The Brand Master

David Shaw (BBA 1981)



He graduated with an NUS Business degree in 1981 and went straight into advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi as a copywriter. He has never looked back since, moving on to J. Walter Thomson, and then helping big guns like Lenovo Asia-Pacific and Hewlett-Packard Asia-Pacific with their branding. He created his niche in the creative world of branding and advertising. Today, he is with a successful branding consultancy business Activiste. So how did David Shaw (BBA 1981) go from finance to advertising? He shares his journey, with glimpses of the personality traits that make him so successful in his chosen field.

It’s pretty common today for people to carve out a career in an area not necessarily related to their academic qualifications. But at the time you graduated, it was unusual. What motivated you to join marketing and advertising after graduating with a Bizad degree? How challenging was it for you in making the switch?

To be frank, it wasn’t so much challenging as it was a matter of survival, and playing to my strengths. By the end of my first year, I’d concluded that accounting, business finance, etc, weren’t my thing. And I couldn’t imagine myself working in Shenton Way and liking it.

On the other hand, I was intrigued by marketing and organizational behavior. Plus, I had always liked to write. So I applied for a job as an advertising copywriter – and I aced the copy test. Turns out it was a good fit.

Advertising is all about positioning brands in a compelling way; and an advertising agency is filled with the most inspiring, “insecure” people you can find. I was able to try my hand at building brands, enabling sales, and studying all kinds of idiosyncratic, “dysfunctional” types which went into making the distinctive culture of an advertising agency. I had a blast.

How were you able to make a lateral or vertical connection between Bizad and your eventual field? How do you help companies recognize what their brand truly is?

There is no gap to bridge. My Bizad background informs my brand consulting work, and keeps me from devolving to aesthetic fluff. I’m not that rare a species. Lots of brand consultants come from business backgrounds. Often, that’s the best experience to bring to the table. Not ivory-tower consulting that’s divorced from real life.

In the best organizations, business strategy and brand strategy are intertwined. The best companies say what they’re going to do, then do it.

Within every brand, there is a product; but not every product is a brand. Behind every brand, there is a company; but not every company is a brand. That’s a quote, by the way, by Jeremy Bullmore, ex-chairman of JWT and one of the all-time advertising gurus. You’d be amazed at how many companies are sub-optimizing their performance and profits because despite their talk, they’re brand-dead. We help companies discover their brand story.

Clients get the consulting advice, advertising and/or marketing program they deserve. Over time, the cosmic scorecard is fair: You get as good as you give. I’d like to think that in my 11 years as a client marketer, I managed to get some of my agencies’ best work out of them, by being a demanding but fair client.

What other challenges have you faced, and how did you overcome them?

I spent almost 7 years living and working in Canada – as an advertising copywriter. You could see, in my clients’ eyes, every time I was introduced to them, the instinctive thoughts:┬áCan this Chinese man write?” I had to earn respect with my first ad for them – one client at a time.

What gives you the most satisfaction in what you do? What is most fulfilling?

Helping brands find their true voice – something that’s authentic and credible. That’s very satisfying to me. You’d be surprised how many otherwise smart companies need that kind of help. And perhaps even more fulfilling, are the times when I can help people be their best selves, by doing their best work. That truly turns my crank.

What is the meaning of work and career to you, compared to family, leisure and play?

I have a confession – I’m a recovering workaholic. So I’m probably a pretty poor example to hold up to young turks just getting into the working world. All I know is that I would do things differently if I could roll back the years. I don’t want the eulogy at my funeral to be “He worked late at the office”.

What would you like to be your legacy? Is it a different legacy for your family, peers and others?

I’d like the people who’ve had the “misfortune” to walk or work a while with me to feel “He made a difference!” That would be neat.

As for the ones you love, the stakes are even higher. I’ve let people down too many times to recall. When I screw up, all I can do is pick myself up and push on, remembering that to the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.

Are you living your dream? Did you ever think you’d get into here? If this is different from your early dreams, is this better?

Sometimes it’s a nightmare! But I can’t complain. Life’s been an adventure. We make our own bed, we’ve got to lie in it. I’ve been blessed with a family I don’t deserve; friends who are blind when they should know better, and touched by a God who loves me, warts and all. I give thanks, and only strive to finish well.

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