Key Clients Include: Anheuser Busch InBev
Name an innovative idea or business solution for which you are most proud. When I think of innovation, words like pioneering, forging and initiating change come to mind. My time with Starcom MediaVest Group in Beijing, China from April 2009 to February 2012 seems to best capture these traits. After eight years at the Starcom USA office in Chicago, I was struck by the feeling that I needed to reinvigorate my passion for the work that we do and find some new sources of inspiration by pushing myself into a bit of the unknown. In my first nine months in China, I served as the regional director on our Samsung account, managing global coordination for Greater China (Mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan) and overseeing local China work. In January 2010, I moved into a new role as a director of human experience strategy (HES), focused on building strategic capabilities and overseeing product development. When the office won the Mars/Wrigley business in 2010, a portion of my time became dedicated to working as the HES on the business with a focus on the chocolate brands. In January 2011, I added the responsibility of Growth Lead for China and also lent business development support to the other markets in North Asia, including Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.
Our industry is relatively young in China – in age, practice and capabilities – which means growth, by and large, is driven by being “new.” To propel it, you are literally building EVERY SINGLE DAY – new offerings, new processes, new tools, new research and new insights – all with an eye toward delivering best-in-class marketing solutions to existing and prospective clients in one of the most competitive markets in the world. I can’t think of a more powerful articulation of innovative business solutions than the work being done at that time. It was and continues to be ambitious, groundbreaking and differentiating. I am proud to have been a part of the team that helped bring it to life.
Why do people see you as an innovator? I imagine that the biggest factor might simply be that I demonstrate a willingness and passion to reinvent myself. I’ve worked in both a developed market (the US) and a rapidly developing market (China). I’ve been a buyer, a planner and a buyer who planned. I’ve been a business director, a strategist and a new business lead. I’ve been a researcher, a talent recruiter, a workshop facilitator, a systems guru, a writer (and a ghost writer). My colleague and I used to joke that we needed to carry A4 sized business cards just to capture all of the hats we wore at any time.
The real beauty of having lived these lives thus far in my career is that it has provided me with a much broader perspective to view the work that we do. I believe that perspective plays a huge role in innovation; it allows you to see the myriad ways in which something can be refashioned, rediscovered or reconceived.
What role does innovation play in your marketing strategy today? People recreate themselves every day – how they behave, how they shape their personas and present them to others, how they consume content, how they discover and rediscover brands – and they do so at an almost exhausting pace. It is critical to move with that same agility and innovation in both theory and practice. Delivering on it requires that we retrain our minds and reset our expectations. At Starcom, we try to begin our work on every initiative – be it brand-focused, strategy-focused or process-focused – with questions like “could we?”, “why don’t we?” and “what if we?” We’re very fortunate to work with clients who are open to new ways of working and collaborating with us to actively pursue original and inventive ideas to make real connections with people.
What is the biggest challenge you face in applying innovative thinking to international projects?
The mistake we sometimes make as marketers is we often believe innovation should look the same everywhere and a global idea should manifest itself in the same form with the same execution regardless of the market. I think that happens because we carry the initial idea so far into the tactical space that by the time it’s brought to the individual markets, it’s a mandate instead of an inspiring strategic direction. As a result, it’s hard for that idea to be expressed in a culturally relevant way. In the same way we understand you cannot create meaningful experiences for Hispanics in America by simply translating your English creative to Spanish, we have to give local markets an innovative global strategy that permits “breathing room” – space for them to innovate on their terms and in ways defined by their consumer lens and cultural and market realities.
Any other interesting aspects to your international background? Working abroad in Asia provided me with the opportunity to travel through a lot of places in the world I might not otherwise have seen. The more I traveled, the more I began to realize how distinctly a region or country’s social fabric can be expressed through food – the flavors, spices and ingredients; the preparation and occasions; and most importantly, the rituals (both formal and informal) through which food is shared. It became a mini-obsession of mine to wander through wet markets, snack on street food, venture into tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants and seek out cooking classes wherever I could. I’ve come to believe there may never be a more honest and pure picture of a people than viewing their world through the culture of their food.
Any internationalist trivia about yourself? I lived almost three years in China without ever having a formal Chinese name. The phonetic translation of my English name – a common way to get a Chinese name – is歪乐瑞wai1 le4 rui4. Early on in my time in China, I was counseled to stick with the English version of my name, as 歪wai1 in Mandarin means “crooked” or “devious”— an attribute unlikely to bode well for my fortunes abroad.