As a child Victor Ng was something of a daydream believer – so when he found himself studying economics he realised that something wasn’t quite right. A chance encounter with a copywriting book in his university library saved him from a life of number-crunching as Ng decided to become a creative. And it’s a good thing he did too – in his tenure at Euro RSCG he’s seen the agency grow in size and become a dominant force in South East Asian advertising. LBB's editor, Gabrielle Lott met up with Victor for a rather interesting chat…
LBB> What is it about Euro RSCG Singapore that makes it so unique and special?
VN> It’s always about the people. I think we are a lot more than an agency with a logo on a door. Really, what is an agency? It’s a diverse group of people who somehow, through their own choosing, come together and operate as one team. That to me is the true DNA of any agency brand. I feel the most important thing is the group of people who are responsible for making that logo on the door meaningful.
LBB> How do you find and source creative talent for the agency?
VN> I generally look for a few things. First of all: talent. That’s a given; you have to be talented to survive and thrive in this business. After we get that out of the way I think the intangibles are a lot more elusive. I generally look for the right kind of attitude; does this person have their head screwed on the right way? Do they have the necessary team-play? What sort of ambition do they have? While we are always on the look out for new talent, we don’t want to work with talented nasties.
If you are talented but you piss everyone off because you are a prima donna… well, I’m sure there’s another agency out there for you. If you are a nice chap but you lack the requisite talent to be a productive member of the team, then perhaps there’s another profession out there for you. We hopefully strike a happy balance and give people the opportunity to shine and be who they can be.
You can’t have everyone trying to score a goal in a football team; you need defence and the goalkeeper. Building a team is an underrated part of this business. A lot of agencies call the recruiters and say ‘I want this guy for this piece of new business that we’ve just won’, but true agency leaders have the vision and foresight to understand that every piece they build or change comes with different moving parts. Having that holistic vision is going to serve them well in the long run.
LBB> Can you talk to me about how you came to be in the industry?
VN> I started off in a rather offbeat way. I never planned to make advertising my career. As a kid, I just knew that I wanted to be in a career that allowed me to think for a living. I had no idea what that would be – would it be an architect, an engineer, a dreamer? Was there such a thing as a professional dreamer? I had no idea. But I was about ten-years-old, so I got away with a lot of daydreaming in class.
Along the way I found myself in an economics degree course at the National University of Singapore and began to realise that I was more seduced by words and numbed by numbers. Life is too short to be stuck in the wrong job.
I did manage to earn a place in the honours degree programme. I lasted one month before I left the course. I remember the particular day I went to my senior lecturer’s room to politely inform him that I would be leaving the course and thank you very much… He looked me straight in the eye and asked me: “Victor, what are you going to do? It’s a tough job market out there”. It was right in the middle of the Asian currency crisis in 1997. I said, “Sir I’m going to be a copywriter”. He looked at me and there was about ten seconds of dead silence… then in that familiar, lecture-like voice he said, “Victor, you either copy or you write. You don’t do both”. He had never heard of what a copywriter did.
LBB> How did you know about the role of a copywriter?
VN> I found out by chance. I was roaming the library – now you know how I spend my free time – I was quite nerdy. I was roaming around and found a book called the Craft of Copywriting. Flipping through the pages I had the stark realisation that Nike didn’t do their own ads. Wow! They paid companies to create ads for them. This opened a door in my mind - I never knew it was possible. I flipped through the pages and learned about the creative director, art director and copywriter. The job seemed to require you to have an imagination and daydream for a living, so I thought I would give it a shot.
When I left my economics course I managed to secure an interview at a pretty decent agency, and the ECD told me point blank, “Victor we don’t have a role for you, we need two years of experience”. I offered to work for free for three months and if they didn’t like me they wouldn’t have to pay me a cent. If they decided at the end of the three months that they wanted me to hang around, they’d have to pay me for the past three months. He offered me a job on the spot.
I remember on the first day of work I didn’t want to go home, so I stayed until 1am to help out on a pitch. I couldn’t believe that I was paid to sit behind a desk with a huge pad of paper and a marker pen to draw, write and daydream.
LBB> And what about your time at Euro RSCG?
VN> I think it all started in 2008. I joined the agency as creative director and I wanted to tackle three things right off the bat. The three P’s. First of all there’s the product. The creative product is the signature of the agency and I wanted to make sure this improved, whether that was through new business, interesting clients or if the group represented itself at an awards show.
The second P was profile. Having worked with an agency like Mother, which takes a lot of pride in building their own brand, I realised a lot of agencies weren’t good enough at doing that for themselves. It’s somewhat ironic because we are in the business of positioning and communicating and for some reason a lot of agencies fail to do that for themselves. I wanted to position the agency appropriately.
The last P was people. What I wanted to do with Euro RSCG back then was build a secondary tier of creative leaders who could hold the agency in good stead when I left the premises.
What I wanted to do from the start was instil creative pride. To do that, I thought it would be good for every creative to think of a middle name. So you could be ‘Joe Smith’ but why not Joe ‘Good-going-great-copywriter’ Smith? The thing about the middle name, was it’s about how you want to position yourself. You are a brand. You have to take pride in how you act, behave and create. I told them not to tell me what their chosen middle name was. They should represent it in their work and in three months I should be able to tell what the middle name is. I feel that worked and people began to align themselves with what they wanted to position themselves as. If someone was really great at winning new business or working on banking or financial accounts, they branded themselves that way.
We won a fair number of awards, which personally I love because it’s recognition for good work. But the most gratifying thing was winning more new business than any other agency during that period. That was pleasant in a recessionary period – not only did we save jobs, the agency grew by about 40 per cent and we became Euro RSCG’s star agency across Asia Pacific.
Truth be told, I was incredibly lucky because I was the beneficiary of being part of a great team: there was a terrific management team and some great suits. You can be a great leader but that doesn’t exclude you from being a great team player. At the end of 2009 we were agency of the year across the entire South-East Asia region and I felt I finally managed to deliver the three Ps I spoke about earlier. It had come full circle. It was like a journey.
LBB> How important are awards to EuroRSCG – what value do they bring to the agency and your team?
VN> Advertising needs awards, but try not to let awards be our only advertisement. It is always good to be recognised for creating great work, but it is just a means to an end. The end should be about being self-assured in who you are as a brand, a trusted partner to clients and an organisation full of talented people. Awards are a validation of all that and a great recruiting tool that helps agencies position themselves.
The way our industry is turning I think a lot of people are aspiring to win awards, especially young creatives and new agencies who are trying to make a name for themselves. However agencies such as Mother are not necessarily the most awarded agency - although they did win agency of the decade in Campaign in 2009. If you look at the metal counts at D&AD or the one show they don’t chase awards mindlessly. They are so self-assured in who they are and what they do, they are always happy.
Good agencies win awards in peaks and troughs but great agencies enjoy an upper echelon, where they can survive two or three years without an award. To me that is a lot harder to achieve and more worthwhile as a goal.
Awards have their own charm – here’s an analogy. There are a lot of chicken rice stalls in Singapore. But imagine you are a chef and set up your own stall and customers say “wow that’s fantastic chicken rice, I love it”. It gives you a vote of confidence, you sleep well that night. Fast forward to the next year; instead of customers patting you on the back you have bloggers and food critics who know their stuff saying they love your chicken rice. That’s another big tick. The elusive last tick is when all the chicken rice sellers in Singapore come to you and say “I sell chicken rice but your chicken rice is the best” – that is peer approval and that is the most elusive kind of accolade you can get. That is an award show. If creatives have a similar level if pride in their product and work, they will want to take that test against international competition, to see if their work stacks up.
LBB> Tell me a little bit about Spikes and why you see it as being relevant?
VN> When you come to Asia, Spikes and Adfest are the two shows that command a high level of attention from agencies all around the region – and rightly so because they’ve done a good job of putting together a festival that genuinely celebrates the best of Asian work and provides a platform for agency professionals to learn from each other and industry leaders. In that respect both festivals have done a great job. I have served on judging panels for both and I can’t say I’m more partial to one or the other. But Spikes has learned so much from hosting Cannes. Terry Savage is obviously a visionary in his field. He knows how to run a festival, he knows how to bring in the right speakers and he knows how to be get the clients involved. As an industry we cannot operate in a vacuum, with practitioners celebrating in a self-congratulatory way. When you get clients and fellow marketers involved it becomes a true festival of communications, not just creativity.
LBB> What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the Asia Pacific region?
VN> I think there are a few. The first thing is finding a truly Asian voice for communicating grand messages in a way that Asian people can truly relate to. I don’t know if it’s the proliferation of award shows or the internet but I think the advertising world is slowly morphing into one homogenous mass. I think there are dangers in that because agencies should be cognisant of whom they are talking to. I hope we don’t become a region of agencies trying to emulate the success of the best agencies in other parts of the world. It’s one thing to really take reference from some of the best work coming out of Droga5 and the other fantastic agencies so we can align ourselves with what great work is, but we should also be self confident in the way we communicate with our target audience, respect them and treasure them. In that regard some award shows are starting to recognise the importance of local relevance. They have special categories that reward work that has special relevance in this part of the world.
There’s also this real challenge of brand relevance. Our global CEO David Jones said it really well in his book
– it’s not about brands that are all about themselves, it’s about brands that understand people really want them to be part of the wider community. It’s not about talking down to consumers it’s about starting a conversation with them. Social creativity is now the ‘in’ word – it’s not just raw creativity, it’s creativity that shows social currency. Social creativity combined with CSR [corporate social responsibility] in terms of how brands integrate themselves in the greater good is going to be a big conversation. We are trying to get brands to really understand it’s not about selling sneakers or a mobile phone, it’s about fulfilling a human need. A lot of brands are wising up to that - CSR is being integrated into the core of what a brand does. To me that is something that a lot of agencies are going to have to quickly acquaint themselves with.
LBB> What is your opinion on agencies creating their own brands? Is it something that Euro RSCG do or are looking to do?
VN> Personally I don’t see anything wrong with agencies starting up their own brands if it suits their purpose. I think people sometimes take what we do too seriously. In the spirit of creating something, if it helps the agency loosen up on a Friday afternoon, fantastic; if it helps generate real revenue, fantastic; if it helps make client connections in the new business world, all the better.
I think this is where the expression of creativity comes into question. Sometimes it’s not a bad thing for agencies to do things that are outside of the traditional remit. What we do at Euro RSCG is to take on a rather entrepreneurial spirit. We don’t create brands for ourselves – but we really collaborate with people within a different working environment. For example, we recently acquired the agency Victor & Spoils. They are interesting because they are an ideas crowdsourcing agency. That is a fantastic way to approach the business – it is really about tapping into consumers and everyday folk to help you plot new ideas.
This is very similar to the Sydney-based advertising agency Host that we also acquired. Believe it or not, Host is an agency without creatives. They have a line up of account people, planners and strategists, and they outsource their creatives from different parts of Australia and the world. I won’t say that one structure is better than the other, but as a group, we are tapping into the creative competencies of different people and continues to challenge the status quo.
LBB> Has there been a piece of work come out of your office which has resonated you?
There was a campaign that we did recently which was for the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped (SAVH
). Their representatives visited our office and shared a lot of their personal stories. It was a very sobering day for all of us. The courage that they have is nothing short of inspiring. We wanted to make sure that the rest of society saw them in the same light.
We created a campaign for them called ‘Blind. Faith.’
The idea behind it was that if you are unable to see, your hearing becomes more acute. If you hear better, you become a better listener. We trained members of the SAVH to become counsellors. Starting as phone counsellors first, the visually impaired then counselled their callers face-to-face, who were surprised and humbled. We allowed the members of SAVH to be seen in a different light. That has a special place in my heart.
But I’m really looking forward to our new work. There’s this saying: you’re only as good as your last ad. I believe you’re only as good as your NEXT ad.
LBB> Do you love what you do?
VN> Absolutely. This is what I get up for in the morning. It is not a job really. It is something that I have always wanted to do – to really think for a living.
It is not about being the star of the show; any of my guys can be that for different reasons -- for me it’s more about being the director behind the scenes. While I can make sure the camera, lighting, sound and music is right, it is their stage.
What is the difference between being a good creative and a good creative director? If you are a creative you are expected to be creative and come out with creative ideas, but if you are a creative director you have to direct and inspire creativity, you have to sell, you have to counsel. There is a lot more that comes with the job description; it is never just to produce a piece of creative work. I think a lot of people fail to see that – there is a huge difference between the two skillsets. I think the great creatives somehow find the way to make the crossover to become great leaders in their own right. It is truly being a team player that allows you to become a great leader. You know when to step in and you know when to step out and allow others to share that limelight. For me that is a learning curve, but I think I have found a healthy balance between holding someone’s hand and letting them go and be better for it. To me, the job is a blessing.
I consider myself very fortunate to work with some of the best people around and learn from some of the best. A lot of people don’t realise that just because you make creative director doesn’t mean the learning stops. I try to learn from everything around me, even this interview, and it all makes me who I am. I never try to be the next somebody, I try to be the first me. I think that has allowed me to slowly gain confidence as a creative. I don’t think you should ever try to imitate someone or allow yourself to move in the direction of someone you really admire. It’s good to have inspiration from other sources, preferably outside advertising. I am into sports so that makes for good inspiration. But for me, it is an incredible adventure. An adventure is never going to be a bed of roses, it is a challenge.
But at the end of it all, I would love to look back on the journey and the stories along the way; the destination is just a pit stop before your start on the next lap.