As a Singapore-born Chinese who speaks five Chinese dialects as well as English, the executive creative director of J. Walter Thompson Hong Kong capitalizes on his background to create ads that work in one of the world's fastest growing and evolving markets. Further change is ahead as Hong Kong prepares to revert to Chinese rule in 1997.
"My job is to set the [creative] standards in a market like Hong Kong, where growth in the last three to four years has been explosive," said Mr. Tan, 32, who like many creatives in Hong Kong is both a copywriter and an art director. "It is not easy."
His acclaimed $1.3 million campaign for the Mass Transit Railway highlights the local subway system's reliability: The MTR, like seasonal changes, is guaranteed to arrive on time.
"But we also included a local element, such as the Chinese Lantern Festival, to get the message across," Mr. Tan said.
An award-winning $1 million Hong Kong Telecom campaign included both English and Chinese scenarios. The theme of a recent spot draws on an ancient Chinese fable about a man who can hear conversations miles away.
The spot ends with a shot of a modern man wearing a radar antenna in his ear-and listening to voices several miles away.
To Mr. Tan, the time-consuming effort and creative agility required to include Asian themes in his campaigns pays off in effectiveness. Sometimes it is just a matter of cultural nuances.
When client Warner-Lambert Co. expressed concern about a humorous Trident sugar-free chewing gum spot showing an animated ant rejecting the product because it contains no sugar, Mr. Tan suggested a different ending for its Chinese audience.
"Our client feared that if the ant walked away, the Chinese sense of humor would interpret it as rejection of the chewing gum," Mr. Tan said. "So [the Chinese] version showed the ant changing its mind and returning."
After three years at JWT, Hong Kong's largest agency, Mr. Tan presides over a big staff but confesses that he much prefers creating ads to the administrative work of running a department.
"Frankly, he's not very good at running an office, but he's bloody good at doing the ads," said Allen Thomas, who has a worldwide creative role in addition to being chairman of JWT in London. "He's an absolute perfectionist."
"Because our history is relatively young, there is no baggage attached," Mr. Tan said, explaining his creative freedom. "We can experiment with things that only people in business schools talk about. It's all about being single-minded and knowing exactly what you want."