Dutch born Marc Wesseling graduated from the University of Leiden with a degree in Media Law. He then went around the world working in Hong Kong, New York and San Francisco. He was offered a position in Tokyo, where as part of his contract he needed to attend an 18-month course in Japanese language, culture, politics and economics. An absolute must, Marc says, in order to succeed in Japan.
In 2007 Marc took the brave decision to set up UltraSuperNew in Tokyo with the maverick approach of servicing clients with digital strategy, creative and production all under one roof - an ultra super new way of doing things in Tokyo at the time. The Singapore agency was subsequently opened in 2012 and most recently in Taiwan in 2019. The agency has grown from strength to strength with an international team of over 60 people working on campaigns for Uber Eats, Shiseido, Red Bull, Unilever, Heineken, MINI, Pernod Ricard, Skyn condoms, ASICS, Adobe, EA-sports, PUMA, PayPal and Tabasco.
LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?
Marc> When I turned 16 my father congratulated me by telling me I could now officially work legally. Like many other kids, I took a newspaper round, but the early morning cycling through the shitty Dutch weather was not really my thing. Instead of quitting I took on more newspaper rounds and outsourced them to kids who were really keen to earn their own money. I interviewed each new recruit, gave them training and took a small cut of €2,50 from each round as a management fee. Soon I was employing five kids and everybody was happy.
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?
Marc> After graduating from law school, I was lured into working for a bank in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was great, working in finance wasn’t. My saviour was that the global IMF conference was held in Hong Kong that year and all the top bankers in the world were there. I was so uninspired by these leaders and realised when that is my future outlook I would rather quite sooner than later. I was lucky to meet a successful entrepreneur in Lan Kwai Fong who believed in me and offered me the MD position of his office in Hong Kong. I was only 24 years old with no experience, but I had to lead a team of 15 people who were in charge of producing premiums / promotional items for the European market - my first encounter with advertising and never looked back...
LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
Marc> After my time in Hong Kong I started my first internet marketing company at the age of 26. It was a rollercoaster ride from the beginning to the end from New York to Silicon Valley with the following elements; Stanford grads, EA sport founder, Russian Mafia, Merrill Lynch board member, Wilson Sonsini lawyers, team uprising, Steve Jobs’ lawyer, Gothic parties, blind Indians, lots of chardonnay and too much money. It was my masters, MBA, PHD, doctoral all combined in a crazy 2.5 years and also learned it is pretty lonely when you are the only founder - I am very happy to have my business partner Tomo at my side for the past 14 years.
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?
Marc> I guess so, although I really dislike the title Boss - I want to work in a flat organisation where everyone is pretty much equal and pushed to contribute. Anyway...according to my parents I was quite comfortable telling people what to do from a young age, organising stuff and parties, and being the captain of the sailing team.
Unsurprisingly I myself always had a problem with being told what to do, unless I felt the person of authority deserved my compliance. Starting my own company felt like a natural path for me to follow. I have never had a real job interview in my life and I like it that way!
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?
Marc> Like any skill it is best when it comes naturally. My girlfriend’s boss is one of those who reads every management book out there and he is the most horrible boss ever. Just be yourself, respect people and always stand up for your team. My team is King.
LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
Marc> To filter out a-holes...over the years I got much better at it and the older I get, the more I am able to trust my intuition. When I’m interviewing someone, I know within a few minutes if he or she is the right candidate. The only mistake I have made is that after 18 years in Japan, that I trust people too much - in general Japanese people are genuine and honest. In Singapore the a-hole level is very high because of the high level of opportunistic gold-seekers. Yes, Asia is the place to be now, but there must be more respect for the culture and for the local people. My team in Singapore is fully local, young and awesome.
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?
Marc> I have made a massive mistake with getting a food and beverage partner for our art gallery at our Singapore office that turned out to be a scam artist. I didn’t follow my gut feeling and left my team with a burden while I was stuck in Japan because of Covid. I took full responsibility, flew back, did my quarantine and took control - it will most likely be an expensive mistake but never ever go against your gut feeling.
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?
Marc> Be as open and transparent as possible with your key people. By doing this you can never be wrong; what is the point of holding back information for your key people? You trust them enough to run your company but not enough to share all information?
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?
Marc> Yes and Yes. My old boss at KesselsKramer was awesome. His name was Engin and that was the best name for him: just throw some alcohol in him and his engine was going! We had an amazing time building the Tokyo office and I learned a lot from it and it formed the base to set up UltraSuperNew. I hope I am also somewhat of an example and inspiration for my team. Especially with my growth director Jean-Francois whom I built the Singapore office with...at the beginning we were non-stop on the road in his beat-up Toyota. When I left Japan just now to go on my Corona Odyssey, Ryo, our junior copywriter left me the sweetest note which made me very happy.
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?
Marc> As Churchill said: never waste a good crisis. Of course my business partner Tomo and I were both scared shitless when the pandemic started: advertising is not really considered essential services. But by taking control and daily communication with each other, the team and clients, we were able to turn it around. In September 2020 Tomo and I decided that we got through the pandemic and we contracted two recruiters to expand our team with all the talent that flooded on the market. Right now we have an amazing team and very happy clients with a great basis to accelerate post pandemic.
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?
Marc> I am very fortunate that I grew up in Amsterdam; a great liberal and open city. I take it as a given that people are equal regardless of their gender, religion, skin colour or sexual preference. In line with stimulating and helping people, I hope I can give some of this experience to my teams. I am proud and happy to see that one of our former account directors became one of the frontman of the LGBTQ scene in Japan. That we have a more or less equal mix of gender, age, race and that it is all fluid. I think that many companies are trying too hard - these things should start with yourself and have to be built from the ground up…..but unfortunately there is still a long way to go.
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?
Marc> Very important. Culture is everything and that is why our galleries are so important to us. To have a non-commercial creative outlet is so important. To have our bars in the office, to play ping pong, to complement each other on those new cool shoes, to argue but also to fall in love. WFH is not sustainable in order for creativity to thrive, and yes we survived, but I am heavily against that this is the new normal….humans are social animals and we have to physically interact with each other.
LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?
Marc> The journey of life and stay true to yourself. Stay away from a-holes. Cherish people who you love. Be positive and always be there for others….man; I sound like a hippy, but I really do love people and want the best for them.