Women to Watch China 2013

Bessie Lee Charts WPP's Future Course in China

CEO Role Includes Fostering Partnerships Between Siblings, Finding Deals

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"Horizontality" is a term dreamed up by WPP CEO Martin Sorrell, but bringing the concept to life is a very real task for the holding company's China CEO Bessie Lee.

Bessie Lee
Bessie Lee

Ms. Lee, 48, took on the newly-created role in April, overseeing WPP's 50-plus agencies in China. A key focus is fostering collaborations between sibling shops; for example, partnering a large creative agency with a small e-commerce operation to provide clients with more robust digital services.

"We want to create new partnerships to go after clients' new marketing dollars, dollars that we haven't earned yet," Ms. Lee said.

Such matchmaking requires a deft touch, involving agencies that are sometimes fierce competitors as much as they are siblings.

"There is that growing desire to collaborate. Thanks to Martin's continued acquisitions, we now have an extensive line of disciplines," she said. "It will be redundant to build it on your own or go outside and work with other agencies that are not necessarily better than WPP agencies. But what stopped them from doing it before was there was no occasion or platform for them to know each other."

Even after a Publicis Omnicom merger, WPP is the biggest among the multinational holding companies in China, soon to become WPP's second largest market. Mr. Sorrell said maintaining that lead requires WPP agencies to capitalize on the expanding influence of local marketers.

"Clients want the best people working on their business," he said. "Horizontality in China means getting all our 16,000 people to work together in China for the benefit of clients and beyond to the other 149,000 WPP people."

Ms. Lee's WPP career started 23 years ago in her native Taiwan, as a media planner at JWT. She rose to become CEO of GroupM China and one of the most influential women in the country's media industry.

Now her influence extends well beyond media. She's scouting out potential acquisitions for WPP, aiming to close her first year with five acquisitions. Four months in, she's already working on three potential deals.

Ms. Lee is passionate about expanding the talent pool in China. Most international agencies recruit from Beijing and Shanghai, overlooking promising talent in lower-tier cities. GroupM runs a successful training program in several of those often-neglected cities and Ms. Lee hopes to expand it to groom candidates for other agencies.

"We're not like clients, we don't have products or physical assets," she said. "Our only assets are people."

Next: Christine Ng

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