VaynerMedia’s head of creative and managing partner APAC tells LBB’s Natasha Patel about leaving a small town in Malaysia for a career in creativity and how he wound up as VaynerMedia’s employee number eight
VaynerMedia APAC’s managing partner, head of creative and regional ECD VJ Anand grew up as a small-town kid with big dreams. However, his big dreams centred first and foremost around a love for sneakers. “I'm from a small town in Malaysia, so it's super impossible to get anything cool in my town. People would laugh at some of the stores that we have. As a kid, once a year I would go down to the main city in Malaysia, and I would save all my money for that year just to buy one pair of sneakers.”
VJ was given the chance to leave the small town of Taiping Perak in Malaysia and study advertising after a relative convinced his parents it was a ‘legit’ thing to learn about. “I went to study Art and majored in Digital Media. Before I graduated, I got a job as a web designer in 1999.” From there he picked up roles in smaller agencies until an ECD in Havas offered him a role as an art director, after viewing one of his illustrations. “Getting into agencies primarily coming from a digital background… usually people kind of do that the other way around. They come from above the line, then they go to digital and stuff like that. It was a struggle at first going to print.
“Then I went to TBWA\ in Malaysia and did marketing below the line stuff, and I went to Ogilvy, then to Thailand and learnt about activation and events. Then I came back to Malaysia and BBDO had a digital CD role open and they wanted me to join in. I later left and went to Singapore as a CD at Samsung Cheil for a bit.”
Shortly after he made one of the 'best decisions' of his career and went back to Malaysia while taking a pay cut. “I joined a small boutique agency called Creative Juices as their ECD. We did a lot of Nando's work in Malaysia. I owed Nando's a lot and I'm very close to the global marketing people in Malaysia and Singapore.” Shortly after, VJ found himself at BBDO Malaysia. But after 17 years in the industry he felt ‘bored with advertising’ and decided to accept an offer he received from Indonesian tech company Gojek as its senior vice president of creative.
Gojek is an app that can do anything from ordering food to booking massages and travel, so this was a role that VJ really got stuck into on so many levels. “I had ten creatives and then after two years we grew to about 120 people. I started in creative and I ended up bringing in app content, doing social media and I created a sonic branding for the sound for the apps.” A piece of work that he did with Gojek, that went viral, was the campaign with rapper Rich Brian and ironically this led him to Gary Vaynerchuk.
“That went viral and someone sent it to Gary, so they then hit me up and they were like, ‘hey, would you be keen to take on this role?’ At that point I was not sure about joining an agency. I had a lot of friends who are crazy hardcore fans [of Gary] and I'm not. I wasn't really a huge fan, before I started working with him. I never had a global boss who's as real and who knows the mediums of today, you'd usually have someone who's just worried about business, Gary's not like that. Gary is all about the people and making the kind of work that makes a difference - to the friend, to the consumers - consumer-first kind of thinking.”
VJ joined in 2019 as the head of creative for APAC, before being promoted at the start of 2021 to add managing partner to his title. For someone who’s never stayed in a job for longer than three years, he believes he’s just getting started at VaynerMedia. When VJ joined the team in APAC he was employee number eight and had a team of just four, now there’s over 150 in the region, meaning that there’s always someone staying on top of different mediums to pick up consumer insights.
In the Asian region, insights are aplenty but appealing to so many different consumers can be easier said than done. Lucky for VJ, he’s travelled and worked in different corners of the area so he’s got his ear to the ground. Although his tactic for extracting information is a little different. “I always pretend to be the stupidest person in the room. I say, ‘I don't know this about your culture, tell me more.’ As a foreign person, I think you uncover different insights.
“In the region and with the work itself, you need to diversify the work and there must be a common thread that cuts across Asia or that cuts across globally. There's always a common thread, but then you take the trend and you try to drill down to an Indonesian or to a young adult, or to an older Thai person. How can you bring this thread down to those and localise and contextualise based on your diverse audience?”
His own personal motivation to do this comes from looking at everything outside of advertising. “Don't let the advertising bubble constrict you, look at things that are happening in fashion, look at things that people are putting on TikTok, that's more creative than a lot of ads out there. I never look at award shows, case studies and stuff like that.”
As someone who has plenty of accolades under his belt, not looking at the award scene is an interesting way of working. When prompted, VJ explained that to him his role is to sell products and make brands successful – not to win awards. “Find the insights, what's important for consumers, what do they actually like and then make the work better based on that. I've seen critics who blindly want to do a piece of work because it's going to win an award. That's the wrong way to do work.” He does concede that awards were important at one stage for hiring creatives, but right now his aim is to do good work and, if it’s ‘amazing creatively’ - “let’s submit it and see.”
When VJ’s not looking at those common threads and working on his creativity, he’s obsessing over his sneaker collection – they even made it to Harper’s Bazaar! Though he jokes his obsession with fashion annoys his wife. His plan for the future aside from buying himself as many pairs of shoes as he can? To make VaynerMedia APAC a real powerhouse.