Joanne Lao’s marketing degree propelled her into one of the world’s biggest global advertising groups, where she’s chief executive of Greater China operations.
At the heart of the global advertising group that has been Joanne Lao’s professional home for more than two decades is the concept of ‘disruption’ – and it was Lao’s marketing degree at Monash University that opened her eyes to the strategic and big-picture thinking that led her into the advertising industry.
An Australian citizen who grew up between Macau and Australia, Lao, who is chief executive of TBWA’s Greater China operation, based in Shanghai, also credits the cultural diversity of Monash students with helping her to develop the people skills so important in her high-profile role.
Lao, who oversees nearly 600 employees across six offices and seven group brands, graduated in 1988. “Studying marketing was quite special for me, because at that time you did arts or science or economics or law or accounting. Marketing gave me freedom to learn without pinning me down to a specific area of expertise.
“That degree was quite unique in Australia at that time, and it has shaped my career, particularly in relation to problem-solving and strategic thinking, which I learned during my studies, and to understanding how to leverage your own strengths for individual performance as well as for working in a diverse team.”
Before joining TBWA, a top-10-ranked global advertising network, Lao spent seven years in the travel industry. Returning after graduation to Macau, where she was born to an Australian mother and Chinese father, she joined the public relations and communications department of Hyatt International.
It was her first foray into the corporate world. After three years, she moved to Thailand, where she marketed a mini-destination on Phuket for a Singaporean hotel group that included Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts.
Lao was then transferred to Singapore as Banyan Tree’s head of corporate communications. And it was there, in 1996, that as a client, “I met a whole lot of advertising people, which led to the opportunity to work with TBWA Group”, she says.
“The network was in its infancy in Asia–Pacific. I started as one of the first 10 people to join a TBWA company in Singapore. Since then, I’ve been able to grow with the network and help shape it.”
After seven years in Singapore, Lao moved to Hong Kong, and in 2006 was appointed managing director of TBWA \ Hong Kong, before taking up her position in 2015 running Greater China operations – where, she says, “there is never a dull moment”.
“China is a very important market, and it’s a growth market. The business here is very competitive, and it’s always transforming, because consumers are changing very fast, and you have this huge population of middle-class millennials who are now becoming probably the most significant audience group for many brands around the world."
“From a marketing point of view, the digital platforms in China are very different from the rest of the world. For example, you have WeChat, which is like a combination of WhatsApp and Facebook and Twitter. But things are constantly evolving, new platforms are being invented, so it’s both challenging and creates opportunities.”
What’s kept her with one company for so long? Apart from the people, and the clients (TBWA’s illustrious global list includes Apple, Singapore Airlines and Adidas), she says it’s that ‘disruption’ philosophy and methodology, coined and trademarked by TBWA \ Worldwide.
Disruption, to Lao, means “really creative thinking to find paths for exponential growth for our clients".
"Disruption is about being curious, it’s permission to experiment, to learn, to fail tasks, to think outside the box. It’s given me a lot of freedom, and it’s perfect for a transforming world, because it allows you to continuously change the rules.”
The strategic thinking she learned at Monash is “really the basis of disruption”, she says. “That problem-solving approach, based on understanding the bigger picture, was really important to me falling in love with a disruption company. So was the curiosity, which also comes from my experience at Monash.”
Lao also heads the Global China chapter of Omniwomen, an initiative of the Omnicom Group (to which TBWA belongs) to promote women’s leadership. A TBWA program, Take The Lead, aims to have women fill 20 per cent of executive leadership roles by 2020.
“It’s my extracurricular job, but it’s very important to me. All the data tells us that if you have more women in leadership roles, business actually performs better.”
Last year, Lao was named Agency Head of the Year Greater China, at Campaign magazine’s Agency of the Year Awards, and also received a Campaign Asia–Pacific inaugural Women Leading Change Award.
Lao, who’s exploring with Monash the possibility of recruiting returning Chinese graduates, could imagine leaving TBWA one day – but only for an equally “culturally inspiring” employer.
“We live once and we spend a lot of time in the workplace, so it’s very important that we love what we do.”