Industry Heroes: Yasmin Ahmad

The late filmmaker and executive creative director of Leo Burnett Malaysia was the sort of storyteller we need more of in adland, writes Akanksha Singh of RK Swamy BBDO

I came to know my industry hero Yasmin Ahmad, through a Google doodle back in 2014. I had no idea I wanted to get into advertising at the time. Ahmad, I’d find out, had passed away five years prior, suffering a stroke at the age of 51. And that was what grabbed me, initially: my father was 51 in 2014.

But as I learnt more, I couldn’t help but study her life in greater detail, particularly her advertising career. Ahmad’s legacy in the ad world was a testament to her life.

As the executive creative director of Leo Burnett Malaysia, she was a triple-threat — ad woman, filmmaker and writer. But beyond that, she was a sincere storyteller; her ads struck the optimal balance between emotion and brand prominence – entirely through her storytelling sensibilities.

The majority of her ads – most notably for Malaysian oil and gas company, Petronas, were critically-acclaimed.

‘Tan Hong Min in Love’ created for Petronas on Merdeka (the Malaysian Independence Day) won a Gold Lion at Cannes. It’s an ad about an adorable young schoolboy’s love for a girl of a different race, which served to discourage racial discrimination.

As a copywriter, I think one of the things we often tend to overlook in today’s industry — especially in digital media — is the power of good, solid, nuanced storytelling. The ability to see a story, especially a socially and culturally relevant one, and make it serve a purpose. The type that doesn’t try too hard. In a mere 90 seconds the ad makes one chuckle, smile, think and get warm fuzzies without being forceful.

If you follow the recent trend in comic book movie adaptations, you’ll note that origin stories are prominent at the moment.

Ahmad, the former filmmaker and executive creative director at Leo Burnett

Ahmad’s backstory is where I really feel connected to her — as odd, or hippie-dippy as it might sound to say you feel connected to someone you didn’t actually know. After earning an undergraduate degree in political science and psychology, Ahmad had a string of odd jobs. These included a stint as a jazz singer, before settling into copywriting.

Having stumbled into advertising out of sheer confusion, I found it somewhat refreshing to know of a revered professional with the same patchy past as mine. To me, that’s what makes heroes ‘heroes’. They are human, they work hard and, at times, they fail. But most of all, they impress upon us something of value.

Ahmad’s value was how attuned she was to society’s pulse. When her ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’ ad aired, there was a certain amount of freshness associated with it — tear-jerking ads in South East Asia were still new then.

And it was that dynamic quality she possessed that made her an exceptional creative to begin with. The same ad today, for example, wouldn’t have the same flavour because it’s well past its due date. Not to mention — a two-minuter is off the menu for most of us nowadays.

In an industry which is often labelled as shallow, I think we need more Yasmin Ahmads. More creatives who are storytellers and who aren’t afraid to take risks. Creatives who aren’t isolated in their vacuums of what is ‘on trend’ and, rather, are open to the power of a good story as it unfurls before them.

I know it’s exceptionally cheesy to sign off with a quote, but there’s one that’s been attributed to her, that I can’t seem to shake: “Perhaps, in the end, there are no such things as creative people; there are only sharp observers with sensitive hearts.”

Akanksha Singh is a copywriter at RK Swamy BBDO in Mumbai, India


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