Bossing It in association withLBB Pro

Bossing It: Making the Call with Shaun Tay

Advertising Agency
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Co-owner and chief executive officer at FCB Kuala Lumpur on having no regrets, the importance of honesty and maintaining objectivity

Hands-on and full-on. Shaun is the co-owner and CEO of FCB Malaysia and the driving force behind the agency’s reboot as a youthful creative start-up that has quickly become the #1 locally owned & operated Malaysian agency thanks to an impressive record of 50 new business wins in three years and 3-peat of Agency of the Year titles from Campaign Asia and Marketing Interactive. 

Shaun’s 20 years in advertising has seen him at significant and successful roles with Bates Malaysia, Bates Singapore and TBWA Kuala Lumpur. He joined FCB Malaysia in 2015 before proceeding to buy-out out the agency from FCB Worldwide in 2018. His portfolio includes a stellar selection of international brands such as Standard Chartered, Nissan, Michelin, Nivea, Guinness, Visa, General Electric, Levi’s, Mondelez, Sunsweet, Clorox, Dutch Lady, Unilever, Heineken, Lucky Strike, Winston, Guinness, Chivas, Asahi, Kronenbourg as well as regional and local heroes such RHB Bank, Darlie, Marigold, Baiduri Bank, Sompo Insurance, Great Eastern Insurance, OCBC Bank and Themed Attractions, Hotels & Resorts Malaysia. 

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

Shaun> It was during my first advertising job as an account manager. Several weeks into the role, I was told that my supervisor was leaving, and I was to take over the leadership of her team. Given that I had no prior industry experience, let alone much experience in managing a team and back in those days, the senior characters you had to deal with were more likely to keelhaul you than coach you… it was literally swimming in the deep end from the get-go!

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

Shaun> In a word: Decisive. ‘Making the call’ is literally the job description for a leader. It’s not always easy but ultimately the buck stops with you… that’s what you’re paid to do. 

LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

Shaun> When I learnt that regrets and second-guessing have absolutely no place in how I wanted to work. Instead of pondering the ‘if onlys’, I’d rather just push ahead and get stuff done. Case in point — buying out FCB Malaysia in 2017. It was a ‘no plan B’ move and one that I’ll never regret taking.

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

Shaun> After that first taste of leading a team early in my career (not always successfully), I realised that I had a bit of talent for it. So as new leadership opportunities came, I took them quickly, learning most of what I had to do on the fly. It helped that the modicum of talent was mixed with a larger dose of bravado!


LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

Shaun> I believe we can learn HOW to be a better leader, either by coaching or from the hard yards of experience. But to WANT to lead, that must come from within you. It’s a responsibility that you choose to accept because you ultimately believe that you’re the best person for that role. 


LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

Shaun> Maintaining objectivity when making decisions that will undoubtedly affect people. This is especially true when you feel that you’re personally responsible for that individual, either as a direct supervisor or as a hiring manager. There’s no easy way to do it, but I’ve found that being upfront and honest about the situation works best. 

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

Shaun> Yes, and frequently. It’s part of being in the role… you have to realise that you aren’t always going to get it right all the time. In fact, failures can be a powerful inspiration for future success because you become motivated by the possible comebacks that stem from all that you’ve learnt in overcoming the setbacks.

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

Shaun> I’m on the side of being authentic. With me… what you see is what you get. 

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

Shaun> Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of working with many leaders who were talented in different ways: Ann Kwan, Robbie Bempescutio and Jeff Orr, to name a few.  There are many things I do now that were shaped by my experiences with them and I hope that’s what our future leaders in FCB do as well — to take the best learnings you want from me and find a way to make it work for you, but in your own leadership style.

LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

Shaun> Despite the perfect storm of challenges in Malaysia — the initial economic downturn, the uncertain political climate and of course the Covid-19 pandemic to top it off — we actually had a positive year! We made some key decisions early on, e.g. the agency’s owners (SP our CCO & myself) taking a pay cut to ensure that we didn’t have to make retrenchments or cut staff salaries and really doubling down in finding creative ways to do work despite the ever-changing lockdown scenarios. Thankfully, we had three big assets in our favour: a committed leadership team, a lean and dynamic agency culture and our strong relationships with our key clients.

LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

Shaun> Diversity has always been Malaysia’s cultural bedrock and we embrace it wholeheartedly. Many of the decisions I make now are designed to ensure that FCB’s future doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of one person; but is carried by a diverse group of talents who are united by a common culture.

LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?

Shaun> Our culture was absolutely the reason why we were able to successfully navigate the maelstrom of 2020. After buying out FCB Malaysia from the network in 2017, we spent a lot of time cultivating a can-do, challenger attitude in our people. Being agile and learning how to do more with less became part of our DNA, so when we switched to working remotely, we were able to adapt quickly.

LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

Shaun> Time and space. I’ve learnt that I’m a much more effective leader when I allow myself to have enough of both.