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Jeffrey Seah at the forefront of a digital world

Top adman and live wire Jeffrey Seah makes his name by being ahead of everyone else.

To be the top dog in the advertising world that constantly reinvents itself, one must never be short of ideas. Indeed, Jeffrey Seah has a trove of them. Just seconds after we are introduced, the adman is already doing what he does best – sell me a concept.

“Buy a drone. It’s less than $1,000 and you can have your own news TV station and won’t have to succumb to pressures from your bosses,” the 44-year-old says, lowering his voice in tune with the mutinous nature of his suggestion. Not that there were eavesdroppers. It’s quiet at the bar at Sofitel So this afternoon, an apt choice since it was here, the former site of Ogilvy Centre, that Seah’s career started.

Maven. Marksman. Trailblazer. Seah, the South-east Asia CEO of global brand communications group Starcom Mediavest (SMG), would not be an embodiment of any of the accolades the advertising industry consistently confers on him, if he wasn’t a risk-taker and visionary.

When tasked in the early 1990s to explain the then mysterious Internet to executives at Ogilvy & Mather, the fresh graduate ditched the newspaper clippings he fastidiously gathered for his presentation and simply drew a globe that was linked to a computer in the centre. He confesses that, at that time, he was only “60 per cent sure” of the explanation.

This gutsiness would manifest again and again in his career. In 1995, he got scriptwriters of local TV sitcom Under One Roof to pen an episode that revolved around his client, air-conditioner brand Carrier. In the show, patriarch Tan Ah Teck deliberated over, and eventually bought, an air-conditioning system to make his family comfortable in an impending heat wave.

“I was young. There was nothing to lose,” Seah says of the idea that predates the ubiquity of product placement on television shows. It got the industry’s attention, including regional trade magazine Media which highlighted the feat. He had been in the business for just a year.

Not surprisingly, a few years later, he and his team of three at ad agency Leo Burnett were the first Asians to win the Media Lions Award at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the Oscars of the ad world. Setting another precedent, Seah would go on to be the first Singaporean to be a regional CEO of an international advertising agency.

Digital overdrive
Today, Seah oversees more than 650 staff across seven countries in a unit that has consistently been ranked among the top three Agencies of the Year by prominent trade magazines such as Campaign Asia-Pacific and Marketing.

SMG’s regional business is also at the top of rankings by Recma, a French company that evaluates the digital and media-agency industry based on criteria like revenue growth and competitiveness.

If success-backed confidence can be expressed by the strength of a handshake, Seah’s is a bone crusher.

He admits that the issue preoccupying the industry is the potential of digital technology. “The answer is digital, but what is your question?” he asks rhetorically.

“The digital sphere has already disrupted established businesses. Just look at how Airbnb, Spotify and Uber have changed the game for hotels, music shops and taxis.”

Seah has been appointed to spearhead Starcom’s digital strategy in Asia and that of sister company VivaKi Southeast Asia, which specialises in digital advertising. Starcom and VivaKi are part of the world’s third-largest advertising conglomerate, Paris-based Publicis Groupe.

One thing for sure, according to Seah, is that in this digital age, one cannot afford to “switch off”. His mantra to his teams: to be respectful of the changing environment. He says: “A business exists only if it is sensitive to external trends, and it will succeed if it can apply the insights ahead of known and unknown competition.

“You have to constantly observe and see what’s coming. In my business, you’ve got to know what’s going on around you. When you go somewhere, you have to read the ground, read the market, read the feeling in the room and react accordingly. You need to have a backpacker mentality.

“Marketers will have to fight to be heard, even when given permission to have an intimate dialogue with a consumer. They must stay attentive. It will take more to understand, to select the right tone and manner to enunciate a message.

“Hashtags might just become the newest punctuation mark in English classes.” Used to mark keywords or phrases in a message, hashtags effectively drop posts into the same virtual box for categorisation purposes. #love, for example, punctuated 660 million Instagram posts at press time.

Be better, be best 

Seah’s spunky, can-do attitude can be traced to his youth, when he had to overcome various obstacles to distinguish himself. He describes his driving force as “tu po chuang xin, biao xin li yi”, which is Mandarin – Seah’s first language – for achieving breakthroughs with innovation, as well as being unique.

It was how the Chinese immigrant boy – dad was from China and mum was an accountant from Malaysia – learnt to fit in at a Malay-dominated Bedok Boys’ School.

When he found out that football training would be conducted only in Malay, the Arsenal fan made himself learn the language by listening to and observing his classmates. The middle child – he has an elder sister and a younger brother – also trained himself to be ambidextrous to encourage his coach to play him more.

The class monitor even read the Quran to understand and bond with his Malay friends. In due time, he earned their respect. “I learnt to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations from an early age. I believe in self-sufficiency. Just figure it out on your own. Nothing much fazes me now.”

His bottle of sparkling water and my pot of Japanese green tea arrive. He promptly informs me of the potential radioactive contamination it may contain. The main tea-producing region in Japan is close to the 2011 nuclear-disaster area in Fukushima.

“Yes, I keep a lot of rubbish information up here,” he says with a chuckle, pointing to his head.

Seah was a naturally curious boy when he was younger. After learning about the umbilical cord, for instance, he asked his mother how the belly button split open to birth him. Instead of an explanation, he got a scolding.

“My parents were quite traditional. I wasn’t encouraged to ask, so I read to find my answers. Reading was one thing that kept me going.” Not only did he devour Time, The Economist and the Far East Economic Review from cover to cover, the voracious reader would borrow 12 books at a time from the library and finish them in three days. Such extensive general knowledge has worked to his advantage.

“Time taught me a lot of subjects. It widened my mileage to learn and became my best guide for years.”

He also took part in a gamut of extracurricular activities – swimming, running, basketball, scouts, Chinese drama, computer programming – at school. “I would try different things just for the sake of doing it once, then decide whether I like it or not.”

Survival of the fittest
These activities would lead to his employment at one of the world’s most famous advertising agencies. After completing his education at Tanjong Katong Technical School, Temasek Junior College and the National University of Singapore, the business-administration graduate took the first job that was offered so he could pay off an $80,000 debt chalked up from dabbling in the stock market.

Ogilvy & Mather gave him the role of a media planner 10 minutes into his interview because he was the only one with a string of extracurricular activities, apart from the prerequisite good grades.

He proved to be a visionary, backing the Internet when his peers shunned it. Seah shares that a well-known local marketer told him then that he didn’t believe in Google. “We don’t work with fly-by-night companies,” the person had said. Another respected branding personality advised: “The Internet is a fad, young man. It’ll go away.”

That “young man” persevered, convinced of the potential of this new technology. The Internet enabled him and his younger brother, who was studying in the US, to conveniently keep in touch via e-mail, thus negating hefty international- call charges.

The novice also grabbed pitches that everyone shunned – from search engine Yahoo! and news website Asiaone to Internet advertising network Doubleclick and online tech portal Hardware Zone. In 1995, he took on the rebranding of Pacific Internet (renamed from Technet), which would become the largest telco-independent Internet services provider in the Asia-Pacific

Aside from introducing product placement in a local television serial, Seah was also the first to put up decals on the ceiling of MRT trains, when he led a Republic of Singapore Air Force campaign.

For a few years, he says his salary rose three times in a year and he managed to pay off his debt within three years. “I think I got them because I was weird in the eyes of my foreign bosses. Singaporeans are supposed to be boring, one-dimensional and staid. I think the industry likes to make an example of me.

“Being a Singaporean worked to my advantage. To them, I was taking big risks. To me, it was like an adventure every day.”
In 1999, he became the youngest managing director of international ad agency Ogilvy & Mather.

He left in 2007 to helm rival Mindshare’s Singapore and Malaysia business, but returned two years later to assume the position of South-east Asia chief.

It all goes back to Darwinism, which he is a strong proponent of. The free thinker first learnt about Charles Darwin from a television documentary when he was 14.

“To be naturally selected, you need to have better survival skills. You have to be more than different. It’s related to what Singapore calls meritocracy.

“My hope is that every Singaporean will be a jack of all trades and a master of 10. It is not easy to be an all-rounder, as everyone wants to excel in one particular field. Having this awareness and a positive reaction to such stimuli will be the true application of Darwinism. The marketing and communications industry in Singapore will benefit, with more of such mindsets.”

Future-proof
Seah is practising what he preaches, believing his best contribution to the industry is mentoring young talent. It is recognition indeed when even professional competitors ask him to train their children. In 2011, local politician Nicole Seah was sent by her mother, MD of US advertising giant IPG Mediabrands’ Singapore office, to intern with Seah.

“When you truly want to make someone better than you are, that’s when you make a difference in that person’s life. There is so much potential in human capital, if people change for the better. But they need to believe in a cause. Our society requires collective development. If one guy in a band plays a wrong note, the whole band won’t be able to get it right.”

In 2012, two 17-year-old students from Singapore Polytechnic’s School of Communication, Arts and Social Sciences were sent to his Bangkok office for a three-month stint. Initially, they could not deal with homesickness and being alone in a foreign country. But they grew up quickly.

“I believe that if you expose them to stimuli, they will naturally be selected if they respond.”

That is also how he guides his three children. Faith, 12, is his nonchalant elder daughter and son Matthew, 10, is an auntie-killer with a megawatt smile.

His younger daughter, six-year-old
Roxanne, is “precocious”. His wife, Huay Yeun, whom he met at Ogilvy & Mather,
is a homemaker.

Although he has to travel across the region weekly, he tries to make it home by weekends to spend time with his family. Faith is a chip off the old block and reads as widely as her father, from English spy novelist Eric Ambler to US aviation techno-thriller author Dale Brown. To know his teenage daughter better, he gives her access to his Amazon account.

“She’s into dark topics like the afterlife, doppelgangers and werewolves. Even though she is sitting for her PSLE, I allow her to continue reading because without knowledge, you make blind choices. She gets to build her wish list of books on my account, which I said I would buy for her after her exams. I get to choose what I prefer her to read.”

His son is now an Arsenal fan too, after being “brainwashed” by being repeatedly shown Seah’s collection of Arsenal memorabilia. Like his father, Matthew has learnt to become ambidextrous.

If there’s one thing he wants his children to embody, it is graciousness and a belief in humanity. He recalls a visit to the Assisi Hospice where he is a board director.

“When I came home after a visit to the hospice, my wife said she had never seen me so happy. I felt so much more human. I saw people who faced death with so much serenity. I saw people who defied death by celebrating and singing. In advertising, I deal with a lot of morbid people.

“I stress the importance of humanity to my children but I think it falls on deaf ears. Society is so competitive. We do not need to have a winner-takes-all situation. We can agree to disagree and accept that everyone is different.”

There’s one more honour that can added to Jeffrey Seah’s list of praiseworthy attributes, that of a humanitarian.

Find out how Jeffrey Seah used his first pay cheque in the digital edition of The Peak via Magzter.