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Ogilvy's creative warrior

Published on Friday, 09 Sep 2011
Sandy Chan
Executive creative director, Ogilvy & Mather Advertising
Photo: Nora Tam

Looking at Sandy Chan's glowing complexion, it is hard to imagine that for years she worked until two or three in the morning and sometimes didn't get any sleep at all, only returning home to quickly shower.

The advertising industry is known for its gruelling working hours and Chan, now executive creative director at Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, was exceptionally busy, trying to learn as rapidly as she could.

"My boss was quite hands off, so I had a lot of opportunities to learn. But I had to pay for it with my time," says the graphic design graduate of Parsons the New School for Design, the storied New York institution with more than 100 years of history.

More interested in the dynamics of meeting people than sitting at a desk, Chan decided to pursue a career in advertising and took a course in the subject at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University upon her return to Hong Kong.

Her enthusiasm for her job and the long working hours she put in paid off, and she was promoted to art director within a year. Yet, as she changed jobs, she once again found that she was the last to leave the office at the end of the day.

At the time there were no computers and everything was hand drawn. Close team work was required, which she very much enjoyed. "When you are young, you think it's fun to be in the office," Chan says.

After two and a half years of hard graft, she was offered another job, a promotion to senior art director. Being part of the creative group responsible for McDonalds' advertising in Greater China, her cultural sensitivity and China experience proved to be useful.

So, when her boss left the company six months later, she was promoted to associate creative director and then, less than half a year later, she was nudged up the ladder again, to the post of creative director.

"It was the toughest part of my career. Hiring was particularly difficult because I had to hire people who were three to four years my senior," she remembers.

Applicants declined offers because of that and finally, her boss had to help in recruiting staff for her. In meetings, she had to hold her ground.

"In creative work, there is no right or wrong. You just have to follow your guts and do it," she says. "I'm quite tough and can be quite loud and outspoken. My projection is not like that of a timid girl."

People skills are very important in this position, since the head of creative has to work with different teams internally and clients externally. Chan had to train herself to become a better listener, how to form a creative team and how to sell her ideas to her group and the clients.

Heading up a department of 40 people, her days are filled with intensive meetings and brainstorming. She only starts "doing her own job" after office hours. However, Chan claims she is not a workaholic, and manages to leave the office by eight or nine o'clock on most nights.

She spends much of her time reading books and magazines on advertising and fashion for inspiration on new ways of doing things. She also tries to go to the gym three times a week, keep up-to-date with the art scene and meet up with friends for a chat.

Notwithstanding the inclusion of such other aspects of life, it is clear that Chan's profession is neither an easy one in which to ascend or maintain. Chan credits her early experiences of living in New York and holding down two part-time jobs while studying with sufficiently toughening her up.

"It's quite tough for a woman in this industry. You have to put in long hours. It's a big sacrifice," she says. 


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