in senior roles. This is one of the main reasons she agreed to be jury president for the Cyber Lions at Cannes this year. She is one of only five of the 15 presidents who are women and is the only female judge from a digital agency.

“If my participation can create a foundation to move forward then I couldn’t say no. This is something that might empower more women to do this in the future.

“This year they are trying to invite more women as jury presidents and I want to ensure it happens. So that next year it will be difficult to go back.”

This feature was first published in The Drum's 27 May issue.

APAC Cannes Lions Isobar

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