For Johnny Tan a career utilising his creative flair has always been something he’s aspired for. However his childhood and entry into the industry tell a different story - growing up in Singapore and entering the army - as all males there are required by law to do - he recalls being asked in his first interview if he was willing to spend the next 50 years in army uniform. His answer of ‘no’ changed the course of his fate, and rather ironically one of his first creative callings was as a fashion designer.
Fast forward and Johnny has had creative stints at BBDO New York, BBH China and in 2017 he was announced as 72andSunny’s APAC executive creative director. Along with this role Johnny and his wife co-founded CREATOPIA, an initiative to help the Singapore’s creatives of tomorrow kick-start their career in the industry.
Johnny tells Natasha Patel about the moment he knew creativity was his calling and the mantras he lives by.
LBB> Tell us about your childhood, where did you grow up?
Johnny> I was born and raised in Singapore, but my earliest memory was in Ipoh Malaysia, where my dad worked for a number of years. I came from a humble background with a diverse and eclectic group of friends in the neighbourhood. That helped create a creative childhood. We would always be up to mischief, inventing things to play and terrorise other kids. It was also this restless curiosity that led me to discover creativity. I didn’t know what it was called back then but the excitement and invention was always there. It led to different forms of expressions, including graffiti (not an advisable thing to do in Singapore) and designing clothes.
LBB> It’s interesting that creativity was such a big part of your childhood. Did the advertising industry have a similar effect?
Johnny> Hardly. The ads on TV weren’t very good at the time. Over-the-top cheesy acting was pretty much the name of the game and, of course, it was jingles galore. I do have vague memories of classic ads such as one for Ribena where a schoolgirl and boy were under a tree sharing a drink. There was a catchphrase that stuck. Or a really emotional soundtrack for a store named Metro during Christmas. To be frank, I never really saw advertising as a creative medium.
LBB> You were previously an army lieutenant - how did the switch to advertising come about?
Johnny> We all had to serve. It was a great duty and despite having fun blowing stuff up, I felt like creativity was my true calling and I had to answer it. I was quite fortunate to discover a passion for creativity at a very young age so it was always clear that it was something I was gonna pursue unless something really amazing came up that could change that. Also, I recall quite vividly in a recruitment interview, a commando major asked if I could see myself wearing a uniform when I turned 50, and I said no. It was the first question and he ended the interview right there.
LBB> Was there a defining moment in the early days of your career that made you realise this was the correct path for you?
Johnny> My creative journey has its share of twists and turns. I started out as a fashion designer and then went on to graphic design. While I was in art school I took a class in visual storytelling run by a professor named Roland Young. There was an assignment where we had to advertise a non-alcoholic beer. I simulated a car crash with several beer cans crushed like a car accident, except for the non-alcoholic one. It was a lightbulb moment for me as I was excited about the craft and stimulated by the notion of ‘problem-solving’ through different mediums including print, photography, illustrations and animation. Advertising seemed to have it all.
LBB> Tell us about the move from BBH to 72andSunny.
Johnny> I had a great time at BBH. It’ll always have a special place in my heart, especially as I was part of building it from the ground up. That said, I’ve always had an urge to learn; to take on new challenges. Diving into the unknown and being incredibly uncomfortable can lead to bigger personal growth. I’ve made a few such moves in my career, just like when I decided to leave New York for Shanghai. 72andSunny presented an opportunity to build something different in two markets I was fairly unfamiliar with. It was exciting and very aligned with what I wanted to do.
LBB> Throughout your career, what has been a favourite campaign?
Johnny> The next one!
Truth is, I don’t really have one favourite per se, I’m always hoping the next campaign is the best one yet. But I am proudest of the ones that were the ‘scariest’. The ones where we pioneered something. The ones that people around you doubted but wouldn’t tell it to your face.
LBB> What have been your biggest challenges?
Johnny> On a personal front, to stay fearless and curious. As one progresses in one’s career, you can run the risk of being asked to repeat previous successes. You can also find yourself battling your left brain more than usual. The industry has also changed rather dramatically towards being more of a project-based game, which increases volatility. It’s tough when it comes to building up a company. But this challenge has also presented an opportunity for us to build something unique from day one that’s not only tailored for a more agile industry, but thrive in it.
LBB> You co-founded CREATOPIA to help youngsters wanting to pursue a career in the creative industry. Tell us more about the venture.
Johnny> It was pretty tough growing up in Singapore wanting to pursue a creative career. First of all, there wasn’t much to choose from. Unlike today, there were limited avenues and, secondly, while paraphrasing Sir Ken Robinson here, one does get educated out of creativity.
I’ve always felt a little bit like an outcast with this pursuit. It’s tough when you were a young kid figuring things out and feeling that way. When I returned to Singapore, my wife and I wanted to fan the creative flames that children have during their formative years, as opposed to giving it up, due to the pressure of fulfilling other academic expectations. Tapping into professionals in our field to inspire all forms of creativity, allows kids to discover traits they never knew, and perhaps help instigate those internal moments where one goes, ‘Wow, this is what I wanna do when I grow up’.
It’s no exaggeration to say that it is one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever get for having brought that inspiration. We have been very privileged to have many creative greats generously volunteering their time to help us inspire. I certainly hope more will continue to help us with our mission.
LBB> Do you have any advice for the next generation of young creatives?
Johnny> Be brave and be resilient. The business of creativity has loads of ups and downs. Be brave enough to push for something fresh and different each time you ideate. Be curious and adopt a growth mindset. Every up or down is an opportunity to learn. I don’t believe this is a craft you can truly master and that’s what makes it amazing. You're always learning and evolving.
LBB> What drives your creativity? Where do you find inspiration?
Johnny> A desire to pioneer new things. There’s nothing more satisfying than to create something that makes people wonder if it’ll be a total failure or something that’s gonna change the game. Creativity needs fear. Knowingly or unknowingly.
It’s easy to adopt ‘playbooks’ towards creating work. There really shouldn’t be one. Perhaps, that’s why these days there are always references in decks to accompany ideas. My inspiration comes from observing and then asking ‘what if’ a lot. Trying to figure out how weird things that don’t always belong together, come together. ‘What if this was a feature film?’ ‘What if we judo-flipped that?’ ‘What if we brought Bruce Lee back to life?’ These sorts of questions often float around in my head.
LBB> Is there any advice that's stood out to you during your career?
Johnny> There's been so much great advice given by such generous people throughout my career. But the one that really stuck with me right from the beginning was, ‘If an Idea doesn’t scare you, it’s not a good one to begin with’. It’s been a good guiding principle for my work.
LBB> Outside of work what is life like for you?
Johnny> Lots of fitness related stuff. HIIT, triathlons, running, the works. Also, I absolutely love spending time with my wife and my six-year-old daughter. I get more creatively energised hanging out with them than I do at work. The unadulterated creative energy that I observe and absorb from them cannot be quantified. They are constantly driven by ‘what ifs?’. Sir John Hegarty always says, ‘you work in advertising, you don’t live in it’. I genuinely believe in that philosophy.