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5 Minutes with…Natalie Lam


McCann World Group / Executive Creative Director

5 Minutes with…Natalie Lam

Interviewed by LBB's editor, Gabrielle Lott 

LBB > So, McCann Group. Tell me what it is about McCann that makes it so unique or individual. 
NL > If you look at the big networks, where people are talking about change and integration, I think we're very fortunate in our group’s leaders. Linus (Karlsson), Andreas [Dahlqvist] and Nick [Brien]  are a lot more serious, they believe in what we can do and implement it throughout McCann Group. They are more serious than anybody else that we have seen before because they are making changes from the top up. In other agencies, whoever is at the top, they have the intention, but they don’t often have the first-hand understanding of what’s new, what’s channel agnostic.
Our leaders live and breathe that and they understand that they don’t need to be explained to - the new types of thinking, the new types of work, and all of the integrated mottos. I think fundamentally they believe in what we are doing and what we are implementing and it makes a huge difference. If people at the top believe and know what it is about, then changes and development can and will happen. Obviously there are lots of boutiques out there who are very, very good and very flexible. I think McCann has the scale. We have deep-rooted relationships with the world’s biggest clients, like L’Oreal and Mastercard and that’s the advantage for anyone coming here and who are pushing for a new type of work. There are no boundaries attached to what the end result is. In terms of scale, you can deliver a lot more here than if you go to a specialised boutique.
LBB > You’re regarded highly for the work that you’ve done digitally and have a great reputation for that. And obviously you have a Black Pencil - I am slightly in awe of that! You’re a female and an ECD, that’s pretty exceptional.
NL > No, I think I was very lucky. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. 
LBB > Can you talk to me about that? How it is that you came to be in advertising, and to be, I don’t want to say that you specialise in digital because I know that you like to be regarded as being involved in all, but you definitely have a strong skill-set within that area. Would you mind discussing that a little bit more?
NL > Well, I think the biggest thing about working in advertising is that I grew up in Hong Kong and the Chinese mind-set (people are going to kill me for this, but I don’t care) is very literal, especially in Hong Kong, where everything is very superficial in general. Also, I have amazing parents, but they are very literal people and they listen to the media and buy into whatever it says. So I always like to know who came up with the message that the mass just totally believes in, without challenging it. I always want to be sort of behind the scenes and just do whatever I do, where I get to see the massive mind-set of people. 
I’m always curious about what goes on behind the scenes. I always liked to get to the roots of what influenced people. And advertising was just by accident because I actually went into design first because I loved it. But then I realised that design and craftsmanship is only part of the product of a big idea that influences people’s mind-set and behaviour. So I traced it back - what can be more influential than design? And so advertising is the natural root of practice that you can really get in to from day one to influence the strategy, influence the way you want to talk about things, influence how you communicate, and then eventually reach out to a mass group of consumers or real people.
LBB > So, is it because of your design background that you found that you naturally moved into digital?
NL > Again, I think my path has been really lucky, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right people. 
LBB > You were with R/GA as well. The period that you were with them, from 2003-2008 - it’s huge!
NL > It’s a massive group, yeah. When I started it was 200 people, and when I left it was 800. It was great. So I just happened to be there in the right time, back in ’98. I was doing lots of branding and also design and print, but with integrated thinking. That’s when every company wanted a brochure website and I stumbled into it. I was designing the Goldman Sachs annual report and working at a place called Frankfurt Balkind, in which I met a lot of amazing people. Lots of great people came out of there and they were one of the few print-driven shops that wanted to catch onto digital. So brochure websites were the first generation of digital-type work and obviously everyone needed to have one - and that’s just how I got into it. 
Normally, I’m a really lazy person. Without pressure, I wouldn’t do anything. No one knew anything about digital and everybody had a kind of fear of what it was. So I thought, ‘since I must do a brochure website’, even though I was clueless about technology and digital, ‘I might as well just dive right in and force myself to learn it’. That is why, after Frankfurt Balkind and the Goldman Sachs brochure websites, I switched straight into technology consultancy with Cambridge Technology Partners. 
LBB > So, you identified that there was a need in the market?
NL > I just wanted to learn at that point. I wanted to find the most straightforward way for me to be surrounded with all tech people, so that quickly I was forced to know what the hell it was all about. If I’m in a company of 3000 all tech people, then there’s no choice but to quickly learn.
LBB > You are from Hong Kong originally and based in New York at the moment. Why New York? What brought you here originally and what brings you back?
NL > I came here 20 years ago. The reason? I do a lot of things because I know what I don’t want to do and I find alternatives to avoid it, not necessarily because I know what I’m getting into. When I grew up in Hong Kong, the education system was quite strict and very disciplinary. I always liked art and the closest discipline that a university offered in Hong Kong was architecture. I knew I didn’t want huge responsibilities. I didn’t want the building to collapse and kill someone!
I wanted to do art. I had always liked art and design, and when someone recommended Parsons [School for Design] I applied and got in. Then I switched and entered Cooper Union here in New York and I naturally loved it. I loved the sort of openness and thinking in the US. It offered a lot more than a typical high pressure Asian society, so I stayed. It’s hard to describe why, but it’s just that there is an excitement about New York that makes you stay. 
LBB > You said you went back to Shanghai for three years, how was that going? Because you were going as an adult and a successful ECD, how was the working practice?
NL > “Actually, I went back in 2008 after a few amazing last years at R/GA, to try something different. My last 3 years at R/GA were year after year of amazing, big, global assignments. The first year was launching Nike+ (, the second year was re-launching the whole Nike iD ( platform globally and into the NIKE stores, the third year was launching the global Nike+ Human Race.”
LBB > And you also did the Nike Human Race, didn’t you?
NL > Yes, the first ever human race globally. And after all of those experiences, you look around and it doesn’t seem like there are any bigger global things that I could top them with, especially if I were to have stayed in New York in the pure digital space. Also, at that time I think the human race was the first time that it really dawned on me that there’s a much bigger world out there than just digital.
LBB > What was it? 24 cities and 800,000 runners?
NL > Yes, and a 10 km race the same day and then each event ends with a concert, with the top musicians in the world. 
LBB > So, did you sit there saying, “which one shall I go to?” (laughter).
NL > Actually, that’s the first time I forced myself to run 10km. If I’m forced to do something and I have no choice, then I’ll do it. Again, back to my very lazy nature! So that’s when you realise, oh my god, this is a truly big idea, a real platform and with real channel agnostics. R/GA had been a really great experience, but they focus on digital and I wanted to do a lot more, I wanted to do events, PR…It doesn’t matter what the end product is, just that the result applies appropriately using whatever medium is applicable. There are not a lot of equally large scale challenges anymore and I didn’t want to be restricted by digital. I was fortunate an amazing opportunity came from Ogilvy where I could do integrated work and within a brand new market.
LBB > And your clients there were Adidas, Chanel, Fanta, Lee Jeans?
NL > Ogilvy Asia was always like the leaders of the pack. They are like the big brothers. Ogilvy has the relationships and the scale to do so. I always think of Ogilvy China as sort of the Ellis Island - if any brand wants to go into China and establish a presence, they must stop at Ogilvy first because it has such influence over there. They’re like the first ones to get any cool clients. 
It’s very interesting over there because the scene is totally open and advertising has not been as well established as the west, so anything goes. A lot of things that I knew how to do here in NYC, I had to totally throw away and learn again everything from scratch. That was a very, very fresh and welcoming experience for me. For example, here in NYC, competitive brands do not live within the same agency, yet over there they want to be in the same agency because they want to be with someone who has the experience so that they don’t screw it up. All of those are just amazingly fresh experiences that force you to throw away everything that you know from New York, and make you start from scratch.
LBB > What was it like for you personally living in Shanghai, as opposed to New York? 
NL > Actually, I always tell people that if you have a life there, it’s a really great life. If you work all the time then it’s pretty bad. It’s such a fast moving and fast growing society that it’s truly 24/7 over there, rather than here. 
LBB > ...14/15?!
NL > Yes! (laughter)That, compared to Asia, is a lot better. 
LBB > You’ve won a lot of awards - you’ve won some fantastic awards - what value do you put on winning them? How important are they to you?
NL > Obviously, through awards you can attract lots of really great talent, who want to do the same and strive for the same quality. And they’re always good to show clients: ‘look, you never thought about doing these types of things, but we did it and it’s been proven, so trust us and take bigger risks’. So it’s always good on those two fronts. 
LBB > How do you find working on global brands, as opposed to locally based? Which do you enjoy the most?
NL > I think it all depends on if it is a global brand on a higher strategic level. That’s amazing because then you can really look at everything from a very high-level standpoint and not get bogged down by the implementation and regional differences. For example, the idea of the human race - the idea was very simple - it was one day, 24 hours, 10km. The implementation is actually the difficult part with global brands. That level of work is really amazing and challenging because it involves massive influence.  We always talk about how the scale of influence that some of our big global clients have are much more powerful than governments because governments only operate within their own territories. But these big brands, when they make a change, its transcending boundaries and borders. 
LBB > And, so do you still enjoy advertising? 
NL > I love it. 
LBB > Why?
NL > I think it’s because I’m very curious about the world we live in. I’m very curious about why people do things a certain way and what is the drive behind their motive. Because of social, political, economic, educational and lots of various other reasons, people act and think very differently at a global scale, from place to place. Through brands having to market to different types of people, you really get to know why they'll buy. Fundamentally, I like that part, and also I like the psychology part of why people do certain things. 
LBB > Finally, when you were at OgilvyOne, you were their first female regional creative director. How is that? That kind of role, being put in that kind of position, you’re blazing a trail, surely? 
NL > Well, actually I think you’d be amazed that in Asia there are a lot of women in high positions. And I guess it’s one of those things that you just do it. You basically define what you are there to do and there are a lot of examples of women just doing things that no one ever expects them to do, and they do it well. So, it’s kind of natural actually. It’s fun because you don’t know what’s expected of you, but also it’s quite liberating because then you can carve out whatever you feel in your heart is the right thing to do. 
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