In conjunction with this year’s WARC Awards for Asian Strategy, this series aims to showcase perspectives from young strategists across Asia, highlighting their take on strategy as a marketing discipline and career path. This time, we chat with China’s emerging bright minds.

China has certainly fared much better than most of the world in navigating through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. It remains one of the top-performing economies in the world and its booming marketing industry reflects that optimism about the future.

The country’s community of strategists is ambitious, curious and laser-focused on forging an upward path. Already attuned to working in a constantly changing and rapid-paced environment, don’t be too surprised when the next generation starts looking beyond China and seizing a leading role on the global stage.

Howard Tan

Job Title: Associate Planning Director

Company: McCann Worldgroup China

Age: 29

How did you find your way into strategy work?

By accident, in fact. I was a literature and political science student at college and started my career as a quantitative market researcher. Then I met my ex-boss, a seasoned strategist, by chance, who then introduced me to the amazing world of advertising and strategy. I still remember and feel grateful for that day when he jotted down the word “strategy” and told me to be the voice of consumers that challenges brands to do new things. That really excited me. Now it’s my fifth year trying to do better at that and much more as a strategist. And the excitement is always there.

How do you personally define the discipline of marketing strategy?

To me, marketing strategy is really about making a great story, finding great ways to tell it and achieving great results. A good marketing strategy is like a spark of creative genius marrying logical reasoning and thorough research marrying meticulous planning to execute and implement. But not everyone can do all three. So marketing strategy can also be a matter of people strategy – how to bring people who are great at different things together and make marketing better.

What’s on your wish list in terms of strategic thinking/work?

Probably because of my humanities and social sciences background, I’ve always been interested in creating communications (strategies), not just for businesses but also for social enterprises. Communications that not only yield commercial results but also create societal and political impact. The challenge and opportunity are both huge, especially in a unique market like China. But that would be a really interesting direction to explore.

How do you see your career developing?

A very difficult question. I don’t have an answer right now. There’s a known path, the agency career ladder. And everything else, unknown.

But I’d probably take the unknown.

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years?

The word strategy is getting bigger and more complicated. It seems that everything can use a strategy now. 

But strategy is always about planning actions, solving problems and achieving goals. The reason why we need so many strategies nowadays is probably that we are just having more problems: about our technologies, our data, new media, new cultures, new conflicts, new generations. 

I actually believe that in the next 10-15 years, we should really strategise to simplify, not complicate, our problems. Better utilise our tools, to better understand humans, and tell better stories, is always my own simple, but long-term guiding strategy. 

Shealynn Chin

Title: Strategy Director & Founder 

Company: Silver Bullet

Age: 33

How did you find your way into strategy work?

Ten 10 years ago, when I first joined the industry as an account executive in a social media agency, I was fascinated with brand strategy. For me, this is the job that requires proper and profound thinking, fixing proper and fundamental brand problems – it challenges and fulfils me. 

I tried to apply for a brand planner’s role at agencies with good reputations for strategy but they didn’t accept applicants without the required background. So I had to take an indirect path. 

The journey to becoming a brand strategist took 5 years and 3 agency changes. I first moved from account to social media planner in NIM Digital, where I climbed from social planner to senior digital planner; then I joined MRM//McCann (because they have more exposure to branding projects), then shifted towards brand planner – that was my last agency MullenLowe. From there, I finally landed my ideal job, learned and absorbed from the best local and global strategy teams. So yes, I knew what I wanted, but it just took a bit longer to get there.

How do you personally define the discipline of marketing strategy?

Marketing is a big machine with a set of coherent functions that drives business growth. It’s complex yet also simple. I just remember the basics, which is identifying, creating, communicating and delivering value, so as to drive growth.

In a fast-changing market like China, the consumption upgrades, the socio-cultural evolution, the China-pride ideology, the shifting media landscape, you know the market is new and exciting. You always have to stay alert and agile, keep your brand relevant and differentiated, leveraging the influence of the latest media and cultural sentiments. 

You are the one who figures out the blueprint of growth, and shows clients the way. 

What’s on your wish list in terms of strategic thinking/work?

Three years ago, I founded the boutique strategy house Silver Bullet. Since then, we’ve helped many local brands from scratch to innovate their product and service portfolio, enter new markets, gain mind share and market share growth. Some of them have the potential to be at the top of their game, to be great brands doing good in people’s lives playing on the global stage. 

That is my ambition, to build great brands in this time of great change, to build great brands that can play on the global stage. Decades ago, when Interbrand, Ogilvy and other global agencies came to China, part of the reason was that their clients, Coca-Cola, P&G, Unilever entered the promising China market. So after 5-10 years, when today’s local Chinese brands are ready to go global, who will go with them? I want Silver Bullet to be the one. I wish to be the one to accompany my clients to witness such moments.

How do you see your career developing?

The vision is very clear: Silver Bullet will be one of the most trusted strategy-led brand-building agencies – save the bullshit, solve tough and tangible problems. I and my team will be one of the best strategy teams. 

My focus nowadays is on how to establish a solid and updated training system, to attract and cultivate good planners, so as to deliver effective strategy work. It’s not a one-off project, even after the system is established; it takes continuous maintenance, knowledge and practices’. 

So it’s quite predictable that in 5-10 years, I and my team will still be polishing our problem-solving skills, working with outside teams, training more planners. 

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years?

I’m lucky that I was born and grew up in one of the most critical times in China’s history. It’s a time of change and opportunity. I’m really happy that more and more local brands are aware of the importance of brand and strategy. This phenomenon won’t disappear in the next 10-15 years. 

Looking back, only 10-15 years ago, the focus was still on one-size-for-all products dominating shelves in supermarkets and occupying 5-10 minutes of prime advertising time before or after the China Central Television network news programs. These were the benchmarks for measuring the strength of the company in the old days. 

China is a big, new and fragmented market landscape, and strategy plays a bigger role in a more complex situation. After all, among all the other disciplines, strategy is the one that cuts through all the clutter to draw out a blueprint for coherent action to guide the way forward. 

That worries and scares me. Climate change, extreme weather, the pandemic and geopolitics – our beautiful vision will not come true without a safe and peaceful environment. So while praying for a better planet, I will use the tools of strategy properly and try to do something useful with my team and clients. 

Jill Tan

Title: Senior Strategy Manager

Company: Initiative China

Age: 29

How did you find your way into strategy work?

I was doing something completely different before becoming a strategist. In fact, I started my career in hospitality, working as a revenue executive for two Starwood resorts in the UAE. Despite being a big fan of travel and understanding cultures, I realised I did not want to be limited to just one industry for the remainder of my career. That’s when I took the leap and changed my career path, trying a new position as a paid search media planner, where I learnt about performance marketing, optimising media to drive the most ROAS. It was much more stressful for sure but highly exhilarating. Moving to Shanghai to work for Ford Motor as a regional media planning manager was my first experience living and working in the dynamic China market as well as seeing how strategists work to tighten entire campaigns so that they remain holistic and united. Subsequently, I joined Initiative, an agency that prides itself on its strong strategic approach and cultural velocity mantra. Here, I cultivated my skills under the mentorship of industry-recognised strategists and have been pushing my learning boundaries ever since, seeking insights that bring value to our clients.

I love how working in an agency gives me the opportunity to work across various industries but most of all, the energy and passion of the people absolutely blow me away. 

How do you personally define the discipline of marketing strategy?

Marketing strategy is the intersection between science and magic in helping brands drive meaningful media through carefully distilled audience insights.

If there is one thing that’s outstanding about the China market, it is its ability to evolve at a rapid pace against all odds. From trends to consumer journeys, everything must be fast and adaptive, or brands will risk losing attention. This is why it’s crucial for us as strategists to look beyond what is written in a brief, to dissect the audiences listed so that we can find insights that bring the most resonance and meaning. Helping clients outline and understand the type of people who will bring them growth is the first and most important step, instead of just driving mass reach. 

Then come the insights. It is important for brands and strategists to keep a close eye on what consumers are talking about, really immersing in the consumers’ world so that we can better resonate with them and show them that we are a brand that gets them and shares their sentiments. This calls for creative and resourceful ways of finding information that builds meaningful insights. Cultural velocity is a mantra for our team as we strive to help our clients stay relevant in consumers’ ever-changing lives.

These insights then become a lighthouse around which we plan our media around, ensuring that we use the right touchpoints for the right moments, driving the most value for our clients.

What’s on your wish list in terms of strategic thinking/work?

My current wish is for both brands and agencies to see more value in strategists unlocking their growth potential. I would also like to help brands craft long-term strategic approaches, combining both our resources in delivering to our consumers what really matters to them. 

How do you see your career developing?

In 5 to 10 years, I see myself working remotely in Mallorca, Spain, with my family in a house that we built together. With remote work changing the way the world is going to be, I hope that wherever I am, I can better balance being there for my kids whilst continuing to challenge my way of thinking and delivering better strategies. 

I hope that in the future, I can help to encourage and inspire more people, including working moms like myself as well as underprivileged youths, to see the strategist in themselves, finding ways to make campaigns meaningful for society, doing more good with media.

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years?

I love that people, in general, are becoming more conscious about underserved communities, the environment and social topics that matter, and I think in the next 10-15 years, caring about these issues will be a fundamental part of humanity. There is a lot of talk around media for good and I see strategy taking a much bigger, more crucial role in bringing that value to clients and consumers.

Jeffrey Yang (杨骕)

Position: General Manager

Company: Dentsu China

Age: 30 

How did you find your way into strategy work?

Normally, the word strategy has a halo, defined by senior business roles with topline thinking as well as experience. But I believe every strategist must start strategic work much earlier before leading. My first mentor when I was a freshman in this industry said: “I know that you are working for a small account but my suggestion is, a smaller account means that you have bigger space to image, design and study it; if you do well for this account, when a big and fancy account comes someday, then you can make it fly.”

So I proactively built an intimate relationship with that account, participated in every marketing workshop or customer research (that account has both B2B and B2C sectors), study its business performance and product portfolio before organising a media plan so as to tie up media/content marketing solutions for their business objectives. Today, I may not remember the complicated names of the products but it trained, explored and built the strategic thinking and communication planning strategy work baseline for me and it’s still valuable.

How do you personally define the discipline of marketing strategy?

I would like to use some metaphors about marketing strategy – weather forecast, beacon and transformer, defined as:

  • Forward-looking. Most strategy work is about trend-watching, from industry evolvement, policy interpretation, cultural iteration and customer profiling to identify the sweet spot for the business. The premise of making a strategy consistent is making it forward-looking.
  • Consistent. “A good strategy is straightforward, simple and easy to understand,” said Richard Rumelt in his book Good Strategy Bad Strategy. I saw many cases where inconsistent strategy led to confusion and endless debate about implementation. Especially for brand marketing, clear definitions and consistency are key to guiding second-layer marketing work. It should be based on thorough category study, data-driven business diagnosis and real environment experience so as to ensure that once identified, it will benefit marketing work from the direction level, saving unnecessary strategy discussions for specific battles and ensuring long-term efforts can be accumulated for brand/business growth.
  • Agile and responsive. COVID-19 reshaped our way of life and also told every marketer that agility matters to business sustainability. A marketing strategy should not just be a concept but a well-identified core with a specific set of steps to respond to different situations and overcome collateral difficulties.

What’s on your wish list in terms of strategic thinking/work?

My past experience is mostly focused on helping international accounts’ global strategy land in the China market, hit local cultural insights and speak to the Chinese audience. I do wish to learn more about cross-culture communication strategy building, sharing spark strategy or cases in other markets that are interested in us or will be inspired by us. I believe that the macro trend of globalisation won’t change just because of COVID-19, which let us share more insights and resonance for an era of seamless global collaboration to come.

How do you see your career developing?

As a Chinese strategist, surely I hope to see that in 5-10 years, I will work with more talented marketing people to help Chinese brands/corporations, especially innovative corporations, to grow with better strategy and play on a wider international stage, and bring innovative Chinese products to the world, and amplify Chinese culture, especially the “revived intangible cultural heritage”, to the rest of world. I believe that marketing strategy is not just about business but also always about people and culture.

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years?

  • Data and tech will be even more deeply and widely integrated with strategic marketing work, with a full-journey perspective from the developing, practising and reviewing stages.
  • Real-time optimisation won’t just be at the execution level but also the way to adjust and fix strategy so as to better reflect specific market trends or movements. Of course, more data and AI computing-based systematic marketing and decision-making models will be developed to facilitate this response efficiency.
  • Strategy will become individually tangible. Personalisation will be more obvious for our future society, and the “mass audience” will truly become “organic segments by interest, social cycle and demand”.
  • Seamless integration with business performance, especially e-commerce performance with different business formats.

Amanda Ma 

Title: Connection Planning Director

Company: Carat China


How did you find your way into strategy work?

I started my career as a media planner, where I also discovered a strong interest in communication strategy. I was always passionate about exploring what is behind the data and how to make a real connection between data and people’s insights. The beauty in being a strategist is that we are magically attracted to the thinking process and amazed by the power of storytelling. I didn’t start my journey in a typical way but that brought many surprises to my work. And more will definitely be expected in the future.

How do you personally define the discipline of marketing strategy?

It is critical that we need to understand how marketing strategy will finally affect and contribute to the business result.

A strategy can be pretty complicated and it needs to be a solution that considers consumers and customers, channels and platforms, behaviours, and mindsets. However, a strategy sometimes can be simple but it must merge art and science. Nowadays, the data is the key to win people’s actions, while the human truths and insights are essential to win people’s hearts.

What’s on your wish list in terms of strategic thinking/work?

In the long term, create something good for society and drive business momentum at the same time. I still believe in the power of creating experiences that connect a brand with people’s daily lives and making a difference through togetherness. In the short term, I would want to be deeply involved in crafting the connection between brand and consumer, generating business outcomes from both sides.

How do you see your career developing?

Frankly speaking, I would never plan for that long. But I have a straightforward arrangement for the next 3-5 years, where I can see myself devoting myself to achieving my wish list above.

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years?

The marketing environment is unique in China, considering how fast it has developed in terms of technology and the internet. However, strategy still has an essential role in driving business momentum because people will always be at the centre of it all. 

As for strategists, we need to keep learning and evolving, with a focus on people. The strategy we develop, the experiences we create, are all to make people’s lives easier and better. And strategists need to take the initiative to think differently. 

For example, in recent years, digitalisation has been the most popular and fancy dream for most big brands in China. This is something unique in China, given how well-developed O2O experiences are. However, brands only see this as creating another channel that helps to sell products, without understanding how to connect existing touchpoints via digitalisation.

Another significant shift is that as strategy people, we need to learn more. The future of marketing will no longer be only about branding, messages or creatives. It will be embedded with data from multiple channels and sources with dynamic evolutions. Short videos, social commerce, mini-programs, content – for all these, tech giants will create a closed-loop ecosystem with a full set of offerings that require cut-through perspectives to narrow the gap between brands and consumers. And I am excited and thrilled to be part of this and to witness it happen.

Harry Chen

Title: Planning Director

Company: BBDO Shanghai


How did you find your way into strategy work?

Many people don’t believe this but I found my interest in working in advertising when watching the TV drama Mad Men.

I was an undergraduate majoring in philosophy and was taking a course in social psychology and becoming very intrigued with understanding how people think, why people do what they do, and how you can change their perception and behaviour. Then when I started to watch Mad Men, and I realized that this is exactly what advertising is about! So I made up my mind to work in advertising after graduation.

However, my way into advertising wasn’t exactly smooth as I was struggling to decide which role to choose. Based on my understanding of the industry (which was based on Mad Men, a show about the ad industry in the 1960s), I could only be in creative or account management. I was neither particularly good at writing or drawing, nor did I enjoying managing many moving parts and running a project. It was when I almost felt “advertising is great but maybe there’s no role for me” when I saw an opening for a 'planning intern', with the job description exactly matching what I found most interesting in advertising. I applied, got in, received an offer, and there’s no looking back.

How do you personally define the discipline of marketing strategy?

My answer to this question has evolved quite a lot throughout my career and will likely keep evolving in the future. But at this moment for me, strategy is making choices, and what you don’t choose is equally important as what you choose (thanks to Roger Martin’s enlightening article on HBR).

I always like to apply a small pressure test on the strategy statements/brand positionings I write: is the opposite of my strategy still some 'not-bad strategy', or does it sound silly? Because, if the alternatives of your choice sound stupid, then everyone else will make more or less the same choice, then you are not making a real choice, hence the strategy is useless.

What’s on your wish list in terms of strategic thinking/work?

I always believe that the commercial value and social value a company can deliver is not an either/or option; they are two sides of the same coin. Having commercial success gives you bigger power to make a positive impact on the world, and making a positive impact on the world can help you get more commercial success. It is a virtuous circle. I hope in the future I can help more businesses and brands develop a strategy that unifies both their commercial goals and social goals, channelling more business efforts into making the world a better place and help them get rewarded.

How do you see your career developing?

I am still in love with what I do currently, particularly with the fact that I act like an external consultant working on a range of brands/projects in different categories instead of owning and working on one brand at very detailed levels. It gives me perspectives and urges me to understand different businesses, different groups of people, different parts of culture, etc. It’s hard to predict the future but I would be very happy if I continue my journey in strategic planning in creative agencies.

Where do you see strategy going in the next 10-15 years?

In a world where everything is changing at lightning speed, I think it’s even more important to determine what will not change/should not change, and hold on to these things. I think strategy won’t change much – how it will be delivered will evolve with the trends in technology, consumers, cultures, etc., but the key principles and logic of strategy will remain the same. And with all these new trends, it’s more important than ever we don’t (sometimes unconsciously) replace strategy with tactics.

The WARC Awards for Asian Strategy is now closed for entries and the judging phase has now commenced. Do stay tuned as the shortlisted papers will be announced on 15 September 2021. The WARC Awards for Chinese Strategy will kick off on the same day.