Wacky TV humor, razor sharp print, bold design. It's
impossible to ignore the creativity on fire in the Asia-Pacific ad
community. Whether they're fueled by cultural mandates, economic
progress, the desire for international recognition or maybe just an
insatiable drive to entertain and connect, Asian creatives have
emerged as some of the most eyebrow-raising noisemakers in the
global advertising scene. Here, a glimpse at some of the region's
Founder, Jeh United, Bangkok
Like the gesture and like the campaign, there's nothing much that's usual about Thaidumrong. Her given name means Weapon of God (though she goes by Judee); her last name, Forever Thai. She has a charming, giggly manner that belies a formidable ambition and competitive edge. Advertising is and always has been her obsession, but she does have a hobby—feeding stray dogs. She just felt compelled to start doing it one day, but then, as she tells it, after she saw the look in the eyes of her grateful beneficiaries, she knew she couldn't stop. Since then, she's expanded the number of her canine charges, has taken a series of portraits of them and has adopted several dogs of her own. She is also in the process of recording an album. She lives with her mother, whom she calls one of her greatest creative inspirations. And in a country where high-level female creatives are even scarcer than they are in in North America, she's one of the biggest creative stars.
North American ad watchers have seen the unmistakable Thai creative aesthetic, embodied in Thaidumrong's compulsively watchable Smooth E serial, earning more and more recognition on the awards circuit over the last several years. Spots like last year's "King Kong" from Ford and JWT and the spectacular Unif Green Tea "Worms" from BBDO Bangkok are only the most recent examples of work that's established Thailand as the creative tiger of Asia. Battling back from economic crisis near the end of the '90s, the country has reasserted its creative stature with wildly entertainment-focused ads, often with a twisted (to foreign eyes) comedic sensibility. Thaidumrong says the creative community in Thailand is "quite lucky. We have many talented people in the industry; great commercial directors and good young creatives. People are into entertaining stuff and they have an open mind compared to other cities in Asia. The clients are very consumer-focused, so they believe that we have to produce an entertaining campaign."
It hasn't always been so, she says. Thai commercials "haven't always been so entertaining—I remember 20 years ago, they were very hard-sell, celebrity-driven and not that humorous." She should know. Since she was about 6, she's been a devoted student of advertising and, over the past 15 years her work has helped shape the Thai creative culture. Though she fell in love with TV advertising early on and knew she wanted to be a part of that world, Thaidumrong opted to study economics—advertising wasn't really an education option, she says. Even when she completed her studies, having won a string of university ad competitions, she says she "dared not" go straight into advertising, spending a year instead as an in-house creative for a large department store, working on everything from brochures to window design. Two years after moving to the agency side, while working as a writer at DY&R, she won 13 Gold awards at the main Thai show and was dubbed "angel copywriter" by the local industry. Over the course of her career, which has included prolific creative director roles at O&M's Results Bangkok and Saatchi & Saatchi Bangkok, she's become one of the most awarded creatives in the country (among her honors: winning the first Cannes Gold Lion for Thailand). She set off on her own in 2005 to form Jeh United (jeh means sister) with the goal of focusing purely on the work. "I love this career too much," she says. "I love the work, so I just want to do the work and no other bullshit." In a little over a year, she's accumulated 20 clients at the 20-person shop. She also works on a project basis for international clients through partnerships with Japanese and Korean agencies, including Dentsu.
And while achieving her level of creative stature is arguably all the more impressive for a woman in Thailand, Thaidumrong says the difficulty for women rising to the top creative ranks is the same around the world. "I think the career itself demands a certain kind of human. There's lots of ego, it's aggressive, competitive—all man things." That said, Thaidumrong says she's always embodied those very traits, which goes back to the aforementioned matriarchal creative influence. "She always thinks different; everyone goes this way, she goes that way," says Thaidumrong of her mother, whose most important zig was telling her daughter that she needn't focus on marriage and family as a priority.
As for the King, Thaidumrong says he is an important, underlying part of the Thai creative mindset. "There are many things that form Thai culture. We don't take things too seriously; we try to laugh, even at ourselves. And I think one thing deep down that's at the center of everyone is the King. Everyone loves the King and we've decided we have someone to hold on to. It's a certain thing that makes Thai people feel like it's OK." (Teressa Iezzi)
Executive Creative Director, Creative Juice/G1 TBWA, Bangkok
Ten years ago, Thirasak Tanapatanakul, at the time a senior art director at O&M/Bangkok, approached a Buddhist monk at a Thai Temple. "What do you do for a living?" the monk asked him. "Advertising," he said. Without pause, the holy man sent Tanapatanakul on a mission. "You know, nowadays, the world is very serious and desperate," he said to Guy, as the creative's friends call him. "Your responsibility is to entertain people with your ads. Make people laugh. Make people fall in love." The story is true, Tanapatanakul insists. And he's fervently embraced the monk's charge, having produced some of the most memorable Thai advertising of the last decade.
Tanapatanakul surprised his agency, the network and himself with his shop's swift ascent. "It was beyond my expected timing," he says. "Before I joined the company, they said they expected me to create award-winning work. I told them I would do my best, but I couldn't guarantee success in a short period of time." Perhaps it helped that he follows the call of "passion, passion, passion—not just for me, but for the whole working team," he says. He also says he's bolstered by an ultra-supportive management group—"We couldn't succeed without them"—and an enviably open-minded client pool that could easily be credited as a launching pad, not barrier, to creatively stirring work. "We're so lucky that our clients understand the power of creativity so well," he says. "They want their brands to be the talk of the town. If some brands are very creative, they want to be better. So we just do what we think is right for our clients in our tone of voice. In Thailand, we're living in the 'Land of Smiles.' We'll do anything to entertain our people. Many times it's weird, but luckily it works so well both in our market and outside the country." No matter who likes it, the work is distinctly Thai—and all the better for it, he says. "While other countries say 'Hi!,' we say 'Sawasdee.' While people in other countries have very short last names, we have very long ones. While other countries take things too seriously, we always let go. While other countries eat french fries, we eat worm fries. We are unique in our own way of living, and so are our ads." (Ann-Christine Diaz)
Art Director, Wieden + Kennedy/Tokyo
Halo-halo is one way you might describe Wieden + Kennedy/Tokyo art director Eric Cruz. It means "mix-mix," in Tagalog and it's the name of one of the Philippines' classic confections, a mutt of a milkshake made from all sorts of sweets thrown together into a single frozen treat. Like the dessert, Cruz himself is a blend of flavors. The native Filipino moved to the States at 13 but remains an active celebrant of his multicultural background, which he describes as "Flipachinko" (Filipino, Chinese, and Spanish). He's lived on three continents, studied in two and for the last five years has been at W+K/Tokyo, where he's riffed off the hyper-consumerized energy of the city in his work.
Outside the Lab, Cruz continues to cruise on Nike Japan and Asia Pacific. He was art director on last fall's Nike "Katsu-kun" campaign, promoting school sports, which featured wacky virals and a keitai [cellphone] campaign featuring an anthropomorphic pork cutlet superjock. Currently, he's working on a new artist-driven Asia Pacific campaign for Nike's premium performance products, "The Sum of All Parts," while remaining an enthusiastic conduit of Asian culture to the global community. "Asia is such a diverse mix of cultural tapestries," he says. "Each country tells a different story with its unique voice. Japan has been leading the way in terms of culture, fashion and trends; China, on the other hand, is a culture on the verge of extreme change, from counterfeit culture to a culture of new possibilities where anything can happen. South Korea is the most emotional of the three, exporting emotions through TV dramas and movies; and the unexpected place to see great creative is Thailand. The TV spots and films are solid, and they use a lot of humor. It's definitely an exciting time to be in Asia right now. In a way, most of what I'm trying to do with my personal and professional work revolves around revitalizing and reviving Asian culture. I'm based in Tokyo, but I'm focusing on creative collaborations with Korea, Shanghai, Bangkok, Singapore, London, L.A. and New York. I love anything Asian because I feel closer to it. It's more relevant to the people I want to affect and uplift." (Ann-Christine Diaz)
Founder/Creative Director, Samurai, Tokyo
Kashiwa Sato had made a significant mark on Japanese advertising at Hakuhodo with head-turning work for Honda, Kirin and Japanese department store Parco, when the Tokyo-born art director/designer decided to drop out of the big-agency scene. "I wanted to work more freely outside the existing framework of the traditional advertising agencies," he explains. "I want to expand the field of communication, be in direct contact with people and engage in space direction rather than mass communication." In 2000 he set out to do just that with the launch of his own design-minded creative boutique, Samurai, which, with a full-time staff of only seven, has forged ahead as one of the country's powerhouse independents, demonstrating a tremendous reach for a small shop. Samurai quickly struck gold with promotions for the 2000 album for Japanese boy band Smap. Sato conceived a stark three-color graphic identity for the group, whose logo appeared virtually everywhere, making the band into a brand recognizable not only to pop-hungry teens but to just about all of Japan. Sato also played a significant role in branding Kirin's Gokunama beer, helping to develop everything from the product itself to its naming, packaging and advertising—an effort that ultimately brought credibility to the low-malt beverage, which "people used to consider a kind of fake beer," he says. He's also been involved in environmental direction and design for video rental chain Tsutaya, and the Xbox 360, for which he helped to develop the interior for a lounge to promote the 360's launch in Japan.
"So-called 'traditional' advertising is not so effective today, because it lacks speed of communication," Sato says. "We need to integrate all elements of design—packaging, product, advertising and the company itself—to create a more dynamic message." Currently Samurai, roughly a third of whose jobs are collaborations with big shops, is involved in 30 projects, including product design for mobile phone company NTT CoCoMo, a campaign for Issey Miyake, and branding projects for the National Art Center Tokyo and Meiji Gakuin University. His U.S. debut will be an integrated campaign that includes interior design, web and marketing to launch the global flagship store of Japanese fashion retailer Uniqlo, which opens in Manhattan's SoHo this fall. As for what makes Sato tick, he cites influences as wide-ranging as Dutch designer Dick Bruna, of Miffy the Bunny fame, whose children's books were his first encounter with impactful design, and Marcel Duchamp, "because he could take an existing sense of value and transform it into a new one through his work. I'd like to present a new point of view to my clients," adds Sato. "A new sense of value to society through the power of design, which I consider a language beyond a language." (Ann-Christine Diaz)
Group Executive Creative Director, China, TBWA Worldwide, Shanghai
Until last January, Yang worked with a staff of only a dozen in Singapore, where he was managing partner and CD, Asia at Fallon Worldwide, working with the agency's president and CD, Asia, Calvin Soh. The pair founded Fallon's Asian operation in the Lion City in early 2002, and later opened offices in Hong Kong and Tokyo, to work with clients like United Airlines, Volkswagen and Carlsberg. Yang's favorite creative project of his Fallon stint was a 3,337-square-foot domination of Hong Kong's Airport Express station last year, called "Have America At Your Feet," for United Airlines. Designed to highlight United's key American destinations, the agency decorated the floor of the high-traffic check-in concourse with illustrated art stickers, which gave visitors the sensation of flying over the U.S. Elevator wraps completed the concept. "It was a very unusual way to get our message out, using 3-D visuals," says Yang. But he left Fallon largely because he was eager to work in mainland China. "I really wanted to be a part of what's happening here—the scale, the growth, the changes, the opportunities. This is an exciting time to be here, but Fallon wasn't planning to open an office in China."
At TBWA, he joins a relatively new team put into place over the past year by Gavin Heron, managing director at TBWA/Shanghai. The staff includes Nick Barham, planning director for China, and an even more recent arrival, Carter Chow, who joined the agency in April as client services director. The new hires are part of an effort to raise the Shanghai office to the level of TBWA's esteemed hubs in New York and London. "We were looking for someone with experience in the region and in China but who had also worked internationally," says Heron. "Yang fitted the bill with experience across the region as well as in London. An added bonus was his experience in running an agency." (Normandy Madden)
Executive Creative Director, Euro RSCG Greater China, Shanghai
As one of the first high-caliber creatives in China's ad industry, Singapore-born Eddie Wong is leading the industry's efforts to transform the country from a creative wasteland into a powerhouse.
The local client mentality is that advertising equals TV spots, and, as a result, he added, they ignore the 360- degree approach to marketing and "won't think about other things, unlike foreign companies like adidas," a company that has attracted attention, and awards, for outdoor initiatives in Asia like "Vertical Sprint." Wong's favorite project to date was an outdoor campaign for adidas that ran in major Chinese cities in 2004.
The ads promote its Olympic sponsorship of the 2008 Beijing Games with 2-D images representing swimming, weight lifting and diving. Those ads are "simple" but they remain "the best outdoor campaign that I've seen in China in years, an achievement that set the benchmark for outdoor advertising in this market," says Shanghai-based Norman Tan, regional exec creative director for Asia at Bates.
Wong left TBWA because "our visions started to change. In the beginning, we agreed that we have to be the best international agency, but we also have to work in the China market to survive. You have to strike a balance," he says. Wong had been courted for years by Euro's Chinese management, Richard Tan and Mason Lin. He's also a fan of one of Euro's founders, Jacques S