For creative director Kat Tan, a perpetually sunny outlook on life has been the secret weapon in making his career such a success. Now at FCB Shanghai, he grew up in Malaysia, relocated to Japan, took a sabbatical in Los Angeles and now lives in China. While all of this makes a good story, the moments that peppered Kat’s career and stood out to him were those where he took the plunge to do something new.
Originally destined to become a lawyer thanks to his father, Kat recalls being glued to television commercials in his early years. His fascination with ads got the better of him and he went on to study art communications before landing his first job at Saatchi&Saatchi. From there he was virtually alienated when he joined the team at Dentsu in Japan without speaking the language but quips that his art director’s eye and attention to detail helped him to pick up what he needed to know and to forge a career in Dentsu.
Like all of us, he’s also had a pretty wild and unexpected year, but now life in China is approaching something like normality. As he looks ahead to 20201, Kat talks to LBB’s Natasha Patel about working during lockdown, the effect on ecommerce and his experiences in Los Angeles.
LBB> Let’s go back to the beginning, what was your early life in Malaysia like?
Kat> I grew up on this small little island called Penang located on the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia. I have always loved to draw and paint since a young age. I still fondly remember my kindergarten teacher asking my Dad to send me to an art course so that I could become a professional artist. I didn't become an artist per se but I guess advertising is an art form!
LBB> You grew up with a father who wanted you to follow him into the law industry so what swayed you to advertising?
Kat> My Dad had always wanted us (I have an elder and a younger sister) to have "knowledge-based jobs" because they were supposed to be safe career choices. But I remember when I was a little kid, I loved to sit in front of the television and watch commercials –and was curious about how those commercials were produced. I guess this is why I ended up in advertising.
LBB> And from there you went to university and studied art communications; tell us more about this and your first professional role.
Kat> I enjoyed my time at art school, because I love all sorts of arts. Learning how we can use art in a creative way to communicate is mesmerising. If I had to pick a subject in school that I did not really enjoy, it was art history.
After graduation, my first role was with Saatchi & Saatchi as an intern before becoming a junior art director.
LBB> Later in your career you took up a role at Dentsu in Tokyo which must’ve come with its challenges due to the language barrier! What was the experience like for you?
Kat> As an art-based creative, I appreciate craftsmanship and would always pay attention to detail. So, I would carry a small little notebook with my own notes on how to say simple, everyday phrases in Japanese wherever I went. Of course, this was because smartphones hadn’t been invented yet.
Oh, one thing I'm sure that has changed are my tastebuds. After moving to Tokyo, I developed the taste for sashimi or raw seafood. Delicious!
LBB> I love that you took a sabbatical and went to LA. How did this experience come about and what impact did it have on your creativity?
Kat> I took a break and followed my late partner to the States. At the same time, I had always wanted to learn or work on something not directly in advertising but somehow related to it. I ended up freelancing as an assistant set art director. This allowed me to gain a lot of practical production knowledge which is very helpful to me when I came back to the advertising world. I believe great execution brings ideas to life.
The biggest difference was that working hours in the States were not as long compared to most countries in Asia!
LBB> Your story about quitting your job at Saatchi & Saatchi on day three and ending up staying for years and years is something! What made you want to do that - and also stay?
Kat> I was not happy with the city of Guangzhou in China when I relocated from Singapore. There was no particular reason for this. A colleague of started to show me around the city and I started to make friends. Most importantly, I told myself that I shouldn't give up so easily.
I also knew the market in China was in the midst of booming and I should stay to build my career. After living in China for 12 years, I can now call this home. I always advise people to treat the city you're working in as your home. This makes it easier to adapt and you will feel happier. I started to enjoy and like Guangzhou. After all, this is the city where I met so many talented people who eventually became friends and Guangzhou is also where I met my partner.
LBB> Fast forward to your time at FCB and of course Covid. How was it working through these strange times and how do you think communications in China change in the future?
Kat> We worked from home after the Chinese New Year's holiday at the start of February and slowly started going back to the office in March.
Working from home was challenging because I have to juggle work tasks like video calls and team brainstorming with household chores including walking our dog, grocery shopping and disinfection. I guess when it comes to eating at home during the lockdown, I got lucky – so grateful that my partner is a chef!
I think looking forward to 2021, even though the pandemic situation won’t be over yet, comms in China will still do well. A friend of mine who owns an event agency in China shared with me that many global events have now been brought into China given the current situation. I also foresee virtual meetings will continue to be the norm for the next few years since global business travel will still be restricted and are only for when it is absolutely necessary.
LBB> Did you work on any pandemic-related campaigns that stood out to you?
Kat> I worked on hand sanitiser brand, Lifebuoy for the China market during lockdown. I remember when we got the brief from the client, the situation in China was getting much better whilst the rest of the world just started to get hit badly. At that time, people in China were slowly getting back to their normal routine. So, the campaign idea revolved around how our healthy hygiene habits help us to reach out and literally touch the things that matter most to us. This is aligned with Lifebuoy’s brand purpose of helping save lives through healthy hygiene habits – by preventing families from falling ill, a little less often. At a time of doom and gloom, we also wanted to make the campaign fun and optimistic to uplift the mood.
LBB> How do you think the pandemic has affected commerce in China?
Kat> Online shopping is huge in China. A sales assistant who works in one of these big luxury brands told me that nowadays most of his VIP customers will only shop online. They will buy the items from his WeChat's and the items will be delivered to them directly on the same day. I guess this type of shopping behaviour will slowly become the norm in the near future.
We do shop online like Taobao and JD.com to get some household stuff. But we still prefer to shop at the physical stores for luxury goods because we enjoy the atmosphere of those stores.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Kat> Just go with the flow and be happy. You’d be surprised how far happiness can bring you!