How to survive as a creative in a media agency

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 2.30.41 pmIn this guest post that first appeared on LinkedIn, Woei Hern Chan, a former Naga DDB creative director who is nine months into his role as ECD of IPG Mediabrands Malaysia’s creative arm Ensemble, reveals what life is like as a creative in a media agency.

When I first announced that I was joining IPG Mediabrands, responses from peers to colleagues to friends were varied. Some said I had ‘cashed-out’ on the creative industry, deciding to graze in the laid-back pastures of media-led creative output.

There were some curious individuals, people who knew what I believed in and wanted to do and learn. These people were supportive albeit just as confused. Then there were people who wanted to know more.

Curiosity. That’s the element to everything. I’ve met IPG Mediabrands as a media partner, and I’ve clashed with them over points of view. But one thing’s for sure, the biggest mistake anyone can make is to label them as a ‘media agency’.

I joined because of sheer curiosity. Of what ifs. Of the chance to understand and cultivate this opaque and intimidating word that is ‘data’. Of brainstorming with people who were labeled as unqualified for creativity. Of trying to see if I can reconcile my right brain with my left.

So here’s a little diary round-up of my first nine months surviving as a creative at IPG Mediabrands.

Day 33 – ‘What’s the plan B?’

When we’re presenting ideas, we think of options. It could be options of creative expressions. It could be options of creative directions. Basically, we don’t want to go back to the drawing board.

This particular client of ours is one of Malaysia’s most successful startups. And trust me, when it comes to data, they know their stuff. (I’m talking about you MyTeksi.)

Cheryl Goh

Cheryl Goh

At a presentation, Cheryl Goh, regional head-honcho and all-round bastion of successful women in marketing and tech, popped a question: “What’s the plan B?” She said: “We don’t want to commit prize money for a promo that we know isn’t working. If we know that it isn’t working, I want to use the money for something else. What’s the Plan B?”

Clients, whether we like it or not, are increasingly savvy and aware of the power of performance marketing and data. The answer, thankfully, was a simple one. Let’s create a brand story to build conversations and engagement. Let’s shift KPIs.

And so we ran TWO campaigns for the month. One promo. One storytelling. And we ran one after the other, since the promo campaign was a success (thankfully).

Here’s one of our best-loved films:

And here’s the ‘plan B’ film”

Day 62 – Fireworks and campfires

There are two types of marketing. And creatives thrive on the first – fireworks. We’re always chasing the big idea. That epic story. The one with a million onion ninjas unleashed unto the world. And then we wrap it in a nice case study for 12 people in a judging room.

The other type of marketing – the campfire. It’s about the little things in between. The ‘little things’ that have birthed thousands of indie agencies. The social agency. The data agency. Experiential. Performance marketing (I just like using that word to sound smart as a creative).

Campfires help build a more efficient model of marketing for clients. They help give clients the courage for the ‘fireworks’ because after that, we build ‘campfires’ to continue the conversation. Remarketing. Retargeting. Community management. They all have a place to play. And they should all be possibilities for awesome ideas too.

Day 95 – Writing for the vertical screen

There is a scary bit of tech in the world. I think the birth of Skynet will be from a research agency. What they did was monitor eye movement and brain activity, and let a computer EDIT a film so that it can optimise and generate better eyeballs.

You know what? Even when the storyline was massacred, it generated MORE EYEBALLS! What. the. fuck.

Still, there is hope. Because to beat Skynet, you need to know Skynet. First things first. Cinematic storytelling has its time and space. Mobile storytelling, though, is a whole new world of little details. Here are three: faces, words, movement.

Faces. You’re watching a funny clip on Facebook, or perving at a colleague’s beach holiday, or silently judging a fellow creative director’s new film that he’s just posted on his wall. The last thing you want is a product staring in your face. So, here’s a tip. Facebook is about faces. Try and open and include more ‘face shots’ in your editing and storytelling. This is the reason a baby panda will get 1000 per cent more ‘earned media’ than your film.

Words. When you’re on your mobile, chances are it’s vertical. Which means the aspect of your film, when horizontal, is kinda small. Which means your subtitles are even smaller if you’ve optimised it for a laptop. What looks good during offline on a 69″ screen will look like nothing at all.

Oh one more thing. Most films are viewed in ‘mute’ mode. And that’s why typography, art direction and font size of subtitles are very, very important. I suppose the benchmark is Walter Mitty. I know you’ve watched it because you’re creative. I know you’re creative because nobody else would’ve read this far into the article.

Movement. Or the lack of. Basically a testimonial film with a talking head, while checking off the first point ‘Faces’, will not alone suffice. This is the reason why prank/animal/MMA videos are so watched on mobile screens.

Day 128 – I’m still waiting for that brief

Yep. We don’t have briefs. We have daily check-ins with everyone (yes all TWELVE of us, it’s a HUGE team). We try and meet the clients as a unit. Creative and strategy are disciplines instead of departments.

You know what? We’re more akin to a newsroom than a creative agency setup. Things are moving too fast. We can moan about the good ol’ days all we want. But we live in the age of now.

So a typical ‘brief’ from a client starts with an appointment with the clients. We listen. We ask questions. We go back and brainstorm the marketing challenge and possible solutions, and off we go.

Day 157 – My partner isn’t an art director

We have job functions. I’m a writer by trade. I would never be able to stitch together a press ad. But beyond our skill sets, we meet lots of different people from different disciplines. A digital media planner. A media strategist. A data analytics person. A performance marketer. A branded content producer. A tech geek. Oh yes, and of course an art director.

The thing I find useful is storytelling. Once I have an idea, I tell it in the way I feel most comfortable with. A poem. A manifesto. A sentence. A story. And if there’s any place that’s daunting enough of an acid test for an idea, it’s in a room full of different alien marketing types.

The beautiful thing is, they are an audience. The good ol’ saying goes ‘if your art director doesn’t understand your idea, there’s no way in hell your customers will.’ Now multiply it with different disciplines, and imagine the variations we can come up with when the chemistry is right.

Of course, that’s best case. Creativity is borne out of conflict. There’s plenty of cursing and screaming going on. That’s a good sign in my book.

Sometimes your partners are some kids, and an app called Waze.

Day 189 – WTF, we still can’t afford to hire people!

Having a small team means you have to be resourceful. Every hire, we want it to be ‘Ensemble-class’. That doesn’t mean jack during days when we have too much on our plates though. But I love the freelance economy these days. We have so many free-spirited artists and craftsmen from so many different disciplines available to us.

I suppose the production house model is the closest example. You usually have producers and a few star directors. The rest of the crew are à la carte freelancers who are put together depending on what’s needed for the project at hand. We do that too. We even have a cheesy line for it: Ensemble, assemble!

Day 201 – Is it ‘Seven’ Kevin Spacey? Or is it ‘Usual Suspects’ Kevin Spacey?

Which voice?

Which voice?

The pace of work these days. Insane. We’ve coined a term for it – ‘agility’. The ability to respond, navigate and scale a campaign quickly to suit the current situation. This involves a lot of writing on the spot. So one discipline that we employ is role playing.

For every campaign and brand, we assign a particular voice or character to it. It could be Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds. It could be ‘the voice of Cracked.com’. It could be your favourite writer. Keeping a ‘voice’ helps keep the campaign and/or brand ‘in character’. And helps us craft information and details that much better and more efficiently.

And by the way, ‘House of Cards Kevin Spacey’ is definitely the voice to use.

Day 232 – Flirting and loving

What happens when it’s pitch time? We huddle up. We spend eight hours in the office with lots of ideas and references and insights pasted on our walls. We camp. Oh did we mention, you still need to do your daily work? That will be another eight hours, thank you very much.

I’m a dad. I have two daughters. They are only going to be four and two and a half just this once in their lifetime. We talk about optimising campaigns all the time. Maybe it’s time to apply some of that to our work as well?

The tipping point came last year, during a particularly gruelling pitch, my daughter hadn’t seen me home for a whole month. One morning, before work, she said ‘thanks for coming home every morning to say hi to me dad’. Talk about knife to the heart.

We all have our ‘babies’. It could be real ones. It could be metaphorical ones like yoga, travelling, gaming or whatever. So we made a call. We commit to our current clients. Build relationships. Grow organically. And we try and balance pitches by giving point-of-views and thought processes instead of full-blown campaigns.

We call this ‘flirting’ and ‘loving’.

Flirting – In pitches. It’s a dance. Clients say ‘yes’ to agencies for many factors. Creativity is only one of them. Depending on the scope, we assemble the right kind of talent and thought-process needed to demonstrate that. We also avoid pitches whenever possible. We prefer ‘dating’. Give us a project. Try us out. It can’t hurt. Maybe we’ll peg it to performance if you’re keen?

Loving – This takes time. Commitment. And although we don’t have any official retainers yet, we’re long-term dating a few committed partners. We’ve built chemistry. And trust. Two important ingredients necessary for great work.

Yes we do have late nights. But I do get to kiss the girls goodnight more often too by the way.

Day 263 – Can we do something like this?

This sentence is both my kryptonite and inspiration. Too often, creatives refer to case studies. Case studies from advertising. I am guilty of that too. But too often the source that is stolen (another trait I am not beneath) is too close to home. And we all know when you breed incestuously, what happens. Mutated hillbillies happen.

Likewise, media agencies are filled with non-creative types. Now marketers, they don’t have a reference point, and all they care about is results. Of course, a case study as a reference material is a safety blanket. Someone has done it before, so it must work.

Startups are kinda like that too. ‘It’s like the Uber of (fill-in-the-blank).’ Anyway that’s probably something for another article. My point is ‘doing something like this’ should be dissected for the technique, the insight, thought process and methodology.

Take Van Damme’s epic split for Volvo. It was an epic film. But there was so much going on surrounding it that we ignore. If we were to only sell and produce our variant of epic split, it would probably lead to an epic fail.

Dissect. Discuss. Document. Even better yet, ‘do something like this’ should be referenced to things beyond advertising creativity. Outside material always makes better babies. Hell, look at Norah Jones.

Day 1

Creative agencies. Media agencies. Social agencies. Digital agencies. We’re all trying to find that epic story. We have so much to learn from each other. We’re not here to come up with a ‘digital idea’. We’re finding our narrative in the digital age.

Tomorrow’s Day 1. Every day should be Day 1.


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