Reflections with Diana Chong

By Julian Rocero and Soong Hung Hao

Most locals should be familiar with the funny content starring Michelle Chong, Singapore’s darling comedic genius. Her talents span personable characters including Ah Lian, Sonia and Chiang Ying Wen, and have brought laughter to Singaporeans for many years. Working just as hard behind the scenes as the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Left Profile and Michelle Chong Productions is Diana Chong, a seasoned businesswoman who is no doubt the brains behind many successful campaigns delivered to media consumers today. On top of primarily specialising in the field of media and advertising, she also juggles the job of managing Singapore’s top artistes, Michelle Chong, Lee Teng, and Pornsak. Diana possesses a laser-sharp clarity on her goals for the company, and her reassuring sense of leadership pervades the interview. A deeply introspective person, she shares more in this interview about her life lessons and musings.

My name is Diana Chong, and I am the COO of Left Profile and Michelle Chong Productions.

Left Profile is a talent management company, and we represent selected top artistes, namely Michelle Chong, Pornsak, and Lee Teng. Michelle Chong Productions is a production house with a focus on creating original content for all media platforms.

What we do is varied in nature. As the person responsible for the business side of all our projects, each day is very different. One day I could be analysing how I can better support my creative team. Another day could see me strategising for our client projects.

There is no fixed day or routine, and it greatly depends on the projects at hand. What I do is highly diverse, and that is precisely why I find it interesting. It is not a typical, desk-bound job where the work is repetitive.

The split is very equal; I would say it is almost 50-50. What is unique to us, in terms of our offerings, is that we have our own in-house content creation team that includes writers, producers, videographers, and directors. We are able to produce content fully independently.

When clients come to us, they know that we are able to offer these production capabilities without the need for a third-party agency. Furthermore, our three artistes are well-known celebrities, with a strong appeal among the mass audience. This is the element that draws in businesses that reach out to us for advertising, whether through endorsements or content creation.

I worked in Hong Kong after graduating from university. I was a management trainee at Jardine Matheson, doing different stints in various companies. It was eye-opening for me, and I learned a ton. As a management trainee, particularly one under a large company, you have the opportunity to learn from the wide variety of people you meet, and the different functions and companies you are attached to.

After four years of working and living in Hong Kong, it coincided with the time Michelle left Mediacorp and directed her first commercial film, ‘Already Famous’. It was her passion, and prior to that, she was very busy with her work as an artiste. Though she had departed from Mediacorp at the time, there were still many brands that had an interest in Michelle’s work. Naturally, she needed someone to represent her on the business front, including liaising with clients, negotiating deals, and other administrative tasks. The opportunity to work with Michelle presented itself, and she asked if I wanted to work with her. I agreed, and we founded Left Profile together. Immediately, we signed with Pornsak and Lee Teng. There was an enormous amount of trust among us, in terms of getting the work engagements that they wanted and establishing our brand. After much hard work and collaboration, we celebrate our 10th anniversary this year.

Since then, we have been growing our company in an organic manner. When we first started, Michelle’s focus was on movies, and at that point, her movie was a commercial success and Singapore’s entry to the Oscars. Immediately following that, we planned for ‘3 Peas in a Pod’ and ‘Lulu the Movie’. These consecutive films witnessed an evolution in the media industry. Movies and television were bigger in the past, and brands did not focus much on digital advertising. Over time, digital content took up a more important role in our clients’ marketing strategy. Our content formats have also followed suit, shifting from movies to digital, out-of-home, and on a vast array of media platforms.

What we have been very clear and intentional about is the way we want to grow as a company. To be frank, Michelle is very much a perfectionist by nature, and also by necessity. After all, the company goes by her namesake, and everyone recognises the deep creative involvement on Michelle’s end. She keeps a keen eye on the quality of our productions and videos, and ensures that as we grow, quality remains an utmost priority.

When recruiting new staff, ensuring both a good fit and capability are paramount. How do they work with others, and are they able to produce content that is aligned with the company vision? Are they proud of the content they and the company produce? In looking to grow our team, it is also important to recognise the ebb and flow of our workload. In the media industry, it is common to have peak periods with larger, more complex projects. This may require reassigning manpower to assist our core team and better fit these tasks.

Naturally, starting a company comes with many challenges. Thankfully, my team is committed to producing great content and that is a source of joy.

My leadership style has definitely evolved over the years.

First, I believe communication is key. Albeit cliché, it is true that communication skills are essential in whatever you do. In this aspect, I have learnt more about how to communicate with different personality types. People come in varying ages, with different motivations and understandings – this is important to keep in mind! Getting to know my team’s dynamic allows me to better support them as a leader. In addition, I take pride in giving my team members space to grow and opportunities to learn. Supporting them proactively with resources and guidance is also needed to push through challenges they may encounter.

Apart from this, I find that constant communication works for me. It can boil down to the simplest things – do they understand what is required of them? Seemingly straightforward tasks may sometimes require clarification to explicitly highlight their purpose and objective. Learning how to manage these expectations on both ends is necessary for success.

There are a few things I oversee. On one hand, I look at business growth and diversification. Simultaneously, I have to be aware of our internal resources and timelines. Much of the challenge lies in managing this balance. When we receive projects of a unique or diverse genre, we have to ensure that we are prepared internally. Pre-production work (research, scripting, and conceptualisation) has to be on point in order for us to create an excellent piece of work.

Personally, the challenging part is knowing when to turn down projects when my team does not have the bandwidth to support them. While it is great to bring in as many deals as possible, we refuse to compromise on the quality we deliver either. This also highlights the importance of optimising our resources to ensure projects are completed in an efficient manner.

The nature of this industry precludes planning very far into the future. Clients themselves often do not have the luxury of knowing what marketing or messaging they need to do in the coming year. It is not easy for them to pre-empt us in terms of their upcoming marketing plans. This means that we have to be responsive and agile with the way we structure our projects.

Usually, for longer-term projects such as television programs that have many episodes ordered, we have a longer time horizon to do pre-production planning, schedule shoots and editing sessions. ‘Chic and Cosy’, an info-tainment show we do that was scheduled for a second season, is one example.

Ultimately, deadlines tend to be tight in this industry, and clients giving tight deadlines remains a common occurrence. But we also take pride in our quick turnaround time that has been successful with helping clients meet their KPIs and objectives. Truthfully, there are indeed peak periods where our team has multiple projects on their tab, but we are thankfully able to take a short breather afterwards.

I will share with you my takes on work-life balance, first for myself, then my perspective for my team.

I am mindful of the fact that I am an owner of the company. That means I have a greater stake in what I want for the company. Early on, I found it impossible to clearly draw the line between work and life. We are just so connected today, through our phones and computers, and are almost always available via WhatsApp or a phone call. However, I prefer to adopt a longer-term perspective. If I have to work on the weekends or take a call in the evening, I take it in my stride. I simply see it as periods of time when I am more busy. When less busy, I choose to dedicate more time with my loved ones.

Being overly insistent on a structured work-life balance might not work well either. If you have to work on a weekend, you might feel the additional pressure and disappointment of being unable to maintain this boundary. Once you let go of this expectation, the stress leaves as well.

With my team, I am incredibly mindful of the way they work. I want it to be sustainable for them, especially in the long term. This starts from managing client expectations. On our end, we share with clients realistic timelines and have a mutual understanding on the leeway required to make a great piece of content. When our producers liaise with the clients, they try to set a timeline that works for both us and the client.

When it comes to how we work, we are also flexible in this aspect. My team works from home and it is not a requirement to work from the office. Personally, I do not believe that being in the office purely for the sake of it is good – work should be efficient and flexible. By offering greater flexibility, it gives them pockets of time to relax and recharge, instead of constantly working on projects. I consider myself blessed to have a supportive team too. When things have to be done, they really do step up and ensure that the project is delivered for the client.

As someone with a young child, I empathise on a deeper level with my team, seeing as about half of them have young children. We cannot pull all-nighters and work all weekend. We have to pace ourselves, and managing this work-life balance is crucial to what we do.

The pandemic has definitely changed a lot of things. 2017 was the year we began pursuing digital content more aggressively. Back then, brands and clients were interested in finding out how to advertise through digital means. The pandemic simply quickened the pace for many of these advertisers. Without access to live events, all advertising had to be shifted onto online platforms, and clients wanted to embark on as much digital marketing as they could. After all, everybody was on their phone, consuming media through channels such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.

This was a major opportunity that we seized. We were able to incorporate clients’ messaging in an entertaining format, and many brands approached us for exactly this. People found our content entertaining without the ‘hardselling’ aspect of most advertising, and this really helped us draw in audiences. Clients who produce content with us also have the opportunity to work with our artistes. With a combined following of about 1 million on various platforms, they help to effectively amplify the messaging and advertise to a large target audience.

The pandemic also opened us up to work with a large variety of clients and brands, from fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) providers to government agencies. In addition, the pandemic also offered new forms of marketing such as livestreaming. Hosting virtual events became a big part of our pandemic playbook. Our artistes also did their own livestreams on their personal platforms, and this has been crucial to our growth.

Michelle has always been clear about her goal of telling great stories, and the movies she has produced are certainly testament to this. Of course, beyond the importance of creative expression, we must also ensure our creative ventures have commercial value. As we pivoted into digital content over the years, we have retained the focus on producing great stories and are very receptive to feedback from audiences to constantly improve our work.

The characters that Michelle has created (such as Ah Lian and Sonia) are relatable as well. We put in hard work to bring each persona to life, such as by injecting humour that gets our audience laughing. This ability to put out entertaining content is in part due to the collaborative nature of our work with clients. They truly value our feedback and industry expertise – if we see it fit to insert a joke or comedic trope, for instance, they are happy to hand over some creative control. This also partly owes to Michelle’s experience that informs her of what works for her audience.

At the end of the day, I have learnt that it is never personal. I always try to empathise with the client’s point of view. Naturally, clients have expectations of an ‘ideal solution’. This is where we have to understand their needs and objectives, as well as what has or has not worked for them in the past. Because of our experience in managing a diverse range of clientele, we have a grasp on their internal decision-making processes and the challenges they often face when working on a project.

With this understanding, there is nothing that cannot be solved. Keeping their objectives in mind is part of the equation, and the other is clearly communicating how we can help to achieve the said objectives.

In general, interpretations and takes on current affairs change with time. What audiences find funny will definitely shift as time goes on. As content creators, we are acutely aware of what we believe should and should not be in a piece of content. Of course, offensive content is never our goal – we want to reach out to the masses and not alienate any of our audience.

Being receptive to what could work, without being offensive, is important too. This is something Michelle is strong in. It is easy to come across as offensive when you try to be funny. But making it funny, non-offensive, relatable, all while incorporating the client’s messaging? That is much harder.

We are continually working on ensuring our content is sensitive and attuned. As we create more content, we appreciate the opportunity to hone our craft while becoming more dialled in on the complexities that come with our industry.

Our three artistes are major celebrities in Singapore, and are consummate professionals each with years of experience. They have clear objectives and requirements, and we simply facilitate client-facing functions such that they can focus on their work. This expectation is clear to both parties, and our arrangements have been successful since the company’s birth. We continue to enjoy this great relationship where we are focused on mutual growth and scaling greater heights.

It was both a highlight and honour to host Minister Josephine Teo when she visited our office. As part of an initiative to visit selected content-creation companies, it is affirming for us that we were chosen and viewed as partners of Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). Having worked closely with them to push out messages, I look forward to more future collaborations.

Content-wise, I am happy about our growing track record of content not fronted by Michelle. She is, of course, associated with our production house, and brands request her involvement all the time. However, her interest is in behind-the-scenes work, with a greater focus on directing, producing, and collaborating with our creative team. As mentioned, ‘Chic and Cosy’ was renewed for a second season, and this was an immensely heartening result of our effort to focus on people and their stories while allowing Michelle to put in more time behind the cameras.

In terms of emotional feel, a piece of content that stands out is the Nurses Day appreciation video we created for Ministry of Health (MOH). We held interviews with Minister Ong Ye Kung and senior management in healthcare. The way we crafted it was a refreshing departure from the type of content we typically produce, and we are overjoyed to hear that the storyline and video were well-received. In terms of brand endorsements, I am also incredibly grateful for the support of our clients.

It took much self-reflection to reach the decision. In your early twenties, many of your ‘choices’ are actually made by your parents and peers, who have significant influence on your perspectives. When you finally get to make your own choices, it can be very intimidating; after all, you have no one to blame if it turns out to be the wrong call.

My path back then would have been to move up the corporate ladder into senior roles, as is the convention nowadays. I did not want that for my life, and instead wanted to see myself in a different capacity and with more control over my future. Being able to establish myself here is precisely the reason why I moved back to Singapore. The choice was definitely not easy to make, but because of my self-reflection, it is a decision I have never regretted. 

Working outside your comfort zone almost always creates a wonderful avenue for personal growth. It is easy to limit the projects you take on and the crowds you interact with, but it is when you are forced out of your comfort zone that you learn so much more.

For example, Hong Kong was a predominantly Cantonese-speaking environment. I had to pick up the language over time, and became fluent in it out of necessity.

Something I always tell my younger staff is that it is important to understand yourself well. When you are young, you may not have a great grasp of what you want in life, possibly because of the influence of those around you.

Reflecting internally, asking questions, and having honest answers is something we should practise. It means taking a moment to identify your strengths and weaknesses, especially the latter which many people find difficult to accept. This is crucial, however, as it would be even harder to last the course in a career that you lack aptitude or competency in.

Having this self-awareness is great as it saves the time you would have spent on a futile venture. It also makes decisions much more intuitive – you get to decide what you want to move towards, and life becomes proactive rather than forced, dreadful, or showy.

Above all, be kind to yourself too.

Pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone can be very helpful. Being resilient and taking charge of the direction you want to steer your life in is crucial, especially at a younger age.

On top of this, adopting a spirit of continued learning is paramount for career progression. You will eventually move into more senior roles, and taking the time to hone your skills, rather than rush into new positions, will serve you well in the future.

Reflecting regularly is also a skill I find very useful. After making a decision, you should analyse the outcomes, merits, and demerits. Constantly try to improve yourself by using your own track record as a benchmark.