Five years ago Shaun Tay was announced as the managing director of FCB Kuala Lumpur, and then a year later was promoted to CEO of FCB Group in Malaysia. Since then he’s turned the agency around from near financial ruin to success in what he calls the biggest challenge of his career.
But, Shaun’s path wasn’t always destined for the creative industry. He grew up wanting to be a scientist (until he realised it wouldn’t allow him a social life) and then worked in event management before getting his break as an account director.
As he stands now, Shaun is committed to harnessing the power of creativity to challenge Malaysian audiences’ mindsets while pushing the boundaries of creativity and tradition. Here he speaks to LBB’s Natasha Patel about this and how he plans to steer the company past the Covid-19 crisis.
LBB> Was creativity something that you were drawn to early on in life?
Shaun> Not per se. I kinda found my way into it in a roundabout way. I actually wanted to be a scientist and in fact that was the plan right up until my final year in high school, until I realised being stuck in a lab all day wasn’t going to do wonders for my social life!
In university, I caught the event management bug and when I returned to Malaysia after a two-year stint selling insurance, I got my start as an event manager in the old 141 setup and did that for five years before moving on the bigger picture as an account director in Bates Singapore.
I couldn’t draw to save my life or colour between the lines. I did however have the gift of the gab which is a nice way of saying I had a smart mouth! Still do I guess!
You could say my creativity was moulded by my event management roots. I’ve always been solution driven and have a way of finding creative ways to get things done.
LBB> How did you feel when you were made CEO of the Malaysian side of the business?
Shaun> Honestly…50% excited, 50% scared shitless. It wasn’t something I was expecting to happen at that point in time and the agency was in a terrible position both financially and reputation wise. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the skills but it was also during that time when we had to make a decision about buying over the agency from FCB Worldwide.
To choose to become a business owner and taking on all the responsibility, knowing you can’t just ‘walk away’ if things go sour, in your first outing at the helm of a company that wasn’t at its finest…was a huge decision.
LBB> That sounds pretty full on, with that in mind what challenges have you overcome throughout your career?
Shaun> Way too many to list, usually because I’ve usually stumbled in my first year in each of the agencies (all four of them!) I’ve worked in. But I learn quickly and it was always upwards from there.
That said, the biggest challenge would have to be turning FCB Malaysia around from financial and reputation rock bottom to becoming arguably the #1 Malaysian owned and operated agency. We went from loss making to the black at the end of our second year of ownership. We were Malaysia’s Overall Agency of the Year around the same time and we’ve routinely been in the top three for the last three years.
We’ve topped the New Business Leagues in 2018 and 2019 and despite the current Covid-19 crisis we’re in incredibly good shape and are on track for growth.
LBB> When you were curating your team at FCB, what did you look for?
Shaun> Adaptability, energy and potential. Between SP (my business partner and CCO) and I we’ve got the experience and the arrogance! What we looked for were the right sort of characters that can absorb what we know, grow in their own way and potentially, emerge as the future leaders of the agency.
LBB> Tell us about the industry in Malaysia, is there a lot of competition among creatives?
Shaun> It is and it isn’t. There are a lot of agencies competing in a relatively small market but the majority of them are content to maintain the status quo. Safety and shareholders first!
FCB is not a big agency in Malaysia but we routinely top the charts because we play without fear.
LBB> What are Malaysian consumers interested in seeing?
Shaun> As an advertising audience, [the Malaysians are] diverse and often undervalued in terms of how they perceive advertising concepts. That’s why a lot of the work feels safe and why humour is so often used - it’s non-threatening.
We did a campaign for RHB Bank last year, See Beyond Colour for Malaysia’s National Day that pushed the controversial envelope, especially when viewed amongst the usually heritage ads, but it became one of our best pieces of work, primarily because we have a client that felt strongly that the audience would understand the message.
LBB> Is breaking tradition something that the agency is focusing on?
Shaun> Breaking tradition is at the very heart of our agency. We were the first major agency to shift to co-working spaces, we did away with all the redundant functions (traffic…what’s that?) and from the get-go of the new FCB Malaysia it wasn’t digital versus offline creatives.
We have a majority female leadership team and the majority of our staff is female. Aside from the likes of SP, myself and few others, they are young!
LBB> Is diversity and inclusion something that is important to you?
Shaun> We’re Malaysian so diversity is already in our DNA. Case in point is the wide range of clients we work on, from conservative GLCs and government brands to more energetic lifestyle ones!
We have a diverse group that can relate to different clients and different audiences yet fully invested in a culture of fearlessness that’s ingrained in our motto: No Plan B.
LBB> Do you have an idea of where you’d like to steer the business in the future, or has the pandemic made long-term planning a challenge?
Shaun> As an owner and operator it must always be a blend of both. I’m growth focused but in a way that makes sense to who we are as an agency. Chasing money for greed’s sake isn’t why we bought the agency. Smart decisions to facilitate sustainable growth is how we build strong, lasting foundations.
LBB> What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received throughout your career?
Shaun> It wasn’t work advice but a very sound life lesson from an old high school football coach: Commit to the play.
LBB> Tell us a random fact about yourself.
Shaun> I can’t draw the Malaysian peninsula. Let’s leave it at that.
LBB> What does your day-to-day look like?
Shaun> Dynamic! I usually get up early, send the kids to school, swim for an hour, pack in as best possible all my daily commitments, meetings, presentations, group brainstorms within a tight schedule then allow for some time towards the end of the day to work on all the other stuff including new business, marketing and PR.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Shaun> I love my job and am super proud to own a creative agency. What we do is fundamental to success. What we do is certainty not ‘dead’ and I have no time for those that think so and see gimmicks as ideas.