Conversations with Cassandra Tan

Cassandra Tan works at Kantar Millward Brown as a director for market research of brands. Cassandra studied Psychology in university, and has always had a keen interest in one particular area in the discipline: consumer psychology – understanding the psyche behind why consumers make certain choices concerning brands and products. Upon graduation, she found a way to pursue her interest as a career and joined Kantar Millward Brown to learn more about the intricacies of brands. She has since become a director with a team of eight under her capable leadership whose growth serves as her personal motivation to go to work every morning.

How would you describe your typical workday?

Cassandra: A typical workday requires me to communicate with clients and team members. It requires understanding of the client’s business. Clients will always ask us questions on how their brand is performing, how they can make things better, how they can get the best returns on their marketing dollars. We will need to be able to use data to help clients make decisions.

It requires me to communicate with my team; to support them in solving issues that come up on projects, to be in brainstorms to pull together the analysis and also be the bridge between clients and ourselves as the landscape keeps changing.

As Singapore is the regional hub, it also often requires me to collaborate with colleagues in the other markets.

So how has your experience been? Can you share your story with us?

Cassandra: I graduated from university about six years ago. I didn’t know that market research existed before. I had studied psychology, but I was very interested in knowing why people chose certain brands or chose certain products – the psyche behind their thinking.

I joined Millward Brown after graduating from university in order to learn more about brands. In six years, I’ve managed to move from being a research associate to being a director. I am currently leading a team of eight.

There are a lot of skills that you get to pick up. At the basic level, I learned how to manage multiple projects and communicate with various parties to ensure timely and accurate deliverables. Thereafter, I learned analytical skills and become adept in pulling together a compelling story with data.

At the managerial level, I learn how to develop people’s careers and start picking up presentation skills. At the director level, I learn to build a strong performing team. Different people have different personalities, and just like a coach, one needs to know individual motivations and leverage their strengths in order to build a strong team. At the same time, I am learning how to manage finances, plan budgeting and resourcing; and also manage senior internal and external stakeholders to drive business strategy.

Do you enjoy your work environment?

Cassandra: I would say being in the same job for six (almost seven) years is quite rare. People usually change jobs within two to three years, but I guess it’s different for me as I truly am interested in brands as a topic to explore. In my job, I have been able to talk to people and understand what they think about certain things. I also like pooling together my point of view and my thoughts in terms of certain issues.

For me, I think I was very fortunate because it was the right fit for my personality. It’s very flat in terms of hierarchy. The organization is very open to hearing people’s opinions, questions and feedback. If I have an idea, they say “Sure, go ahead and do it.” It’s a very young, dynamic culture where feedback is taken. So I didn’t have any issues in terms of fitting in, in that sense.

It might be a little challenging for the introverts because in this industry, you need to vocalise your opinion often. If not, you may not be able to advise your client as effectively. The need to present and defend recommendations in this job requires you to be more vocal.

Though I would like the industry to pick up pace in terms of digitization and reduce manual labor when it comes to data collection methods, accuracy checks, and charts and report creation. This will reduce the number of man hours required behind the project and allow for better work life balance.

What would you consider the highlights of what you do? What motivates you in the morning to go to work?

Cassandra: My team motivates me. For me, my motivation comes from seeing my team grow. I have new graduates coming in, and being afraid to pick up the phone. They tell me: “Cass, can I not talk to the client because they may ask me a question that I don’t know how to answer? Can I just e-mail them?” And I say: “Just try, just pick up the phone. If you can’t answer, tell them you will come back with an answer later.” Now the person is leading two persons in her own team and she’s able to pick up the phone to talk to clients. She’s able to present very well in front of senior stakeholders. For me, that’s the joy of seeing someone grow from when they graduate till now. That gets me up in the morning.

And it’ll be a really good day at work when my team has a manageable workload, and are able to find the joy in the things that they do for the client, so there are happy clients and personal growth for all of us.

How do you deal with difficult clients?

Cassandra: It comes with building up the relationship with people. Maybe the first time we may not push back so strongly. We will say: “Okay, I will do this for you but do you know this is not within the scope?” So you actually do them a favour first and then after that you say: “Subsequently we will need to charge for this because this is not within what was discussed.” I guess different people have different styles. Some people would like to drink coffee with their clients. Some people just like to deliver good work to their client and then from there the client should be able to understand. I think it’s all about how people want to build a relationship with someone else.

Have you found any avenues for personal growth in your company? Does your company provide many opportunities to develop your personal skills or is this done on your own initiative?

Cassandra: I would say it goes hand in hand. I have been very vocal since I joined the company. So what I realized is that the senior management, like the CEO, take notice when someone has a point of view and is vocal. It works hand in hand because then it gave me opportunities. On the one hand, I don’t actively say “Can I join this?” but I was selected to be under a group called “Future Leaders Advisory”. I meet with the CEO every month to talk about what are the issues that we face and what we can do it about it, and roll out certain initiatives in the company. Then it allowed me to develop things like leadership skills. You get to hear what they think.

If I didn’t speak up, I wouldn’t have been chosen, then I wouldn’t have the opportunity. But I wouldn’t know it existed in the first place because this is a very selective group where they selected and did not announce it internally. So I wouldn’t have known that this exists.

Also another opportunity that came along the way just because I spoke up is that I got to fly to Bangkok to be with all the CEOs across the world in APAC to talk about the strategy for the company going forward. I realized that it comes hand in hand. One, you need to think about what you want about your career and you need to create and grab the opportunities when they fall in.

What are the prerequisites for your line of work?

Cassandra: As long as you’re a university graduate from any university, we’re open. There’s no specific discipline because we’re all about consumer behaviour and we always like different perspectives. We have people coming from engineering backgrounds. The usual are business, psychology, economics, sociology backgrounds. There’s no specific discipline because things are so dynamic and you value different opinions coming from different disciplines.

It is also important to be constantly updated on current affairs and trends even if you are not studying business modules in university.

I did a minor in techno-entrepreneurship. I went to Silicon Valley to look at start-ups there. At the same time, I did an internship with a start-up. I was interested in business in general. To be honest, I wanted to start my own company. That was my initial interest. I don’t know but maybe it helped to show I had an intellectual curiosity for market research. But I guess that for me is being curious about how things work, especially in a business environment.

Is data gathering is a lot easier right now? What are some other problems you will face at work?

Cassandra: Yes, data gathering is a lot easier as our company has capabilities to do online surveys and mobile service as well.

The first difficulty would be resource issues because of the workload.

The second is on finding ways to keep young people and employees engaged because people get tired of working on recurring projects.

The last one would be something that can’t be controlled, which is the clients. Humans are complicated. So it’s never as easy as “This is the problem” and “This is the solution”. There are always a lot of human elements involved.

In terms of career aspirations, where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

Cassandra: If I’m still in the same company, I would think that I would be leading a much bigger team, like maybe 20 people – double the size of my current team. If I’m not in the company, I will probably be doing strategic work in other organisations. My main interest would lie in branding – just a matter of which brand I see myself every day. The good thing about being in a research agency is that you get to work with a variety of brands, such as banks, hotels, or soft drinks. But when you work for one company, you will be stuck with one industry. All the research you do will only revolve around that company and the same industry.

Harvard University has compiled a list of 42 professional competencies. In your opinion, which do you think are the most applicable/relevant for your work on a daily basis?

Cassandra: Delegation – because one person alone cannot achieve much. You need people to come together to achieve a lot at an organisational level. When I say delegation, it’s not just asking your subordinates to do the work and pass it back to you. It’s more of which one do you delegate and which one do you keep for yourself. Delegation is a broad competency but involves a lot of nuances. You need to build a successful team so that they can do it to the best and bring it forward.

Negotiation – when servicing clients, you need to also reject or reason with the clients if you think certain things are not possible. This is because you need to protect your team and business. For example, a lot of clients like to get things for free: “Can you do this for me?” and then they don’t pay you for it. Or they say: “I will commission this project for you” but at the end they ask so many questions that was way off the original intention. You need to be able to manage that and negotiate so at the end of it, the client is happy and your team is happy.

Energy – because you need to think all the time. It’s very hard to push yourself and go to work when it’s very high intensity all the time. A lot of times when people come into the company, they say everybody is so young. It’s true because the job we do requires a lot of passion and energy.

Formal presentation – because our end deliverable to the client is a presentation. We can’t escape from that. In order to be a leader for an organisation, you need to present to the office as well. So not just to clients externally because that’s a deliverable in itself, but internally itself presenting your thoughts and your plans so that they will want to rally with you and follow you.

Communication – if you’re not clear or don’t understand people around you, they will not want cooperate with you on your plans.

With all this, sales ability and persuasiveness is interlinked. If you know how to communicate, if you know how to build a relationship with your client, you should be able to persuade them if that particular thing helps them to address their particular question or problem.

Time management – because in our line, we charge the clients for our time. So we need to be able to manage our time so that we can complete the work based on the timeline that we promised.

Continuous learning – you have to stay humble and know that you may not have all the answers to the questions. You may not know everything and may need to consult experts sometimes. You need to ask people to challenge your analysis and ask is this really the best analysis I can deliver. The landscape keeps changing. In the past, there was only TV and after that we have different channels. But now we have mobile and we have things like Snapchat. So things keep changing by themselves. Without continuous learning, you’re not going to be able to remain relevant as well. What was done ten years ago is no longer relevant now.

What advice will you give to someone joining the industry?

Cassandra: I think my advice would be: if you’re not curious or you’re not passionate about trying to find answers to business questions, I think this is not for you. Because if you’re driven by having the most money, this is not the job or industry to get the most money. If you are motivated by altruism, like working for a non-profit, helping save lives, this is not for you. Ultimately, it’s about intellectual curiosity, how can I solve this client issue? What do I need to read? Because you constantly need to read. If you’re not even interested or you’re not even curious, it will be very tough because every day you’ll be dealing with this and you won’t enjoy it.