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Peeling Back the Layers of Malaysian Creativity



FCB Kuala Lumpur’s general manager, Syahriza Badron and creative director, Tjer Wang tell LBB’s Natasha Patel about what makes advertising and creativity in the country so unique

Peeling Back the Layers of Malaysian Creativity
As a country, Malaysia is famed for its multi-cultural society celebrating the Malays, Indian, Chinese and melting point of different religions and languages that inhabit it. While some of these locals have their own distinct cultural identities, some crossover and what other way is there to depict this crossover than through art and music. Because of this, the country’s advertising landscape is a homage to all of the unique identities and festivals that are celebrated throughout the year.

Two creatives best placed to unpick the intricacies of the country’s advertising scene are FCB Kuala Lumpur’s general manager, Syahriza Badron and creative director, Tjer Wang who have both been in the industry for almost two decades each. During that time, they’ve seen trends come and go, digital consumption grow and touched upon cultural nuances that have the power to change the country.

Here LBB’s Natasha Patel chats to the duo about these trends, why sometimes Twitter is the best way to get under the skin of the locals and how a shampoo campaign for hijab wearers – without showing any hair – was an empowering moment.

LBB> Firstly, tell me about your careers, how did you get into the industry and what was it about advertising that drew you in?

Syahriza> During university, I was deliberating between advertising and journalism. 21-year-old me stumbled upon this badass book “How St. Luke's Became the Ad Agency to End All Ad Agencies” [by Andy Law]. The rest is history. Also, to be honest, I also find it hard to picture myself doing a 9-5 job! Growing up, “normal” was never an option, to me.

I was drawn to the three “UNs” – uncommon, unconventional, unusual. Because advertising is uncommon, unconventional and unusual, it’s thrilling. From cracking briefs, finding insights, chasing deadlines, bickering with anyone and everyone to get the work right, seeing it materialised, to winning awards - it still gives me the “kick” until today. It doesn’t feel like a job, I am simply doing something that I am truly passionate about.

Tjer> Funnily enough, my first step into the world of advertising was quite similar to Syah’s. Back in 2005, I was fresh out of advertising school and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into creative, production or client management. Then, my mum gifted me a copywriter’s handbook on my birthday and after reading it, I thought, “Huh, being a copywriter sounds like an easy job”. Needless to say, I quickly found out how wrong I was, and I’m still reminded of it till this day. 

What drew me into advertising was the surreal feeling of seeing your work out in the world, something that I experienced first-hand during my internship. And to this day, even after 17 years, it still gives me the same thrill and excitement. 

LBB> Do you remember any Malaysian adverts that stood out to you from those early days and what made them so interesting?

Tjer> Like many others who grew up in the ‘90s, I think a lot of the work from the late Yasmin Ahmad really left an indelible mark on me. She had this knack of telling really simple yet powerful stories that were backed by strong human truths, and she always had her unique way of celebrating the charming realities of everyday Malaysian life that we could all resonate with.

A good example would be her National Day 2007 spot for Petronas titled Tan Hong Ming. It was a simple premise – two schoolchildren of different races candidly sharing with the audience how they feel about each other. No CGIs, no complex plots; there wasn’t even a script as far as I know. But to this day it remains one of the most memorable and powerful ads to ever come out of Malaysia, and we still look to it as an inspiration from time to time. 

Syah> The same too, for me. Her piece for Petronas’s National Day back in 1996. First, storytelling at its finest, it was so real and honest. Second, she was ahead of her time, the ad focused on members of a minority group, which was not a norm for the industry back then. And third, it then set the trend for every brand. Until today, I still get briefs from clients with a specific request “I want to do a “Petronas” ad.” Mind blowing.

LBB> You've both been in the industry a while now, so you've seen many trends come and go. What is driving communications in Malaysia at the moment?

Tjer> I think digital, tech, data, analytics and the whole works are driving the communications in Malaysia at the moment. That being said, while the constant advancement of technology has given us a lot more avenues to approach creative work, it has also unfortunately become a double-edged sword. I say that because I’ve seen creative agencies fall into the trap of being so engrossed with these new trends that they struggle to draw a line between an idea and an execution. And when that happens, what we get is a cool demonstration of a technological innovation, but one that is devoid of any compelling story or narrative. 

Syah> In the age of digitalisation, every move is measurable/trackable. Overnight, everyone is focused on results/KPI causing an unhealthy fixation on numbers. Case in point, an ad is produced to drive awareness, but the buy matrix is based on engagement - because today, “engagement” is “the way to go”, resulting in poor performance, the post-mortem is “the creative work needs to work harder”. You see, when this is abused, it takes a toll on creativity. We all strive to achieve great results; it requires collaborative efforts. 

LBB> I know that faith in religion plays a big part in communications in Malaysia, is this still the case? What have your experiences been?

Syah> It is not just about actions or attire; it is down to what you choose to say as well. You need to tread carefully especially in the age of social media, everything goes viral in split seconds. A few months back, there was a big uproar over a slipper brand just because the brand claimed that it’s “Muslim-friendly”.  It's a claim that no one can grasp. How can a slipper be Muslim-friendly? 

Also, it’s not just religion, there’s also unspoken rules on politics and censorship as well. It’s tough at times to work on something when there are numerous checklists to tick - “Is this outfit Halal enough?”, “Can they even hold hands?” “Will I offend anyone if I say this?” “Does this word have a double meaning?”.

But I also believe creativity flourishes when there is “constraint”. It makes us work harder. A few years back, we were tasked to launch a shampoo for hijab-wearers. And of course, we couldn’t show even a strand of hair - we had to go beyond demonstration and functionality. It’s imperative to build strong emotional connections to win over the hearts of the hijabsters. We started talking to them and we were suddenly confronted with a strong perception bias which these women battled with every day. They are seen as shy, gentle, obedient, introverts who are very restricted in their actions. We heard this consciousness expressed again and again. But in reality, these young hijab wearers are modern, successful women who are outspoken, daring and very confident. They dislike the fact that their hijab seemed to be the key influence on others’ perceptions of them. We wanted to empower them. This led us to the campaign idea of “Show the world that there is nothing that hijabsters cannot do”. It was a huge success, sales and market share grew tremendously. And of course, others ended up copying.

Tjer> Definitely. The impact is immense, especially in a country like Malaysia. There are a lot of regulations surrounding the talents that we use, the wardrobe and the food that we show, and even down to what we say in our materials. But oftentimes, these “challenges” also inadvertently nudge us to be a little more creative in the way we approach the work and to also learn more about the diverse cultures that we share in this country, so it’s all good!  

LBB> What about campaigns that break 'tradition' and move away from the norm - are they accepted by audiences?

Syah> It's context dependent, really. On the one hand, we are trying to be more open and urbanised; on the other, there are lines not to be crossed, such as when taboo subjects or religion comes into play.

Tjer> Personally, I think the advent of the internet has exposed Malaysians to more novel and provocative work, consequently making the audience, the clients and even the creative agencies more receptive towards campaigns that challenge the norm. A great example would be the National Day 2019 spot we produced for RHB, titled See Beyond Colour. At its heart, it’s a very controversial piece that touches on the racial divide that has been plaguing the country for decades. But the reception towards that piece of work was absolutely incredible, and through it we actually saw Malaysians engaging in conversations about a subject that was once deemed as almost a taboo. 

Syah> Yes, the work that we did for RHB - it’s a good example of us breaking tradition but with a meaningful message that is on-point in its context. That is why it’s so well-received. I personally think it will take slightly longer for Malaysians to be able to embrace out-of-norm campaigns, but we will get there.

LBB> Speaking on this campaign, when working on ads around festival days what is the formula for landing on the perfect film? 

Syah & Tjer> As a multicultural and multiracial country, Malaysia is home to many festive celebrations. And even though each festive occasion carries its own values, practices and even insights, they all share plenty in common – togetherness, familial ties, strength and goodness. Therefore, in whatever festive campaigns that we do, it’s important for us to weave these elements into our work and make them the foundation of our thinking. 

Syah; ...and hope. Festive celebrations always signify a new beginning. 

LBB> For you both, where do your insights come from and where do you find creative inspiration?

Syah> I kid you not, Facebook/Instagram/Tik Tok - specifically the comments section and Twitter. Twitter in Malaysia is at a different level altogether. I enjoy observing people and the surroundings as well. Conversing with total strangers is just as helpful, the taxi, e-hailing drivers, they are full of amazing stories. Books, magazines, movies and of course, people in FCB Kuala Lumpur. These are my absolute go-to in finding insights. 

Tjer> My creative inspiration comes from the people around me, really. The best ideas can come from even the most inane conversations. My colleagues, my family, my friends, it’s always about staying curious and engaging yourself with people as much as you can. 

On the flipside, a long shower helps too, sometimes. Or a couple of hours alone with Netflix.

LBB> How much does social media drive communications and do you have to adapt campaigns to stand out to the younger audience?

Tjer> In a lot of our clients, we’ve seen how social media transformed from just being an afterthought of a campaign to becoming a primary communications channel, within a span of just a few years. And it’s easy to see why from a creative’s POV. Social media allows for so much creative flexibility – it allows us to change our messaging as and when we see fit, to tell different stories and to bring out a more human side of a brand. The younger audience today craves engagement and interaction instead of being told what a brand can offer them, so it’s paramount for us to build a lot of our campaigns using social media behaviour and channels as our foundation. 

Syah> Of course, social media is essential these days. Although, I feel the obsession over social media trends can be overbearing at times, to the point that some brands resort to it due to the pressure to appear “cool” and “current”. It’s excruciating to see, really. I am a firm believer of great insights and ideas. When the idea is great,  you can adapt it to any medium. It’s more important to identify what the younger audience resonate with, get to know their tension point and fill that gap to have a more meaningful conversation via the medium that is most effective to them.

LBB> Where do you think Malaysian creativity will go in the future? Will advertising as a means for communication change?

Tjer> I believe while communication channels will definitely continue to evolve as they have for the past decades, creativity will still rule the day. Yes, new executions and innovative platforms might emerge, but what good is the next TikTok going to do if there are no good stories to tell? 

Syah> Yes, the channels will continue to evolve, and the competition is heating up. There is a plethora of content creators making big waves on Instagram, Tik Tok. There is an influx of innovative platforms that automate creative designs & production. But what good is gimmicks and speed when they lack thoughts and ideas? I must agree with Tjer, creativity will always reign supreme.

Tjer> I believe that creativity will always remain relevant and play a big role in our lives. For decades, sceptics have been predicting the death of the creative industry, but look around us now – creativity has become even more important than ever in these trying times. We just need to be mindful of not getting too caught up with trends and fads, because at the end of the day, it’s the stories that we tell that will inspire and connect people. We should never lose sight of the fundamentals that make us a creative in the first place. 

Syah> Today, everyone is “Usain-Bolt-ing” to keep up with time. Yes, the industry is evolving rapidly, and yes of course we don’t want to be left behind. To cope, we start taking short-cuts, we end up making compromises and our work suffers. Let’s take a step back. Let’s normalize again, taking the time to think, to internalize, to debate, to have a meaningful purpose in producing effective and memorable great work. Let’s give some respect to the creative process. 

I’ll end this with a quote from my favourite author, Oscar Wilde - “To live is the rarest thing in the world, most people just exist”. Let’s not just exist to survive, put up a fight and be bad ass again.

view more - Trends and Insight
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FCB SHOUT, Wed, 07 Jul 2021 16:02:00 GMT