MullenLowe Singapore’s ECD and this year’s AD STARS juror on the importance of making others jealous with an idea and how a student competition gave him his first break in the industry
ShengJin Ang, MullenLowe Singapore’s executive creative director, is no stranger to the awards scene. His entry into the industry began with a student award competition which saw him win the most medals in the ceremony’s history. He was later given countless accolades for art direction, in Spikes Asia, D&AD and a host of others. It’s no surprise then that he is judging this year’s AD STARS in the design and print category.
He’s also a big fan of print in general, judging pieces of work by the ‘three second rule’ but also is aware that while times are changing it's important for young creatives to be able to spot and break trends in a seamless way to open up creativity in new avenues. To hear more about this belief and his views on Singapore’s ad scene, LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with ShengJin.
LBB> You're on the AD STARS jury this year and with the event taking place shortly, do awards hold a special meaning this year?
ShengJin> Industry recognition is important. The award shows are here to set the standard, and even raise the bar to inspire our industry forward. As part of the jury of the award show, I will always ask myself whether the work is relevant to the brand and solves the client’s problems. More importantly, does this piece of work stop me and make me jealous?
Besides being recognised by the industry and your peers, it also helps to attract new talents – to be inspired and wanting to learn from the best, showing innovative and new ways of doing things for brands and marketers, and lastly also most importantly, attracting new clients and businesses.
LBB> Let’s backtrack to your own career which essentially began with a competition by the 4A's - the now AAMS – tell us more about this.
ShengJin> My foot into the industry started by being recognised in a student award event – The Crowbars Award - to recognise and award students projects, and to give opportunities and connections between talents as well as the industry.
I entered the competition in 2002, as a second year student. That event, I won 22 medals: five Golds, 15 Silvers and two Bronzes – I think it’s still the record number of medals for the show won by a single student. Although I did not win the Best of Show, The 4A’s were very kind and supportive and sent me to Fallon Minneapolis together with the Best of Show winners. I also received several offers and interviews from various agencies following this.
However, at this time I was bonded with the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) under their Art Diploma Scholarship programme. The options available to me at that time were to either break my bond (which I did not have the money to do) or go on to my second year in school where I couldn’t start work immediately with one more year to go.
LBB> Following on from this, you were given a blank cheque to break your scholarship bond – what happened next?
ShengJin> I am extremely fortunate to meet and have had many mentors throughout my career. Ms Lim Sau Hoong, founder and ECD of 10AM Communications is one such. She was the person who offered me that blank cheque to break my scholarship bond, and a contract to work in her agency as junior art director upon my graduation. I was extremely fortunate to have her as my first boss. She and her company gave me many opportunities and she was extremely supportive and open in ideas, and patient in her teachings.
It was also in 10AM that I learned my art direction skills and design thinking from Thomas Yang (now ECD of DDB Singapore). In my first year at 10AM, the encouragement, supportive environment resulted in two Gold Cannes Lions. My heart is full of gratitude and appreciation for Ms Lim for what she had offered me.
LBB> I know you like to see how ideas translate into visual language for consumers - but in its simplest terms what does this mean to you?
ShengJin> The saying goes: “A picture tells a thousand words.”. Perhaps because I am art based, I am more skewed towards visuals, but of course I do appreciate the beauty of words. I am always fascinated and stop to appreciate good design and beautiful visuals. As the job of an art director/designer, it is my task to guide viewers through the visuals to understand what I need to communicate. In my opinion, I always find the art of simplicity is the most complicated to craft. I appreciate the art and designs of Noma Bar and Tadao Ando, both are master craftsmen of simplicity and yet have so much depth in their work.
LBB> Your advice to the next generation is to 'spot the trend, don't follow the trend and break the trend' - why is this important for creatives of tomorrow to get to grips with?
ShengJin> I am often asked by students or juniors how I think of ideas and my response is: “Listen, see and read more.” Basically, in short, it is up to you to open up your exposure. In today’s context, we have limitless means of exposure and connection, but most of us are glued to our smartphones. We can learn to spot trends, but not to follow these trends.
For example, a new technology is just a technology without an idea. How can one implement an idea into this new technology and make a point of difference? This applies to trends too. We can spot a trend, but how can we be different and be a trailblazer? It all lies in your idea and creativity to break the trend to create something new.
If one is to be blindly following a trend, nothing new will be created. And I personally feel it is more important for the next generation of creatives to do so as they are more open to speaking up and have a stronger point of view.
LBB> Why do you believe that print and poster campaigns are a way of distilling down to the bare minimum of the idea?
ShengJin> There’s this three second rule to an outdoor poster; the viewer has to capture and gather all the information within this time. Similarly, this rule can apply to a print campaign, but with a slightly longer duration as the viewer has the content on hand. Hence, it’s always very challenging to find the nicest, most unexpected idea that is distilled to its bare minimum to communicate to the viewers.
While print is considered by many in our industry as a “dying media”, what I find interesting is that there are still ways to bend, re-invent and re-evaluate this media. An example that I like a lot is “TAGWORDS” – Budweiser, by the agency AFRICA that won a Cannes Print Grand Prix in 2018. To me I felt that the campaign has challenged my thinking to the three second rule, the idea is so simple and powerful that stops us and combines technology with our behaviour that we are used to.
LBB> You worked on a series of campaigns for anti-dandruff shampoo Clear, which all explored that stress causes dandruff and can be portrayed in a rather unique way. What inspired this thinking outside of the box idea?
ShengJin> For our client, Unilever, almost all their products’ brands stand behind a social purpose. As their creative agency we are always constantly challenging ourselves to find the most interesting angle and ideas. So while we were working on Clear’s then social purpose behind mental resilience. While researching that health issues on stress causes dandruff, art director – Andrew Ho scripted an example of a lateral stress scenario to depict dandruff. Hence, we knew we had a fresh angle to tackle dandruff. Kudos to my partner Co-ECD Daniel Kee who has always been an art and museum geek to suggest the use of Japanese Butoh dance performance to enhance the tension between stress and mental resilience, at the same time giving it a twist that “Stress causes dandruff.”
LBB> How are sensitive topics touched upon by Singaporean advertisers in a way that makes them still accepted by society but has the ability to drive some sort of change?
ShengJin> This is a very good and hard question to answer. In Singapore, there’s many topics that we have to be careful and sensitive about, for example, gender, race and religion. While we are a progressive and developed country, we still cannot speak or show freely in our communications. There’s a need to respect many careful considerations in the portrayal of visuals and words.
It is very seldom that clients will touch on sensitive topics, but definitely what they would like to see are examples of how we show progressiveness in our subject matter, people, sexes or activities. However, if there’s any ideas for any positive changes on any sensitive topic that a brand can own, we will gladly propose to our clients.
An example of what we did for our client, Closeup (Unilever) was A.I. Love in 2019. Closeup’s social purpose is “Free to love”, whether age, sexes or religion, everyone should have the freedom to get closer in the name of love. Hence this project is an unscripted experiment that uses technology to show the idea that two A.I. Platforms can come together to fall in love through discussion and conversations about various subject matters. Even when robots can fall in love, what’s stopping us humans?