MullenLowe Singapore’s executive creative director Daniel Kee had a rather varied run before he found himself in the advertising industry. He left his home in Malaysia to studied in the UK and became a systems consultant and multimedia developer. He worked on projects that took him from Bangkok to Ankara, until a moment during a football match gave him the push to trade code for copy.
Daniel’s first role was at JWT Kuala Lumpur before he shifted over to Singapore and held roles with BBDO, Havas and now MullenLowe. He calls himself ‘stupid blessed’ to be in a position to be able to work with an incredible mix of creatives and on campaigns. Point in hand is the campaign he and the team created for the Singapore Navy at the start of this year. This step away from being a Unilever-only agency is what Daniel believes is a ‘test to see how deep and how far into uncharted territory a relatively inexperienced but tremendously hungry team can possibly take the work’.
Working in Singapore, a market that has a history of nurturing some of the biggest creative names on the planet – Dave Droga and Neil French – has inspired Daniel to push the boundaries of creativity. Here he talks to LBB’s Natasha Patel about the country’s creative scene, his upbringing in Malaysia and the moment during the Champions League where he knew he had found his calling.
LBB> Tell us about your early days, where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Daniel> I grew up on the (food) paradise island of Penang, in Malaysia. I didn’t know we were poor until my grandfather folded his business and moved to Jakarta, and we had to vacate his seaside mansion. We moved to the hills, two hours of narrow, winding roads by bus to the city, because it was the only place my parents could afford. I had few toys growing up, a small TV my grandmother watched Hindi movies on, and her little transistor radio that played sad Chinese songs all day long. My dad tried to make up for it with weekly trips to the library, and discarded forms from work. I’d spend all my time reading, doodling on the blank sides of those forms or catching catfish in the forest stream nearby. When I finally persuaded my dad that a computer would help me in my studies (of course I just wanted to play Doom on it) he had to take a ten¬ year loan. The computer was obsolete within two years, and I still feel awful about it to this day.
LBB> Was there an inkling you'd end up in advertising?
Daniel> I always felt an affinity with words and pictures. I enjoyed English and art class in school, but in my town, “advertising” meant you were the guy who hand painted storefront signs. So, I thought I might become a journalist or a cartoonist instead, if no one protested. Of course, they did – everyone expected me to excel in math and science and eventually become an engineer, or a doctor.
LBB> You studied computer science at university in the UK, what was the experience like and what made you choose the subject?
Daniel> It was a case of please-the-elders. My parents saved hard. My maternal grandfather, aunts and uncles chipped in. My effort had to match theirs. I applied for scholarships. It was a course everybody could be happy with – they could see me working “in an Intel factory”, even as I secretly imagined myself developing games or multimedia software, something a little more creatively inclined.
LBB> I know you were a coder and developer after graduating, but how did you end up in advertising?
Daniel> I was either incredibly blessed or stupidly lucky. I somehow found myself surrounded by people in advertising – my housemate, my best friends – my then-girlfriend came from an illustrious family of ad creatives and execs. Her uncles were among the first Malaysians recognised in international award shows as far back as the eighties, and her father was the man behind my favourite childhood KFC spot. I can still sing the song – every word of it. There was a feeling of inevitability.
Early one morning, I was watching Champions League football with my housemate, and during the halftime ad break, he pointed at the screen and said, “I did that”. At 4am, with Manchester United’s fate hanging in the balance, upon watching a telco TV spot, I made my decision.
Typically, I didn’t act upon it until a couple of years later.
LBB> Tell me about your time developing educational multimedia software for the Malaysian Ministry of Education?
Daniel> Malaysia attempted to switch the medium of education for science and maths from Bahasa Malaysia to English. To help with the transition, educational aids were required. The company I worked at won the tender for a number of subjects, and I spent some time in Ankara, Turkey, working with Flash developers and subject matter experts to pull everything together into CD-ROMs. I was digital before digital was a thing in advertising, and Flash’s deprecation in 2020 is a great reminder that even digital itself has been through a number of eras.
LBB> You mentioned earlier that you would have been a cartoonist, does this mean you’re a keen illustrator still?
Daniel> You know what they say about everything on the Internet being there forever? Not so true, as it turns out. I’m terrible at archiving my work, and many sites they appeared on have since disappeared. I’ve designed music CD covers, wall murals, drawn some stuff for publications, websites and even ads as a junior writer, when I was impatient, impetuous and may have disagreed with my art director’s vision. Perhaps it’s a good thing I can’t find any examples now – I don’t think they’d have held up well. In fact, I’m glad I chose the copy route right at the beginning (I was given a choice at my first agency) because I’d have been an awful art director, looking at the talent around me now.
LBB> What is it, for you, that is so special about Singaporean creativity?
Daniel> Singapore’s position as a regional and global hub invites a rich mix of talents. There was a time when luminaries like Neil French and David Droga made – or grew – their names here, and such diversity continues to persist. In MullenLowe Singapore alone, we have had creatives from Australia, Brazil, Portugal, Uruguay, Spain, South Africa, Russia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines mix, match, misunderstand and somehow, materialise ideas in so many wonderful ways that would have been impossible in a homogenous environment.
It has served our global clients well when catering ideas to eighty countries, and also given local accounts flavours and dimensions that would be impossible without this incredible clash of perspectives and lived experiences.
LBB> What’s been your favourite campaign to work on throughout your career?
Daniel> As far as local work goes, it would have to be our new campaign for the Navy. For the first time in a long while, we have clients that put as much, if not more heart, passion, belief and time into making something happen. They committed to our vision and did all they could to pull it off, bravely navigating approval processes, pulling together an entire fleet even as the pandemic raged against our efforts – plus I got to sail out on a warship when most of the world was in lockdown! But really, I had forgotten what a great client can do for morale and conviction, and then the Navy comes through, loaded with impetus and inspiration. They didn’t just buy an idea – “It’s not crazy, it’s the Navy,” we said – they went on to live up to it, and show us what it meant.
LBB> Tell me about your work with the Navy - what made the campaign so special, why was it so important to you?
Daniel> The Navy is particularly important to the agency. MullenLowe has been a solid “Unilever global agency” for decades, but we were little more than tenants in Singapore. When Paul Soon came onboard as CEO, we decided as an agency it was only right to have a meaningful presence in the local market. We pitched for the Navy account aware of its longstanding, seemingly unshakeable relationship with the incumbent agency. The win itself was a triumph. Now the onus is on the team to return the brand to its iconic heights, when it was handled by the likes of David Droga and Calvin Soh. We had a team of juniors, a lot to prove, and the best clients in Singapore. This is incredible pressure. Positive pressure. The kind of pressure we, as creatives, want to thrive on. Have we managed to even graze the bar?
The Navy account is a test to see how deep and how far into uncharted territory a relatively inexperienced but tremendously hungry team can possibly take the work. And when intentions are right, you get wonderful partners like Ros and Freeflow (arguably Singapore’s top production setup) jumping onboard to help push the work. This has been the least lonely experience of my career, with clients, agency and partners pulling together to make something happen. That is why it is imperative we should produce something minimally worthy. Personally, I’m in search of my KFC song, something a generation of people will remember far into the future.
LBB> Now that you work on the Unilever global account, how have you found adapting messaging for different markets?
Daniel> This may be a little contentious, but working on certain global accounts out of Southeast Asia lends us some advantage over our peers in London and New York. Work originating from more developed markets tend to reference higher level issues such as gender and racial equality, and social justice. But those ideas may struggle to get a foothold in less sophisticated markets that are still trying to comes to terms with basic human needs and literacy rates. Here, we have a view from the ground. We’re familiar with selling shampoo without showing hair in markets such as the Middle East, Malaysia and Indonesia. We can anticipate how Guangzhou will inevitably disagree with Shanghai.
What’s masculine in most parts of the world is still too effeminate for Russia. Any message in English needs more time to be delivered in Indonesian and Vietnamese, and then even more time in Thai. In developing any big, scalable idea, we are already anticipating a range of local needs and requirements. It takes a few years, a number of flights and cultural osmosis to internalise the learnings, but the IPG and Unilever network keeps us focussed on the big picture, while our geography keeps us within reach of reality.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Daniel> Maybe a credit roll. How we got here is instrumental in where we go from here. I was fortunate to get a start in JWT Kuala Lumpur the year they won Southeast Asia’s first Cannes Lions Grand Prix, under the tutelage of Edwin Leong. He was mercurial, outspoken, inspiring – he made us all believe that Asia, despite its under-representation, could trade punches with the best. He pushed me to win my first Lion heading into my second year on the job. More recently, I had the privilege of working with Erick Rosa, my predecessor at MullenLowe. He was welcoming, inclusive, gentle. He taught me how to hug in Brazilian-Portuguese. When to loosen the fist, how to hold a hand. I wouldn’t be where I am today without a mentor to hammer me into shape, and another to burnish what he inherited.
Today, I’m stupid blessed to be surrounded not just by great talent – but also incredible people. Beyond the work, the new business wins, the awards, I hope I can leave them something a little more substantial. A solid start or a good send-off, at the very least. It’s something all of us have to give more thought to, as the industry evolves. The fragmentation of the industry, the lure of the client-side is real. Wherever we move on to, we want to remember why we believe in creativity, why we practise it, and how to stay in love with it.