Martial arts, drawing lessons and even ballet lessons – looking back, it was almost inevitable that the quiet little boy Yee Chee Guan would grow up to be a creative. These days he’s national creative director of the Grey Group in China. He speaks to LBB’s Laura Swinton about the challenges facing advertising in the Chinese industry and the value of creative awards.
LBB> What makes Grey China such a unique place to be right now?
YCG> We are picking up new businesses and growing, but on top of that we have a common vision of doing creative and effective work that we believe in. With that growth and a brave vision, like-minded great talents have been joining our team.
LBB> Where did you grow up and what sort of child were you?
YCG> I grew up in a small family in Singapore. I was a quiet child who liked to doodle in my text books while attending lessons.
LBB> Was creativity a big part of your life growing up?
YCG> Yes, my mom sent me to private drawing classes, piano and violin lessons, Chinese martial arts, and even ballet. She was the first person who encouraged my sister and I to create Christmas cards for friends and relatives.
LBB> You studied business administration before a second degree, a BFA in advertising - what led you to make that switch?
YCG> I did business administration only because I could – I was lucky to have gained entry into the National University of Singapore. I even considered joining the Singapore Armed Forces Special Operations because I could. However, deep down, I had a desire to do something more creative, hence the eventual switch.
LBB> In your biography it says you "drive people crazy in the name of creativity" - any examples?
YCG> It's just my way of saying that I constantly fight for creative integrity at work. I suppose the fight will go on ‘til my last breath, which is perfectly ok with me.
LBB> Which recent projects have particularly excited or resonated with you and why?
LBB> Are awards important to you?
YCG> Awards are the fuel that keeps me believing in creativity within our line of work. In a conservative market like China, a creative could easily lose his way while performing his daily chores. Awards have also raised the agency's profile, which helps us attract the best talents.
LBB> Outside of advertising, what excites and inspires you?
YCG> I love furniture design. In fact, I've designed the work desks for my creative department. I'm also always inspired by my eight year old daughter's school projects – I get this breath of fresh air every time I send her to school.
LBB> If you were to go back in time, what piece of advice would you give your younger self, starting out in the ad industry?
YCG> Work only with the people you admire, be surrounded by the best talents.
LBB> What do you see are the biggest challenges facing the advertising industry in China right now?
YCG> There are various levels at which we could look at this question, but on the ground and from a creative point of view, I think the Chinese advertising community is in a stage of shock. Whilst new media and consumer behaviour offers a steep learning curve for all of us who started in traditional advertising, the majority of advertising practitioners in China are still trying to cope with the basic concept of creative advertising in its traditional sense. It's like you are being forced to run before you’ve learnt to walk steadily.
LBB> Mobile and social networking sites like Weibo and WeChat combined with growing smartphone usage in China presents some very interesting opportunities - Tencent is one of Grey Beijing's key clients. How readily do Chinese consumers engage with brands through these media and how do you see this trend developing in 2013?
YCG> Chinese consumers catch on with the latest phenomena at lightning speed. However, as mentioned in my answer to the previous question, the average advertiser is not reacting as fast and is still struggling with the fundamentals of, say for example, a single-minded message in a piece of communication. When they look at these new media, they feel challenged and some can only apply conventional thinking against these new opportunities. I know many clients who have not started using Weibo or WeChat and that speaks volume. Quite a few brands are already attracting hundreds of thousands of followers on Weibo, but they belong to high-interest categories such as condoms and gaming software, meaning they attract conversations and following relatively easily. It remains to be seen how other categories make use of these soft approaches to build their fan base. Having said that, the opportunities remain huge and China never fails to surprise.