VMLY&R - Asia
1 month ago
Valerie Madon, CCO for VMLY&R Asia had no idea a career in advertising existed growing up and had decided she was happy to live her life as a greeting card designer. Despite dropping out of university after a year she has had a colourful career working at Havas and on briefs with brands such as Procter & Gamble, GSK and Burger King.
Citing ‘burning out’ as the reason for taking a break from the industry, Valerie turned her sights to a creative role in Facebook before returning to agencies a few years ago.
Now, she likens her role as CCO to an artist with a canvas and in her spare time runs a successful ice cream business imaginatively called Licktionary. Valerie explains to LBB’s Natasha Patel what has driven her to succeed and her passion for her side project.
LBB> Did you always want to work in the creative industry?
Valerie> Yes. I quit university after one year because it had nothing to do with art. And art, from a young age, was the only thing that consistently brought me joy during my school years. I loved painting and couldn’t stop, and would have initially studied fine arts, but thought it unlikely that I would be able to make a living from it.
Then I was tempted to take up fashion design, but was discouraged by my friends who were in art school because I came from a humble background and my family would never be able to send me to Paris or anywhere to excel in fashion. So eventually, I graduated from Visual Communications at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, thinking I would be a greeting card designer for the rest of my career. I had no idea that the advertising world existed and had definitely never heard of an ECD or CCO even after I left school.
LBB> Have you ever thought of yourself as a female powerhouse?
Valerie> Never. Oprah Winfrey is a powerhouse. Our late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is an undeniable powerhouse. I’m nowhere near that status. Furthermore, I never see myself as female or male.
I’m a creative like any other creative who had the fortune of crossing paths with some of the best mentors in this business, great bosses who kept pushing me to rise above and God-sent opportunities to set me on the right path.
LBB> Is it important, in your opinion, to have diversity in leadership?
Valerie> Extremely important. I have witnessed how diversity leads to new perspectives and hence more learning from one another. Diversity in leadership leads to diverse hiring throughout the office because it’s human nature to lean towards the circle of talent we know and by sheer connections we have from the past, it’s common to know more people like ourselves. So diversity instantly creates a new pool of talent we would not have known otherwise.
LBB> What does the day-to-day in your role entail?
Valerie> Too many meetings but I guess it’s necessary to keep business going. Every day we are identifying new businesses that we can go after, working on regional pitches to make sure the creative brief is inspiring for the creatives to work on. Providing inspiration to free the minds but also steer the team in the right direction. Preparing for ‘the show’ and constantly improving on my ‘performance’ because very few can really say they have perfected the art of presentation. What we create is highly subjective and it’s critical to sell it well.
But what makes me really happy is finding the opportunity to work with clients who makes me think creatively every day. An artist needs a canvas and when I get the opportunity to work on a great brief, I am fired up again. We have great brands like Caltex and Heinz and doing great work for them is what keeps me going. When you focus on the work, everything follows. PR for the office and morale of the agency is instantly boosted.
LBB> What would you say has been your favourite project to date?
Valerie> It would have to be The Guardian Angel because it was the first product I got to innovate with my team at JWT. It was a huge learning curve but extremely satisfying because we were behaving like a start-up in an agency. It wasn’t just about coming up with an idea. We had to work out the funding, the logistics and the fulfilment because we were getting orders from all over the world. It got worldwide press, was featured on the Queen Latifah Show and was even nominated in the Cannes Lions Innovation category.
LBB> Is there anything you wished you worked on?
Valerie> No matter how many great campaigns I’ve seen in my life, I would still come back to Fearless Girl. It was ground-breaking in so many ways but yet so simple and powerful. I don’t usually idolise anyone or anything but when I was in New York, I just had to see her. Even after so many years, there are still people from all over the world coming to take pictures with her. That’s what I admired the most, that it definitely had an impact in the world unlike many campaigns which no one will ever remember even after winning all the awards.
LBB> You mentioned creative work as the reason you came back to the agency world, but how did you feel when you left it?
Valerie> I left because I was burning out and I needed a break. I was still hungry to create work and I thought maybe I could still do it outside the agency-world which is not really true. In order to do great work, you need a team of people who are equally passionate about making things happen. An individual cannot do it alone and it’s definitely tougher when the organisation is not 100% behind you.
I missed the stress of not cracking a brief and I missed bouncing ideas around with other creatives. I missed brainstorming with production teams on how to make the impossible happen. I missed seeing the younger ones in the team feeling even more accomplished because they were part of the experience. But leaving the agency world for a few years opened my eyes and I learned so much that I would not have if I stayed in our agency bubble.
Until this day, I would be very happy for anyone to leave the agency to learn because I know what it has done for me and I would still say Facebook was one of the best organisations I’ve ever worked in. It had culture, benefits, personal growth, welfare and everything one can hope for in a workplace but I was still missing the crazy agency life.
LBB> Who is your creative hero and why?
Valerie> I’ve never idolised anyone, not even popstars but there are a few I had the pleasure to experience and learn from like the late Malaysian film director and ECD of Leo Burnett Malaysia, Yasmin Ahmad who was so magnetic as a human being that you can feel her in all her films.
She’s a constant reminder to be myself and stand for the kind of work that is a reflection of me. We should never try to be someone else. Linda Locke who was my regional ECD in Leo Burnett is still my pillar of strength today because she’s fearless and nothing is impossible with her.
Creatively, I am more excited by creators in other fields like culinary, because I know that putting a dish or an edible experience together is way harder than launching a campaign. My creative hero would be Ferran Adria and his work at El Bulli, who I gained a greater appreciation for after running my own ice cream brand and shop, Licktionary.
LBB> Tell us more about Licktionary, where did the idea come from?
Valerie> Cooking has always been my other joy since a really young age. I remember baking Chinese New Year goodies with my grandmother overnight at the young age of six and I’ve never stopped cooking since.
The kitchen is my other canvas and refuge to lift my spirits on a bad day. So when I turned 40 and was feeling a little burned out with my agency role, my husband encouraged me to take a break and explore my other love. Given that both of us do not have any food and beverage experience, we knew we couldn’t open a fully-fledged café or restaurant but in the meantime I was already making ice cream at home and realised the huge drastic difference in the quality we make at home with real ingredients versus store-bought.
One day, I chanced on an ad to get certified in gelato making and I thought why not pick up a real skill in cooking? After getting the certification, I realised we could focus on a product and do it really well so we started brainstorming on the brand and product positioning. Through the many years of experience building brands and helping clients craft their positioning, me and my husband, Farrokh Madon, who is also now CCO of his own agency Pirate, felt we wanted a concept that would allow us to create endless possibilities of flavours. And even better, our flavours are inspired by the wonderful world of words which makes a copywriter like him really excited.
On the other hand, I’m the art director that brings the words to life, not through pictures but tastes and flavours. Hence the concept of Licktionary was born - words you can taste with flavours like Love, Lust, Naughty, Peace and Monster.
LBB> Wow what a wonderful story, how does running the shop/brand compare to your day job?
Valerie> Running my own brand and shop is way harder than my day job because it’s all on me (and my husband) to succeed or fail. While it’s extremely liberating to be able to make all the calls, it’s also daunting because having a passion is only the beginning and that’s the fun part of the ice cream business and being a creative in the agency.
The not-fun part of managing the business is one I can’t avoid in the ice cream shop but on the agency side, I have many smarter partners to depend on for that. As much as it has been really tough for my husband and I, we have learned so much from running the shop. Getting into our own business has opened my eyes and made me understand how big and small our role as agencies are in the scheme of our clients’ business.
Big because when done well from strategic positioning to creative communications, we can really make a huge impact on marketing ROI. I have witnessed this for myself now that I have to plan my own media, buy it and watch it perform. On a smaller scale, I could see the instant impact, even down to conversion, and fine-tune the creative or media immediately to make my assets perform better.
I also saw how small our role is in comparison to the scheme of what our clients have to deal with. Marketing is just one facet of many that they have to worry about. From staffing, to the logistics of implementing a new product launch, to fulfilment at store and finally financially analysing the overall success. I have grown more respect and empathy for what my clients have to go through.
Now I feel a greater sense of responsibility to own the briefs I receive today so that I can be a better partner who is thoroughly interested in my clients’ business and am compelled to use my creativity to help solve a business problem, not just a communication problem.
LBB> Tell us about your plans for the future and the direction you’d like to see the agency go in.
Valerie> In my regional capacity, my dream is to see every creative leader happy. When they are happy, I know they are creating the best work of their lives. Once the creative light bulb is switched on in every creative leader, their self-drive will lead to more surprising ideas and our creative leaders are critical for the agency’s evolution.
At VMLY&R, we are fortunate to have a solid foundation in tech and digital but creativity is crucial in stirring emotions to connect with humans and create meaningful brand experiences that will touch lives and be remembered. There’s too much logical thinking and too little magic surrounding us today. Logic is what our clients can do themselves hence they engage us to provide the unthinkable.
That’s essentially what El Bulli did for the culinary world. They married innovative techniques with flavourful food to create experiences you can never imagine possible and you’ll never forget. I would love to create an agency which much like El Bulli, captures this sentiment, where the world would be wondering what else we would ‘cook’ up next.VMLY&R - Asia, 1 month ago