DCFO IWD Series: Empathy and bravery can help CFOs forge a path forward for talent

By Frances Xu, CFO, TBWA\ China | 4 March 2022

Frances Xu

Chief Financial Officer, TBWA, China

I’ve had the privilege of having many wonderful women around me during my 20+ years in finance. Since my days in auditing, where my direct line manager was a high performer in the entire firm. And after joining advertising, where I’ve spent the bulk of my career, most of the CEOs and CFOs I’ve worked with have been female.

These women became the examples to show me wider possibilities. I saw them doing a wonderful job, I know their capabilities and I witnessed their contributions. And their success and recognition came because of their work and results, not because of anything else.

The biggest lesson for me was there are no limitations for women. I know this isn’t always the case.

In China, the finance sector tends to be female dominated with stability and work life balance as priorities. When it comes to carving paths upwards for female talent, the first challenge is assuring them the company will be supportive and flexible. That this balance would not be sacrificed if they wish to take on more senior roles.

I currently lead an all-female team and prioritise internal transfers or promotions when a new position opens in my department. I take an active role in encouraging my team to expand their horizons and skillsets with new roles in finance or even within the company.

I encourage them: “Don’t give yourself limits; you can do everything. Even if you’re a female starting from a finance position, that doesn’t mean that it stops there. You can do all the brave things, just allow yourself to try.”

Enabling these opportunities for my team is a priority for me, as I have benefitted from such occasions myself.

When I first starting working, my first instinct was to keep a low profile subconsciously. Don’t be too shy or too aggressive because at the time, to say that you’re a capable woman was somehow or other seen as a negative warning rather than a positive thing.

I have always worked for international companies, so I sometimes worried about language barriers and the fact that finance is seen as a back-office function kept me from voicing my thoughts in meetings or workshop. I played the role of listener more.

As I moved up through the ranks and became more involved with the business, that has changed. All those concerns and obstacles was something I put on myself, as the people around me didn’t set those limits on me. That was what held me back for a long time.

I’m glad that I accepted the promotions, as they forced me to put myself out there and express myself, and with that experience it gave me confidence. That I can influence people and that my ideas were valuable, and to fully embrace my role now as a CFO.

This is something I would not have imagined even ten years ago. And has instilled in me the belief that a people-first approach is the best approach.

Lessons from COVID

When COVID-19 first hit China, our priority was our people. As an advertising company we are a talent-driven business, and the decision was quickly made to preserve and maintain budgets that were in support of that.

While we were not hit as greatly as other sectors, there were still many unknowns about the future and the health of our business. We actively shifted budgets around to keep projects and initiatives that impacted the lives and working conditions of our team.

We kept programmes such as “Room 13”, our funding on art activities for underprivileged school children, continued our commitment to LGBTQ+ initiatives and continued to take on pro bono work such as the work we created with Monster Energy promoting organ donations.

We kept our monthly company Fab Fridays activities to celebrate the work together, and even continued with our pre-pandemic renovation plans for our office, which had been on the wish list for a while. So that when our people returned to the office, they would have a great environment to work in. We also applied “Work Anywhere Wednesdays” to give our people more flexibility on working modules.

Essentially, I wanted to keep as much “warmth” as possible, the goal was to not strip everything that made our culture what it is. I didn’t want to give our people the impression that just because of COVID, we were going to remove everything “warm” about the company, turning it into a cold “just about the money” company. Because financially speaking, that would have been the easy thing to do – to just cut out all the non-direct revenue linked expenses.

I wanted people to believe that this company that they decided to choose to stay and fight COVID with is a warm and people-caring one.

We also opened up our senior leadership workshops to our GenZ and GenY colleagues, so they feel they are a part of an important piece of the operation, and have a voice in the company’s direction.

It’s now been more than two years. Did I have any concerns about our approach at the time, despite knowing it was the right thing to do? Yes definitely, I was hesitant about the actions taken, but the feedback has been positive. And as a business, we are headed in a good direction revenue-wise.

The path forward

The finance function is changing and should no longer be considered as a back-office affair. As we’ve all witnessed, forces are reshaping our businesses at speed, and for the health of all organisations we need to give our colleagues alternative ways to run this business.

At TBWA\ our services have expanded beyond just creative ideation and work, to working with key opinion leaders and developing creative technology solutions. This means we cannot use the same financial angles to assess feasibility.

Today, we are more involved with our frontline colleagues in discussing possibilities early in the process. Even junior members of my team play active roles in coming up with solutions that meet both the finance and client requirements. They do more brainstorming; not just straight bookkeeping and it is a change that I’m very happy about.

One of the things I love about working in advertising, is the fact that creativity and creative work happens daily. In more finance-centric industries like banking, people are numbers-driven, while in advertising, people are more dreams-driven.

And it is my role as the CFO to help make those dreams possible.

About Frances Xu

Frances Xu joined TBWA in 2014, taking the role as Chief Financial Officer and is responsible for the overall financial operations for all brands under TBWA. Frances has many years of working experience in advertising industry. Before joining TBWA, she worked as Finance Director and Commercial Director in LOWE under IPG and MEC under WPP. Besides gaining rich experience in finance, she also has very deep understanding and perception in advertising industry.

She has always believed that the foundation for the success of financial management is to keep innovating, raise sufficient communication with business side and a great sense of team spirit. During her career, she has been tightly working with the business units and leaders, use her experience to support the Agency to win customers, expand business scale, increase earning, balance risks and stabilize financial situation.

Before stepping into advertising industry, Frances worked in PWC in auditing.


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