We recently caught up with Sarah Emmanuel-Cheong who was promoted to General Manager of UltraSuperNew in Singapore at the beginning of the year. She started her career at DDB Singapore as an Account Manager where she oversaw work for nine Unilever brands across Asia Pacific.
She then moved on to TBWA Singapore as a Senior Account Manager working with brands such as Wrigley Mars Asia, Abbot and Amgen before eventually landing at UltraSuperNew.
Over the course of our conversation, Emmanuel-Cheong discusses the culture she’s helped foster at UltraSuperNew and the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What’s been keeping you busy lately?
Juggling fitness! I’m not kidding. I know it sounds like a weird answer but a month and a half ago I was on the brink of burnout. I’ve had my own grapples with mental wellbeing in the past and I think overall, the stress of 2020 was overwhelming and starting to affect my ability to objectively make decisions because of this cloud of negativity and exhaustion.
“It’s amazing how stepping away from a problem and into a dark room with pulsing music, lights and energizer bunny instructors can help you think and clear your mind and come back with better, stronger solutions.”
A good friend of mine suggested I start to take some time for myself by going for spin class. I thought it was ludicrous to be spending time on myself when the agency needed my fullest attention. Sure, at UltraSuperNew we promote taking mental health days and self care but regular time for myself seemed a little extreme given the economic catastrophe “experts” say is about to hit us.
How dare I put myself first. I guess it was my inner imposter syndrome speaking. But I ended up doing it because, I mean, I felt like I was about to snap and allowing that to happen wouldn’t have helped anyone. I can’t tell you how good a decision that was. These days I try to go for a spin or boxing class at least 3 out of 5 days in the working week and of course, on the weekends. It’s 50 minutes I’m away from my phone and if the agency burns down in that time, then either way, I guess I wasn’t doing a very good job as a leader to begin with.
It’s amazing how stepping away from a problem and into a dark room with pulsing music, lights and energizer bunny instructors can help you think and clear your mind and come back with better, stronger solutions. Or maybe I just like the torture.
You were promoted to GM at the beginning of the year. What has the transition been like from the previous position and what have been some of the challenges?
I was an Account Director here at UltraSuperNew for a little over a year before Marc Wesseling – USN founder and crazy Dutch man, made me GM effective 2 January 2020. I guess I am the luckiest unlucky person in the universe because while this level of career progression would be an “overachiever’s” (as my husband likes to call me) dream, I was also blessed with the timely coincidence of a global pandemic which wiped out 80% of our pipeline.
“I’ve had a lot of bosses, leaders and mentors to look up to and learn from and others to teach me what to stay far away from.”
I was juggling issues like cash flow, job retention, government mandates and support package qualification while ensuring my old team didn’t get abandonment syndrome. My old role wasn’t replaced when I became GM because I had to enforce a hiring freeze the moment the pandemic hit. I’ve been doing both jobs for about 10 months now and I’m still breathing so I guess anything is possible. The challenge was the steep learning curve of steering the agency through the tough times fresh into the role but lucky for me, my team is amazing.
Our finance team was on it and updating me with our latest options and decisions were made swiftly and effectively. I also took a lot of things from agencies I worked at and applied them in my new role. I’ve had a lot of bosses, leaders and mentors to look up to and learn from and others to teach me what to stay far away from. A lot of them have taught me processes and tricks which have been useful, others have just made me realize it’s how we handle the human aspect of the situation which is going to leave the most lasting of impressions with employees.
The world going online also meant that training courses in the US were now available to me here if I was willing to compromise on sleep hours – so I pushed myself to learn more and the application of those learnings has proven pivotal in keeping up with the ever-evolving challenges of 2020.
One of the things UltraSuperNew highlighted was the unique culture that you’ve helped to create. Tell us more about that and your approach to it.
Haha you know, I used to read all these articles like “Top 10 Things Millennials Look For In Employers” and laugh because it was amazing how hard people tried to templatize humanity. The average age of the agency is 28-29 years old – yes, we’re a pretty young agency. And on top of that, we’re all different.
I love my (semi) corporate job and doing weird impromptu things, we have someone who loves staying in and doing crafty things, we have a poet who loves rustic bars and we have a typical fuccboi who loves doing boujie things and we have a super anti-capitalist (yes I know, she thinks it’s ironic too).
“I want to alleviate this toxic work ethic that’s been bred in our industry. The snarky jokes when people leave the office at 6pm saying “half day off?” and the sleepless nights being badges of honor.”
I realized, conventionality doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s ok to not want the same things, to define success differently and to live life differently while holding different things to importance. So I just changed the model of welfare and HR to ensure what people viewed as important was accurately captured. It will keep changing. When the agency moves into a new life stage or whatever comes next, the welfare and culture will, once again, evolve – It just has to in the new world order.
How do you go about attracting top talent from more established agencies?
Talent attracts talent. Our retention rate is super high and a lot of us are from bigger agencies. UltraSuperNew is made of a pack of underdogs, so the people who join us have a lot of trust in the people who have approached or poached them. I’ve also been rejected by a lot of talent I wanted to hire. They couldn’t put their blind faith in me or in a small agency that had (and still has) yet to make it big, and that is understandable.
Some have opted to stay in the prominent agency circuit or to join more prominent leaders. We all have our comforts and I totally understand this because I myself am SUUUPER risk-averse. I came to USN because I trusted Shivram Gopinath (our CD), a friend of 10 years.
My hope is that by putting ourselves out there, our work, our people, the ways in which we choose to work and live, people will come because we have given them the ability to trust in the agency with their employment. Ultimately, we have something good going on here but employment, ambition and livelihoods are not something to be gambled with and I don’t think a lot of people know how many of their decisions are subconsciously made to protect that.
A secret weapon we have though is our internship recruitment program. I learned this from Mandy Goh at TBWA. She’s an amazing lady who fostered an amazing internship program. That made me realize that the best and freshest talent comes from where you choose to look for it. A lot of our interns have gone on to work with us freelance, fulltime and as partners. If you need killer freelance illustrators, you know where to find me, I’ll give you a good hook up.
What are your goals for your team and your agency in the APAC region as a whole going forward?
My goals for the team are simple. I want to alleviate this toxic work ethic that’s been bred in our industry. The snarky jokes when people leave the office at 6pm saying “half day off?” and the sleepless nights being badges of honor. Now don’t get this confused with not working hard. The team knows that 2 things matter in work. Integrity and results. Work in a way that works for you, communicate personal work life balance requirements clearly with your colleagues and supervisors, and never compare your arrangement with someone else.
“My hope is that by putting ourselves out there, our work, our people, the ways in which we choose to work and live, people will come because we have given them the ability to trust in the agency with their employment.”
That said, Shiv and I also hope to grow the agency by an additional 50% in the next year so work loads could be more evenly distributed but we’re a selective bunch and the process of recruiting when you’re a small shop like us can be long and arduous. For the agency, I shan’t reveal much but let’s just say I think you’ll be hearing a lot more from UltraSuperNew.
How has COVID-19 affected your team’s work routine and what lessons have you learned that will carry on post-pandemic?
Well as you can imagine with a relatively young team, working from home was hard. The world focussed a lot on parents who struggled through working with young children at home but I faced a completely different problem. Colleagues doing video calls in a shared room with their siblings on other calls at the same time. Parents walking in to ask them about lunch mid client presentation. It was all very comical but also painful to realize one option isn’t ever going to be optimal for everyone. This has birthed a new hot desking and choice working schedule which is most likely going to carry through post-pandemic since it has continuously proved successful”
Outside of your day job, what personal projects do you enjoy working on?
I’ve been part of a community with young adults who’ve joined the workforce over the years and I made it my mission a couple of years ago to ensure that young people make wiser decisions and are motivated to be more ambitious. I think we live in a very ageist society which tells young people “you’re still young” or “you’re just a kid” and given the respectful culture in the country, a lot of young adults back down from their ambitions assuming they aren’t ready.
Other than that – I got married last year, sold my own flat and am now building my dream family flat with my husband.
If someone tells you something untrue over and over again, it’s only logical that at some point you start to second guess yourself. I spend my time outside of work reminding the young people I know that their 20’s will set them up for the rest of their lives. I’m considering trying to build this into a full-on platform but I haven’t had the time to figure out how.
Anyone who’d like to be a contributor or collaborator – once again, you know where to find me. #shamelessplug Other than that – I got married last year, sold my own flat and am now building my dream family flat with my husband. There is a lot of “life” happening and I try my best to invest as much time, care and energy into both my family and the team that has put their trust in me. This includes a lot of team climbing sessions, spin sessions, meals at my house (now on hold till the new place is ready) and drinks sessions so I always know how they’re doing.