We recently caught up for a conversation with Cheelip Ong, Regional Chief Creative Officer at Lion & Lion.
A veteran creative in the ad world, Ong first got his start at Leo Burnett Singapore back in 2004 – beginning a career path that would see him managing creative output at agencies such as MullenLowe, 180 China, and others in a range of markets including Singapore, Vietnam, and China before joining Lion & Lion in 2019.
Over the course of our conversation, Ong talks about returning home to Singapore after seven years in China, his philosophy on creative leadership and agency transformation, advice for marketers during difficult economic times, and more.
You returned home to Singapore in 2019 after seven years in China. What inspired you to return?
Looking back, I had an amazing time in China, where I was blessed with the opportunity to lead, grow and transform two agencies successfully — 180 and MullenLowe Group China — through my roles as Executive Partner and Chief Creative Officer.
I couldn’t have asked for more during my stay there, be it from having supportive CEOs who believe in creativity or great team members and clients who support innovative ideas. I learned a lot from the market and embraced the richness of the history and culture, as well as the warmth of the people. In every way, China has become home to me.
The key reason that pulled me back to Singapore in 2019 was that my elderly parents wanted me to return and spend more quality time with them. I am glad I did. I got to spend precious time with my dad whose health was declining, before he passed away last September.
Having built large creative teams, what is the secret sauce to managing and inspiring creatives?
The faster you are growing an organization, the more you require excellence at all levels in your team. Given the privilege to be in a leadership position, it is critical for me to be present and be able to lead from the front; demonstrate and inspire my team members by setting the bar high, so that there is a benchmark for excellence.
Imparting knowledge and helping my teams to grow in capabilities, while hiring new talents and experts to add fresh dimensions of growth have also enabled me to scale up the agencies I led successfully.
“As a creative human being, it is important not to look back on past glories and to look forward so as to outdo myself. I always believe that my next piece of work will always be the one that we should be most excited about.”
I also strongly believe in creating and shaping a culture of empowerment and uniting kindred spirits, so that they can create ideas from an environment of fun, positivity, and motivation.
Companies with motivated employees will outperform the competition.
What advice do you have for marketers to better navigate the economic headwinds that brands could be facing this year?
I will break it down into a few key points:
- Do not be too quick to cut your marketing budget immediately.
- Analyze your past performance so that the data can provide you with insights on where you may have been deploying your marketing dollars most effectively; and direct you to new marketing imperatives and growth opportunities.
- Pivot to new growth areas fast to gain early adopters’ advantage and identify new customer bases to relate to.
- Invest in the areas where your competitors are weak.
- Continue to stay committed to your proven target audience and brand story so that you do not lose the connection and engagement with your core customers.
Over the course of your career, you’ve built and transformed creative networks across markets. What are some of the most memorable?
Transformative success can never be attributed to a single person. Therefore, for every successful agency transformation and growth story in which I have been involved, I am always supported by like-minded team members and stakeholders, who believed in my vision and who went above and beyond in the joint journey to achieve it.
Some of my most memorable experiences include my stint at 180 in China, where I was able to be a co-architect of growth along with my CEO and other colleagues, transforming the agency from 17 people in Beijing to close to 400 talents in Beijing and Shanghai. We were named by Campaign UK as The Top 10 World’s Leading Independent Agencies in 2014 and continued picking up Agency of the Year Awards in the subsequent years, marking a successful creative, business and product turnaround.
“Given the privilege to be in a leadership position, it is critical for me to be present and be able to lead from the front; demonstrate and inspire my team members by setting the bar high, so that there is a benchmark for excellence.”
At MullenLowe China, I was brought in as the Greater China Chief Creative Officer to integrate the digital offerings of Profero into MullenLowe and to drive the formation of MullenLowe Group. In two years, we won up a Gold for Agency of the year, along with Golds and Silvers for our creative work.
In my current role as Regional Chief Creative Officer at Lion and Lion, I was given the opportunity to reimagine and build from the ground up the creative product/vision of the agency.
The past 3 years and 8 months has been a rewarding period of growth. From hiring and installing Head of Creatives in each of our Southeast Asia offices and filling our offices with core talents; defining our creative and digital framework; building up our social, film and content verticals; winning regional and global accounts for the agency such as Kellogg’s, Mars Petcare, Sunquick, Kodak Lens (just to name a few) together with my colleagues was great fun.
I am proud to see the agency pick up creative accolades along the way such as being named as The Top 5 Most Creative Agencies by The Work and winning the Social Media Agency (Silver) of the Year last year in Malaysia.
Considering all the pressure a leadership position entails, how do you counterbalance workplace demands?
I try to keep to a routine of exercising at least three times a week and attending church every Sunday. It is important to disconnect from work and reconnect with faith, friends, family and the self, so as to get better at work.
How do you find your creative inspiration and do you have a role model you’ve followed on your creative leadership path?
Being madly passionate about life and people helps keep my mind curious and active. I enjoy talking to people; from the barista who is brewing my coffee to travelers I meet during my trip to start-up founders who have business ideas to share or simply, colleagues in the office… I am curious to hear their stories and learn new perspectives. Through these conversations, my mind conjures new insights, ideas, and stories.
As with role models, even though I have my share of creative heroes (from ad industry icons to filmmakers), I never had a creative role model whom I model myself after. I believe in finding and creating my own path and staying authentic.
It is not about modeling myself into a role or mirroring a hero but rather, actualising my highest self in accordance with my dreams and my potential and forging my own path.
Are there any changes you would like to see in the industry?
Change is the lifeblood that powers creativity and here are some changes I’d like to see take place to ensure our industry continues to grow and evolve:
— More talent incubator programmes across cities that can connect young industry talents / students to industry mentors
— More diverse representation at the top
— Rethink the current pitch process to make it a more sustainable model for agencies and clients
— More flexible working structures and models to prevent overworking and talent burnout rates
What’s one piece of work that you have done in recent years that you are particularly proud of?
As a creative human being, it is important not to look back on past glories and to look forward so as to outdo myself. I always believe that my next piece of work will always be the one that we should be most excited about.
Having said that and to answer your question, turning 618 (June 18th) into a National Shopping Festival in China together with my former client JD.COM has always been a proud career highlight, due to its transformation on e-Commerce, culture and social behavior in general.
Velite 5 Lifezone is another work I am very proud of, in which we conceptualized and created a smart-tech home that integrated smart living and driving with the features of Velite 5, an EREV vehicle we were launching.
You can understand the work more through the case video and case board.
It has picked up a fair amount of creative awards at One Show (Greater China, IAI Advertising Festival, just to name a few. It is also featured as a case study in the book Ten Steps to Brand Bravery, written by the team from Contagioius.com who compiled the best work that fuses creativity, technology and behavioral psychology to create marketing impact.
With the experience you’ve gained over the years, have you ever thought about setting up your own shop?
That’s an interesting question you have raised. I do see entrepreneurship as a highly creative process in which founders have to think hard and smart to create a unique product/company that can offer greater value to their customers.
I count myself fortunate that in all my leadership roles over the past decade, I get to integrate my entrepreneurial drive and ideas in my role as an intrapreneur, to evolve and build the agencies I am in. That process has been extremely rewarding.
On whether I have ever thought of setting up my own agency, the answer is no — I always believe in devoting all my energy to grow the company I work for and the teams I lead to ensure successful outcomes. Being committed to my role is a work ethic I carry.
As for whether I see myself running my own business/agency in the future; well, I’d never say never to possibilities as life is long with infinite prospects and anything can happen.
We have the power to make anything happen.