He’s played in bands, been a TV presenter and is an eternal entrepreneur – Chris Chen has one of those inquisitive minds that never stops hunting down new creative experiences. These days he’s the chief creative officer at Isobar China Group, and it’s been his uncanny instinct for diving into new things before they get massive that has led to his successful career.
As a young designer and art director, he saw the emergence of Flash as an empowering tool that would allow him to make things himself. Before he knew it, he was in high demand as one of the few digital talents in his native Taiwan and, almost by accident, set up his own agency, Trio Digital. In 2002 he had an inkling that things were about to take off in China, so he packed up his Mac and headed to Shanghai where he was soon working on clients like Coca-Cola and Nokia. And long before the phrase ‘creative problem solving’ had become an industry-wide mantra and before the management consultancies had embarked upon their quest to absorb creative agencies and take them upstream, the Trio team was working on all sorts of transformative projects. The pièce de résistance has been the three-year digital transformation journey that the team has been on with KFC, which has turned the brand (incidentally the first international fast food brand in the Middle Kingdom) into one of the biggest owned media platforms in the country.
Trio was acquired by Isobar in 2013 and now has been integrated into the wider Isobar China Group – Chris was named CCO in 2017. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Chris, who was at the London International Awards’ Chinese Creativity judging in Las Vegas, to find out more about his fascinating journey…
LBB> Where did you grow up and what kind of child were you? Did creativity play a big role in your childhood?
Chris> I grew up in Taiwan but I moved to mainland China in 2002, so I’ve been here for 16 years. My childhood was quite complicated. My mum was good at playing piano and my father, he was a cartoonist. When I was in junior high school I decided I only had two choices, one was music and one was being a designer. It was so early, I was only 12 or 13 years old.
LBB> You studied interactive design in New York - why were you drawn to that? And, outside of the classroom, what did you learn from your time in New York?
Chris> I was 30 when I went to New York. My family went from being very rich to very poor, so I had to be independent very early on. I lived with my brother from when I was about 12 years old. I worked for eight or nine years and saved money.
At that point I saw the emergence of Flash. Before, when you were an art director, you had to talk to the director or talk to the photographer – but with Flash you could do so much by yourself. I thought that was cool. It was 1997 and I really wanted to learn it. I worked hard and earned money and thought that New York had lots of schools, so I went there.
But, you know, at that time there were not too many things to learn about Flash. In maybe three months you would have covered everything you could think of. It was not a long time. I loved New York because there are so many ideas there.
LBB> At that time in New York, what were your favourite memories?
Chris> I didn’t want to spend all my money because I didn’t want to go back too soon! So I didn’t go to bars and I studied hard. I loved to go around Soho and the East Village and take photographs.
LBB> You founded Trio in 1999 – quite soon after you got back from New York. What catalysed that?
Chris> I went back to Taiwan in 1999. But what led me to establish it? Well I didn’t mean to! When I went back there were not so many digital talents in Taiwan, so when I lived in New York many people emailed me. I had a website in Mandarin and many people asked me to do their campaigns; when I came back I got a lot of work. I found two people to help me – I got my old colleagues from previous advertising companies where I’d worked and said, ‘come on, come on – I’ll teach you.’
I started a small company and in 2002 I started to think that China was quite an interesting market. I thought there would be a good opportunity to do something – so I moved there without knowing anyone. I brought my Mac G3
, found an apartment in Shanghai and started the business.
I was lucky because I didn’t know anyone but in the first half year we got many big pitches. We got clients like Coca-Cola and Nokia – in 2002 Nokia was cool! And we did many famous projects… and so, I survived!
LBB> Not many people have that experience of building their own business – does that help you understand what your clients are going through?
Chris> I think some clients respect working with you if you are the founder of the agency because they think that you have dared to do that. We should help them to solve their problems. So many creative people still want to make award-winning projects but we don’t have that culture, our priority is to solve problems.
I think Trio succeeded in the Chinese market because we thought about a lot of these things early on, like solving problems and developing products and services. In China you want to win – there are so many opportunities and it is still a booming market.
LBB> Trio joined the Isobar family in 2013; what was it about them that made you think that they would be a good fit?
Chris> Isobar is a network made of agencies from all over the world so when we have a global meeting, it’s full of founders. We understand each other, even though we all do different things. In China we are still like the creative agency, in the US it’s more about utilities. In Australia it’s different again… and Brazil is different. It’s just like a garden full of different flowers – but a garden that’s in harmony.
We were acquired by global CEO Jean Lin. Jean is finding goals that everyone can achieve together.
LBB> And what projects have you worked on over the past few years that you are particularly proud of?
Chris> I don’t have just one case. Over the past three years what we have done for KFC in China is a long term digital transformation. There were lots of cool things that I had never done before. I co-presented a talk in Cannes about it this year with the CMO of KFC in China.
Three years ago, the brand had a very low profile in China, so we engaged the young consumers. We cooperated with many IPs – animation, comic, games – and we reinvented the dining experience. We made 5,000 KFC stores music stores, where people could choose the music using the KFC app. We used mobile payments and facial recognition and we built a super membership.
LBB> So you really went beyond the communications…
Chris> …we did everything. We helped them design the product and new brands. There’s a new green KFC that only exists in China. You can pay using your face and everything is digital. There’s a delivery service. They have had really high sales growth.
So we did everything from strategy, all of the things that you will experience – right down to the menu. You don’t have a counter – everything is digital, you pay on your mobile phone. And we’ve introduced a new KFC coffee shop that is only in China too.
And we built the biggest owned media platform in China – it has 130 million members. These 130 million people are not just followers, they use that membership to transact, you can connect directly with them. We build a lot of content but we don’t buy media.
This year Isobar won the KFC Italy account
because they saw the Chinese experience. For me, it’s best practice. Now we have the database and we can tell if an idea is good or not immediately and change the content if we need to. But you know, it is hard to win at awards with this sort of thing because it’s a journey. It’s not just one campaign.
LBB> And it’s interesting because another big talking point is the growth of the management consultancies, but you’ve been able to go right upstream with your creativity.
Chris> We co-work with the KFC client, we don’t just wait for a brief. We are proactive with many ideas for entertainment, for innovation, for user experience. This year we got some new clients because the KFC experience is quite famous in China so other people have come to ask us if we can do that. They don’t care if it’s a digital agency.
Before joining KFC, the CMO was the digital director at Pizza Hut and I worked with him. When he moved to KFC, he wanted to change everything but he needed a creative partner to help. So we started a journey together. I think it’s cool, that’s what I like to do.
LBB> I have to ask you about music. I know it’s a bit of a passion of yours – and now I’ve learned that your mum was a musician that makes sense!
Chris> I had a band, Why Not, when I was young and we established an album – 23 years ago.
LBB> What do you play?
Chris> Bass and vocal. It was a cool experience for me. My band members are still in the music industry in Taiwan and Greater China. Our drummer is now famous in Greater China – he’s in a band called Mayday.
Throughout my career I loved to try creative things. I loved to go to the TV station, to perform at concerts. It was an interest, a hobby. I wrote lyrics for some celebrities.
LBB> So you’re busy now with the job, but do you still get to play?
Chris> No! My band members say that in 2020 they want to have a reunion concert in Taiwan or China because one of them is quite famous now, the hottest celebrity. But I need to practice!
LBB> I also read that you hosted a TV show in Taiwan – tell me about that!
Chris> I was the presenter of a TV show in 2000. Taiwan produces and consumes lots of electronic things, so the TV station wanted to introduce interesting websites and games and gadgets. They needed a host - so they found me! I don’t know why! I had a 30-minute show that was on every day at dinner time. It lasted a year, but then I got so busy.
I’m a shy guy, I’m not so social. But you know, facing the camera is different. Even before the TV show, shooting music videos for the band was different. Playing at concerts was different because the lights shine in your eyes and you can’t see the audience.
LBB> Outside of music and work, what other things are you into?
Chris> I love many things. In China, you need to jump into the culture. Now in China, ACG – animation, comics and games – are so popular. Around 260 million young people attend ACG events. I have had to jump into it, read so many comics and play games, even though I am so old. I’m quite good though! I like to travel too.
LBB> What's exciting you about the industry in China right now? And what's frustrating you?
Chris> I think the interesting thing is that it is still changing. Every day you learn something new. There are lots of things to improve yourself. It’s not like other cities – in ten years Shanghai has become totally different. In terms of applications, every year there is a new ecosystem and if you enjoy that, it’s quite exciting.