Purpose Incorporated: A primer for brands in APAC

This article is part of a special series on how brands in APAC can go beyond profit to do good and do better for themselves and others. Read more.

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6 key takeaways: How we got here

Firstly, DE&I is an operating principle deeply ingrained in our DNA – it’s not a set of objectives.

As the world increasingly woke up to the need in the past 18 months, TBWA’s history placed us further ahead on the journey than many in Asia: our heritage is one of diversity.

We have codified learnings through the collective from countries like South Africa and the over quarter-century transformation journey they have been on, as well as the US and the UK.

DE&I cannot be left to chance. If it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed.

We believe our product/output must demonstrate our core beliefs, so we insist on and take great pride in producing work that advances representation like Maliban’s Silent Sign Language film and Shanghai Pride’s Raise the Pride, to name two of many.

Finally, there is a deep belief that diversity is not a journey with an end, it is a journey of commitment and there will always be something to do, something to evolve and improve upon.

Brief opening, background to the beginning of the journey

At TBWA, we live and breathe Disruption. Central to our ability to harness Disruption is cultivating a diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment where all individuals can thrive and share their ingenious ideas without hesitation. We won’t live up to our creative potential without it.  

Our vision for diversity, equity and inclusion means relentlessly assessing, disrupting and addressing inequities for marginalised communities to achieve equitable and actionable outcomes.  

A successful DE&I strategy is a movement, not a mandate, with all hands-on deck and led from the very top. Fortunately, this has been TBWA’s operating principle since inception and in 2015, a more focused commitment to advance gender equality and make meaningful change was initiated by current chief executive officer Troy Ruhanen.

In 2020, as the world increasingly awoke to the systemic and morally wrong actions seeping through society and corporate foundations, TBWA’s heritage placed us further along on the journey than many in Asia: our story is one of diversity, it’s innate across our collective and deeply ingrained in our DNA. Established in the 1970s, our original founders set this precedent at the onset, with Tragos, Bonnange, Wiesendanger and Ajroldi hailing from different countries, different backgrounds and different disciplines.

When the agency expanded its global footprint, it did so through affiliations and partnerships with agency founders across the globe. To this day, the success of the inward, outward strategy remains key to our inclusive culture with many of our agency founders, especially across Asia, still leading their respective markets.

Our culture is what differentiates us and what motivates us to always do better. We’re a community of pirates who believes deeply in the proverb of “None of us is as good as all of us”.

But we recognise there is always room for improvement and creating a pervasive movement around our DE&I journey cannot be left to chance, it must be measured so we can manage and continue to evolve and grow as a collective.


Shortly after Troy Ruhanan joined TBWA\Worldwide, he set a goal to increase the number of women in senior leadership roles across the global collective by 20% in five years (2020), with the launch of Take the Lead. Frameworks, pathways, process and metrics were introduced, while every market CEO was held accountable for progress, which was reported quarterly.

And while representation varied across our Asia Pacific collective, we’re proud to report we have 12 women leading agency operations: Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Shanghai, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Colombo, Mumbai, Auckland, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, including three CEOs leading multi-offices. Additionally, we have seven offices with female CFOs. By the end of 2020, TBWA’s Take the Lead goal was nearly met, seeing an increase of 19.4% in female leadership globally, which has translated to a more balanced, inclusive and successful company.

In June 2020, Take the Lead evolved with a clear focus and commitment on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, placing DE&I* firmly at the top of the collective’s talent strategy agenda, with a focus on a broader range of measures for diversity, including sexual orientation, disability and race, in addition to gender and identity.

Across Asia, our respective market CEOs and CFOs remain accountable for meeting a very clear set of KPIs relevant to their respective markets’ DE&I agenda. And once again, our CEOs and CFOs are required to report progress five times a year during business plan meetings, ensuring accountability remains at the top.

With dedicated objectives, budgets and teams in place, TBWA continues to strive to do better. As a collective, we recognised there is a lifetime of work to do to dismantle systemic exclusion but as a collective, we remain committed to making progress where we can most affect change with a focus on three pillars: culture, workforce and the work.


Changing the makeup of our workforce and ultimately the industry requires long-term commitment. 

Over the years, TBWA agencies across Asia have been involved in establishing highly respected internship programmes such as Junior Board in Korea, which now attracts more women than men. Our agency in Singapore boasts one of the most robust school outreach and sought-after internship programmes. The agency works with 15 tertiary institutions and has welcomed over 500+ students through the agency doors.

We also continue to identify and work with external organisations and universities to help establish pathways for students and young adults who have traditionally found breaking into the advertising industry challenging.

In Hong Kong, for example, the agency partners with two organisations, International Social Services and Link Centre, which specialise in working with under-represented ethnic minorities. The programme consists of a series of outreach programmes, volunteering and panel discussions, as well as shadowing opportunities within TBWA\HK. To date, six students have successfully passed through the programme. The end goal is to inspire teens and young adults with alternative career options, beyond the conventions of their respective communities.

Allyship and equality are deeply ingrained across our collective and while we recognise there are some micro market forces affecting minority groups in various markets, our agencies provide an inclusive and safe environment for all employees to bring their true authentic self to work, no matter the market they operate out of, fostering a sense of belonging, community and connection.

In Japan, for example, our DE&I Peace Pirates proactively host events and publish white papers to continually educate and inform all employees across the TBWA\Hakuhodo collective, deepening an understanding and acceptance towards groups that are traditionally excluded. This year, a series of events was hosted over a week in celebration of International Women’s Day and in June, the agency dedicated the entire month to Pride.


To objectively assess where we stand with our systems, institutional biases and recruitment strategy, a third party consultant was employed at a global level – an important approach to help us clearly identify gaps so we could create an objective and informed plan as we work to eliminate any racism, bias and inequity from TBWA.

As a collective which is deeply proud of our “share and steal with pride” culture, we have codified learnings from countries like South Africa and the over a quarter of a century transformation journey they have been on, as well as the US and UK.

For example, by identifying a holistic set of pillars based on learnings, real change could be felt broadly at grassroot levels. These include supplier and enterprise development and training, which become critical for broader transformation.

In Asia, several markets completed comprehensive internal research, in addition to conducting open forums and listening circles for employees to voice their feelings and concerns, which unearthed ingrained issues across different markets that we could begin to address.

In China, for example, a cross-functional working committee was established. Internally the committee reviewed the supplier base, internship programmes, pro bono and volunteering initiatives, while open forums brought to light how we could do better at ensuring all new employees felt a sense of belonging, not only in a new working environment, but often a new city as many employees hailed from all over China and many various countries. This resulted in a three-month buddy system to provide those newcomers less familiar with Shanghai, our culture or internal systems, so they could thrive with confidence at TBWA\China.

Other elements advancing our progress include reviewing compensation policies and practices to continue to ensure all employees, regardless of race, ethnicity and gender, are paid fairly. At TBWA\Singapore, for example, the agency undertook a deep dive to further understand talent sentiment and career progression. From here, the agency created a career progression plan for all employees, with a clear set of objectives each employee needed to meet. The career pathway focused on a long-term career goal plus a one-year plan.

Our aim is to create a shared sense of purpose. We strive to be better at sourcing, identifying, attracting, developing and retaining the most diverse group of talent who help steer our company and our clients with a more balanced perspective on the world.

As a global collective, we actively encouraged participation in the industry’s first global diversity study, which will help benchmark our industry globally.

Creative product

Across all our markets from India, China and Sri Lanka, to Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan, we have made a concerted effort to leverage our most effective marketing tool, creativity, to drive positive change and business impact across our clients’ businesses and our own.

In 2020, when sentiment and attitudes swiftly changed due to deep-rooted issues brought to light by the crisis, several of our markets leveraged our own research capabilities to listen, learn and develop content that became critical to our clients and own our learnings.

We created eight different reports to help drive brand and business strategies rooted in consumer needs and desires. Topics included the effects of #BlackLivesMatter in Asia; how the pandemic has changed behaviours and values among Muslim communities during Ramadan; and for International Women’s Day, multi-market research on the role advertising might have played in creating gender stereotypes, and how the industry can do better going forward.

Globally, our Take the Lead programme encourages every agency to take on a pro bono client or project committed to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion. We track the number of offices engaged around the world, the number of employees and departments involved, and the hours committed.

One example is TBWA\Shanghai’s ongoing commitment to support the LGBTQAI+ communities. Working in partnership with local bodies, TBWA collaborated with six local apparel designers and interpreted the Pride Flag with clothes of representative colours, turning Shanghai’s iconic outdoor clothesline into our proudest expression.

Leveraging our own research, we’ve made a concerted effort to create campaigns that represent the true diversity of our communities across Asia. Whether it’s gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or race, each of our markets has different areas that need attention, so a different approach for each of our markets is always respected.

Then there are times when we create a clear stance or activism campaign, bringing light to the issues of the under-represented. Examples include Maliban’s Silent Sign Language film, AIG Pride Jersey and Save the Children’s Beautiful Fairytales (for children with disabilities).

And then something as simple – yet powerful – as casting talent that reflects real people and doesn’t play to stereotypes, such as Hennessy’s Travelling Tastes featuring HK’s award-winning lesbian chef, May Chow, Malaysia’s Sunsilk’s Generation Possible, featuring an all-female team from talent, to cast and director, and Singapore’s  IKEA’s EFTERTRADA – Style for All, featuring the cool 80’s Glamma.

We recognise that progress won't be overnight. We understand we have much more to do. There will be missteps along the way. We understand the journey has no destination and is a continuous one. But we are committed to the work and we will continue sharing our journey as we become a more diverse, inclusive and equitable company.


  • Acknowledge DE&I as a strategic business imperative, aligned to agency business priorities and led from the top.
  • Create a shared purpose, a movement and ensure all leadership is fully committed to making real change.
  • Set clear KPIs, benchmarks and metrics and hold leadership to account.
  • Regularly report progress, review and reassess to ensure targets are being met and real change is being achieved. Hold leadership accountable for progress.
  • Hire an external consultant to help identify gaps and create an action plan.
  • Acknowledge, draw attention to and address ingrained underlying issues across individual markets, demonstrating inclusiveness and allyship at a micro level.
  • Create a movement, a shared purpose and integrate DE&I across all aspects of the organisation to ensure processes, structures, policy, systems and behaviours are seamlessly integrated.
  • Recognising diversity is not a journey with an end, it is a journey of commitment – that we will always have something more to do.

About the authors

Sean (he, him, his) is president of TBWA\Asia and is responsible for advancing the Asia collective’s position across the region with the ambition to deepen the company’s specialist units in analytics, data, consultancy and e-commerce, while continuing to drive creative excellence. 

Tsin Yee (she, her, hers) is chief executive officer of TBWA\Malaysia, a board member of the Malaysia 4A’s and a member of the Omniwomen Malaysia chapter. Promoted to CEO in 2021, Hui Tsin successfully disrupted and elevated the agency’s capabilities and thinking to successfully navigate the ever-changing marketing landscape across Malaysia. 

Jan (he, him, his) is managing director of TBWA\Hong Kong and has been instrumental in building and leading one of the markets’ most digitally innovative creative agencies. Despite operating under the most challenging of circumstances, under Jan’s leadership, the agency continues to deepen its digital and innovative IQ capabilities to secure a greater share of the future for TBWA\HK clients.