5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with… Isaac Lai

London, UK
The APAC social lead for Uber and Uber Eats on going from agency side to client and what life at Uber looks like

Studying for a criminology degree that led him to working in a government department were the early foundations for an illustrious career have seen Isaac Lai work with plenty of big brands across the globe. The now APAC social lead for Uber and Uber Eats honed his craft via an online blog and an internship that polished his SEO skills. 

From there he’s worked with VMLY&R on McDonald’s, Akcelo on TikTok and Pepsi and more. Though, late last year he took the plunge and transferred over to client-side with a role at Uber and Uber Eats based out of his hometown of Sydney. Since then he’s spearheaded many social campaigns across the Asia Pacific region and been a part of a team that delivered a meal in space.

As he comes up to the six month mark in the role, Isaac spoke to LBB’s Natasha Patel about the biggest changes in digital and why his current role is ‘surreal’.

LBB> Let’s go back to the start, what were your early years in Sydney like? How much did creativity play a role in your childhood?

Isaac> I was born and bred here. I guess my main outlet for creativity was just writing. I always loved to write and I never thought I wrote particularly well, but I thought I had a way with words.

I studied Criminology and Criminal Justice as an undergrad and in my master's degree, I studied International Security Studies, which isn't a super common course, but in Australia it's designed for people to enter the Australian equivalent of the FBI or MI6. 

LBB> From that degree to working in a government department, how did you make the change to advertising?

Isaac> Pure dumb luck, I would say is probably my way into the industry. I started writing freelance, I started writing for blogs and anyone that would have me and I applied for marketing advertising jobs. Someone mentioned copywriting and I thought that was something to do with trademarking, but they told me it's just writing. 

So, my first paid copywriting gig was to write 500 words on corsets, which was difficult because at the time, I didn't know what a corset was. So, I wrote the 500 words, they paid me, and never contacted me again. From there I applied for an internship at an agency called Sparro. They called me and asked me for an interview and at the time, I just started a blog and I went to this the opening of like a bakery. But I knew I was having an interview with them straight after, so I was in a button up slacks, and I went to this bakery opening and they gave you a chance to make pastries and I had flour all over me. Then I went straight to the interview and it was at a house and one of the guys wasn't wearing shoes. Turns out two brilliant marketing minds had just started the agency and they were just looking for people to come and help and who were willing to learn. That role was probably my grad school. 

Eventually I did go to Ad School and I did a mini MBA with Mark Ritson, but I felt that hands on experience in my formative years was the best postgraduate advertising course.

LBB> You worked on the McDonald’s account for VMLY&R Australia, tell us more about your time there.

Isaac> I joined VMLY&R as a senior community manager/ data analyst, because even though my university at the time, I didn't think it really prepared me for the crowd, but there's strong human psychology elements; the stats, there's behavioural economics and a lot of things that have proven to be more useful than they would be.

It was just a blast working on a brand with the scale and magnitude on McDonald's in terms of doing really cool, innovative work. I got promoted every 18 months and left VML after four years as connection strategy lead. So it went from being social, to encompassing digital and strategy. 

LBB> What about now at Uber and Uber Eats, what does your role entail?

Isaac> it's pretty amazing, very surreal. It's one of those things where every day is different. I get to work on really distinctively different markets in terms of one day, my main focus might be Japan, the next day, it might be Australia. And then the day after that I might be recruiting for someone in a global role. And then later that afternoon, when India wakes up, I might be helping them with something as well. 

Outside of the nuances and the differences in culture, there's also the digital landscape which is completely different as well in terms of Twitter being more active and utilised in Japan whereas in Australia, it's probably not quite up there in terms of usage rate perspective. And then even little things in terms of how important brand reputation is in one market although its important everywhere, it's just might be the end all and be all for one versus another place where they might prioritise things like convenience. My role is a bit of strategy with a bit of stakeholder management. It's a bit thinking outside the box. And it's really just using the platform to innovate and do cool things. But also not forget the sheer joy that your doorbell ringing and your favourite food being on your doorstep entails. That's something I don't really forget. It's really cool.

LBB> What was the experience like going from agency to client side?

Isaac> I am very lucky, I've joined an Uber ecosystem where there are a lot of people that also have agency experience. My boss is also ex agency, and I think they were hoping for someone with agency side experience to join this role because there's a lot of stakeholder management, that's a hands on element, which I really enjoy. I can't foresee myself in a role where there isn't a hands on element because I just get very antsy. But I think for me, it's just it's given me a lot more ownership of the things. It's allowed me to see how the things are made in terms of looking at other side of plans. 

LBB> It must be challenging to work across the whole of the APAC region especially in terms of social channels. How do you make a clear plan for each country’s output?

Isaac> It really comes down to having a really strong channel for each in and knowing behaviour that users tend to gravitate towards those channels for. And if you're looking to establish like, a really witty snappy tone of voice, maybe you do use something like a Twitter that allows you to be a bit more rapid fire. 

It involves a lot of research, a lot of reporting, a lot of social listening as well to understand what people are expecting on those different channels, and also what they're expecting from you as a brand, and somehow meeting halfway. You might have the best TikTok presence in the world, but in India, where it's banned, it doesn't really mean anything. So you just have to be really, really flexible and take into account that specific market.

LBB> You worked on social when you first started out but so much has changed between then and now. For you, what are key differences?

Isaac> Organic reach was the thing when I first started, where things could go viral for no really good reason. Then Facebook Ads Manager became a thing, and it became more pay to play and the power of influencers who could followers to see content in a feed that was based on chronological order. The algorithm had put them almost at a disadvantage, but it had sort of reset the system. 

That ecosystem continues to change, even Instagram now is trialling a return to chronological feeds just because of user feedback. Facebook has sort of changed in terms of saying maybe we've gone too far down the meme hole, we're going to try and prioritise group groups now, because you've shown interest to join these groups and drive that engagement. When Snapchat first came with that, I thought I was too old for Snapchat, and here I find myself having my own TikTok account and trying to figure out how that goes. 

Social is ever changing. It's completely dynamic. It's so insane in terms of the changes that occur at any period of time. 

LBB> Give us the lowdown, what is it actually like to work at Uber?

Isaac> I had a couple of friends that had already worked at Uber but it's not like I had a massive insight into what the day to day was like. And now I've joined it'd be like if I joined Manchester United at their absolute peak and they had Cristiano and Wayne Rooney and I could just join and be a specialist and we'd win all the time. I feel like I'm part of an all star team. 

I feel like I've stacked the deck in terms of everyone has accomplished all the things that I wanted to accomplish my career and congregated here. I've only been at Uber for five months and I feel like I've been on more crazy, innovative campaigns in five months than I have in six, seven years previously, which is so surreal.

LBB> Speaking of ‘crazy, innovative campaigns’ tell us about the idea that saw Uber Eats deliver a meal in space.

Isaac> The genesis of the space campaign landed on my desk (ok, more accurately via an email in my inbox) and I thought it was a code for something not realising we were literally going to be delivering to the International Space Station. It was a chance of a lifetime and I would have regular catch ups with the team where we were all in a state of shock and asking each other if this was real. Never thought I'd be watching a rocket launch on a NASA stream for something related to my career yet there we were.

LBB> Finally, what is life like outside of work for you?

Isaac> I like to write during my nine to five and then outside I still haven't given up the food blog. I've written two cookbooks, no publisher is called me about them whatsoever so I just released them and put them online. I take photos, I watch a lot of old movies, follow sports quite heavily and enjoy watching movies.

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