How Effective Leadership Starts With Good Communication

By Charlie Zhang

John Koay, regional executive creative director of global public relations and marketing consultancy firm Edelman, shares his tips on how to communicate clearly, effectively and creatively

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Being able to communicate effectively with your team, colleagues and bosses is an essential skill to have. For some, strong communication forms the backbone of their jobs. John Koay falls under this group of people.

As the regional executive creative director of Edelman, a global public relations and marketing consultancy firm, part of Koay’s role as a leader is to push his team out of their comfort zone. This is why he has no qualms rejecting conventional campaigns in favour of ones that make his team ask, “Is this going to get us in trouble?”

A Hong Kong-born Kiwi, he came back to his birth country in 2013 to join Ogilvy and at just 31 became a creative director at the agency. After eight and half years there, he left as executive creative director and now is leading the creative team at Edelman, covering Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. 

Speaking with Koay, it’s easy to see why big brands like KFC and Pizza Hut choose to work with him and his team. Is it his creativity? His sense of humour? His established network? Sure, they all played a part, but we also discovered in this interview that communication is one of his best qualities. We sat down with him and picked his brain on how to master communication.

Read more: Gen.T Disrupt: These Online Courses Will Help You Upskill And Stay Ahead Of The Curve 

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John Koay, regional executive creative director of Edelman, a global public relations and marketing consultancy firm
Above  John Koay, regional executive creative director of Edelman, a global public relations and marketing consultancy firm

How do you communicate with your team on issues you’re not yet sure how to solve?

John Koay (JK): When it comes to facing barriers, it's important to ask questions. I think it’s dangerous to be afraid to ask questions and think other people will think less of you.

If you don't know how to do something, just put your hand up and say, “Hey, I don't know!” Or “how do you do this?” That's the best thing you can do. There will be people who are willing to help. I don't think people would look down on you if you were unsure about something. 

When it comes to pitching for deals, what’s your best tip on how to sell your idea?

JK: Storytelling is a big part of communicating your idea. This is how you make it memorable, how you give it that spark, that "Ah-ha!" moment. For example, when I present my ideas to my clients, I don't just start with the idea, start with some interesting insights and a lead-up. I go something like this: "We’ve identified these unexpected behavioural trends in Hong Kong... That's why we have this bonkers of an idea for X to go with it…” That sets up the surprise and you unwrap it slowly. I think that the storytelling bit is essential to the survival of a great idea.

Read more: 5 Tips On How To Lead With Empathy

It’s dangerous to be afraid to ask questions and think other people will think less of you
John Koay

As you climbed the career ladder, what was the main challenge you faced?

JK: The challenge is always self-doubt. I think every creative has an ego because what they deliver is so precious to us. And when you get to a leadership position, it's not just one ego that you have to carry. You also have to carry your team's egos.

So many late nights, so much hard work and so much thinking have gone into each creative product, but as a leader, you have to make sure that they are good enough. For example, when your team has been working on a project for an entire week, sometimes you just have to say, “No. It's off-brief, keep going.” That was a challenge for me back then as a creative director, especially because I came into the role at a very young age, which was quite unusual at the time.

What did those experiences teach you about communication and leadership?

JK: I learned that people need to be ultra-clear in terms of what they say to people and the general direction they want to take people in. As a leader, a lot of the time you're going to make the wrong decisions and that's okay. You learn from them. Not making a decision is worse than making wrong decisions, because being indecisive teaches you nothing.

What's your advice for leaders who want to overcome decision paralysis?

JK: Don't make a decision without assessing the situation, make a calculated decision. At the same time, don't look at the consequence itself. Look at what's in it for you if you make that choice. Consider the reward rather than just the risk. We're so obsessed with not messing up that we forget to focus on what the decision could become. 

What would you tell people who experience anxiety when it comes to public speaking or communicating with others?

JK: A lot of the creative directors I've worked with are introverts—they're not very good at public speaking, but that’s ok! For them, I would say observe people who speak well. How do they respond to questions? How do they articulate themselves? Take mental notes on why and what makes them so interesting. One of the hardest lessons is that sometimes you just have to throw yourself in the deep end because that's the only way to get better.

Read more: Lessons From An Artist On Hustling, Failing And Being Realistic

As you become a leader, people will say you're at the front, that’s wrong. You're actually not at the front. You're actually at the back
John Koay

What are the qualities a good leader should have?

JK: Empathy. Leaders often lose out on the gems because they see a weakness in someone and think of it as a disadvantage. A good leader should be able to identify weaknesses, but then imagine giving that person the strength to overcome them. An individual will be so much more grateful and thankful for the fact that you turned them around. That's the first thing.

What’s the second thing?

JK: To have direction. There are a lot of people who don't walk the talk. You have to act. If you promise something to someone, make it happen because it's as important for your future as it is theirs. We move forward as a team, not as individuals.

Last but not least, I think it’s giving credit where it’s due. Don't just take all of the credit for yourself when you win awards or new businesses; it's a team effort.

As you become a leader, people will say you're at the front, that’s wrong. You're actually not at the front. You're actually at the back. You're there to support the entire tribe of people, so just remember people will see you at the front, but in your heart and mind, you are actually leading from the back and pushing them forward.

How do you handle disagreement against your ideas?

JK: I think that’s actually quite a frequent thing in my industry because creativity is subjective, right? It isn't right or wrong. You have to be open to other people's opinions and thoughts.

If I have this idea and someone goes, “I don't like it,” I’ll try to find out why. Once you start to unravel the reason they don't like the idea, you can either agree with them or let them know that it’s a bit off the mark because everything should anchor back to the objective. You have to be well-informed of the facts before you go on and stamp your point out.

What’s the best way to communicate with difficult clients or people in general?

JK: It takes time to build trust, and sometimes it can take even more time to understand how different cultures work.

At one of my previous agencies, I was thrown a very difficult client. At first, the client said, “I don't like you because you‘re not a local Hong Konger.” But after six months, the client saw that the team did things slightly differently and we weren't over-servicing. We had boundaries and we had ideas that were effective and creative, which the client wasn't used to.

So I think delivering an unexpected and new solution, while being consistently good and helpful can help you to overcome difficult clients. In the end, every client wants to succeed.


This piece is part of a collaboration between Gen.T and Eloquence (EQ) International, a creative agency based in Hong Kong with a proprietary 360 brand-building method SBM (strategy, branding, marketing). With a mission to connect brands and people on an emotional level through the power of storytelling, EQ builds brands and experiences that cut through the noise, advocate style and above all, endure.

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