The Cheil Hong Kong CCO on championing craft and idea in equal measure, building a world-beating creative department and his surprising sideline…
When Paul Chan upped sticks from Britain’s tiniest city to visit Hong Kong, he thought he was heading over for three months to spend a little bit of time getting in touch with his cultural roots. But something stuck and that three months has become over 20 years. In Hong Kong, Paul also found advertising – the ideal industry for a curious, creative magpie, drawn to trying new things and getting stuck in. It’s that have-a-go spirit that’s seen him become not only Chief Creative Officer at one of the island city’s most innovative and visually exciting creative agencies, but also build up a surprising side-line in voiceover work.
The network’s creative ambitions have grown on a worldwide level, led by global CCO Malcolm Poynton, Paul and his team have been doing their bit, with award-winning (and beautiful) work for the likes of Chupa-Chups, JBL, Penguin and Tesco. And while it’s fair to say that the 12 months have been challenging for Hong Kongers, between last year’s dramatic protests and this year’s Covid-19 outbreak, which hit the city in late January, Paul’s team have practiced resilience and solidarity.
LBB's Laura Swinton caught up with Paul to find out about his journey and creative philosophy.
LBB> What sort of kid were you? And was creativity a big part of your life growing up?
Paul> I was a happy kid. Cheeky, curious, always asking questions.
Growing up, I did a bit of everything, really.
I sang in the choir, played sport (badly), scrapped with my siblings (a lot), rode everywhere on my BMX and climbed trees.
I loved reading, writing and drawing from an early age. So I’d usually have my nose in a book. Or I’d be scribbling something in a notepad.
Pretty much the same as what I do today.
LBB> Where in the UK did you grow up?
Paul> I was born in St Asaph, North Wales. It’s the second smallest city in Britain with a population of just 3,500 people. I went to university in England and then moved to Hong Kong, where I’ve been most of my adult life.
LBB> What attracted you to advertising in the first place?
Paul> I stumbled into it, really.
I mean, I’ve always loved advertising.
Growing up in the UK, we were spoiled with brilliant ads in the late 80s and 90s.
But it was never on my radar as a career.
It wasn’t until six months into my first job (as an English Editor) that I stumbled across a D&AD annual by chance.
And that was it.
I remember seeing page after page of all these incredible ads—some of which I recognised from the UK.
And from that point, I became quite single-minded. Advertising was the only thing I wanted to do.
LBB> What led you to Hong Kong in 1999?
Paul> After graduating, I went to Hong Kong with my dad to do the whole cultural roots thing.
The plan was to hang out for three months and then head back (to London).
But while I was in Hong Kong, I managed to land myself a job as an English Editor.
The experience from that first job then helped me get my first gig in advertising.
And I haven’t looked back since.
So what started as a three-month break in Hong Kong has now become a 20-year stint.
LBB> What piece of advice do you wish you’d had at the beginning of your career? Or if you could go back, what piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Paul> Pick your battles.
Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions.
Invest in property.
LBB> Your creative breakthrough came at DDB, when you worked on VW and won the agency’s first international gold. Can you tell me about that campaign?
Paul> Strictly speaking, I wasn’t on the account at the time.
I had just joined DDB as a young copywriter.
And there was an internal shoot-out at the agency, with all the senior teams working on ideas for the new Volkswagen Golf R32.
Coincidentally, my art director and I were both Golf drivers. We knew the car and we knew the brand. And we saw this as a massive opportunity.
So we secretly worked on ideas, even though it wasn’t ‘our’ brief to work on.
We then narrowed our focus and decided this was the fastest, most powerful Golf ever. And from that thinking came our idea of Volkswagen ‘Jet’.
We made a sketch and soon realised the senior teams were struggling. So we introduced ourselves to the ECD and politely asked if we could present our idea.
To his credit, he gave it the thumbs-up.
The following week, we sold it to the client and shortly afterwards became the de facto Volkswagen team.
LBB> You’ve been at Cheil since 2012 - what was the agency like when you joined, as a local office and as a global network?
Paul> It was a very different place when I joined.
Cheil Hong Kong only existed to serve one client, Samsung. There wasn’t even a creative department at the time. So creatively, it just wasn’t on the map.
As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy to convince people to join us at the beginning. We simply didn’t have the creative reputation.
But thankfully, we hit the ground running and won a Cannes Lion in our first year, with One Show Pencils and D&AD Pencils the following year.
And that was the turning point, really.
It suddenly became a lot easier to hire talent. We started to win new business. And it all snowballed from there.
Since then, of course, we’ve managed to punch above our weight—twice winning 'Agency of the Year' at Spikes Asia, twice 'Regional Agency of the Year' at London International Awards, twice 'Regional Agency of the Year' at New York Festivals, and 'Agency of the Year' at Kam Fan, Ad Stars and LIA Chinese Creativity.
Getting to #1 in Hong Kong (WARC/Gunn Report and Campaign Brief Asia Creative Rankings) and #5 in Asia (Cannes Lions Global Creativity Report and Campaign Brief Asia Creative Rankings) was a nice surprise too.
We’re much smaller than the other agencies in the region. So to even be up there amongst them is humbling.
We’re still small today—both locally and as a global network. We’ll never be a DDB, Ogilvy or Leo Burnett. We’re simply not that size.
But if we can stay agile and continue to punch above our weight, we’ll be delighted.
LBB> There’s a lot of gorgeous design and art direction that comes from Cheil HK - Chupa Chups, JBL, Penguin (I’m a sucker for a book design!). Where does that wonderful visual flair come from in the agency?
Paul> We’ve always championed craft.
But never in place of an idea.
A great idea is a must. Especially in print. It’s one of those disciplines where there’s nowhere for a weak idea to hide. So it’s got to feel fresh and original right from the outset.
Then over and above that, impeccable craft can make a difference. If the passion and craft is tangible in every intricate detail, that’s a good place to be.
John Hegarty once said that great work is 80% idea, 80% craft.
There, he nailed it.
LBB> You and the team have also been doing some innovative stuff, building really inventive products over the past couple of years - the Tesco safety bags, the Fatal Recognition App - how do you foster that kind of thinking among the team?
Paul> Projects like Tesco ‘Safety Bags’, ‘Fatal Recognition’ and Samsung ‘Back2Life’ are hugely rewarding because they validate the power of creativity to solve real problems for our clients.
We don’t want to be the biggest agency. But we want the people within our agency to do great things.
The goal is for every creative to end the year with at least one piece of work they’re really proud of.
And the best way for that to happen is to be generous. Give teams autonomy. Strip away the layers and problems. Create an environment of trust and respect.
When people are happy, and start enjoying stuff, they do better.
LBB> Hold on, you also do voiceovers! How did you get into that? And why do you enjoy it?
Paul> It was never planned.
As a writer, I’d often be asked to record guide tracks of my scripts to serve as a reference for tonality, tempo and so forth.
These guide tracks would then get passed around.
And on more than one occasion, the client or director would pick my voice for the real recording—not realising it was only intended to be a guide track.
That’s how it all started and it just grew from there.
Most of my voiceover work comes from other ad agencies, so it’s always nice to catch up with industry friends.
LBB> You’ve been in Hong Kong for just over 20 years, how has the ad scene evolved in that time?
Paul> Obviously, the landscape has changed. People now view multiple screens whilst posting, blogging, browsing, shopping and chatting. So the industry has changed with the times.
Thankfully, Hong Kong creativity has evolved too. It doesn’t just blindly emulate the West anymore. Some of the best work here has even made its mark on the international stage. That didn’t happen 20 years ago.
LBB> Hong Kong has had an… interesting time of it over the past year. What’s it been like for you and your team and how have you been able to keep focused on the creativity?
Paul> It’s been a challenge, for sure.
First, we had the violent protests last year and now this coronavirus outbreak. It’s been a double whammy for us in Hong Kong.
We’re not pretending the world is normal and it’s business as usual. But we’re remaining calm, whilst looking after our team’s health and safety as best we can. That’s the main thing.
Like the rest of the world, we’ve had to adjust to make sure we keep talking, collaborating and smiling. And we’ll continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead.
I do think there’s an element of solidarity—we’re all in the same situation, and we’re used to supporting each other through tough times.
If you've been here long enough, you realise how resilient Hong Kong is. The city will push through this as it has done before.
LBB> And Cheil really feels like it’s making progress as a global network. What do you think has been the key to that?
Paul> Malcolm Poynton joined us in 2015 as the network’s first Global Chief Creative Officer and he’s made a big difference.
A huge part of his vision was to raise our game to make sure we’re a true creative force globally—not just a big office in Korea.
And to his credit, he’s done exactly that.
He’s helped strengthen the creative culture and quality of work across the entire network.
LBB> And how do you and the other CCOs from around the world collaborate and support each other?
Paul> We have our global creative council, where we leave our egos at the door and share, rank, collaborate and assist with the cultivation of creative ideas.
We also have our 60-day programme, which allows us to identify creative opportunities and provide valuable feedback to help develop the work—from the inception stage right through to the creative development.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
Paul> Muhammad Ali. For being a poet, prophet, boxer, dancer, chancer and activist.
Bill Bernbach. For thinking small and plucking the lemons.
Steve Jobs. For thinking different.
LBB> And what do you like to do to recharge creatively?