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The Judges’ Club: meet Emily Chang, McCann Worldgroup China’s chief executive

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By Dani Gibson, Senior Writer

July 18, 2022 | 9 min read

The Drum meets Emily Chang, McCann Worldgroup China’s chief executive and judge for our Agency Business Awards.

Emily Chang

Emily Chang, chief executive officer at McCann Worldgroup China

Emily Chang’s CV is a checklist of the world’s biggest and best advertisers: from P&G to Apple and Starbucks to InterContinental Hotels Group, she’s worked at them all. So it was perhaps a surprise when she went agency-side and joined McCann Worldgroup China as chief executive in 2020.

In just a few short years she’s helped transform the group, bringing in a new leadership team and landing a raft of new clients including Adidas, Alibaba and her former employer Starbucks.

She’s also a judge for The Drum Awards for Agency Business 2022. We caught up with her to find out more about her journey to the top.

How did you get your start in the industry?

When I look back, it was the perfect roadmap, though none of it was really intentionally designed. I started in consumer engagement in 1999 with Proctor and Gamble, but then over the last 23 years, it’s been about the seat that we sit in, all facing a common objective. For instance, at Apple, I learned a tonne about retail, and then I went to IHG and learned about the guest experience in hospitality. Following that was Starbucks, where I was immersed in digital engagement, and now at McCann I’m bringing all those pieces together for a broader portfolio of clients to help their brands earn a meaningful role in consumers’ lives.

You moved agency side after two decades as the client. What do you do differently at McCann based on that client-side experience?

Having been a chief marketing officer, I had an opinion on where agencies were falling short. On one hand, boutiques had great creativity but struggled to scale. On the other, traditional 4As could be strong partners but often lagged in pace and digital capability. With that perspective, I went into my current role to become the creative partner that I previously sought as a commercial leader. And I use that word, “partner,” deliberately! We don’t have an account function here – we raise up business leaders who our clients can trust as fully engaged partners. We invest in training and prioritize helping our people develop so that they’re prepared to help our brand partners earn a meaningful role in consumers’ lives.

The key difference working on the agency side is a singular focus on people. Our plans aren’t sidelined due to supply chain constraints, R&D, or distribution. It’s 100% about recruiting the best people for the best roles for them and supporting them to success. What could be more satisfying?!

What piece of work have you recently worked on that was amazing?

We’re working with Innocent Juice, a fabulous brand, and what I love is that the team found such a unique way to tell its story. How we do that is called truth hunting; how you uncover really meaningful insights, consumer tensions and truths that inspire unique creativity. For this particular campaign, it came from our own backyard. One of my colleagues, Amy, said how she hated fruit, hated everything about it, and that really sparked an intriguing conversation. Innocent Juice is 100% fruit juice, but what if we took the reverse and spoke about Amy? She’s actually featured in the advertisement and the social engagement. And we found social groups of people who come together over a mutual hatred of fruit.

It catches my attention and inspires me because it’s such good truth hunting. It’s a unique insight and way of bringing something to life that could only be when your team works together the way ours does. I’m still laughing out loud because of the humor, the engagement and the authenticity. There’s a lot of funny advertising out there, but when it’s really grounded in such deep truth and an authentic story, it comes to life differently.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My husband once told me, many years ago, to take people off a pedestal. I tend to elevate people. And frankly, everyone’s human. Eventually, they’ll fall and it doesn’t do a service to them or to me, because frankly, people will disappoint us.

That’s part of being human, but it shouldn’t devastate us. And if they do, that’s not on them. That’s more on us. And because I am a more naturally positive person, this advice is really important because it helps me take a more balanced view, especially when it’s somebody I deeply admire and respect.

What are your views on the importance of awards?

They are a recognition of craft. I entered the world of awards when I was the chief commercial officer for InterContinental Hotels Group because hospitality awards are important. And as I started to learn about them, I realized they are deeply meaningful, because what they’re doing is recognizing the craft of thoughtful service and guest experience. Now at McCann, it’s about recognizing great ideas, creativity and outstanding execution. It’s meaningful.

We talk about the work that we do with three Fs; fun, fame and fortune, in that order. If something is really fun, it’s a great brand, it’s a great client and we are having a lot of fun working together. Then the fame will come because we’re going to do outstanding work that people start talking about, like Innocent Juice. And if that comes then the fortune comes. So maybe it’s not a traditional agency mindset, but for me it is all about that order of curating fun to fame to fortune.

What one problem would you fix within marketing?

Representation. We’re making great progress but there’s still a lot to do. One of our clients, L’Oréal, recently collaborated with the Chinese brand Neiwai and created an authentic mutual idea as a grounding factor. Neiwai is an underwear brand and it’s all about being brave enough to be nude and show your imperfections. That’s a bold statement for a makeup brand.

And not only did they align on a mutual philosophy that was really complimentary, but they also co-created products and brought the idea all the way to execution. So even the nude lipsticks were given names such as ‘little freckles’ or ‘beauty mark,’ taking the idea of completely embracing the unique things about you that may not be deemed traditionally beautiful and flagging them as something personally outstanding.

Where do you turn for inspiration?

From to many inputs as I can reasonably and meaningfully consume. We are shaped by what we see, hear and experience. And, frankly, that puts a responsibility on us. It becomes our responsibility to expose ourselves to diverse inputs intentionally.

Also, today we take for granted the amount of wisdom and access to amazing leaders that we have online. I can take a Kintsugi class, I can learn sand painting, and right now I’m learning Morse code. When I was growing up, we had the Dewey Decimal system where we could go to the library and sign out a book printed on paper, if it was available. And now there are so many inputs. So it’s about feeding ourselves because whatever we take in as an input inevitably changes our worldview on things.

How do you switch off and maintain a work-life balance?

For me, it’s about intentionally carving out time for priorities. My family dinners are about good food and conversation, so no devices. Family game nights are full-on fun, raucous laughter. Meanwhile, work is full-on engagement with people and doing everything I can in my job to help people feel seen, heard, respected and valued. I’ve said full on a lot, and that’s generally how most of us live.

As for work-life balance, in my own life I’ve given up – I don’t even try to achieve balance. It‘s more about the harmony of work, family and social contribution. For me, they flow one into the other and my goal may not be to separately balance these three discrete priorities. It’s more to find the beauty and the joy in between.

To enter The Drum Awards for Agency Business, make sure you submit your entry by Wednesday July 20.

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