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To name the most influential Chinese advertising executives in Asia, one should mention Raymond So (MBA 1981). Raymond is an advertising veteran with three decades of experience. He was the Executive Vice President International of J. Walter Thompson and the only Chinese person on its global board of directors. Before retirement, he was the Chairman, Asia Pacific for the fellow multinational industry giant, BBDO Advertising. Besides striving for professional excellence, he tirelessly gives back to the industry by getting involved in numerous industry bodies. This leadership was acknowledged when he was appointed as World Vice Chairman International of the International Advertising Association, the first Chinese person to assume the role. His motto in life, ‘the best gain is to lose’, gives away his secret to success.
Raymond graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Social Science from CUHK in 1979. He gives a valedictorian speech at Chung Chi College
With a bachelor’s degree in Social Science, Raymond initially had his heart set on entering the government to change society. Thanks to his teacher’s advice, he applied for a CUHK MBA, which became a turning point of his life. Raymond’s active participation in extra-curricular activities, including being the captain of the debate team and valedictorian of Chung Chi College, made an impression on then MBA Program Director Prof. John Espy. Eventually Raymond was accepted to the city’s sole MBA program at that time after his outstanding interview performance.
Raymond calls the two years of MBA study the most hard-working time of his school life because the content was so novel and eye-opening that it changed his pre-existing mindset and learning style. Tutoring part-time at the university also upped the challenge as he had to juggle between teaching and studying. Raymond remembers there were about 30 students in the MBA class with seven cars. The group made precious memories together as they often explored different places and drove to Shatin for chicken congee.
Raymond’s MBA class emerged triumphant at the interclass sports day. Prof. John Espy (1st from left) presents the trophy to Raymond (2nd from left) and his classmates
No CUHK MBA student had ever entered advertising before Raymond. And this advertising career fatefully began with a summer job. “In my first MBA summer holiday, I picked up a holiday job left by a senior student. I did data collection at DDB. Perhaps I did quite well. After graduation I received a call from my boss to invite me to join the company full-time. Little did I know it would turn into three decades in advertising.”
Not long after starting out, Raymond knew he would build a life-long career in advertising. The discipline is about understanding the market, which allowed him to put his MBA knowledge into practice. In addition to this, advertising executives need to pitch creative ideas to their clients. Good communication skills are imperative when dealing with both clients and colleagues. For a socialiser like Raymond, it comes as second nature. He started as account executive at DDB. Just four years later he was promoted to Account Director. By his seventh year in the business he was already the Managing Director of J. Walter Thompson Taiwan. His career soared like a rocket.
Raymond helped Taiwan win the bid to host DigiAsia, a recurrent international digital conference, to promote the advertising industry there
With decades of global advertising experience under his belt, Raymond says the one experience that stands out from the rest was setting up a branch for J. Walter Thompson in mainland China from 1986 to 1987. “The mainland market was just opening up at that time, and advertising was in its infancy stage. The market was so undeveloped that many found it intimidating. My career was going very well in Hong Kong, but I thought if I wanted to become a top gun in the industry, I must be the first mover. As a Chinese person, I was also eager to play a part in developing the mainland market because I saw a lot of potential.”
Consequently, Raymond relocated to the mainland by himself. He diligently adapted to the harsh, under-resourced environment and patiently coached mainland colleagues. Within two years, the branch’s headcount rose to more than 30. Raymond also made game-changing contributions to the mainland advertising industry by introducing international brands such as LUX soap and Pepsi, launching IBM’s first Chinese campaign that integrated TV shows, print advertisements and direct marketing, and placing ads for Standard Chartered Bank in the China Tourist Map for the first time.
Raymond has built a well-connected personal network over the years. He meets with former Vice Premier of the State Council Wu Yi, also known as the ‘Iron Lady of China’, in Beijing.
Because of his exceptional performance, Raymond was reassigned to Taiwan to set up another new branch in 1988. Within five years the company ascended to a position as Taiwan’s No.1 advertising agency. He also rose meteorically to the top. He was appointed as the Executive Vice President International of J. Walter Thompson, overseeing both the Northeast Asia and Asia-Pacific business.
When asked what characterises a good leader, Raymond cautions leaders against putting themselves on the pedestal. They must learn to foster talent and respect their employees. He remembers when he first arrived in Taiwan, some of his local colleagues had reservations about Hongkongers. On a subsequent business trip, he set aside his role as Managing Director to volunteer to help his colleagues move luggage and sorted out everyone’s passport and boarding pass. His humbleness gradually earned him the support and admiration from his peers. His leadership was further recognised later on when he was elected to roles such as the Chairman of the Taipei Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies and World Vice Chairman of the International Advertising Association.
The CUHK Chapter of Beta Gamma Sigma presents the Chapter Honoree Award to Raymond (right) in 2014 to commend his contribution to the industry
Though he has retired from the frontline, Raymond serves as a consultant for a Beijing-based media corporation and continues to unleash his infinite creativity. He is dedicated to advancing the industry by taking on the role of the Chairman of the Asian Federation of Advertising Associations and gives back to his alma mater as a member of the Chung Chi College Board of Trustees as well as the President of CUHK Alumni Association in Shanghai. He urges Hong Kong’s new generation to take advantage of their global vision and seize the opportunity to assist Chinese corporations to reach out to the world.
You gain experience by doing what nobody wants to do. You earn a chance from taking a risk that no one dares to take. Raymond’s eminent life is proof of his motto that ‘the best gain is to lose’.
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