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By Andrea Ruskin & Leah Montebello
From kitchens to pitches, Michelle Wong talks about life at agencies, Leo Burnett and Daileys, and her new role as CMO of Sprinkles, the US premium cupcake company.
Women In The Room
“I always look to the women in the room because I know we have shared experiences and they will help me and each other. That is something that can’t be overlooked”.
This interview was conducted by Andrea Ruskin, Co-Founder of Blum Consulting.
Combining 20 years of advertising experience with a passion for food, Wong has come full circle from kitchens to pitches.
Many will know Michelle Wong from the US agency world, but she actually started her career at a culinary school in London, specialising in French cuisine, and earning her dues in the kitchen.
Studying at Le Cordon Bleu, Wong says “there was something about the creativity, intensity and just being in a kitchen that I thought was so exciting”, and it was this environment that instilled her lifelong passion for cooking.
But from kitchen to pitches, Wong eventually moved back to the USA, and decided to settle in Chicago, landing an internship at advertising company Leo Burnett.
Wong explains, “I vividly remember a meeting with all these interesting people shouting things and bouncing ideas around and it was an open space. I was an intern and didn’t know anything, but everyone let me have a voice…I couldn’t believe this exchange of ideas and I got to be a part of it. From that day, I decided I have to be part of this business and that was the start of my advertising career”.
At Leo Burnett, Wong cut her teeth and developed a strong foundation in advertising and agency operations, and got to work with some of the world’s leading CPG brands. She was assigned as a key contact for the Marlboro account, responsible for brand positioning, product launches, and execution of all Marlboro retail communications across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Drawing parallels to her time as a chef, she says “You have these crazy creative types, who can be passionate and aggressive, but also really giving and generous with their work… So the passion and intensity was a thread that carried through the two worlds”.
Buying back Dailey’s from IPG
Having gained a solid grounding in account management at Leo Burnett, Wong headed back to her home state of California in search for her next big role.
Working at what she calls the “behemoth agency” of Leo Burnett, boasting 2000+ employees, Wong opted for a more boutique experience at M & C Saatchi, where at the time, there were only 20 employees in their Santa Monica office.
As a huge learning curve, she explains, “It was my first time working at an independent shop where you don’t have lots of layers. I learned a lot about the business, the way agencies run, and all the different functions you have on a much more intimate level”. This ultimately grounded her as a key account manager.
From there, Wong truly established her name at Dailey where she stayed for over 10 years. She joined as an Account Supervisor eventually becoming the President & Managing Partner. Describing Dailey as her “goldilocks moment”, it was the perfect balance of size and clients.
Crucially during her time, Wong also led the buy-back from Dailey’s holding company, IPG, and subsequently rebuilt the operational infrastructures in 2017, regarding Dailey as a place that “deserved a new life”.
Along with a team of five partners, she faced a “David and Goliath” quest and although there were some challenges with IPG, “they were also very supportive that we were set up for success… they ushered us into the new world and I think that’s a testament to our business… it was a business deal, but everyone cared”. Through her determination, she was able to return Dailey to its roots as one of LA’s first and best-known independent agencies.
However, Wong is keen to point out that the agency business requires a level of “risk tolerance”, where you have to accept that projects are turbulent, and “one day it’s going great and then the next day, two clients kill all their projects!”.
Therefore, she emphasizes the centrality of “building infrastructures that can live through those ups and downs”, and ultimately how you sometimes just need to go with the flow!
Diversity through recruitment
During her time at Dailey, Wong also implemented a new recruitment strategy that focused on diversity and inclusion, as well as created a Culture and Inclusivity Task Force, and formal mentorship program.
“As you know in advertising, it is a real area for change and we have all had experiences where you were the only woman, the only person of colour in the room, and it is just not acceptable anymore”, Wong explains.
Wong believes that inclusion in the workplace starts with hiring practices and emphasizes how if employers continue to ask for the same type of education and work experience, then it is not surprising that they continue to get the same type of candidates applying, and ultimately landing the job.
Wong argues that we need to rethink what we are looking for and “open up the people you engage with”. This means reworking job descriptions and moving away from stringent job requirements that may indirectly put certain groups of society at a disadvantage.
She emphasises how there has been a shift where brands and agencies are not only seeing that diversity is no longer an option, but that it also offers revenue benefits and can be truly beneficial for business. This is something that Wong believes has always been ripe in the creative community, but is something that major companies are only just realising.
Having experienced prejudice herself within the workplace as a confident Asian woman, she explains how “It’s easy to be dismissed and relegated as the one who orders lunch and picks up after everyone. You are also being silenced when you raise your voice about concerns and it’s very easy to ignore you”. She also touches on the racial stereotypes she’s been forced to shatter and urges how there is still a long way to go.
This is an ongoing area of passion for Wong who is a sought after speaker about diversity and inclusion at various events, including South by Southwest, 3% Conference, and ColorComm’s ‘Stand Up & Speak Out Against Asian Hate’ event.
Sprinkle of joy
In terms of career highlights, Wong says that her new role as CMO at Sprinkles, the privately-held premium cupcake company based in Texas, comes out on top.
Like all businesses, Sprinkles has been forced to pivot over the past 18 months, and are looking to franchise and expand their D2C model further in the coming year. Wong is keen to lead the aggressive growth journey and believes that “consumer centric brands” are crucial in a post-pandemic world.
Not only has her new role given her the chance to really immerse herself in the brand journey from beginning to end (something that can be difficult to do on the agency side), but she’s also been able to embrace her entrepreneurial spirit: “at Sprinkles, it is about dreaming it and executing it, and making it happen”.
She passionately tells us, “Cakes and cupcakes are my favorite anyway and to be able to pair that with 20 years of working in advertising, creativity, strategy and relationship building…it’s great to be able to put them together in a dream role. Everything I love to do professionally and personally have now become one. When does that ever happen?”.
Speaking the agency language
Making the shift from agency to brand and marketing side, Wong acknowledges her advantage in being able to speak the agency’s “language”. “Having been in their shoes, I know what they need and I think there’s trust. Our relationships are a lot easier to get started… I understand what it takes to get the job done and I get to marry that with exactly what the business needs are”, she emphasizes.
Ultimately, her philosophy is that marketing teams need to be more communicative when working with agencies to get the best creative output.
Having sat on both sides of the table, Wong’s best advice for a brand that wants to get more out of their agency is “to be a giver”. “Give yourself in terms of being available, accessible, and open. Agencies can only work with what they have.”
In the end, just be yourself
Heading up marketing for a consumer brand, Wong has had time to reflect on her leadership style and believes “I’ve changed a lot and become a lot more comfortable with who I am”.
Whereas before she used to “shapeshift” and try to fit in with the “Boys’ club” and more conservative groups, she says “now I just bring myself… and being able to bring yourself is truly your greatest power at work”.
So, using her 20 years of experience, she aims to build an inclusive environment at Sprinkles, where people feel safe to be themselves. Opting for an open-door policy, she thinks that vulnerability in leadership is something we should all strive for. “To be creative you have to be vulnerable, and you have to give. To be a leader, that’s how you get the most out of people”, she urges.
In terms of leaders she personally admires, Wong doesn’t list one specific individual, but says, “I always look to the women in the room because I know we have shared experiences and they will help me and each other. That is something that can’t be overlooked”.
This interview was conducted by Andrea Ruskin, Co-Founder of Blum Consulting.
The Women of Influence insight series is published in partnership with Decideware
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