As his directorial debut launches, Suthisak Sucharittanonta talks to LBB’s Laura Swinton about his career and desire to use his creative skills to give back to society
“It was all by chance - or destiny, if you want to look at it from that angle.”
After 30 years in the advertising industry, including 22 years at BBDO, pioneering creative Suthisak Sucharittanonta is retiring to pursue a new career as a director. He’s just shot a profoundly moving piece for charity Ramathibodi Foundation, an organisation that provides healthcare and services for the underprivileged. It's an exciting development in a career full of milestones. Throughout his time, he’s been an instrumental figure, helping to transform Thailand into a byword for wild humour, emotionally engaging filmmaking and innovation in advertising. He’s even responsible for the country’s first ever Gold Lion at Cannes, back in 2003.
And yet, at the very beginning, as an architecture student, young Suthi saw advertising not as a career but as a place to build his photography portfolio. “At that time of my life, I was looking for opportunities to work as a photographer,” he explains. “I had brought my portfolio to Dentsu Thailand to apply as a photographer but was rejected as they already had two staff photographers at that time,” he recalls. “Yoshii-san, the ECD there and my soon-to-be first boss, saw in my resume that I was an architecture grad student. He asked me if I could draw and create storyboards and that was it… I was offered a job in advertising, but not the one I went in for.”
Suthisak entered the industry as a visualiser at Dentsu, at a time when Thai advertising had not yet established itself as a unique and powerful creative presence in the international advertising scene. “Back in the early ‘90s, Thai advertising was still very influenced by the West. The ads had very beautiful art direction, music and ideas, but I wouldn’t say they had a very distinctive Thai voice,” Suthi reflects.
Looking back, he’s got fond memories of the first TV ad that he worked on – a Christmas spot spot for Thai Daimaru department store with actress Nok Sinjai, a lifelong friend. “I wish I could find it and share it with you, but as you can imagine, when it aired YouTube wasn’t born yet, so we’re out of luck,” jokes Suthisak, wryly hinting at the vast changes that have hit the advertising industry since those days.
One of the ads that marked a real turning point in Suthisak’s career was a bombastic action comedy film for BlackCat Whisky, directed by Suthon Petchsuwan. He made the ad while working at Results, one of Ogilvy Thailand’s subsidiary agencies. “This work created a big impact on the Thai ad industry, and definitely my career,” he says.
In 2003 he won Thailand’s first Gold Film Lion with a deadpan, absurdist spot for anti-aging cream Giffarine EQ10 called ‘Belly Button Face’. “It was a weird and absurd film about two sons trying to get revenge on a doctor who gave their mom such a severe face lift that her belly button moved. As for why the international audience liked it… it was fun, it was crazy and it was different; and because of that, it stood out,” says Suthi. The spot was another collaboration with director Suthon Petchsuwan of Matching Studio, and it helped solidify Thailand’s reputation for surreal humour.
Of course, Suthi and his team at BBDO Bangkok are part of a wider creative culture. Suthisak reckons that Thai creatives are natural entertainers. “As Thais, we have quite a laid back and non-serious way of life. We want to enjoy life, not suffer through it; therefore we love any form of entertainment, and we like it to the extremes. You can see this in the ads that really resonate with Thai people, with slapstick humour and tear-jerking narratives being the local favourites,” he says.
Throughout his career, Suthisak has had the chance to work with all manner of leading adlanders, and while he has been a mentor and a leader in his role as CCO and chairman, he’s also thankful for the people who have helped him along the way. "I’m really grateful that I got to work for Barry Owen and Neil French, my bosses at Ogilvy. They were great mentors who taught me everything about great ads. Allen Rosenshine, Phil Dusenberry, David Alberts, Chris Jaques, Jean-Michel Goudard, Chris Thomas, Andrew Robertson and David Lubars, all my bosses at BBDO Worldwide, they all inspired me to strongly believe in The Work. The Work. The Work. and gave me a lot of support and freedom.”
With BBDO, a network he's been with for 22 years, he professes a heartfelt loyalty and gratitude. "I love the BBDO network; it’s filled with great people and great minds, and I’ve learned a lot from them," he says.
In his turn, Suthisak has cultivated his own sense of creative leadership, nurturing those currently building their own careers. “It’s hard to be a good leader,” he says. “I believe that good leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders. In doing so they must give those that look up to them the right knowledge and tools to grow and thrive in their own right.”
Suthi has always sought to apply creativity to make people’s lives better. In recent years, that’s taken the form of innovative products developed at BBDO Bangkok, like Moto-repellent (an attachment to scooter exhausts that helps kill mosquitoes) or the Porous Plate (a plate that helps drain oil from food), or black ink made from the tar found in dead smokers’ lungs. For several years, he has worked with Operation Smile, a global foundation that raises money to operate on children with cleft palates. Last year, he took up the camera and revisited his first love, photography, for The Fighters Project, celebrating Thai people living with disabilities.
“Life is a gift. A purely random gift. And life should be about sharing. If we are good at something, pass it on. Help others. When I use what God gave me to help the underprivileged it gives me great joy,” says Suthisak.
The industry in 2020 is in a wildly different state than it was when he joined in the early ‘90s – and in Thailand as in other markets around the world the industry is facing challenges on many fronts. “The Thai ad industry has an uphill battle ahead. There’s no shortage of creative Thai minds, but I personally think the advertising industry is no longer sexy or exciting to the new generation. They have other business ideas they want to do and own. They want to open small but cool coffee shops rather than sitting in ad agencies and working for the older generations.”
But for Suthisak, retirement from agency life doesn’t mean retirement from creativity. He’s just launched his directorial debut. It’s a heart-wrenching online film for the Ramathibodi Foundation, an organisation that provides healthcare to underprivileged people. The film is inspired by a true story about a little girl abandoned in the woods and raised by a poor construction worker.
The film marks a statement of intent. Suthisak is keen to put his creative craft to good use and do more to make society a better place. “I now have a goal of giving back by using my experience, passions and skills to promote and encourage the betterment of society for the greater good through two things I love and enjoy doing most - photography and film directing,” he says. “And of course, I will spend more time with my family.”