We are back with round two of our Meet the CEOs column. We first launched the column in 2018 in Malaysia, to put the spotlight on the men and women behind the suits running the ad agencies, and shaping ad land's culture. Four years later, and numerous shuffles in place, we felt it was time to put the limelight back on the new generation of leaders shaping the landscape of Malaysia's ad industry.

In our launch piece article, we feature Nizwani Shahar, who has made a name for herself in Malaysia's ad industry, helming roles such as managing partner of Ogilvy before eventually being promoted to chief executive. She is also currently the VP of 4As Malaysia. What many might not know about Nizwani however, is that her first job was not in the ad industry. Instead, Nizwani (pictured) was a door handler at the front of a Melbourne club.

"The designation of my first job was naughtier than this," she told A+M . Eventually, Nizwani moved to pursue a career in the ad industry where she met "plenty of hardworking, driven, passionate people" that greatly inspired her to stay. Nizwani explained that the bond she shares with the people she works with inspires her and keeps her going to the point that a regular nine-to-five job became a nine-till-when-the-job-gets-done.

The journey to becoming a CEO is no doubt an uphill battle, and in this latest series of Meet the CEOs, A+M aims to show a more personal side of agency leaders by sharing how they charted their path in the industry and what being a leader means to them.

Read more from Nizwani below.

A+M: What was your first role in advertising?

Nizwani: When I first started out, it was in strategic planning at Interface Communications and I was under the tutelage of an awesome strategic planning director, Terence Ooi. It was such a wonderful opportunity to get a taste of what we do in advertising over a diverse range of categories, especially on pitches. This was where I learnt how new business pitches were managed and saw the diversity of our industry; one day I could be working on an FMCG brief, the next could be a telco, then ports and right after, beauty!

Later, I moved into an account management role at Euro RSCG where I got the chance to work on a regional business, with Asia and Middle East exposure on home care, healthcare, and personal care. At McCann Erickson, I truly enjoyed the journey because it not only enabled me to level up my career in the way I manage client businesses and the power of creativity. Then for the past 11 years, Ogilvy has been my home taking me in new directions; not only to lead but truly allowing me to give back, mentor, and nurture.

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A+M: What was your first impression of advertising?

Nizwani: Lots of hardworking, driven, passionate people. From the get-go, advertising was not a nine-to-five job; it was nine-till-when-the-job-gets-done. That spirit of coming together, in service to a creative idea; the diverse makeup of the people with amazing talent and distinction. One thing has not changed for me – from then up to now, it’s the people I work with that inspire me and keep me going.

A+M: Who was the mentor who influenced you the most and how?

Nizwani: My father, Shahar Noor, is and will always be my mentor. He’s the first person I've known who truly set the benchmark of what it meant to not just have a career in advertising, but instead, it was a calling for him. He had a lot of integrity and cared deeply for the power of a strong, creative idea. He was fierce, and tough but also filled with gratitude; constantly reminding me that we cannot be successful alone.

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A+M: What's the harshest criticism you've received and how did you cope with it?

Nizwani: The double-whammy in trying to make my mark and grow in my career, is the limited unconscious bias that I am either too young for the job, or I am a woman. I won't necessarily call it "harshest criticism", but they are difficult conversations to navigate.

I always tell people who have this POV, that out of everything that I can do to improve or better my career, I can't change neither my age nor gender.

So please try to look past the obvious and give your mind the mental flexibility for me to prove myself.

A+M: Describe your own management style now as a leader.

Nizwani: One of the things Kent Wertime, co-CEO of Ogilvy Asia, taught me is to think about and commit to the hallmarks of my leadership.

For me, it’s really to find a balance between what I am about and what I want people to feel when they are in my presence.

This is a work-in-progress for me. I do try to make sure I’m firm and filled with candour but above all, to always be accountable.

A+M: What's one thing you wished employees understood about being a leader?

Nizwani: That we can never make decisions to make everybody happy. We make decisions that we can be the most accountable for given the circumstances while planning for the best outcome.

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A+M: What do you do during your free time?

Nizwani: I am massively addicted to fitness. When I have free time, I love heading to the gym for a dose of strength training or a quick run around the neighbourhood to blow off steam.

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A+M: Where do you find your inspiration?

Nizwani: I think best when I am out for a good, long run. When there is only me and the road, that’s peace of mind and the quiet truly gives me space and perspective to think. Sometimes, while I am running, I do not even realise that I’m thinking about a specific challenge, but it happens naturally. The situation is laid bare, somehow the solution unfolds, and I feel pumped.

A+M: If not in advertising, where would you be?

Nizwani: I have always loved the creative aspect of a task. So, if I was not in advertising, I might have worked my way into a musical or theatre show! I love performing and singing, and I have always wanted to go the extra mile in this area.

A+M: What advice do you have for someone looking to start a career in the industry?

Nizwani: The job is 30% academics, 30% creativity, and 40% grit. Learn about creativity and business, create ideas with the team, and know that you will face tough challenges which will essentially help you grow.

A+M: What issue would you like to see the industry change in 2022?

Nizwani: The industry needs to have a more discerning eye when it comes to our commercial value. More and more, procurement and marketing teams are looking for optimisation and in doing so, our value faces a risk of eroding.

We need to band together to change the narrative from cost to value; to help advertisers see that while we can deliver work faster, it does not mean it would cost any lesser.

The seniority and skills we put in place for their businesses are subject matter experts who should be compensated fairly for their time.

Wong Yee Ching contributed to this story.

Related articles:
4As Malaysia elects Andrew Lee and Nizwani Shahar to leadership roles
'Don't ever douse your own fire to make others happy,' says Ogilvy's Nizwani Shahar
Ogilvy names Chris Riley replacement with new group CEO for SG and MY ops
Ogilvy Malaysia appoints Eddy Nazarullah as creative director

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