Q&A with TBWA\Singapore chief creative officer Edmund Choe: Briefs are like Ocean’s Eleven, you analyse the job and pick specialists to do it

EdTBWA\Singapore claimed the crown of Southeast Asia agency of the year at the Mumbrella Asia Awards earlier this month and won best ad for its ‘Welcome to Airbnb’ work. In this Q&A, the agency’s Singapore and Southeast Asia chief creative officer, Edmund Choe, insists disruption is more than just a hackneyed phrase at TBWA, likens creative briefs to the movie Ocean’s Eleven and looks ahead to its work with the Singapore Tourism Board.  

The word disruption has, of course, become part of the vernacular in the agency world. Everyone talks about it. TBWA is no different and last year launched Disruption Live globally. But what exactly is Disruption Live?

Disruption is our network’s philosophy and Disruption Live is about flipping the conventional way of thinking so that we put ourselves in a position where we can come up with a much better platform and better solutions.

With something like disruption, it feels like you’ve heard it before. It’s a word which of course is used a lot. But at TBWA it is not just a phrase, it’s the way we think, it’s a culture.

How do you define disruption?

It’s very simple. It’s about questioning the convention. It’s finding a different way of approaching a challenge. It may sound clichéd but the objective is that you come up with a fresher and newer solution.

It’s not about disrupting for the sake of it. It’s disrupting the norm so that you allow yourselves to come up with solutions that you never thought possible. For the creative mind, and for creative people, it opens up a lot of fresh thinking.

Disruption Live is the operational system that we apply and we bring into our day to day work. It allows us to operate at the speed of culture. But it’s not just about reacting to culture, it’s about being relevant and producing work that is going to resonate with consumers.

TBWA’s ‘Welcome to Airbnb’ ad won best ad of the year at the Mumbrella Asia Awards earlier this month. But did that really fall under the disruptive umbrella or was that just a good piece of creative work?

The aim was to educate the target audience about this concept of staying in the home of strangers. Our target audience was not familiar with the Airbnb concept so our vision was to make consumers understand what Airbnb is all about and buy into this whole idea of a ‘world without strangers’.

The brief was to create an educational media to put online and explain what it’s all about. If you did a conventional video it would be very boring, and would not have the charm and appreciation of what the concept brings.

So we created a video and bought in the models and told an interesting story with great camera movement. It has so much visual value that you understand what the proposition is all about.  It became more than just an educational video.

But what makes that disruptive?

It was disruptive because the original brief was [to produce] a straightforward video. The way we did that was totally different and unexpected.

Through Disruptive Live we studied the culture of the target audience and flipped the whole thing around. We were telling them and showing them something in a way they have never seen before.

With Disruptive Live, it’s not just the art director and creative director sitting down. When we get a brief from a client we’ll think “this feels like it should involve social media and film knowledge” so we’ll get all the specialists together and discuss the best way to do it and that’s where we come up with all the possible solutions.

So it’s a collaboration between departments. But it’s also very quick. Traditionally you would get a team who go away for three or four days or a week and come back with ideas. With this, we get a brief, we get the right people together and have a very quick open discussion about what the possibilities are and identify two or three things we can do.

We explore them and decide one or two are probably richer territory. It all moves very quickly.

Do you do this for every brief and every client?

We do this for as many as possible. We are dealing with a lot of 21st century clients and they are moving very fast and are under pressure to do things quickly. We need to keep up with them. So it’s all pretty quick and furious which is all very exciting.

Rather than waiting for briefs, I understand you monitor social media and come up with briefs that you present to clients. How does that work?

That’s the beauty of Disruption Live. It’s got so many triggers. When you are following the screens [social media monitoring technology] there will be certain triggers that initiate proactive thinking. We may see something that’s heading a certain way, call the client and say ‘we noticed this pattern so maybe we should jump in and create something that is relevant for the target audience’.

That is essentially what Disruption Live is. It is a trigger that inspires pro-active thinking.

You mention you have 21st Century brands. Are they more receptive to tapping into culture and turning things around quickly? Is it hard to get the more traditional brands on board?

No not really. The vision is really important and it is something that we share with the client. We go in with all these triggers and all these things we can do right now to build their brand. They are impressed with how quickly things can get done.

Generally, though, are some brands slow at adapting to the new age of marketing, if we can call it that?

Yes, the bigger brands, but eventually they will have to change. Change always takes time but this particular change needs to happen really quickly. 21st Century businesses are usually small and can move a lot faster, while 20th century businesses established themselves in a certain way of working. To suddenly change to this quick, agile approach is not so easy to do.

I think they know in their minds they need to do it. And that’s where we come in, to move certain things along faster.

Can you elaborate on how difficult it has been for you guys, for the creative agencies generally in such a turbulent world?

I have been around for many years but I find it really exciting. I come from the days when the brief comes in, you brief the creative team, they take a week to come up with an idea…you just don’t get that time anymore.

Initially it was scary because a creative process involves everyone. We had this concern that there would be too many cooks but it works because if the vision is clear, and everyone is focused on the vision, then no matter how many cooks we have in the room, we all know where we want to get to.

Nevertheless, aren’t there simply too many cooks though, too many voices throwing ideas around?

But who gets called into the room is very important. We look at the brief, have an initial conversation and then select who the right people are to be in that team. We identify what the vision is, what we are trying to achieve and get the right people in.

Look at the movie Ocean’s Eleven. You know you are going to rob the bank, so you need to get certain specialists together and sit down and talk about how you’re going to do it.

Just how tough is it for creatives from the old school to adapt to a world seemingly obsessed by a social media/culture-driven approach? To use the adage, can an old dog learn new tricks?

Yes, but it’s difficult. We surround ourselves with a lot of the younger talent. They are in the groove, they know what is going on.

But at the same time we have senior creatives like myself. It’s all about the balance. They [the younger staff] come in but there is still something about being able to harness that skill set to deliver the big creative idea. I wouldn’t say there needs to be discipline, but there needs to be guidance.

Are we so caught up in social and digital marketing that the days of big brand TV campaign are over?

No, TV is still there. We still watch a lot and there is still that big screen in the room. And we still go to the movies. TV is always there, it’s just where you want to watch it that is different. Whether it’s on the TV or the phone, or laptop. AV if you want to call it that is still in demand.

There are specialist agencies today who – obviously I guess – would claim they have more expertise than legacy agencies in certain areas. How would you respond to that?

There will always be specialists, but I like to think that where we come in is that we have specialists, and more.

So if there is a client or brand who wants to work with one kind of specialist then there is always a place to go to. But if they want something a big bigger, something more far reaching, and more creative if you like, then that is what we represent.

Moving on to other issues, TBWA\Singapore won the Singapore Tourism Board account at the end of 2015 and you start work with them on Friday. How will you approach it? It is, after all, considered one of the toughest briefs to crack.

Yes, that’s what we heard. We haven’t really started work yet and are waiting for the brief to come in. But that’s where Disruption Live will come in really handy.

We have a lot experience in hospitality and travel. We have Singapore Airlines and that will help a lot and we have enough experience. It will be interesting to see what the new expectations are for STB.

As the new creative agency, you must have an idea of what those expectations are?

I think they’ll be a lot more in social media because that’s where everyone is in. When we see the actual briefs then we can approach it the right way.

The pitch brief was “this is where we are at in terms of the brand, give us your point of view of where we can go from here”. So we had a point of view of where to take Your Singapore [STB’s tagline].

And where are you going to take it?

I can’t tell you. It’s a secret at this stage.

What attracted you to the STB account?

For me personally it’s because I have always felt that they could do better. They are not selling Singapore properly. They are trying to say too much. They need to have more of a vision for what we say about Singapore, it needs to be more focused.

Singapore is such an iconic country and it’s a huge opportunity. And as an agency we also have Singapore Airline so what else do you need?

You can be anywhere in the world and everyone knows Singapore Airlines. And to be the same agency promoting Singapore to the rest of the world, it feels like the perfect match.

STB doesn’t appear to have had a cohesive message across its markets. Would you agree with that?

Correct, and that’s where we will come in. Vision is very important. The team they had working together before seems to have had different ideas. I’ll come back to Ocean’s Eleven. You can bring people from different departments together but they need to have the same focus and the same vision.

Does it worry you that it’s a notoriously tough account?

Clients are only difficult if you don’t understand what their needs are. We all have our needs and expectations and unless you have a good relationship with a client it can be perceived as a problem.

When do you expect the first work from the agency?

By the end of the year.


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