My media habits: Mervyn Chan of TMRW – ‘Algorithms can’t pick up emotion, values and integrity’

TMRW’s executive creative director Mervyn Chan reveals his misgivings about social media and his theories on why the return to old school media is inevitable – in conversation with Mumbrella’s Dean Carroll

What are your must-read news sources you can’t live without on a daily basis, and why are those particular media titles so important to you?

“The New York Times and Business of Fashion are the first news sources I turn to each morning. NYT publishes riveting pieces of journalism that simply cannot be found anywhere else.

“The curation of the most pressing issues in the world along with important cultural references make it a compelling read every time. It is almost difficult to put down the phone (where I consume most of the articles). 

“And because I love fashion and the retail science and magic behind it, BOF clues me in on what makes that world tick. It has its pulse on more than just fashion: retail, pop culture, trend-spotting, design and the business that connects everything together — stuff that really informs the way advertising and marketing are moving towards. It is literally the intelligence behind many of the things we covet these days.”

In terms of news consumption – do you prefer, print, television, radio, websites, newsletters, social networks, blogs, apps or something else entirely?

“Social networks are probably the worst places to look for news. We often have to sift through dozens of articles just to put together the complete picture. Not to mention having to filter through all the “fake news”. 

“I look forward to receiving newsletters and daily reports every day in my inbox. Having the latest news divvied up into bite-sized pieces just saves me so much time. In the span of time that I’m making my morning pourover, I would have caught up on at least half of the things I need to know for the day.

“The other half of what I consume would be on the apps on my phone. This is where I would catch up on bookmarked articles, follow my favourite feeds and share interesting pieces with my team and even my friends and family. We just need our phones these days, don’t we?”

Do you prefer long-form or short-form content?

“I don’t think it is a matter of one over the other. It really depends on the information that is presented. As long as the form makes the content easy to understand and follow — anything goes.”

Can you name your favourite journalist and set out what makes them great?

“I admire the work of Sia Michel, deputy culture editor at NYT, and the lens that she puts them through. With solid understanding of pop culture and how it has evolved through the decades, she tackles a diverse range of art and cultural issues with truly interesting perspectives.

“One of her more interesting pieces of work is not an opinion piece or an investigative article. Instead, it is the annual Arts & Leisure Fall Preview issue of the NYT. Her keen eye and pulse on what’s new and next really helps define the direction of art, style, culture—and how they all trickle down the mainstream in the season to come. I hate to say this but I like to think of it as the informed person’s September Issue (cue American Vogue reference).” 

What piece of journalism has changed the game in recent times, in your view?

“These probably would not sit within the typical definition of journalism but the ‘watchdog’ antics of Instagram accounts such Diet Prada and Estee Laundry have definitely changed how the concept of ‘transparency’ and integrity works in business.

“Of course, these are now limited to just beauty and fashion but the vigilante arms of these Instagrammers are extending as we speak.

“They initiate and engage in compelling discussions about issues that appeal to the “woke” generation. And I am not referring to the faux moral or ideological superiority that major international brands tap into but real and sometimes uncensored conversations about plagiarism, misrepresentation and discrimination.”

Are there any titles you have paid subscriptions to?

“The Guardian also makes up my daily reads. I am also considering subscribing to Vice and Harvard Business Review to add more variety and opinions to the voices that are in my current mix.” 

In terms of films and shows, is your preference for terrestrial television or streaming platforms like Netflix?

“Netflix is a permanent fixture on my TV and computer screens. Watching programmes on demand has become such a habit that it is almost impossible to go back to regular programming. It almost seems counter-intuitive to be held to a schedule. Don’t we already have enough of that at work?

“Plus, the quality of content of streaming platforms are putting out is getting better season after season. With algorithms that also track how, what and when we consume, I can only assume that they can only up their game in producing films and shows that appeal to us.”

Are recommendation engines a good thing or do they cancel out the joy of serendipity in terms of discovering fresh content not aligned with your previous preferences?

“Definitely a great help. Especially since I regularly seek out content that are not usually in my radar. These engines really dig out obscure content I would otherwise miss. 

“For example, I am not a big fan of animation but after watching The Kirlian Frequency at the recommendation of a friend, Netflix pointed me to Love, Death & Robots which I thoroughly enjoyed. 

“I like to think of these engines as truffle hogs; we just need to give them a taste of what we’re looking for, and we might just be surprised at what they can sniff out.”

What was the best film you saw of late – and can you describe why it made an impression on you?

“‘Can You Ever Forgive Me’ was probably the most impactful in the last few months. “Simply because it examined the authenticity of the celebrity culture we consume (celebrity paraphernalia being one of them). And taking the mickey out of the industry that takes you for granted—super gratifying.”

And what shows do you consider to be event TV, those programmes you just have to watch and can’t contemplate missing?“‘Big Little Lies’ and ‘Black Mirror’ are on the top of my list. Character development is an important element for me in a TV show and Big Little Lies ticks all the right boxes for that, right down to the smallest details like the hairstyles of the lead characters that suggest growth, change and vulnerability. 

“Black Mirror is a brilliant reworking of the recurring themes in the world we now live in. The satirical concepts also pose as interesting thought starters for creative work. It is worth noting that both programmes feature sharp writing and editing that make them very riveting.”

In terms of devices, how do you access content most often – on mobile, desktop, tablet, laptop or television?

“Definitely the phone, probably because it is practically glued to my hand. But I do prefer to access long-form content on the desktop.” 

How damaging is piracy and illegal downloads when it comes to the media and entertainment space?

“I am almost completely against it as it cannibalises the exact commodity my industry is trading in—creativity. The only time I think it might be acceptable is when certain content is not available in the region for censorship or licensing issues, which I think are just bureaucracy and greed at their worst.”

And moving on, what’s been your favourite book in recent times?“‘A Place For Us’ by Fatima Farheen Mirza stands out the must-read of the year (or last year). It is such a beautiful story about family and faith in today’s complex world where immigrant, ethnic and religious issues are examined and magnified.

“It casts a gentle light on pressing issues while allowing you to experience the drama through the grounds of sibling rivalry and parenting choices. 

“I really enjoy books (or stories) with seamlessly interwoven plots and substantial character development. Particularly those that explore issues of identity, place and expression. Right now, I am eager to thumb through ‘The Nickel Boys’ which promises a peek into a dark period of history (1960s in Florida) through the eyes of a young black man and the challenge of his ideals.”

So Kindle or hard copy?

“As much as I consume most content on the phone and desktop, I prefer flipping through books and magazines. I enjoy reading newspapers too but their sheer size make it a little cumbersome.”

And now to music. How do you buy and consume music?

“Streaming is pretty much the name of the game at the moment. Apple Music gets my vote for the ease of use within my largely Apple-dominated ecosystem. Plus, the curated playlists make great soundtracks for different occasions like dinner parties and exercise sessions.”

Which musical artists appeal to your tastes right now?

“The symphonic and electronic sounds of Rhye have been getting lots of airtime on my sound system since it provides the almost perfect soundtrack for working. The linear tone of each album makes it easy to focus on the tasks at hand, yet allows me to jump right into enjoying it the minute I am ready to appreciate the tune.“But dark R&B seems to be growing on me these days with the likes of Banks, Majid Jordan, JMSN and Lion Babe. Grittier than typical adult contemporary without going full hip-hop, I find this subgenre more modern, progressive and reminiscent of Portishead and the trip-hop music I grew up with. Familiar yet different, pretty but with more character.”

Social networks: Hero or villain when it comes to giving you access to content?

“A hero when it comes to sheer volume but a villain when it comes to quality. Just because the platform has become the go-to for almost every brand and organisation, it is now a challenge to navigate through everything.”

And are social networks like Facebook and Twitter actually media companies these days in your view, even though that is something they deny – perhaps to avoid further regulation?

“I believe social networks already recognise their destiny as full-fledged media companies. With Twitter broadcasting video content and Facebook hiring editors and producing content for partners, it is only a matter of time before they actually come out to announce it.”

In the digital world, algorithms rather than humans are the media gatekeepers. Do you miss the old days when the likes of journalists, critics and broadcasters played that qualitative role, or have we simply evolved to a better quantitative system?

“There is a reason (beyond charm) why there is a constant return to old-school in many industries—design, music, hospitality—simply because it is steeped in emotion, values and integrity. These are things algorithms cannot pick up and people are beginning to recognise the difference in quality.

“The question now is balancing the cost of providing the quality — at the price that people are willing to pay for. But sign me up for the ‘old’ and proven ways of doing things where we don’t hide behind numbers that demonstrate ‘effectiveness’.”

Finally, what does the future hold for the media space in your view – will artificial intelligence and virtual personal assistants take over to the point where we just trust the machines to tell us what we want to consume, in terms of news and entertainment?

“The future may seem bleak in that sense but AI will always remain a tool we can shape to meet our needs. So while the media space and its technologies can influence—or even limit—our decisions, I am hopeful that we will remain smart enough to know what we really want to watch and listen to.

“And as a result, continue to create and support content that our clients and their users want to consume. Humans, for the win.”


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