‘Stay true to your passions’ – how a global marketing success fell in love with OOH
Michaela Chan has had a career spanning a range of roles, industries and nations. Along the way, she’s learned valuable lessons about workplace culture that works, and the value of being at the forefront of transforming sectors. By Michelle Keomany.
When you look at Michaela Chan’s career, you can sense the gutsy determination and drive. Unlike many marketers who find a niche and stick to it, she has been constantly challenging and changing herself both personally and professionally. She makes the most of every opportunity presented to her, understanding the personal as well as professional impacts and using these to define what’s important to her –whether it’s business goals or workplace culture.
Chan is known for ‘hitting the ground running’ but, as she explains, before you can hit the ground, sometimes it can take a while to find it or even make the ground yourself. With her 10 year background in oil and gas, then moving into software and then telecommunications, working in Asia and the US and in B2B and then B2C, it’s incredible to see how all this experience goes into her role as CMO at oOh!media. And until CFO Sheila Lines joined in March, Chan was the only female on the leadership team.
Late last year, a Sydney Morning Herald article tipped that, in 2018, out-of-home advertising would be worth more than $1 billion for the first time ever. Since taking the helm at 2015, Chan’s remit has gone from establishing the marketing function from scratch (which includes corporate marketing, internal comms, product marketing, brand marketing, digital and events and sales enablement) to now also overseeing research, data and insights as well as digital product management.
Chan reflects on how her career started at DDB Needham, coincidentally enough in the same building that she’s in today, “My advertising career started in this building in North Sydney in 1993 and I was Ronald McDonald’s minder. I have gone from Sydney, to Bangkok to Singapore to California and I’m back here at 76 Berry Street where it all began!” she laughs.
She explains that, as an account coordinator, one of her responsibilities was actually going to Ronald McDonald shows and holding his hand through the restaurant and making sure kids weren’t hitting him on the bottom.
In these early years, everyone wanted to do big TV ads, but Chan’s focus was on below the line DM. “People didn’t think it was very sexy, but it was really formative and foundational. In my mind that’s actually where advertising has gone in terms of being really targeted. We were buying mailing lists… and even though it was one-to-many, you were still very specific and success metrics were really important.”
She says that she believes the old DM days were the beginning of really looking at audience measurement and understanding campaign metrics.
It was client side at Caltex where Chan started to hone her expertise and areas of passion. “I think that’s where a theme started, joining businesses that were going through business transformation. I joined Caltex when it was launching Star Mart, the convenience brand… In those days in the late ’90s, no one would even think of buying a sandwich or a coffee from a service station, so the business was going through a huge transformation.”
In the role of global Chevron brand manager, she was tasked with navigating competition from discounters like Costco and Safeway. “It was about how you maintain your price when there was so much discounting and it came back to value and really working with the leadership team on that,” she recalls.
Then in San Francisco as director of brand management for Autodesk, it was another big period of change, when software was going from in the box to into the cloud. But it wasn’t just business transformation that Chan had to navigate. While at Autodesk, a software company in the heart of Silicon Valley, she experienced just how incredibly quickly the rate of change is in the tech industry as a whole.
With a constantly changing organisational structure you would get a new role every couple of years within the same company. She explains, “I went from sales to field marketing to brand to corporate marketing, so I was able to really get my teeth into a new role and understand the business. And that to me that was my most formative experience, being in a software company in the Bay Area.”
Chan also experienced firsthand the effects of the GFC (global financial crisis) with the company going through six to seven rounds of layoffs. This experience gave her incredible perspective once she returned to Australia. “You really ask yourself if this is the right decision, and you learn that it’s OK to say no to things,” she says. “Australia is a lucky country and hasn’t gone through a GFC like I experienced in the US.”
Working for an extensive period overseas and then returning to Australia, Chan has learned some very important lessons along the way. She made the decision to come back to Australia when her son was two and had been very sick, believing that Australia was the best place for him to grow up. Despite assumptions about living in an English-speaking country, Chan says that her move to the US was actually more challenging than Asia.
“When you’re an expat in Asia you get a lot of help – people help you find a house, get a bank account, you have a driver perhaps. But in the US there’s an assumption that you’re English speaking, but it was things like the only way to get a credit card was to have a bank account, but the only way to have a bank account was to have a credit score, which you could only get with a credit card. The country isn’t set up for people to migrate to.”
Chan also reveals what it was like to take on her role, “I’m a young female, an Australian, going to manage an iconic US brand [and] there was no workplace diversity. It was male, middle-aged white men and so there was no camaraderie.” On her first day on the job, she flew 20 hours and immediately had to drive to a meeting – only to realise she had never driven on the other side of the road before and had no idea where she was going.
It was through experiences like this that she learned a lot about herself and what she was capable of. “I encourage anyone, if you can push yourself out of the comfort zone, professional or personal, do it. You learn so much about yourself, but you also, most importantly, learn how strong and resilient you are and how adaptable you are.
“And I say this to my team – you can’t live life looking at the rear-view mirror, because things are changing so quickly you’ve got to be able to focus on what’s happening in front,” she says. Chan explains what it was like to come back to Australia.
“Before I left Australia there was no internet, there was no Harbour Tunnel in Sydney, I was coming back to a new country! People were [saying things] like ‘You’re coming home,’ and I [thought], ‘No, my friends have moved on.’ I still had my girlfriends from school, but I had suddenly come back with a husband and a baby and most of my friends were gay so they didn’t have husbands and babies at the time.”
It’s these insights that really help to put into perspective just how much she has taken on within her career and personal life. In 2015, a combination of Chan’s forward focus and a bit of old school coincidence saw her take her current role as chief marketing officer at oOh!media. “I was actually judging the Mumbrella Awards, media brand of the year. And I went home to my husband and said, ‘Media is where I need to be, that’s where transformation is happening!’”
Two hours later, the head recruiter from oOh!media reached out to her on LinkedIn and asked if she would be interested in the CMO position. Chan says, “When you put it to the universe that you want change and it comes to you, then that is what’s supposed to be and you cannot try and control it. And I suppose that’s always been my belief about career – just take it as it is and lean into it.”
Another key learning for Chan after working in different industries and countries was the importance of workplace culture. She recalls experiencing double standards in previous workplaces. “The men were applauded if they left early to pick up the kids, but if the women did that it would be different.” With a young son and a stay-at-home husband, she’s also very transparent about how important it is for workplaces to foster a better and more equal culture of parental support.
Chan says she appreciates the positive environment at oOh!media and how it helps her to have work/life balance. “It’s having a really great team who will say, ‘I’ve got that, leave it with me.’ The senior management team are really supportive. We care about each other. It’s doing the little things that actually have a big impact,” she explains. What would her advice be for workplaces looking to become more supportive? “Being really encouraging and flexible has to come from the top. You have to have leadership that truly breathe it and live it,” she says.
At oOh!media, Chan applies the out-of-home knowledge she developed from her time with gas and oil. “When you think of out-of-home for a gasoline brand, there was significant spend and understanding how important the right creative is and the locations. The steep learning curve was the commercial side of the business: we are a location-based medium. We’ve got capital, we invest heavily in signs in the ground, technology… and that was very different to, say, software, where once you’ve developed it you don’t have that capital expenditure.”
Even now, Chan believes that the format still isn’t being used to its full potential. “Out-of-home is still seen as a line item. There are unrealised opportunities. We’re in office towers, cafés, roadside billboards, shopping centres, Qantas lounges… we now sell advertising in flight in Qantas flights.
“I think that’s an opportunity for brands and advertisers to actually talk to people at the right time at the right place with the right creative. If you have a different message for each location – optimise and harness that opportunity,” she adds.
Chan talks about the necessity for deeper understanding using the example of Junkee Media, the Millennial content company oOh!media bought in 2016. oOh!media is able to build native content campaigns on the Junkee platform and then amplify it in out-of-home, putting the content onto panels in universities.
Chan explains, “We know we’re reaching real people and real audiences in real locations in real formats. Advertising and messaging should change based on something called stand-by or walk-by or a drive-by asset; it’s all completely different, but sometimes we get the same creative for everything.”
But it’s the data that Chan finds really exciting. “What I’ve been most impressed with is our data play and the vision that Brendan Cook (CEO and managing director) and the organisation had in terms of the Quantium data. We’re now taking that data to market and working with smart advertisers,” she says, adding, “so if your category is, say, nappies, instead of targeting a main grocery buyer, we can now target ‘baby in the family’ or if you’re a dog owner there’s category affiliation.
“We know that here in Australia a dog owner has a higher propensity to drink mixed alcoholic drinks,” she chuckles. “So we can sit down and talk to an advertiser about the profile of a dog food buyer. We know through their purchases what else they purchase and we know their movements and that has been phenomenal in terms of the data innovation and how we’re changing how people plan and buy media. We can reach over 20% more people with the same spend, but it’s more targeted, it’s not just that main grocery buyer.”
Chan is also shifting the discussion about when out-of-home comes into play. “We’re having more conversations with advertisers and marketers. We’ve always been focused on media agencies, for the right reasons, but now as marketers are becoming more accountable for their numbers – we want to help them from the planning stage and working with their strategic planners at agencies to put not just out-of-home but also the metrics into the brief at the very beginning, rather than it being a line item.”
Chan stresses how important it is to get the planning right if you want to get the right outcomes. It’s grounding to hear all the ups and downs that Michaela Chan has experienced throughout her career and what she has learned from each different challenge, and her optimism at embracing each new thing. After finding her sweet spot in transformation, it’s only fitting that she’s thriving in out-of-home. She leaves us with a few down to earth thoughts, “Follow your gut – think with your intuition, don’t get caught up in the head stuff. Diversity is a good thing; we have it so that people can be themselves. If you’re true to yourself and your passions, things happen the right way.”