She is still on top of her game after three decades – and therein lies the life lesson of reinvention
MediaCorp’s Deputy CEO Shaun Seow spoke on the importance of reinventing oneself in a speech to the 365 graduands from the School of Arts and Social Science, School of Business and The Open University, United Kingdom, at the SIM University Convocation yesterday.
I am very honoured to have this opportunity to speak to you, but was initially hesitant when asked by Dr Brian Lee, your head of programme, Communication School of Arts and Social Sciences.
I doubted that I was indeed a good choice. I was wondering if Graduating Class 2010 could have done better with one of our nubile MediaCorp celebrities. I am sure that would have guaranteed rapt attention. Alas, that wasn’t Brian’s choice and here I am. Those who are truly disappointed may want to do something drastic, like un-friend Brian from Facebook, or start an online petition on “Let’s have more interesting speakers at future convocations”.
Or you could do the next best thing. Imagine I am Fann Wong or Dai Yang Tian on this rostrum, and you should be able to stay awake for the next 15 minutes. This way, your sanity and my dignity will be intact.
Seriously, I was hesitant accepting the very kind invitation as I know most of you graduating today are working adults. Many of you have taken up to five years to complete the degree, thanks to this very forward looking university allowing students to pursue studies at their own pace.
So my quandary was and remains: What to say to warhorses among you with ample work experience? You certainly don’t need a starter kit on how to land your first job or manage your boss from hell.
Bereft of new wisdom, I have decided to pick on a theme that I am sure will resonate with you: The need to reinvent.
Many of you are here in the audience because you have done exactly that. You’ve come to these hallowed university halls to upgrade yourself. I say: Very good, keep it up.
Then, take what I have to say as vindication if you will. And allow me to draw on my professional and personal experiences to tell the story of how we have to keep staying relevant in life.
MEDIACORP: EMBRACING THE ‘PRETTY YOUNG THING’
Professionally, I should be able to speak with some authority, as few organisations appreciate change better than MediaCorp.
Until recently, we were largely focused on traditional media. Radio is over 74 years old and TV slightly younger, at 47 years. The two have ruled the airwaves for decades, capturing the imagination and undivided attention of Singaporeans in their living rooms.
Then, with the digital wave, a Pretty Young Thing called “new media” arrived at our doorstep. So besotted is the world with it, clicking and surfing away, that predictions of the death of “old media” like TV and newspapers, came faster than the birth of new websites.
To those of a certain vintage, a sense of deja vu, perhaps? Cassandras have in the past foretold Radio’s demise when the goggle box came along. They thought that video would kill the radio star. But they were wrong. In fact, our MediaCorp radio stations have just seen their best year yet in terms of financial performance.
The reason is that the Grand Ole Dame has been botox-ing and yoga-ing herself to stay attractive. In the ’80s, there were few radio stations and each was all things to all men. But when we sensed the market changing, we started narrow-casting; we started having radio stations catering to different segments, like youths and adult contemporary.
The ’90s was also when radio started putting on a “face”. It’s a paradigm shift for us. Our DJs became recognisable as we took our shows outdoors. That was also when we elicited more call-ins, bringing listeners closer. Fast forward to the present day, and you can now follow our radio stations even on your phones, with mobile apps that boast features like song titles and social networking.
Television hasn’t been standing idle. There are now TV events like Singapore Idol, where viewing becomes a shared experience. You are able to vote on live television to affect the outcomes. And as you watch, you are able to chat online, raving and ranting about this or that contestant with other like-minded viewers. We know the market is shifting and if we do nothing, we will perish.
Also, TV isn’t what you watch on a TV set only. It is available online too. If you visit xinmsn.com, a lifestyle portal jointly developed by MediaCorp and Microsoft, you will find “catch-up TV”, which allows you to watch shows you have missed. Free of charge. At your own time. Some of our online offerings even come with enhancements, such as behind the scenes footage and interviews with cast.
Far from seeing the online world as stealing audiences from our telecast, we have come to embrace the Pretty Young Thing as friend, not enemy. This change in mindset has enabled us to reach people who would never have sampled our programmes. Suffice to say that in the world of business, never say never.
We think we have refreshed the morning reading habit too. The free MediaCorp publication Today may be tabloid-sized but it is not like the tabloids you see in other metropolises associated with lurid, vulgar sensationalism. We have offered readers a serious alternative, gaining popularity when most broadsheets are stagnating or declining. That’s reinvention for you, even for the oldest media form!
Therein lies hope for those of you in a small business or planning one. If you find your niche, you will thrive, no matter how crowded the market, no matter how mighty the incumbents.
PERSONAL LESSONS: KEEP ASKING, THICKEN YOUR SKIN, KEEP AN OPEN MIND
Reinvention was at a personal level too, for me. I had morphed from a civil servant to journalist. Within journalism, I had crossed the Rubicon – from print to broadcast. From journalism, I went into business, which was my first love and remains so.
Then just over a year ago, I was given the additional task of growing my company’s interactive media business, which takes care of such popular websites as www.channelnewsasia.com, xinmsn.com, and mobile applications.
None of these changes was easy, as there were new skills to be learned. I remember vividly the butterflies in my stomach as I made my TV debut in the 1990s. The cross to business should have been a breeze, since I am trained in economics and accounting. But applying them to real business situations was easier said than done.
Often too, new colleagues bombarded me with unfamiliar technical terms, which on hindsight, were not always necessary to get the job done. I guess some people do resort to erecting jargonistic walls to defend their turf.
But I quickly learned that no matter how technical a subject, I can always turn to a good friend who is tireless and never complains about the most mundane of questions. His name? Google. I think you know him too.
Now that I have let the cat out of the bag on how I sit through meetings with engineers and appear intelligent, what other tips can I share with you from my Poseidon-like shape-shifting? I can think of three.
First, be extremely inquisitive. Keep asking.
Second, be very thick-skinned, for you will be laughed at, or have doors slammed in your face.
The third tip is keeping an open mind. I find it’s a virtue that’s worked for me, encapsulated in Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata: “… and listen to others, even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.”
If there’s a person who best embodies reinvention in this world, I would say it’s Madonna, the singer. Remember her from the 1980s, writhing on the floor singing Like a Virgin?
We recently saw her as a very fit 50-year-old singing 4 minutes with Justin Timberlake. He, for the record, was only three years old when she had her first No 1 single. She’s still on top of her game three decades on and numerous reincarnations later.
So, think Madonna, and you’ll find the road to realising your goals a lot smoother.
You’d notice I have avoided referring to “the road to success”. The truth is nothing can guarantee success. And no matter what you do, failure will find you now and again.
But don’t despair. In failure, I always believe we learn things that success doesn’t teach. If I had a penny for everything that hasn’t worked out in my life, I would have been a very rich man of Bill Gates’ proportion. But I do feel enriched for having lived through adversities, and bounced back – wiser, braver and stronger.
While you’ve been listening to me over the last few minutes, with rapt attention I hope, you’ve just been a witness to a small manifestation of a bounce-back. A rebound not from a business or professional set back, but of a more personal nature.
I have just lost my father a week ago, and was contemplating cancelling this engagement. Speaking to over 300 people today while grieving isn’t exactly on my favourites list. But a little voice inside my head says: Get back on your feet and do what you have to do.
And here I am … wiser for having learned much about myself and people around me through this dark patch. Amid the tears and sadness, I now better appreciate the meaning of family bonds. I am also touched by how far some friends will go for you. I am truly blessed to have such angels watching over me.
Concluding, besides wishing you a fruitful journey reinventing yourself, I hope you would share my good fortune to have angels guide you by the light of their halos. These angels could already be in your midst – people you’ve slogged through term projects with … who’ve shared your joy and pain … who’ve made you a better person. Give them a hug, a pat on the shoulder …
But you must remember a pair of angels has been watching over your shoulders since you were born. Never mind if they have a tendency to nag, or had you grounded when you were younger. I believe many are in the audience today. They are immensely proud of you and rightly so.
Do remember that if not for them, you wouldn’t be here. I’ll like you to please give the parents in the audience a round of applause.
And do remember to give them an extra big hug after this. On that note, thank you and remember to think Madonna.