The first ever female chief creative officer at BBH China on why diversity is important, owning one of the country’s most popular nightclubs and how advertising once helped her potentially cheat death
At the end of 2019 Kelly Pon was announced as the new chief creative officer at BBH China – no small achievement considering the disappointing gender diversity still in place at the top of creative departments. And even more so when you consider Kelly’s start in life as a classical musician in training.
Since switching her degree to one in communication Kelly has become a powerhouse in the advertising industry and has worked with the top brands in the world including Levis, Nike and Coke – to name a few. Just over 13 years ago she moved to Shanghai to launch BBH China and has a host of accolades under her belt including awards from D&AD, the One Show and Effies. Despite the demands of her job Kelly has never shied away from her musical past and is part of a DJ collective called Rehab while owning the Elevator club in Shanghai.
LBB sat down with Kelly to find out how she feels to be the first female CCO at her agency and how one campaign shoot in Indonesia brought her too close for comfort to the barrel of a machine gun and taught her the powerful impact advertising has on people.
LBB> You’re the first female CCO at BBH China. Do you think the regional industry is heading in the right direction in terms of diversity in its leadership, or is there still much more work to do?
Kelly> Sadly, the fact that we are even distinguishing that I’m a ‘female’ CCO shows how far we still have to go to get this right. Where Hollywood has it half right is calling both males and females an actor, yet they still distinguish separate honours for best actor and actress? Where our industry has it half right is that awards are recognised based on ‘the work’ or to the best creative talent regardless of sex, and yet we still highlight when a female is a CCO.
Despite great leaps in the diversity of leadership positions with regards to CEOs and MDs or other industry disciplines, I think we as an industry are still lagging behind in terms of women as CCOs.
From my perspective, it’s an unfortunate truth that a career as a ‘creative’ is much more challenging for women, especially for those who want to balance building their careers and motherhood. The struggle to achieve this balance becomes very real and it is tempting to sacrifice their careers for their own families. It’s a journey in which I’m personally invested in, and hopefully I’m able to share my experiences and stories in a way which can encourage other female creatives on their journeys.
So this appointment, in my view, isn't just a nod to female creatives, but also an acknowledgement to the women out there who have had children and are returning or want to return to advertising that 'yes they can’. It's also a recognition of the value and reward in being a long serving employee, especially today when everyone is looking too quickly at the next thing, rather than working through the opportunities they can create before them today. These are all part of my story and a part of what helped me achieve what I have.
LBB> In your view, why is it important to have diversity in a leadership team?
Kelly> We live in an increasingly diverse world, with diverse products and diverse clients. We need diversity to reflect this client base and build strong relationships from there. Innovation and creativity needs a clash of everything to create something new. It makes our world more beautiful.
Diversity in terms of skills and abilities is a matter of survival in this day and age, especially in the agency business. It’s not a matter of want but a need.
Diversity in personality traits add richness and depth to the work, whilst diversity in values lets us learn from each other and to celebrate our differences. It’s not much fun living or working in an echo chamber.
LBB> What can you tell us about your aims and ambitions going into the role of CCO?
Kelly> Having had the opportunity of working into a number of local, regional and global CCOs, it’s a chance for me to step back and assess what I believe were their most motivating behaviours and leave behind what I believe weren’t.
It would be predictable for me to say, drive the creative agenda with culturally influencing work or motivate and coach the teams to be fearless, but then again what ECD or CCO wouldn’t state the same?
Perhaps my initial ambition will be based on what a very dear and talented CCO friend of mine once told me, that being a CCO is as much about being a ‘spiritual leader’, as it is a creative mentor… So for a start, my first aim is to understand his Yoda-esque wisdom.
LBB> You’ve been with BBH since 2002 - how did you first come to start working there? And what’s kept you around?
Kelly> I started in advertising first as an adventure with DDB Needham in Paris. I then made my way to Singapore with O&M where I first encountered Steve Elrick. Post-Ogilvy and during a stint with M&C Saatchi, Steve reached out to first offer me a role with BBH Singapore, and a few years later, asked me if I was interested in joining him to start up the BBH China office in Shanghai.
The opportunities to work across our offices in Singapore, Shanghai, and an erstwhile office in Tokyo with a diverse portfolio of amazing brands such as Johnnie Walker Thailand and Taiwan, Levi’s in Japan and LG for Korea certainly helped keep it both challenging and interesting.
And as to what’s kept me around? I’ve had the pleasure last year of sitting next to John Hegarty during dinner on his visit. And this conversation ensued.
John: “You’ve been with us for quite a while haven’t you?”
Me: “Is that a good or a bad thing?”
John: “Well, let me tell you a story...”
And in true John fashion, he proceeded to tell a story about his first teacher in art school. How as a young student, he would attempt at painting something and upon making a mistake, would just flip over to a new page. Until his professor imparted him with this nugget of wisdom - to stop flipping the page over when a mistake happens, but to work on the piece, until it feels right. And only when you think you’re done, then flip it over to a fresh page. Well, something to that effect. I’m obviously doing an injustice to the story trying to retell it but the gist of it, I guess, is I’m not done with BBH yet.
There’s still so much to learn and do. And truly, I believe whatever challenges we encounter in life, the grass isn’t greener on the other side. The enemy we face most of the time is nameless and faceless. It is within us. We get the same type of clients, the same type of briefs, the same type of problems to solve. We need to first find our happy place inside ourselves and stop seeking it everywhere else. With BBH, I think what’s kept me here can be narrowed down to; the BBH culture and the people I’ve had, and still have, the pleasure of working with. As well as a question I always ask myself, ‘will it be better’? And so far I’m pleased to say none have… yet.
LBB> BBH is a huge global agency - what do you do differently for the Chinese market?
Kelly> Proud to say our reputation is much bigger than our actual size, we are only about 1000 Black Sheep globally but we’ve worked hard to leave a much bigger impression.
The secret is we do absolutely nothing differently. We all share the same 10 Beliefs which grace the walls of every BBH office such as, ‘The power of creativity and the primacy of the idea’ or the values of our founders such as ‘none of us is as good as all of us’.
We do the same thing that we ask our global or regional clients to do, is to stand for something and then make it locally relevant. Our beliefs and values are what we stand for, and we hope to always make ourselves locally relevant wherever we are.
LBB> When it comes to hiring creative talent at BBH China, is there anything in particular you’re looking for?
Kelly> People who scare us with ideas and talent, as well as those who do not just say ‘cooking, reading and travel’, when asked ‘what else do you do?’ Those get to jump to the front of the queue.
Once they’ve passed these basics, we have two criteria for hiring talent. Good and nice. You have to be both in order to make the cut and then prove it to stay.
LBB> You’re also the founder of Elevator, which is one of Shanghai’s top rated alternative nightclubs - how did that come about?!
Kelly> I was trained as a classical musician whilst studying at Boston University, but made a 180-degree turn and decided to switch to communications upon realisation that I would never stand a chance amongst the many child prodigies I’ve met in school. I could be, at best, a session musician? But music never left me, it has been and still is very much a part of who I am. Classical music since gave way to jazz and house music, and my outlet came in the form of a music collective called Rehab that my partner and I set up.
In between our day jobs, we played at clubs and music festivals around China. These days, our brood of three cheeky little girls meant that our music days needed to take a back seat, however the desire to stay connected to music led us to be co-founders and owners of one of the most successful ‘underground’ clubs in Shanghai: Elevator.
LBB> Looking back over your career, is there one particular project that stands out as especially defining during your time at BBH?
Kelly> Someone told someone a long time ago, that ‘it’s only advertising, nobody gets killed’… interestingly, one of my experiences was quite the opposite, advertising may have saved my life… or at least saved me from incarceration.
A brand we were partnering with at the time, Unilever’s Refresh opened my eyes on how advertising can not only influence, but become part of popular culture.
I was shooting the sequel to the film ‘Fish Love’ which was at that time voted as the most memorable TV spot consecutively for two months in Indonesia. Unfortunately, we also found ourselves right in the middle of the racial riots gripping Indonesia and particularly in Jakarta at the time.
We arrived in the middle of the night, during the curfew and our van was stopped at one of the many roadblocks set up in the city. A rather large soldier sporting a big semi-automatic machine gun, came over to the window and asked for our papers. He seemed especially suspicious of my writer who was an American. We had to answer question after question, and I was suspecting the soldier was just buying time to decide what to do with us, as he didn’t seem to really understand English very well.
So using my smattering of Bahasa [a language], I explained that we were here to shoot a commercial. It seemed to work as he started to engage by asking which commercial for which brand/company? To my surprise and relief, when I mentioned it was a commercial for a brand called Refresh where a man falls in love with his pet fish and dances with it while his wife is away, he started to sing the jingle from the ad as he danced with his rifle, hugging it to his chest, much the way the protagonist did with his fish. That broke the ice. He waved us on. It’s the first time an ad saved my life and it left an enormous impression on me - the power and influence of what we do for a living.
That aside, the intention is to try to do as much meaningful work as possible. Call it redemption what not. Working on something that affects us directly for those living in China during the peak of the smog crisis, was also particularly meaningful. We worked with WWF to address the issue of smog when we were hitting 500 plus in air quality index readings every other day. Working with online platforms all over China, we hijacked all the landing pages of these platforms during Earth Hour, filling people's screens with smog, which amount and density correlated to the location of the user and the AQI readings in their location. That got quite a bit of attention by the public and being recognised at award shows was also a plus.
LBB> Growing up, did you always know that you were going to be a creative?
Kelly> Obviously, I’ve always wanted to be a musician. I also drew maps really well in geography class. It was always one of the two reasons I got called up in front of the class, the other is for talking. I’ve always liked thinking up and making things. In high school, I remember putting in a proposal to design and make new benches for the school canteen. Surprisingly, the headmistress agreed and I ended up getting a team together and got a truckload of wood delivered from my dad’s sawmill to school. Despite the fact that none of us knew anything about carpentry, we made the benches to my design. Never mind that they didn’t last, they looked good. Two weeks later, the benches were then repurposed, for another hair-brained idea for my Girl Scouts Campfire Night. My design involved a pyramid-shaped bonfire stack out of the wood from the defunct benches, which would then be lit by a fireball that would travel like a comet along a metal wire attached to the school fence from a higher ground and set the bonfire alight. There was drama, fire, and ultimately, an unintentional huge bald patch on our school field the day after but it worked. I would think the love for ideas has always been there.
LBB> Who is your creative hero, and why?
Kelly> Walt Disney. He once said, “the world’s problems will be solved by creative people - the dreamers and doers”. What a beautiful thought. And one I truly believe in. He was not only a visionary, but seems to have been a great manager too. I’m intrigued by how he managed a group of amazing creatives (The Imagineers) with opposing points of views, to work together despite it, to have a higher purpose, to carry out his dream even past his death.
A costume designer whom he had tasked to design costumes for the puppets in the ‘It’s a Small World’ ride once asked him what budget is allocated for each doll. His answer was, “to design costumes that will reflect the different countries and cultures of the world, that people from age one to 100 will love. As for the other question, I have a building of people who would find the money somewhere for that. Don’t you worry about it”. I would have loved to work for a boss like that. Or one day I wish I could say that to my creative department. Obviously, it’s a different world now. And one does wonder what Mr Disney would do in these times where procurement and stockholders are having a bigger voice and say. But it was just pure inspiration.
On a personal level, the man is my hero for creating the happiest place on Earth, that always delivers on its promise for me even till today. I also resonated with the equation by one of his imagineers, talking about the thinking behind thrill rides - “Fear - death = fun”. It should be a reminder to all of us that we should be braver with ideas since advertising doesn’t kill, let’s have more fun.
LBB> Finally, how do you like to spend your spare time? Any current obsessions?
Kelly> Currently building my house on Animal Crossing and trying to pay off that mortgage to evil landowner, Mr Nook. Which is all great, until two weeks ago when the kids (my five year-old twins and my seven year-old) moved into my island, and suddenly I’ve got three extra house mortgages on my hands, plus a never ending demand for virtual gifts. I need to get off the island pronto. Too close to reality for my liking!