When Bertilla Teo joined Starcom Greater China as CEO in July 2009, the agency was reeling from a major blow. Earlier that month, China's biggest advertiser, Procter & Gamble, had pulled its non-TV tactical planning and buying business in China, an account easily worth several million dollars in fees.
Ms. Teo, coming directly from a decade-long stint at MEC in North Asia and Singapore, has painstakingly rebuilt Starcom into one of one of China's leading media agencies, impressing staff and clients -- including P&G -- along the way.
By spring 2012, Ms. Teo had regained nearly all of the lost P&G business, plus she has picked up new accounts from marketers like Mars, Wrigley, Fujian Beer and China Telecom, and retained work for brands like Coca-Cola.
"She has managed to surround herself with the right people and talent, she has a very strong team and has really established trust vis-a-vis the clients," Jean-Yves Naouri, chief operating officer at Publicis Groupe, described the China turnaround. "She doesn't make promises she cannot deliver. She is a magnet both for clients and talent."
The Singapore native is the first to credit the strong team she carefully assembled and nurtured over time. For that core group to remain intact for several years is a rarity in China, where chronic job-hopping is every agency director's biggest headache.
"Everyone works together," Ms. Teo said, although China remains a massive challenge, "especially the rapid speed of change, especially on the digital and social media front."
She is also coping with two competing trends among her clients. Local companies like beauty brand Herborist need help to grow internationally, while global advertisers like Mars are trying to appeal to local tastes despite making western products that are not always an easy sell.
"Chinese are generally not big chocolate eaters compared to their western counterparts," Ms. Teo said. "There's a misperception by Chinese that it's 'heaty' food for the body. Our challenge is to communicate that it's not."