Kai-Lu Hsiung, RSA, London

By Ti Published on .

When Adrian Harrison, managing director at RSA/London, left his post at the end of last year, the Soho ad enclave nearly fell off its collective barstool. The mild-mannered yet opinionated Harrison had steered RSA/London for six years and had worked in the Scott family business for 15.

The task of replacing Harrison and assuming MD duties during a challenging time for the company and the industry fell on the compact yet capable shoulders of Kai-Lu Hsiung, a former artist, teacher, writer and production manager who stepped into the role in December 2002, having served as executive producer for five years. Leading up to that point, RSA, like many production entities, had experienced the unpleasantness of the new millennium in the ad business. "To be honest, 2002 wasn't fantastic at all," says Hsiung. "We had to reevaluate. We let a few directors go, we rented a floor of this building out; we had to relook at things." At the same time, Hsiung brought on a new rep and BBH senior producer Andy Gulliman in a new-business development capacity (Gulliman recently departed for a head of TV job at Saatchi's). So far, Hsuing's been successful at her appointed task: steering the original office of a venerated company that has been around just about as long as she has, one with a large and diverse roster of directors, many of whom seek stimulation inside and outside the commercials world and many of whom operate at the leading edge of creative endeavor. "She has managed to gracefully make the transition to taking the lead in London," says RSA president Jules Daly. "Her hands-on approach with the directors worldwide has enabled us to keep an intimacy within a rather large company."

Hsiung's art background may have given her a leg up in marshalling creative talent. After postgraduate work at the Royal College of Art and an art teaching stint, Hsiung worked in publishing, launching comics mag Deadline and working at Time Out magazine. A well-timed stop at a commercials shoot one night while cycling home lead to an offer to join a production company as a receptionist. Despite concerns about the appropriateness of the gig - Hsiung was 26 and had a master's degree - she jumped, and immediately took to the fast pace of spots production. She moved to RSA 10 years ago, at a time when the ad scene was still soaking in a bubbly froth. "It was the end of a real boom period, so things were incredibly busy," says Hsiung, who worked under then MD Jo Godman before Harrison and Paul Rothwell, now MD at Gorgeous, took the reins. "As Jo left, Adrian and Paul did an amazing job of stepping into her big boots and keeping the company strong but also changing it, because it did need changing and had gotten stuck in a particular path," Hsiung adds. During that time, Harrison brought on creative groundbreakers like Chris Cunningham and Dawn Shadforth. When Rothwell left, Hsiung began working more closely with Harrison in the exec producer role, as directors Laurence Dunmore and Sean Ellis were added to the roster. "I just wanted to try to capitalize on what we had. I think we have a huge amount of talent here, but it was a matter of just trying to focus on it all, and trying to keep everyone happy and keep the standards as high as they've always been." And while maintaining standards hasn't been easy for everyone in this climate, Hsiung says the work coming out of U.K. agencies lately has been solid. Recent projects include Chris Cunningham's turn for Orange, out of Mother. Ellis directed a campaign for mobile company O2 and the Rimmel campaign featuring Kate Moss, while Shadforth remains a force in music videos, with notable clips for Goldfrapp, Primal Scream and The Streets. She's also forayed into spots with projects for Renault and Rimmel. RSA provided a complement of directors to handle the recent KFC campaign out of BBH, with directors like Jake Scott, Angel Garcia and Mark Nunnely contributing to the ongoing series of musically-driven spots.

Directors like Carl Rinsch and Laurence Dunmore have had major jobs in the U.K. and the U.S., and Hsiung cites the increasingly integrated nature of the international offices. "When I joined, that's one thing that was really quite separate," says Hsiung. Now, with U.S. creatives seemingly clamoring for U.K. directorial finesse, and U.S. directors pining for those prime London boards, a number of RSA's directors have scored some transcontinental hits.

"There does seem to be an attraction to talent not only out of England, but a curiosity and a push for agencies and clients to work with directors and production companies from all parts of the world," says Daly. "I think what we have finally managed to do is be one company with offices in London, New York and Los Angeles. We strive to work together on a day-to-day basis. Keeping the work diverse for the directors and our company is what will keep us current in an industry that is ever-changing."

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