Q&A with McCann China creative chief Ng Tian It: Even Steve Jobs extolled the virtues of stealing

Ng Tian ItNg Tian It recently left DDB to join McCann as chief creative officer of the agency’s China operation based in Shanghai.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella, the popular Singaporean talks about why he re-joined McCann, getting great work made in China, the value and role of awards shows, and the one piece of advice he’d give to a young aspiring creative.

What persuaded you to leave DDB and re-join McCann?

To coin a phrase from the latest Star Wars episode: “Chewie, we are home.” It’s really hard to explain in explicit terms, but there’s something about McCann that I do find it hard to say no to. Perhaps it was the first agency that gave me the break as an executive creative director. Or one that set me on the path to become who I am.

The relocation back to Shanghai – my port of call when I first landed in China eight years ago was another big draw. With all due respect to Beijing where I had spent five memorable years, the potential for growth just seems greater in Shanghai.

The importance of working with a like-minded team can never be more emphasised. McCann China was a shambles three years ago, and it’s been a phenomenal turnaround culminating in Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Greater China Creative Agency of the Year recently, which can only be down to one thing: The right people. All it takes is bringing together those who share the same mindset, values and vision, and in no time more like-minded people will flock to it like moths to a flame.

What do you see as the main task ahead for McCann to improve creatively in China?

 Jesse Lin

Jesse Lin

Call me naïve, but it may not be tough as it seems. And that has a lot to do with what Jesse Lin has done over the past three years. He has built not just a strong solid base of talent and clientele, but also the mentality to compete and win on a united front.

To me, sometimes the biggest impediment to improving creatively comes when the business end is not taken care of. The company’s current state of rude health will afford a better overhaul and allow my focus to be trained on turning what works into something greater.

Bob Greenberg, the founder of R/GA, said not too long ago that it is difficult to get truly great creative work made in China. What do you make of this view?

To a certain extent, yes but that is because the entire industry is just less than 20 years old! The state of the art hardware has inadvertently masked the fact that any software would need time and exposure to develop. One of which is creative literacy. The best work can only surface when it has the most discerning and evolved judge.

It’s rather interesting to note that for a country that is still playing catch up after a 30-year hiatus, it’s often being judged at an unrealistic first-world level. However, I do view it as a great testament that it has become the focal point of the world. Notably on delivering global business targets.

The downside of this, however, would be playing up the conservatism and dialing down the risk which is essential for anything groundbreaking.

It will take time to get there, and only the most resilient will see it through this growing up process.

What in your view are the best pieces of creative work to come out of China over the last 12 months?

This is tough, especially going by a purist benchmark. But if we go by what has stopped my 12-year old son in his tracks without any prompting, I would single out a public service commercial in which a young female passenger gives up her seat for an old man who has only bought a standing fare (meaning no sitting throughout a journey that can be as long as 20 hours depending on where you are going) without even letting him know. It will probably not shatter the earth, but for a society that is not big on empathy and subtlety, I thought it was a bold new step in communication.

What’s your view on the role and value of awards?

To me, there is always a role for awards. I love for the fact that it keeps me going and motivates me to improve. Sure it is often panned for perpetuating an obsession to chase them at all costs, but it also serves to keep me humble and hungry at the same time.

John Hegarty said a few years ago that Asia will never be a dominant force in advertising unless the region cuts out scam (work created purely to win awards). What’s your view on this?

Perhaps, but I guess there’s always an innate desire to prove that one can run with the best. The merit I see in Sir Hegarty’s comment, though, is forcing a more grounded foundation. When one rises to the next level, it should be due to his or her true capability to handle the rigors of the business and not just because of a Gold Lion. It will also make one try and sell harder, and that can only come when one has a solid grounding.

There’s been a lot of debate in Malaysia about creative originality recently, particularly after the Kancils when an agency’s was disqualified for plagiarism. In your view, when does creative influence/inspiration become copying in advertising? Is copying a bad thing?

It’s interesting because even the late great Steve Jobs had extolled the virtues of “stealing”. But what he was really good at was identifying an association between two unrelated things. To a certain extent, the Uyee Chinese Medical Company’s skateboard posters, WWF Indonesia and Web Privacy Watch ads were examples of what Jobs had done with a mouse he saw on a tour at Xerox. They were all mere photographs and design until someone gave them an idea.

The problem, however, lies in not getting the permission of the creators and instead, mimicking its style. That became blatant plagiarism, which is then often been interpreted as a desperate measure to win awards.

If there’s one piece of advice you could give aspiring creatives in Asia about how to survive in advertising, what would it be?

Truly love what you do and keep at it. Never underestimate the power of tenacity and resilience as it can outlast raw talent anytime.


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