updated 13 Nov 2011, 13:09
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Fri, Nov 11, 2011
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Taking ad-vantage
by Patrick Jonas

IT WAS a holiday job while she was a student in Auckland that opened her eyes to advertising.

Ms Leela Nair's parents had sent her there from Penang to do a degree course in science and at the end of the third year, at the age of 21, she took up a temporary job in a TV station.

"I did not know much about advertising other than people popping up on TV but I had my eyes open and found that there was a whole field open in advertising," she says about her accidental journey into her chosen profession.

The temporary break that she had taken from her studies slowly became permanent. She stayed on with the TV station and, after a couple of years, got an offer from an advertising agency.

"I was young and did not think too much and just went across and joined them. And that was it. I never completed my university degree," says Ms Nair, with a laugh.

Her parents were initially taken aback. Her chemistry professor father and homemaker mother nudged her with suggestions to change her subject from science to accountancy so that she would complete her degree. But when that did not work, they supported her move.

"There were many times I thought of going back and completing my degree but my job was great and I was having too much fun. It is such a fun industry to be a part of, so once I got a taste of it I just could not let go," says Ms Nair, who is the managing director of Mindshare in Singapore. From which side of the family did she inherit this adventurous streak?

"I would say I got this spirit from my father (Prof N.K. Nair). He is an amazing person," she says, pointing to the fact that her father married from outside his community at a time when people were very conservative.

"My dad got a scholarship to go to New Zealand and he met my New Zealander mother at a library where she was a librarian. He used to take out a lot of books and I joke that he finally took her out.

They moved back to Malaysia and my mum assimilated well. Her goal was to make better curries than what the Indians could make and she learnt everything from my grandmother," she says, bursting out into a laugh again before adding that her mother makes great curries and also wears the sari well.

After eight years in New Zealand, Ms Nair was bitten by the adventure bug again. She packed her bags and moved to London where she worked for a while in the publishing business and in the futures industry. It was there that she met her life partner Nicholas Cluney and after a couple of years the two moved back to New Zealand.

They did not stay there long as they "realised that there was no future for futures in New Zealand". The couple moved to Australia where, while her husband worked in the futures industry, Ms Nair worked her way up in the ad industry in big firms like Ogilvy and Saatchi and Saatchi. She also worked for a consultancy related to advertising for two years.

"That was a fantastic experience. I started understanding how clients think. It gave me a totally different perspective that enabled me to do a better job," she says of her job which involved training clients, relationship management and helping clients understand what they were getting for what they spent. All along, Ms Nair's desire was to move to Asia but she could realise it only in 2005 when she moved to Singapore and joined media agency OMD.

"We thought we were going to spend a couple of years in Australia but ended up working there for 12 years," says Ms Nair who is fond of Indian clothes, quite a few of which she gets from India when her husband makes business visits to that country.

During her time with OMD, she set up its international division, pulling all the regional pieces of business together. Last year she moved to Group M as talent, trading and training director and took on the responsibility of setting up a training college, a first in Singapore. "The idea was to develop Singapore talent instead of relying always on international talent. I just could not say no to it," she explains.

She went about that task first by building relationships with the universities and polytechnics here. For the first course, 280 people applied for the 10 seats - a heartening response.

Once that job was done, Ms Nair took over as managing director of Mindshare in June this year. And, in her words, her job now is to take Mindshare on to the next level.

"This is a very successful organisation. It is about how we take it to the next level. And I believe we are on the frontier of big change. Singapore is a hub of the region, highly wired and a lot of innovation globally can be driven from this market. My benchmarks are not about being the best in Singapore, it is about looking at it at a global level. That's the challenge I have put to the guys here. My goal is for us to be best in class globally," she says, raising her hand lightly and causing a gentle tinkling from the numerous metal bangles on her arm.

She intends to achieve her aim by having the right people and the right training in place. Mindshare, she says, has people who have been with the organisation for a long time and she hopes the consistency that these people bring along with new talent will help "drive the new areas that we are building".

She is also the chairperson for the Singapore Media Awards 2011 and taking on that responsibility was a way of giving back something to the industry which she says has been "very good to me". Ms Nair, who relaxes with Bollywood dancing and salsa, says success is always about producing great work for clients. "I am constantly trying to improve myself and in doing so produce better quality for my clients," she claims, adding that it is old-fashioned values of hard work, the ability to apply oneself, self-motivation and being good with people that makes one successful in her line of business.

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