DraftFCB’s Iris Lo on the secret to survival in Hong Kong, entrepreneurialism and why creatives make good agency leaders

Iris LoDraftFCB sits in the precarious middle ground in Hong Kong’s ad scene, not big not small. The agency is run by “100 per cent made in Hong Kong” ECD/MD Iris Lo.

In this Q&A, Lo talks to Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about the secret to survival in a tough market, why creatives make good business people and what makes truly great Hong Kong advertising.

What’s your background?

I was born in Hong Kong. I grew up in Hong Kong. I have never worked overseas, apart from a shortish stint in Shanghai. I am 100 per cent locally produced, made in Hong Kong.

My first job was with a small local creative agency as a copywriter. I then moved on to a 4As agency, then Ogilvy, JWT, Bates and M&C Saatchi. In 2006, I joined Wieden + Kennedy, who were looking for a Chinese person to run their Shanghai office. I flew in to meet Dan Wieden, I interviewed for the job and took a managing partner role with the agency.

But at that time, neither the agency or I were quite ready, and after a year and a half I moved back to Hong Kong and took a year out. I was studying art curatorship  at a local studio called Parasite in Sheung Wan when a headhunter got in touch. They were looking for someone to run DraftFCB, to raise the creative standards and fill a management role.

I thought, why not? I wanted to run an agency. The question was, did Hong Kong have room for a network-based creative boutique? That was four years ago, and we’re still around, surviving.

The middle ground is precarious in agency land anywhere, not just in Hong Kong. What’s the key to survival?

Hong Kong is a city of extremes. Either agencies have big regional clients, like McCann, Leo Burnett, Ogilvy or DDB. Or you’re a local shop. We’re in the middle.

My background has helped me a lot. As a locally grown creative, I have a good reputation, and the clients in this market are either ex-client servicing people in agencies or marketers who’ve been around for a while. I know them all very well, I know the market and how Hong Kongers think, and it’s easier for me to tap into local business.

You’re a creative who’s now running an agency. But creatives can’t run agencies, can they?

I always say that I’m a very junior MD. My business sense came from when I was with my previous agency 4As agency, and my final few years at Bates, when I became part of the management team.

Chris Leong was MD when I was ECD at Bates. She promoted me to the board and showed me the numbers. I learned that running an agency is like running a family. Sometimes you need to put food on the table. You need to be accountable if the family is gaining or losing money.

When I was at W+K, I had to take care of the finances too, but it was not a big network at the time. Dan Wieden would look at the balance sheet, and if you were breaking even or losing less, he was happy. I was my own boss. It was very straightforward.

So what’s your model?

The problem with many agencies in Hong Kong is that there are too many layers and structures. The marketing people I talk do not like big agencies with clumsy hierarchies, particularly in account servicing. In meetings, you have business directors, account directors and senior account directors sandwiched into a meeting room when the only person a client wants to speak to is a creative.

When I came into this agency, I got rid of a lot of these structures. Now, the client has a direct line to the creatives. We have a very slim account servicing department, with only one senior person who works on new business and operates as a project manager. All the major client decisions are made by our creative people.

Our model would not work well in China, where you need a big account servicing department. Hong Kong is a small enough market where our structure works.

How do you hire the sort of creative you’re looking for – with business sense? Are they hard to find?

There are a lot of people in Hong Kong who are thinking about running their own agency, but they don’t want to take the risk of going it alone. Here, we can give creatives the opportunity to build a business with the security of a network.

Yes, there are some creative people who don’t want to talk to clients, they just want to do the work. But Hong Kong is a very entrepreneurial city. There are plenty of people with the natural mindset for how to make money.

What are your views on scam, or ‘initiative work’?

In the 1990s, it was easy to do real, great work. But these days, to win awards, more agencies are doing scam ads. But most creatives don’t want to play that game. That’s why there are so many ECDs starting out on their own.

Creatives with a passion for doing real work, should come to me. We don’t do scam. We honour real work. We are one of the few networks without the pressure to do scam work to win awards, which is why we can attract good clients who are not sucked into the scam system.

Hong Kong is a small city. Everyone knows whether or not your work is real, because they’ve either seen it run, or they haven’t. So what’s the point?

Doesn’t management sap creativity?

No, not at all. As a creative leader of an agency, I can decide which clients we work with, and the overall the direction of the company. When a client comes to me, they know we won’t deliver poor quality work. If they’re looking for a factory-like agency, they won’t invite us to pitch. Our position is very clear.

Are you seeing more business-sensed creatives these days?

When I started in this business, creatives rarely went to client meetings. They’d only see the brief. Creative people were not considered good presenters, so they were kept out of the client picture.

But as time went on, the roles of creatives and account people swapped. Creatives took over strategy and account serving became a project management role.

Creative people are the chefs of the agency. They produce the work and are the souls of the restaurant. You can let go of a waiter, but you can’t lose a chef.

What’s your view on the standard of advertising in Hong Kong now?

In the 1990s, Hong Kong produced the best television advertising in Asia. But creatively Hong Kong has since lost its way. A lot of people are leaving Hong Kong, leaving the industry altogether or are starting their own agencies, and the creative bar has slipped.

What makes great Hong Kong advertising?

It begins with an insight that is very local, but the craft, execution and style is universal. I am one of the few people who will stand by Hong Kong work.

Hong Kong people are very against the mainlandisation of our culture. Creativity comes from our roots, and if we do not defend it, what makes us uniquely Hong Kong will be lost.

You don’t see Stephen Chow or Wong Kar Wai doing Hollywood, and the same should apply to advertising in this market.

Here are some of Lo’s favourite Hong Kong ads.

HSBC Insurance ‘Grandpa’

HSBC Insurance ‘Father’

Pricerite ‘Wok’

Just Gold ‘Affairs’

Mannings drug store

7-Eleven ‘Rice cooker’

7-Eleven ‘Egg tart’


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