James Voon, associate creative director (left) and Jon Chan, associate creative director (right) at FCB Malaysia on the fundamentals of advertising, always starting a project with good food and why work is never finished
From classic to mobile and digital advertising, James Voon does it all with the belief that the best ideas often come from collaborating and working with people. James started his career in BBDO Malaysia, where his talents were recognised by several local and international awards shows and giving him the opportunity to participate in the AdFest Young Lotus workshop in 2014. In 2015, James joined FCB Malaysia. Since then, he has been growing with the agency and participating in numerous pitches and award shows.
Jonathan entered advertising some 13 years ago. Three agencies, multiple awards including Best Copywriter at the MARKies 2021, and hundreds of campaigns later – for a vast range of brands that include RHB Bank, Pepsi Co, Resorts World Genting, Genting SkyWorlds, Domino’s, Mamee, Darlie, Sun Life Insurance, BRAND’S, Auto Bavaria, LEGOLAND, Cuckoo, Marigold, Marmite, Levi’s, OSIM, and Canon – he is still here. And he still hates writing about himself.
What kind of creative person are you?
James> An easy-going guy who likes to eat.
Jon> An easy-going guy who likes to eat with James.
How do you like to see the world?
Jon> My own eyes. Unless it’s 2077, then it’s a pair of cybernetic ones with Netflix installed.
James> Mantis Shrimp have up to 16 photoreceptors and can see UV, visible and polarised light. Would like to see the world as a mantis shrimp.
Do you think creativity is something that’s innate or something that you learn – why?
James> I think it’s a bit of both. I think creativity is in everyone. The rest is learning how to act on it.
Jon> I think it’s both too. Creativity is not some superpower that you get after being bitten by a radioactive artist. Everyone is born with it. But with enough time and effort, one can learn to be more creative at certain things.
Would you consider yourself and introvert or extravert – or something else? Why?
James> Not an extravert.
Jon> 15% of my brain is used for storing excuses to get out of social events. So, an introvert, I think.
How do you feel about routine?
Jon> I don’t drink coffee, so I don’t think I have one.
James> Jon can play 40 Squad Battles (15-minute boring matches against the AI) in FIFA every week consistently, without a miss. I think he is a very ‘routine’ kind of person.
Jon> Shut up, James.
When it comes to creative ‘stuff’ that you enjoy, do you like things that are similar to the work you do or do you enjoy exploring?
Jon> While I don’t really actively explore ‘creative stuff’, I do enjoy creative works that are not advertising-related. Like movies, music, YouTube videos and video games. Like every other normal dude.
James> I think I enjoy exploring more, as it’s the only way to get away from being trapped in the creative ‘bubble’. Sometimes, you just need to zoom out to gain a different perspective, even though it’s the same thing.
How do you assess whether an idea or a piece of work is truly creative? What are your criteria?
Jon> To me, every piece of work in advertising has to serve a business purpose. If the idea doesn’t help the brand achieve its goals, then it’s not truly “creative” from an advertising perspective.
James> Something that makes me go, “Whoa, why didn’t I think of that?”
Has that criteria shifted or evolved over the years?
Jon? I mean, no matter how much advertising has evolved, the fundamentals will always remain the same. Hence, so will the criteria that decide whether a work is creative or not.
What creative campaigns are your proudest of and why?
James> One project that I like particularly is a campaign that we recently did for RHB Premier. Typically, premier banks always portray the consumers in their ads as aspirational people in fancy suits whose diet contains only the finest cuisines. Our approach for RHB Premier is completely different – instead of gentlemen at a golf course, we instead featured a young contemporary artist and a traditional calligraphy artist to create three beautifully crafted pieces of art (without them even knowing each other’s existence) to depict RHB Premier as a progressive bank that combines the yesterday’s wisdom with today’s banking services.
Jon> For me, it’s the festive stories that we tell for RHB Bank. Being able to work with a brand ballsy enough to move away from “safe” formulaic festive ads to retell beautiful stories of real everyday Malaysians that echo the bank’s ethos and seeing how the nation reacts so positively to them is massively satisfying. I obviously love all the films from our campaigns, but if I had to pick a personal favourite, it would be this.
Overall, what do you make of the industry’s creative output right now? What’s exciting you about it or frustrating you?
Jon> We live in an age where new technology constantly places better tools in our hands that allow us to tell better stories for brands. However, I think there’s a misconception that better tools automatically equal better stories. I’ve seen brands hastily and thoughtlessly hopping on the latest technology bandwagon without a true purpose other than “Hey, that brand just rolled out a cool campaign using that technology. We should do that too!”, which resulted in a tsunami of uninspiring same-ish campaigns. Like the great Michael Scott would say, “monkey see, monkey do, monkey pee all over you”. Apologies if I’m being too harsh.
James> I feel that brands are playing too safe in their own sandbox right now. I kinda miss the days where there were plenty of campaigns that saw Nike vs. Adidas, Digi vs. Celcom, Nandos taking a piss on KFC – in other words, the friendly competitive banter between brands.
How do you like to start a campaign or creative project?
Jon> With a great brief, preferably. A belly full of fire. And good food.
James> Let’s start with some good food first. Then the brief.
Are there any tools or platforms (analogue or digital) that you find particularly helpful for gathering or iterating ideas?
James> An iPhone and the Internet.
Jon> Or a far superior Android device. That being said, both of us find that there’s no better source of inspiration than talking to people (which is, frankly, a nightmare for introverts like us). You never know where a great idea can come from, but more often than not, it comes from a who.
Are there any techniques that you’ve tried that just didn’t gel with you, why?
James> Tried drawing sketches for storyboards. Failed miserably.
Jon> Mind mapping. I always end up being lost in a maze of words. Ironic.
Do you like to start every project as a blank sheet or are you constantly collecting possible inspiration or references for future projects?
Jon> Personally, I prefer a blank sheet because that opens doors for original ideas. But still, it’s important to keep cramming your brain with inspiration to ensure that the sheet doesn’t stay blank.
James> It’s always fun to start every project as a blank sheet, but it’s also equally fun to build something new with unsold ideas.
Do you prefer to work collaboratively or alone?
Jon & James> Collaboratively.
Jon & James> Jinx!
When it comes to the hard bits of a project, when you’re stumped, do you have a process or something you like to do for getting past those tricky bits?
Jon> Taking your mind off the work for a while helps a lot. Some of the ideas and solutions that I’m particularly fond of came not when I was in front of my laptop but when I was doing something else – like driving home or taking a sh…ower.
James> I find that taking a step back and throwing in a “Hey guys, what if…” helps in unclogging the process. That usually would land on something and lead us to new solutions and ideas, in my experience.
How do you know when a piece of work is ‘done’?
James> It’s never ‘done’. It’s never finished.
Jon> When no amount of overthinking can conjure something up to add to the work.
Where did you grow up and what early experiences do you think sowed the seeds of your creativity?
Jon> I grew up in Penang (the island, not the mainland) – which is the undisputed food capital of Malaysia. By the way – in a small apartment where my mum tried her best to fill with books. Being an avid reader, she would often encourage me and my brother to read when we were kids. I guess that shaped my love for writing.
James> I grew up in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, and played with LEGO bricks a lot when I was a kid. I didn’t have many LEGO bricks, so whenever I wanted to build something ambitiously big – like a rocket – I only had my creativity to rely on. So I think LEGO played a big part.
How did you hone your craft?
Jon> By observing the people around me. Advertising is for everyone, after all.
James> Try, fail, try again until you figure it out.
When it comes to your own creativity, what external factors can really help you fly, and what do you find frustrates it? (for example, do you thrive on stress or does it spur you on? Does clutter trigger ideas or does it distract you?)
Jon> My petrifying fear of failing to produce good work is a double-edged sword that has resulted in both good campaigns and unnecessary late nights.
James? Sometimes, it’s the stressful or challenging situations that bring out the best in you.
What advice would you give to clients looking to get the best out of the teams and agencies they worked with?
Jon> Just remember that no agency wants to do a bad job for you, which means no one is intentionally making the logo smaller. Trust them, talk to them, and work with them.
James> Just be nice and you will have the whole agency willing to go all-out for you.
How do you think agencies can best facilitate creativity in terms of culture and design?
James> Agencies have been living in the advertising bubble for far too long. These days, it excites me to come across more and more ad campaigns that are born from collaborations with the other realms of the creative world – be it music, arts, film, tech or even subcultures. And long may that continue.
Jon> Produce good, thoughtful work. Technology has allowed advertising to reach further and wider than before, making ads more influential than ever. This power that we hold doesn’t just allow us to get someone to love a brand or buy a thing, but to also inspire creativity and shape minds. And minds, in turn, can shape cultures. I know it’s cliché to quote this, but it’s relevant as hell now more than ever: With great power comes great responsibility.