Phang Mei Jeng, who is currently the managing director of Mediabrands Content Studio (MBCS) and Ensemble Worldwide, learnt the importance of having a good memory, multi-tasking, and developed social skills during her first job as a part-time waitress at her uncle's noodle shop, while wrapping up college. During that period, she interacted with people from all walks of life, and learnt to converse with those beyond her comfort circle. Reminiscing the days, she shares that her first pay cheque went into buying a pair of comfortable shoes that she could stand in all day without getting blisters. This was Phang's first exposure to the service industry and it also eventually prepared her for the ad land, she said.
Meanwhile, her first role in advertising was an account executive at impiric (which eventually took on the name Wunderman). From then, she has since risen up the ranks working in leadership positions at BBDO Proximity China, dentsu, Naga DDB Tribal, and Ensemble. In July, she took on the dual role of MD of MBCS, which provides a suite of entertainment solutions including the development of media, talent, influencer strategies, and production partnerships designed to powerfully grow clients’ brands.
Like many in the industry, Phang has over the year faced her share of ups and downs. In this interview, she highglights where she finds the inspiration to just keep hustling.
A+M: What was your first impression of advertising?
Phang: I honestly didn’t know what to expect after I graduated. I’d wanted to be a marketing trainee, but when my cousin who was working at impiric at that time told me they were looking for an account executive, I decided to give the interview a go. The intention was to polish my interview skills. The next thing I knew, I was offered the job, and started work within a month of graduation.
I got my feet wet with an automobile account where we oversaw the call centre. There was a lot of data entry, liaising with the call centre, learning how to use Microsoft Excel and Access to do reporting, and a whole lot of waiting and chasing clients for approvals. It really wasn’t the glamorous part of advertising that I’d imagined or seen in the movies, and I got super bored super quick. But I eventually caught up with the bigger picture, and the rest, as they say, was history!
Many years on, I’ve come back a full circle at MBCS and ensemble, where data-driven creativity is central to what we do. I now really truly appreciate the foundation built on that front in my early days.
A+M: Who was the mentor who influenced you the most and how?
Phang: I’ve had many mentors throughout my career, but it was Jennifer Chern who inspired me the most in my younger days. She was my second account manager at impiric, a perfectionist who set really high standards for herself and those around her.
She was the one who built my foundation as a suit – being detailed, accountable, knowing how to read the room and be agile, and having pride in my work (because as a suit, the buck always stops with you).
She also ended up being the person who gave me my biggest career break that cemented my love for advertising. The second time we worked together was when she was in BBDO Shanghai looking for an associate account director after having won the Cheetos account.
My four-and-a-half-year stint in Shanghai really opened my eyes and took my understanding and perspective of advertising to the next level. I could not have been more grateful for the opportunity and trust she placed in me. She could very easily have hired a local to aid her with local insights, sans the language barrier, but she chose to have me by her side instead.
A+M: What's the harshest criticism you've received and how did you cope with it?
Phang: I had a dose of realist advice (yes, it was harsh and critical), from my managing director in my first few months in Shanghai. A client had wrongly accused me, and I broke down in tears. My managing director sat me down, pointed out the window (our office was on the 42nd floor with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out to one of the busiest parts of Shanghai) and said: “I want you to look out these windows, and remember that you are in China now. It’s a really fast-paced, competitive, dog-eat-dog-world out here. There is no time for pity. You’ve got to learn to be tougher and stronger if you want to survive here.”
That really shook me. It was a reality check. It made me realise what I’d signed up for, and that it wasn’t as simple as applying what you knew in a different company or country. It was about truly immersing yourself in the culture and wanting to be a part of it. It took me a full nine months to start enjoying my time in Shanghai, but once I started finding my footing again, the growth was phenomenal.
A+M: Describe your own management style now as a leader.
Phang: I’m a tiger mom, and the team knows it well. Nurturing young talents is something that’s very close to my heart, and I am always around to lend an ear. But I’m also a disciplinarian when I need to be – beware the tiger fangs!
A+M: What's one thing you wished employees understood about being a leader?
Phang: That I truly think of them first and want what’s best for them. They may not always understand the final decision, or it may not necessarily reflect what they wanted, but I hope they know I always put my team first.
A+M: What do you do during your free time?
Phang: I have a six-year-old daughter, so I’m always looking for new ways to bond with her. I’m also an organic junkie, so reading up about organic health products is my jam. And Netflix of course.
A+M: Where do you find your inspiration?
Phang: Travelling! Although this hasn’t happened much in the past two years. I’m really fascinated by different cultures and architecture. Voyaging the world through Netflix and TV shows also gives me this opportunity. Inspiration is everywhere, so I get it most through talking to those around me.
A+M: If not in advertising, where would you be?
Phang: I would probably be in an organic food business and sewing wacky totes for sale. When I returned from China, I started a small organic granola business (which is still active now), but after a while, I missed the agency adrenaline and eventually got back into the advertising world.
A+M: What advice do you have for someone looking to start a career in the industry?
Phang: It’s a very passionate industry. You’ve got to love what you do, otherwise, you will constantly question if you’ve made the right choice, or if there are better options out there (because there will always be). But it may not give you the same adrenaline drive and career satisfaction.
A+M: What issue would you like to see the industry change in 2022?
Phang: There needs to be more appreciation of talents in agencies. The industry worldwide is facing a serious talent crunch, and it’s not something our industry can solve alone. We spend a lot of time and resources nurturing and training our talents, and we need the same understanding and appreciation from our clients and partners.
Talents are all we have, and the fact is, that clients and agencies are interdependent. No one party is more important than the other, and mutual respect will take us far.