The CCO at BBDO Greater China on studying at Oxford University, his classical music background and why China is the test market for the future of the rest of the world
For Arthur Tsang, growing up in West London and studying at Oxford University were foundations of what makes for a pretty interesting career path. The physics and philosophy graduate is also an opera and jazz singer – and he owns his own music studio too. Putting this altogether, a career in creativity was always on the cards, although his background was far from the usual route into advertising. However, Arthur, who is now CCO at BBDO Greater China, says he approaches advertising in the same way he would a song. His passions have come with him wherever he’s gone.
LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with Arthur to hear about his beginnings, his first advertising-related job creating taxi ads and why China is leading the future for the rest of the world.
LBB> Tell us about your childhood and growing up in the UK.
Arthur> I’m a West Londoner born and raised, and my family has lived in the same house in Shepherd’s Bush since I was three years old. Both of my parents were doctors and emigrated to the UK in the ‘70s owing to my mum’s passion and admiration for the NHS (yes, she was somewhat a hippie). Aside from my father insisting on us speaking Cantonese at home – something I truly value now – my siblings and I had a very British upbringing.
LBB> What prompted you to study physics and philosophy at Oxford university?
Arthur> I think the great tragedy in people’s lives is when interest doesn’t always align with ability. Fortunately, this course was one of the very few that allowed me to pursue both. Physics was just a subject I happened to not suck at in school, but I had a real love of reading philosophers. I guess at a deeper level it was driven by my curiosity to figure out how things work and to get to the truth behind them. I still vividly remember my entrance interview, stepping into a dusty Don’s office and being asked as a wide-eyed 17-year-old, “So, tell me what happens when you see the colour blue?” I’ve been answering briefs as vague as this ever since!
LBB> Were those years studying important for taking up a role in the creative industry? If so, how and why?
Arthur> Although I had no idea I would end up as a creative, looking back I would say absolutely. We tackle tough problems in our industry with no single correct answer, only different ways of looking at and reframing things. In this sense, the exposure to differing points of view on abstract issues and having the agility to flick between them is so valuable for what we do. To this day, if I know a candidate has a background in philosophy, I’m more inclined to give them a shot at being a writer.
LBB> I read that you're a trained classical singer and have previously been a recording artist in Hong Kong! Now, we have to find out more about this…
Arthur> Music has always been a part my life. I was a lead chorister and treble soloist from the age of seven or eight, and then as my voice broke, I began training with some quite distinguished Opera singers for several years.
By the time I had arrived at university, my interest had shifted quite heavily to jazz and I used to perform fairly frequently. It was during a late-night jam session at a club after work as a first-year investment banker (a job I vowed never to return to!) that I got to know a well-known composer and producer in the Hong Kong music industry. Knowing I was determined to leave my job, he convinced me to have a try at the Hong Kong music industry and got me signed onto a recording contract in the early 2000s. We recorded a bit, but everything ended up getting shelved and delayed and delayed again as the music industry was being seriously disrupted by the new phenomenon of downloads (to think that was only 20 years ago). Eventually a girlfriend convinced me to break contract and find a real job. I’m not sure I ever really did…
LBB> You have also started a music studio, is this still a passion of yours?
Arthur> Of course. Music is always a passion for me, and I don’t think creatives really understand enough about music. But think about it, the greatest moments in advertising in your memory have all come with music that has elevated the work. But music always seems to be a last-minute consideration in our day-to-day jobs. We obsess about the video assets we create, and often neglect the audio. I just wish that creatives were as involved in the music production as they are in the film production.
LBB> Do you believe your experience with music has helped your creativity in advertising?
Arthur> Music is a direct language of emotions. And advertising is simply informational if we are not trying to elicit emotions. There are so many parallels between creating a musical hook, phrasing and rhythm, and what we do in creating themes, editing and storytelling. Ultimately, we are using our communications to make people feel things, and I try to approach projects in the same way I would approach a song.
LBB> Tell us about your first advertising-related job? What made you want to stay in the industry?
Arthur> One of the first opportunities I got as a young copywriter was to create some ads on the side of taxis and trams in Hong Kong for The Economist, back when the iconic red and white campaign was still running. One of my lines got through – Ever feel like people keep hailing you? – and of course I felt immensely proud (in truth, I would probably write the gag slightly differently now). But it was when I saw a western businessman in Central District look up from his newspaper, notice the ad and then break into the most imperceptible glimmer of a smile - that was the exact moment I knew I wanted to do this.
LBB> What prompted the move from BBDO to BBH?
Arthur> I had spent most of the first 14 years of my career traversing through big global network agencies (first Ogilvy and then BBDO, with a brief Saatchi&Saatchi stint in between). I was longing to see what creativity looked like from a more nimble platform, and one with impeccable creative pedigree. Also, an interview with Sir John certainly would give any creative person a prompt.
LBB> And then, what made you want to come back to BBDO?
Arthur> In many ways, I do see a lot of similarities in culture between BBDO and BBH. Both are creative-led and obsessive about the work above all else. I guess at the end of the day it was scale that did it for me. I want to be in this business to influence and inspire as many people as possible, and therefore the promise to guide huge brands on a global level was an attractive proposition.
LBB> Where does your creative inspiration come from?
Arthur> It’s an old cliché to say books, films, art or theatre, but I believe inspiration comes from observation. For me it’s the guidance of my curiosity and jumping into completely new things all the time, to understand how other people might see the world or the human condition. I’m a bit of a life junkie and I’ll spend a few months intensely obsessed about one thing, before moving on to the next. I have a rule for myself. Learn as much as you need to be able to have a meaningful conversation with an expert in that field for half an hour. That’s enough. Then move on.
LBB> What is so unique about the creativity industry in China that we don't see anywhere else in the world?
Arthur> The thing that always amazes me in China is simply the sheer speed at which things change and evolve. Perhaps it’s a lack of legacy and regulation, combined with the phenomenal rate of economic growth, but consumers here are just so willing to try and adopt new ways of living. From a truly cashless society, to the widespread adoption of electric mobility, you can see China as the test market for what will become the future normal of the whole world.
LBB> As CCO for BBDO Greater China what does your day-to-day look like?
Arthur> I wouldn’t take up a job if there was a day-to-day role. For sure there are responsibilities that don’t change, being the guardian on brands such as Dove and Extra, as well as setting the ambition for the type of work we want to champion across the offices. But each day and each project is a new challenge and I’ll play whatever role it takes to empower and inspire our teams.
Sometimes it’s a mentor, sometimes it’s a provocateur, sometimes it’s a conductor, sometimes just a sounding board; the important thing is that it’s in service of the work.
LBB> What advice do you give to young creatives starting out in the industry at these strange times?
Arthur> So many talented young creatives I see, just expect to run before they have mastered how to walk. And then they shy away from the industry when times get tough. Well, times are tough now, but there is still great opportunity. Don’t overestimate the value of your intelligence and underestimate the value of hard work.