How I Manage: Leo Burnett Vietnam Creative Director Vu Quan Nguyen

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Educator, entrepreneur, and creator Vu Quan Nguyen has been lecturing on Fashion Branding and Marketing at RMIT University Vietnam since 2015. When he’s not teaching, Vu Quan is busy working as Creative Director for global advertising firm Leo Burnett Vietnam, where he oversees content development and social media campaigns for respected brands like Samsung, Romano, and FrieslandCampina.

And since 2011, Vu Quan has run a regular column on fashion for French lifestyle magazine L’Express Styles called Le Boulevardier. He uses the platform to examine issues of note in the fashion world, including fashion politics, branding and consumer insights, and societal trends, while sharing his perspective on Japanese and Vietnamese fashion and consumer trends with other industry-leading publications.

From his trendspotting for L’Express to his work for globally renowned brands at Leo Burnett, Vu Quan’s work is evidence of his understanding not only of fashion but of the business tools necessary to succeed in the creative world. So we checked in with Vu Quan to learn more about how he stays at the top of his game.

Vu Quan Nguyen
“I’m not joking when I say I mentally tally the skills of my collaborators as I do for my players in Football Manager, which is essentially a management simulation.” — Vu Quan

Describe your management style in three words.

Transparent. Empowering. Adaptable.

What kind of people do you like to surround yourself with?

I try to find the people who can adapt to me and who I can adapt to as there is never a perfect or natural fit. We do not have to be similar, but rather compatible.

I’ve found out over the years that the people with whom I am most compatible have the following qualities: intelligence, respect, productivity, ambition, and confidence.

At the end of the day, the key factor is confidence. I’ve seen work relationships become difficult to maintain when insecurities come into play. Additionally, I also have a preference for well-cultured, broad-horizon people who can bring socially relevant insights to the table.

I’m not joking when I say I mentally tally the skills of my collaborators as I do for my players in Football Manager, which is essentially a management simulation.

The balance in a working team is similar to a football team. For example, I ask myself, who plays defense well in the face of adversity? I ask this question every time I evaluate project managers and admin. Or, who is good at playmaking? I try to find creative directors and curators to work with that can strategize no matter the circumstances.

Where are you most productive?

I think productivity is generated by effective in-house processes. For me, the most effective process involves my going from team sessions where my colleagues share ideas and criticism to my spending time alone to consider an issue.

Practically speaking, I focus best late in the morning at my local Starbucks, where I can sharpen presentations, send out emails, and give feedback to collaborators. When I’m looking to do intense creative or entrepreneurial work, I wait until nighttime to dive in. Although, since I turned thirty and had two children, I’ve been having more trouble mustering the energy to do late-night work.

Vu Quan Nguyen
“I greatly value team members with strong senses of responsibility and abilities to stay cool under pressure.”

Tell us about your ideal work environment.

Firstly, I’d say the ideal team size is around a dozen. This guarantees you’re able to have person-to-person interactions with everyone involved, but also allows for a diverse range of opinions and greater manpower. At that scale, you can bring in many kinds of specialists and create more value.

I also believe workspaces should be set up to encourage collaboration. At most companies, sadly, I’ve found that the spaces set up for group work are fairly small. There may be a few pinboards scattered around, or a single whiteboard for 100 people. And all day, employees spend most of their time with their eyes on their 13-inch screens.

The best kind of workspace should provide a 40-inch whiteboard for each employee for use alongside their computers. There should be large, comfortable spaces dedicated to teamwork.

Beyond team size and workspace design, the ideal work environment encourages employees and their managers to spend adequate time outside the office. After all, it’s impossible to perform if you never have time to understand the context of your work.

Who has been the most influential in shaping your career?

My wife, in many ways. Early on, she was a strong supporter of mine during some very challenging professional ventures. She helped me through the difficulties associated with trying to set up an independent retail concept.

This isn’t some “behind every man…” cliche. Most of my achievements are the results of our informal collaboration, and she is always the first to remind me that we are doing work for the greater good. As a rising NGO expert, she understands this better than most.

My parents also shaped my career a great deal. They are among the small number of European-Vietnamese parents willing to invest in their child’s education in the social sciences and arts.

Vu Quan Nguyen
“It might be surprising, but my long-term goals don’t revolve around my work.”

What is the most difficult aspect of your work?

I’ve always been challenged by the necessity of balancing broad strategy with an attention to detail in individual projects. It’s as though I’m juggling two mindsets: every day I shift my gaze from the big picture to the details and back again.

But I’m only one person, and I cannot always be completely tuned into the workings of each project. So I delegate. And this goes back to what I said about confidence being crucial: if employees do not have faith in their own decisions, then delegating work becomes inefficient. I greatly value team members with strong senses of responsibility and abilities to stay cool under pressure.

How do you ensure that you will achieve your long-term goals? Do you have one right now?

It might be surprising, but my long-term goals don’t revolve around my work. I see work as just one way to achieve personal goals, which, in my case, are rooted in social and cultural values. I am quite seriously attached to a number of causes, such as minority representation, accessible education, and the reduction of inequalities. I hope to see more and more alignment between my work and these causes.

Tell us about the column you run in L’Express Styles.

I’ve been extremely lucky to be offered the chance to rant on a major publication. My blog serves as a kind of op-ed space for lifestyle industry insiders.

The best part is that my friend Laurent and I were encouraged to write about whatever we wanted. And with our backgrounds, it felt natural to start a blog about fashion. The hope is that we can take a topic that many readers consider trivial and spin it on its head by looking at it analytically and deconstructing the ways in which fashion mirrors society at large.

On your LinkedIn profile, you write that chaos inspires you. Why?

I’m inspired by things in motion. Static situations are boring to me, and I usually associate a lack of change with rigidity and lack of innovation or ambition. In other words: being static tends to be bad for business.

Vietnam is a great model for how apparent chaos can be exciting and full of opportunities for people willing to put themselves out there. The Vietnamese market is quickly changing, and businesses are racing to take advantage of this.

To me, the most satisfying work involves solving a messy problem in a creative way. That is, I enjoy work where I can turn chaos into something intelligible.

Vu Quan Nguyen
“Eventually, I see Vietnam coming to play a much larger role in the worldwide market for culture. The next five years will likely be transformative.”

Can you describe the work you’ve done as part of Vietnam’s creative industry?

All of my jobs here since 2013 have involved my grappling with the unique social and cultural trends in today’s Vietnam. Creative industries have yet to gain the same respect as other industries here, so it’s taken a lot of work to carve myself a niche in this evolving economy. As advertisement strategies and consumer habits continue to shift, my work becomes all the more exciting.

Either as a strategist, a creative or a marketer, I’ve always pushed for businesses to care about emerging phenomenons; those that are driving creativity, innovation and value creation.

Where do you see Vietnamese creative industries five years from now, and what role do you see yourself playing in this?

Looking at the rise of subcultures unique to Vietnam, I can see that an entirely new creative class is emerging. This new generation of creatives has the power to ensure Vietnamese cultural products influence global culture.

I’ve noticed that consumers and youth in Vietnam are not as influenced by Western culture as much of the world, and I think this will only become more valuable. Eventually, I see Vietnam coming to play a much larger role in the worldwide market for culture. The next five years will likely be transformative.

Who should we talk to next?

You should speak to Van Ly, who works as a Markets & CSR specialist at KPMG. KPMG is a global auditing firm that helps align corporate interests with non-governmental action.

Another inspiring professional is Chuong Pham, a designer for Vietnamese fashion label Kaarem. Kaarem happens to have the most impressive stockist list overseas.

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