Chong Ee Rong is a reluctant interviewee. The managing director of one of the largest PR firms in the country prefers to let her work speak for itself. “In PR, we’re not the kings; we’re the kingmakers,” she maintains. “We help our clients build their reputations.”
The firm’s list of “kings” includes members of the Fortune 500 such as Amex, Coca-Cola and Starbucks, as well as globally recognised names such as Lululemon, Singtel and Tiger Beer. Many of Ogilvy’s publicity stunts are known for their inventiveness and ability to captivate the public imagination.
Last May, in a joint effort with Coca-Cola and the Singapore Kindness Movement, Chong and her team used drones to deliver cans of ice-cold soda with messages of gratitude to more than 2,500 foreign workers here. The year before, in a much-publicised cook-off in the Hawker Heroes campaign for Singtel, they pitted chef Gordon Ramsay against Singapore’s best-loved food vendors.
The Coke campaign, titled Happiness from the Skies, won top honours at the 2015 PR Awards in the Most Creative PR Stunt category, while Hawker Heroes generated $4.1 million in PR value, according to creative communications agency Spikes Asia. More importantly, they were extremely well received by the public, especially on social media.
Such efforts have helped raise the company’s bottom line. The Singapore business has doubled in size in recent years and is now one of the most profitable of all Asia-Pacific PR operations. The 40-year-old attributes the success thus: “By building the right team of people with shared values and purpose. By finding the right clients that resonate with you and what you want to achieve. By being brave and (turning away certain clients). By being very prudent and making smart decisions that are focused on the (people and financial) wellness of the agency.”
Hailing from a banking and finance background, Chong took a leap of faith to join the PR realm 15 years ago, on the advice of a friend. What she lacked in experience she filled with ambition, by volunteering for as many diverse pitches and campaigns as possible in the early days as a mid-level manager. She recalls: “I knew what I wanted, and I wanted to get there twice as fast, so I had to work twice as hard as the next guy.”
There were no shortcuts for Chong: She was appointed MD in 2013 only after seven years as deputy, having thrown herself in the trenches and learning as much as she could from the ground up. She now heads a 90-strong team of PR specialists, eight of whom comprise her leadership team. Among these is Leela Jesudason. Sitting in on our interview, the head of consumer marketing speaks highly of Chong: “What she brings to the table is good management. She has integrity. Because she’s very hands-on, she won’t ask us to do something she won’t do herself. I think it’s very important to have a leader like that, so that the rest of us have that same work ethic.”
Passion has played an integral part in Chong’s rise to the top. “You can’t survive in this business if you don’t love what you do. (Ogilvy) was my family before I had a family.” A mother of two boys, Chong says that she wouldn’t have been able to achieve a good worklife balance without a supportive partner. Indeed, it was her husband – IT consultant John Rustrick – who persuaded her to take on the MD role. “He’s known me at my best and worst. If someone can know you at your worst and still love you, then there must be something there!” she says with a laugh.
“She can be firm but never in a way that belittles anyone. And this, together with being able to laugh at herself, is a great combination. It’s the glue that keeps everyone in the management team together.”
Leela Jesudason, Head of Consumer Marketing, Ogilvy PR
Chong feels that more can be done to address the gender imbalance in boardrooms. It is also why she has agreed to receive this recognition, after much hesitation when The Peak first contacted her. She says: “We need to stand up and be counted. A lot of times, it’s not about not being given the opportunity, but not creating that opportunity for ourselves.”
The key to her success? “Mean what you say, and say what you mean.”