Sandy Chan and Simon Handford took over the Ogilvy and Mather Hong Kong’s creative department as Executive Creative Directors three years ago. LBB editor Gabrielle Lott met with the pair to discuss the local market, what makes Ogilvy and Mather’s offering so strong and their amazing, yet rather unusual relationship.
LBB? What is it about O&M Hong Kong that makes it so special, so unique; that makes it stand out from the rest of the network?
SH> It’s definitely the biggest agency in Hong Kong. It’s the most diverse in Hong Kong. I’d say it’s got the most offerings. I would say it’s got the most expertise in different areas, particularly social media. I think Social Ogilvy is probably…
SC> One of the biggest in Hong Kong…
SH> …or in the region…
SC> …and well established.
SH> Yeah, they’ve got seriously great people there. In terms of the network, we’re still a regional hub – there’s a bit of a dual hub thing, as you may or may not know, in Asia with Singapore. We have bigger accounts like Shangri La Hotels here, which is global work. In the past we’ve created global campaigns for Coca-Cola, Sprite out of this office. We do a lot of regional work for the likes of IBM, Amex...
SC> …which makes us very unique, because a lot of local agencies in Hong Kong don’t really work on big business, they work on local stuff and we have bigger budgets to play around with, we can deal with a lot of people – which is very interesting and challenging.
SH> So yeah, we deal with very local business and very big, regional business. We’re constantly trying to do lots and lots of different things and be great in all areas, which is a good challenge. There are a lot of opportunities for us out there that I believe a lot of the other local offices don’t have.
LBB> Talk to me about your role because you share the running of the creative department, don’t you? You were at M&C Saatchi before, so could you tell me about your partnership and how it works?
SH> Sandy and I met at Darcy, when it was still running…
SC> It was about 12 years ago that we met.
SH> We worked together a bit and I was immediately impressed with Sandy’s way of working. We’re both very different – I’m a writer and Sandy’s an art director. We would come up with an idea together and Sandy would go off and star art directing and I’d begin trying to jumble some words together. I would run over to her sometimes and say “how’s the art coming along?” to which she’d often turn her head to tell me to “fuck off” [laughs].
SC> Great collaboration!
SH> But I would have a lot of expectations because I hadn’t had a fixed partner before. I would worry about how an idea was going to develop and I had expectations of how good the ideas could be. When Sandy brought the layouts out I would be astounded at how great they were, better than I ever imagined.
So we worked together a little bit there, but Darcy kind of fell to pieces and we both dispersed – I came to Ogilvy and Sandy went to Leo Burnett. We always talked about working together. We were actually married for a while. About 10 years was it? But we always talked about working together properly again I think because we were married and working at big rival agencies, it never seemed to make sense. As our marriage sort of broke down - very amicably, we were still very close – an opportunity came for the both of us at M&C Saatchi and we went there together. It was a real chance for us to both have a chance to work as a team and run a department. It was great, everything we wanted – a small little agency.
SC> We could explore, experiment, try different things, be very intimate with clients and really develop our own ideas.
SH> It was all from scratch. We didn’t have a portfolio for the department so everything we did, at first, was to build that. Obviously there was only so much we could do with it and so far it could go.
SC> And the crisis…the economic tsunami. It turned it into making money, not just being creatives.
SH> The weird thing about that job was that we became co-ECDs and co-MDs.
LBB> How did that work? Were you ‘a bit’ married at this point?
SC> No, we were separated.
LBB> So you were separated, but not only working together creatively, but also MDing the company?
SH> Yeah, it was scary. None of us had ever really done anything like that before. One of our first jobs was to go to London and meat Morris and present how we were going to fill our holes and drive the company. I mean if you look at Sandy’s outfit, she is wearing bright neon tights and tattoos and I’ve never been the smartest guy. We had the finance director looking at us thinking “You are going to make HK$4million in the next few months?” [laughs]
What it taught us was, because we were managing both the account directors and creatives, instead of the normal process, after a brief came in, Sandy and I would go and meet the clients and speak to them. We would immediately take the brief from them, take it straight back to the office and get the four of us in a room.
LBB> How many people were in the office at that time?
SH> It was about 40. It was quite a small office compared to Ogilvy which is about 500. We would sit in that room for two to three hours and we wouldn’t leave until we almost had the makings of a big idea. And because we had the account director and the creative in the room, we would know that it would work.
SC> We would decide on quite clear directions early on.
SH> The account director would know the client’s background story; what they liked and who they had to present to – they could think about how they could sell it. The creatives would know that it was a really nice idea and how they could take it onto the next level. What was nice about it was that we had cracked everything in the first two hours, so instead of the account directors constantly going to the creatives and asking how everything was going – they knew they were on task with everything. Overall M&C was good but it wasn’t that big and there was only so much we could do.
We thought that if we could take a percentage of what we were doing at M&C Saatchi and take it to somewhere like Ogilvy, we would have a really good solid creative and account management department, but to just bring an ounce of that collaboration would be a winner.
SC> Kind of melt everyone down together in one pot…
SH> …get the account directors and creative directors working together.
SC> It means you enjoy it more too – it’s more collaborative and leads to less arguments. Everyone agrees with the initial direction.
SH> Ownership too, because people feel like it’s their brand and their big idea. It’s been working really well.
SH> I think that positioning Ogilvy as one of the best agencies in Hong Kong is really important. So when there is the big projects and big corporate brand campaigns, there is an agency in this neck of the woods that is good at it. I think Shangri-La is a good example of that, but that is quite rare in these parts. Normally a brand will approach a big US or European agency for work like that. I think that is a space we can occupy.
LBB> Can you tell me, individually, how you got to be in this position? What was your path to becoming creatives?
SC> I went to Parsons Design School and when I came back to Hong Kong, I realised that I didn’t like the design environment. I didn’t want to work in design because it is actually quite boring. You work on a logo for two months that at the end just gets dismissed. I thought that advertising was quite fun and I wanted to do something different, so it turned out to be a good way in because I could do different things – TV, outdoor, a bit of design.
I came back thinking that I wanted to get into advertising but didn’t have the qualifications for it. So I went to a polytechnic and took a course, studying advertising and building up a portfolio. After I graduated JWT hired me. I was to be art-based because of my design background. I don’t fit into English copywriting and my Chinese is not that great, so I thought – let’s do art. They were the great days of advertising. It was 1997 and everything was blooming. My boss at the time was actually quite lazy, so I ended up doing almost everything and learning a lot. I really enjoyed it. I got everything dumped on me, which sounds horrible, but I loved it. I treasure that time because I could just do it my way and get to know the agency in my own way and at my own free will.
I actually first met Simon there when he was an intern at JWT.
SH> Yeah, I got a month’s unpaid placement when I first came over from the UK. Then they offered me a job and it was amazing. I grew up in the Midlands (England), but never really knew what I wanted to do. When I was about 13, I watched a documentary about advertising and remember seeing these guys in kind of lumberjack shirts and tight jeans and they were just putting pieces of paper up on a wall of stick men drawings and getting very excited. I thought, what a great job, I want to do that! Ever since then I was kind of hell-bent on getting into advertising. I didn’t know how to get into it so I took stupid courses like psychology and law.
But then I sort of got bored of it at A-level, didn’t see how it was helping me and started going out and getting drunk and stuff. I then found a film and television course that was really easy and spent my time there making crappy homemade ads. What it meant was that when I found a course that I really wanted to do in Falmouth, I had two or three readymade ads for my interview and was really eager.
I worked on that course for two years and ended up teaming with a partner from Hong Kong. He kind of became my art director. We got some placements; one was at a company called Cogent Elliot in the Midlands. Their main office was a converted 14th century farm and was beautiful – the creative department was in the old hay storage and you had to climb a ladder to get into it.
Anyway, Tom, my partner, and I did that for a while, but his girlfriend and family wanted him go back to Hong Kong. Eventually he went and I was left in Britain alone and at that time I was under the impression that you needed a partner to get a job – I had seen good writers at college end up returning to education because their partner had decided they wanted to be a postman or something.
He suggested for me to go to Hong Kong to work with him again; so I did some temp. jobs, got on a plane and met him here. It was good because we were quite unique in Hong Kong – there weren’t a lot of teens with portfolios knocking on the doors of agencies. Like Sandy said, I got a job for a month at JWT because they knew that I needed work – bit cheeky; they flicked our portfolio saying ‘it’s alright’, eventually suggesting ‘why don’t you two work for nothing because you guys look like you need something to do’. We did a month there, but when the boss came back and said we had done well and offered some money, we had actually been offered a job somewhere else – Darcy. After a couple of years working there I met Sandy and split from my old partner and did lots of other things. He’s actually working in Shanghai now.
LBB> Going back to O&M – how important are awards to O&M Hong Kong?
SH> It’s a big deal for Ogilvy regionally and globally. I think the powers that be realise that awarded creativity does have a direct impact on their business. Be it the perception of the entire industry, up and coming great minds that want to work in a good agency, there are a lot of big clients like Unilever, Coca Cola who are really starting to get interested in winning awards. We get big clients, such as Coke, who want to be at Cannes – I think that has transformed the industry. From a macro level I believe that Asia Ogilvy really knows the power of a few trophies
LBB> How do you find and select creative talent?
SC> It’s actually very hard to find talent in Hong Kong…
SH> …we look all over the place.
SC> Yes, we actually look all over the place because we work on a lot of regional business which means we shouldn’t confine ourselves to just local creatives and, to be honest, it’s very hard to get very great local people these days. There is a big gap between the top management and the young guys. There used to be this middle bit where people were really aggressive and try to get up to the top or get awards and all of a sudden, I don’t understand why, a generation, the mid-level vanished. They all became freelancers or just changed careers – it ends up that we don’t have these people anymore. In Hong Kong it’s so hard to get someone. Which means we need to look somewhere else such as Singapore, Indonesia, America – all over the place for talent.
SH> Our department has quite a few people from Hong Kong, but we also have Singapore, mainland China, Sheffield, Shanghai, South Africa, Indonesia, Scotland… everywhere. It’s a real little melting pot. What’s nice about it is that you find when you talk about ideas you talk on a more level of human insight. In other offices, you talk more about local things. Whereas we discuss the things that make us all laugh – for example, what Dad is like at the dinner table or how he always comes home and moans about stuff – you see the same scenarios playing it out over several different cultures and I think that’s a really good thing. I think that the work gets bigger for it, rather than just having very local mindsets.
LBB> Is there a piece of work that has truly resonated with you this year – one that you’re extremely proud of?
SH> That is a tough question…
LBB> Is that a real example of the talent here?
SC> I really like the Orbis work [http://bit.ly/TFljqh
]. We did a series of posters and prints for Orbis. The eye doctor flying hospital and…
SH> …we have been working on this brief for three years now. When it came to us it was a badge campaign; they used to sell badges every year as a way of generating funds. It was really odd – it featured a picture of a celebrity saying…
SC> …‘here’s the badge – buy’.
SH> The badges were just cartoon pictures of characters. It evolved and eventually we developed it into an award wining campaign. Degenerative eye diseases are not just sudden, they occur over a period of time. So the idea was to make people feel like they were going blind. The actual badges were different materials
SC> Different effects so you can experience what it feels like to have a cataract…
SH> We used different materials so that when you look through it you get a sense of what the different eye diseases are like to experience. The posters were in both Chinese and English. We created apps in which you could sense what it is like to see the world through the eyes of a child with damaged eyes. I think in two years they’ve gone from earning half a million Hong Kong dollars every year to two million Hong Kong dollars.
SC> They are a charity so they have no money to spend. We have to be very smart – we can’t just blow into big production and everything is done in-house. We’re really proud of the art director – she is a young graduate and worked on it every day to a point where she got sick. She threw up because she was looking at the typography – the hair and line just made her dizzy.
SH> We were using visual effects on the type, so it’s hard to read. On one particular type she threw up twice apparently.
LBB> It made her spin out?
SC> Yeah. She got really into each and every line. I think she must have been really happy to have got the results that we’ve seen.
SH> A lot of agencies do charity work because it’s just about awards but we feel…
SC> …really proud about it…
SH> …we really care whether it works for them or not.
SC> We feel really motivated by the fact that they doubled the money they receive.
SH> We’re trying to go one better this year. They’re trading in their old plane and getting a new one. To generate funds, we are stripping the old plane to pieces and making the badges out of the old aeroplane – you literally get a piece of the old plane.
LBB> Do you love what you do?
SC> Yes. Ogilvy is such a big agency, and as such we have lots of opportunities and a lot of time the workload can be quite crazy – we did five pitches last month…
SH> …with a department of 30, on top of everything else – it’s quite mad…
SC> …but we appreciate that. If you work in small agencies, you have to call clients. Here we have the advantage of clients calling us. So we have all these clients coming in, wanting to give us briefs and that’s very exciting because we get to work on many different things.
SH> We get to pick and choose a little. Some serious clients, some fun, some adventurous, some traditional.
SC> And that we really enjoy.