Features

‘Crush assumptions and familiarity’ – How I got here…Grey Singapore’s Tim Cheng

After being groomed to be a doctor and part-time pianist, Grey Singapore chief creative officer Tim Cheng started off his career as a web designer, before first blundering into and then sticking with advertising

Education

Growing up in Hong Kong in the 1970s, my childhood education was supposed to pave the way for my eventual success as a respectable medical doctor with a law degree who could play the piano professionally, as a hobby.

To my parents’ dismay, despite the substantial investment in daily after-school private tuitions, I was demonstrating none of the expected early signs of overachievement.Drastic measures were required.

After exploring all possibilities, a map was carefully rolled out. A dart was thrown, blindfolded. My fate was sealed.

I was to be sent to a boarding school on the Isle of Man, a self-governing British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea. It is known for its rugged coastline, medieval castles, rural landscape and a distinct lack of distractions for boys studying to fulfil their full potential.

I was 12 years old.

Being the only Chinese boy in class and speaking hardly any English, my initial time at King Williams College could best be described as a cross between ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and the Harry Potter movies.

Against all the odds, I actually excelled. It was there that I discovered my passion for art and design, earned a distinction in speech and drama, became a house prefect and even played for the college’s First XV rugby team.

I had the time of my life.But like all good things, this chapter of my education came to an end. Soon after my O Level exams, my parents informed me that they were planning to move to Sydney and that I was to go there to study first; they would soon follow.

I made Australia home. Thirty years later, my parents still live in Hong Kong.

My start

After a false start as a civil engineering student, I eventually followed my heart and enrolled in the College Of Fine Arts, UNSW (Australia), to study design.

It was the mid-90s. The worldwide web had just begun to become accessible.

‘My start’ happened by chance during a term break, when I went to a computer store to purchase my first dial-up modem. After overhearing that I was a design student, the owner of the store, Wilfred, asked me if I knew how to design and code websites as he had a lot of corporate clients requiring this service.

I assured Wilfred that he was indeed speaking to an experienced web designer, and arranged to meet up with one of his clients. After leaving the store with my new modem, I immediately went to the specialist bookshop next door and bought a copy of their latest bestseller – ‘HTML for Dummies’.

Fortunately, I was a fast reader.

That first project led to others, and soon, I was earning a living as a full-time web designer.

Through a series of ‘right place, right time’ opportunities, I went onto bigger and bolder adventures which included designing the multimedia experience for the Australian Pavilion at the Hannover World Expo, launching an award-winning educational role-playing game for the Victoria government, and prototyping a new inflight entertainment system for Virgin Atlantic in London.

In short, I was having a ball, and it would be almost a decade before, again by chance, I stepped into a career in advertising. It started with my bravest adventure yet – in 2003, I became a father.

Underprepared and blissfully unaware of the scale of the task, I enthusiastically opted to take the next two years off full-time work and became a stay-home dad, while my wife continued with her career in branding.

As I found out, fatherhood took much more commitment than a full-time job. Being a stay-home dad was both a joyful challenge and a rare privilege, which lasted close to 18 months, until I received an unexpected offer from an advertising agency where I had previously applied, unsuccessfully, for a digital designer position several years earlier.

The offer was for a four-week contract to cover for their creative director who was on a sabbatical. Having never worked in advertising before, I dashed to my favourite bookstore again and bought another bestseller – ‘It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be’ by Paul Arden.

Fortunately, I was still a fast reader.

This temporary four-week gig somehow turned into four formative years at the agency, EuroRSCG Sydney. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a team of amazing kindred spirits who supported me through this transition, and I had never looked back.

In integrated advertising, I had found my second spring.

With my newly found passion for advertising and a desire to reconnect with my birthplace, I relocated and worked in the Greater China region for eight years, first as ECD of Tribal Hong Kong, and later I became chief creative officer of DDB China Group based out of Shanghai. During this period, while I wasn’t able to relive all my childhood memories, I did manage to mature as a creative.

Now, I have made Singapore and Grey Group, my home. From the humble beginning of coding web pages in my bedroom, to currently leading creatives for Grey Singapore, as well as being the global head of integrated solutions for Team Beacon (GSK Panadol), working on projects spanning from Asia to China to the Middle East and South America, I hope I have finally made my high school art teacher proud.  

Approach

I was never the best student, always believed that I knew better than the teachers, and had a strong resistance to being told how to think or behave.

But there was one particular lesson that did make a lasting impact on me and formed the foundation for how I approached creativity.

Mr Edwards was a new art teacher at my boarding school. For his first lesson, he asked us to draw a still-life study of a can of Coca-Cola. While other students were struggling, I did a passable sketch of it within 10 minutes, proudly displaying it to try to impress everyone. Everyone was impressed. Except for Mr Edwards.

He looked at my drawing. He looked at the can of Coca-Cola. Shook his head and asked me to draw it again. But first, he picked up the can and crushed it in his hand.

“You drew fast because you didn’t look. You just assumed you know what it looked like. When this exact same can is crushed, it’s no longer familiar. Now you have to really look, and to understand its form.”

Needless to say, it took me considerably longer to draw the crushed can, but the resulting drawing was also drastically more impressive.

This lesson is still inspiring my approach today. Crush assumptions. Crush familiarity. Crush the brief if necessary. And look at the problem in a unique way before trying to solve it.

Thank you, Mr Edwards.

Highs and lows

It may sound clichéd, but I do believe in the old saying: “The darkest hour is just before the dawn”. In my experience, the ‘highs’ were always a result of overcoming the ‘lows’.

I should know, as I tended to have the masochistic habit of repeatedly taking on new roles with agencies that were going through their toughest ‘lows’.

One such situation occurred a few years ago, when I stepped into a new creative leadership role in Shanghai. While on paper it was a promotion, in reality it was a rescue mission.

The agency I was with at the time was going through drastic restructuring and was facing numerous challenges. I was quickly introduced to one of those challenges.

We met a team of senior clients from one of our largest accounts at a Starbucks – it felt as if they didn’t even want us to enter their building, which was just next door. Between shots of espresso, the clients took their shots at our poor performance as their digital agency. Then they delivered the final knockout punch: we were fired.

That was my first day on the job.

Somehow, we managed to convince the clients to give us three weeks’ grace. Without going into the gory details, it was a fight for survival, discarding months’ worth of misdirected work – we rebooted all the projects from scratch.

Three weeks later, we were declared ‘no longer fired’. Three months later, we also became their above the line agency.

That was definitely a ‘high’: From the verge of being fired to then form a very successful client/agency partnership, with whom we delivered some of our best ever work together.

Do’s and Don’ts

As I’ve mentioned before, I have an instinctive resistance to being told what to do, so I’m not sure if I am the best person to give advice on Dos and Don’ts. But I’ll give it a go anyway.

Do always aim to make a difference with your work. We have the power. It is our responsibility.    

Do always crush your first idea. If it’s really that easy, it has already been done.

Do always learn something new. The day we stop learning and being curious, is the day we stop being relevant.

Don’t believe we know better than our clients. We don’t. They are just fighting different battles.

Don’t believe we have reached the end of advertising. We haven’t.

Tim Cheng is the chief creative officer at Grey Singapore. He is based in Singapore.

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