As part of the Future of Strategy 2022 report, Eunice Tan – Managing Partner and Head of Strategy at The Secret Little Agency (TSLA); Managing Partner at Anak; and Head of Strategy at Mother Shanghai – spoke to WARC’s Rica Facundo about how strategy is changing in Southeast Asia, local insights, and why the metaverse is overhyped (for now).

What are the biggest changes influencing the strategy landscape in SEA?

Coming off the pandemic, we’ve seen a steady trajectory toward strategy roles being extremely prized within the client and agency side. There are a lot of clients that are expanding and looking at hiring strategy skill sets.

That tells me that in an environment of flux and chaos, a lot of businesses are taking a step back, not just being introspective but really looking at how they can future proof and think bigger. They are asking themselves what’s their north star or cornerstone, and this requires strategic thinking – it extends beyond the realm of communications, media and advertising. The appetite for more upstream and long-term strategy thinking has increased quite a fair bit. Clients are recognising that you need to put this level of thinking critically at this juncture to survive and thrive.

Agencies are also mirroring the headspace of clients. They are asking themselves what competencies they need to build to better serve these emerging client needs.

How does this backdrop influence the type of strategists you hire for today? What are the skills, expertise and attitudes you look for?

Beyond just having curiosity and an innate desire to question everything, we’re really looking for people who have a certain level of independence and entrepreneurship – strategists who look at strategy not as a discipline to be delivered on a brief but how that drives an exciting future for clients; strategists who treat every project as if it was their own business and go beyond writing the brief, giving people the insight, proposition and creative ways in. You need to have a point of view on what the shape of the business might be.

The second thing which is less a technical aptitude but extremely important is this notion of generosity – with your time and thoughts, what you are willing to share and teach. This is especially important because as strategists, we often serve as the bridge between logic, creativity and commerce, or between thinking, research and creative outcomes. So we look for people who are extremely generous in their thoughts and are not too precious. In TSLA, this is important because our process is quite iterative and collaborative.

Other important attributes include having an understanding of culture, not just being cultural as a person but how that informs your insight and thinking. And having an appreciation for the long or big idea that’s not necessarily about the brand. You have to know how to galvanise clients around a big idea, especially now that they are looking to position, transform and future proof their business. These are the things that are harder to sell. There are the smaller things, such as having an understanding of emerging technologies like Web3, but that is a given.

How is this strategist profile different from five years ago or when you were a young strategist?

When I was a young strategist, there were a lot of things that you were and weren’t supposed to do. If we think about 15 years ago, advertising as a business was still nascent in Southeast Asia. The landscape was driven by larger network agencies that were looking to make a market in Southeast Asia with a hub and spoke model. So there were a lot of things that were seemingly sacred in process and ways of working – you have to print three copies of your brief, deliver your brief in a set framework and you are in this position where everyone is looking at you. It’s really stressful, especially for Asian/female strategists, because there weren’t a lot of them around.

I’m a firm proponent and believer that if you were put in a situation where you have to be seen as the smartest or most impressive intellectual in the room, it forces you to be a bit more rigid. This creates an environment where you are more guarded with your thoughts and ideas. But let’s be real. It takes a certain level of vulnerability to put forward your ideas that may or may not be used in the eventual outcome. The point of it is to provoke discussion, push and pull creative thinking.

This is why a lot of the strategists in the past suffered from imposter syndrome. It’s not a healthy environment to be in. But then you fast forward today. The world and culture are changing. Generations of people are changing their mindsets and there’s a demand for more of a collaborative approach. The dynamics of the workplace have also changed in conjunction with that. But if a strategist feels less compelled to be the smartest person in the room, the outcomes are better. It’s more honest, real, authentic.

What’s driving this new culture of work, where generosity of time and thought becomes a crucial aspect of producing effective creative work?

The creative and tech landscape in Asia has changed a lot. We’ve seen a seismic shift in how companies are creating a new workplace culture. I would argue that the biggest competitor to any ad agency today may not be another ad, creative or production agency – it’s going to be your tech companies who offer this kind of collaborative mindset among like-minded people. Why would someone want to work at a hierarchical ad agency when you see your peers working around a pantry table at YouTube?

We also see an entrepreneurial and startup culture rising in Southeast Asia, especially with a lot of unicorns emerging here. This is changing expectations of how people should work and share ideas.

There’s also a generation of young talent with different motivations and drivers. In recent years, there has been a huge migration of people in the region coming from tier one or two cities and moving to other tier one cities to advance their careers. It’s common to see someone from Manila working in Singapore, Shanghai or Hong Kong. The median age of the Southeast Asian workforce is pretty young, and I think that’s also driving a new set of expectations and values of how people want to work and share their ideas.

The change is also driven by new channels of communication. In the past, I would have to print three copies of my brief, get it stamped by the traffic manager and then get it scanned for typos and inaccuracies before it goes to the creative director. Today, I’m sending memes on Slack to my project groups. It’s so different.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not bashing the old way because it creates a sense of discipline and hones a keen eye for clarity and accuracy. But we’ve been in the industry long enough to know that you can’t work like that anymore. And because of that, people get really guarded. If your brief has gone through three rounds of checks, three copies and signoffs by four people, then it becomes a very different dynamic.

Now we work very collaboratively. We would go into a meeting without a typical templated brief. People are like “I wrote some stuff on a Google doc. I’m taking my whole team out to eat fried chicken for a whole day to talk about the semiotics of why Singaporeans love fried chicken.”

What are your thoughts on the training and development needed to prepare strategists for the future?

I look at training broadly as learning and gaining experience and knowledge. Going for talks and signing up for courses is a hygiene factor. What catalyses learning is creating the best environment for people to creatively solve problems.

A big part of what we do is casting and that is related to creating the best environment for people to grow. We would put people with different life and client experiences together to drive the business. This is because learning comes from solving problems together.

You mentioned that clients are asking for strategy beyond the traditional domain of communications and advertising. Are strategy departments within agencies ready for this?

If we look at advertising as helping people solve problems in creative ways, this enables you to think out of the box about what an advertising strategy can do.

TSLA is ready for it. But I’m seeing that a lot of strategists in the region feel alone because of how the team is set up and this becomes a barrier for this kind of big strategic thinking. They work very independently and don’t really have a lot of people to bounce ideas with because the department is not big. When you’re alone, you don’t have the mind space to look for these connections or have these bigger strategy conversations with clients.

There’s a lot happening in the tech and media space, from media fragmentation to Web3 and e-commerce. What do you see making the biggest impact on the role of a strategist?

There are a lot of macro forces influencing the shape of business today. Even across my global brothers and sisters in the Mother family, all our clients are suddenly coming to us asking: What’s our metaverse strategy? What’s our Web3 strategy?

I don’t mean to downplay or make it sound flippant but at the end of the day, there is no metaverse strategy. It is just a strategy. The most important thing as a strategist is to be aware of them before they become a thing. So being able to sense what’s coming into the fold and how it’s impacting culture, conversations and the world around them, are you able to look at these trends from a macro view and be expansive and universal about your strategy? This is an underrated skill. The strategist must straddle understanding the nuance, implications and the inner workings of these new technologies and then cascade down to whatever mediums, shapes and forms that are important to the brand and its consumers.

More broadly, how do you think trends in DEI and cultural representation are impacting the role of strategy in the region?

I think it is a strategist’s responsibility to ensure that our thinking isn’t homogeneous but represents the diversity of the region. This should also inspire us to look for or pull deeper connections beneath the surface.

I feel very strongly that surrounding yourself with interesting and diverse people will only benefit you as a strategist, which means that your interactions, stories and conversations you collect come from different perspectives. It’s all about broadening your personal reference pool as well. Acronym or not, if you think of DEI like this, then it’s evergreen.

What I’m particularly excited about is this population boom in Southeast Asia, where you’re seeing a lot of young people, moving across cities and countries to find themselves and share their ideas.

What changes still need to happen to make DEI really flourish within the strategy or creative industry in Southeast Asia?

DEI needs to be intentional and made part of the process to allow your team to learn and immerse in different cultures, versus “we don’t have time so we just need a quick fix and do homogenous research”.

Secondly, to help clients see the value of it. Most agency leaders will say that they would love for it to happen but the client just doesn’t have the time and money. This is why we’ll be peddling the same homogenous POV and representation of the region. This is why we end up putting a homogenous view about Gen Z in Asia or the sandwich generation in Singapore.