Made in China (part 2)

Continuing our focus on China’s creative scene, we have part two of Johnny Tan’s account of a typical month as the creative director of BBH China


Today, a colleague of mine handed me a copy of an article from the McKinsey Quarterly, titled ‘Inno­vation lessons from Pixar: An interview with Oscar-winning director Brad Bird’. Some of the challenges they face are very similar to the ones we face. The difference comes from how they tackle them; with wit, integrity, leadership and sheer brilliance. I guess to some degree leadership cannot be taught but there are lessons that can definitely be learned.

Working at bbh can often make one feel superior and consequently, complacent. I have to find a way to keep the teams constantly inspired and approach every piece of work with childlike zeal (especially in China, where the task is daunting) and create inspiring ideas that can hopefully affect society and this uniquely challenging market.

There’s a problem in Asia with ‘scam ads’: agencies initiate, finance and produce them based on their own brief. Many such campaigns have garnered big awards. Do we do the same? I have a strict policy against it and so does bbh. The big issue here is morale. There are creatives who wonder if adhering to such a policy and relying on ‘real’ work is reducing their chances of getting awards. It’s a challenge to prove that genuinely good solutions for genuine clients can bring in the ‘metal’. Commerce and art is a dysfunctional marriage, but at day’s end, I believe the most creative and sound solutions in creating effective advertising will be awarded. I do however wish some of these shows could see how difficult it is to create ‘awesome’ work in a market like China and give credit where it’s due.

I just finished reading a book called The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan & Barbara Pease. As the name suggests, there are loads of interesting facts about how people behave. It’s especially helpful when it comes to dealing with clients or selling work to them. I’m in a little bit of a human psychology phase right now, eating up everything that has to do with how people think and act. I’d recommend yes! 50 secrets from the Science of Persuasion by Noah Goldstein, Steve Martin and Robert Cialdini … The Perfect Pitch by Jon Steel and The Geography of Thought which is all about the differences between Western ways of thinking and those of Asians. Fascinating stuff.

Heading out to a lux tv shoot. (Part 2). Started the day by losing my temper yet again. Had a down and dirty, rmb 7 (about 50 US cents) bowl of hand-made mutton noodles. It was big and really tasty. Muslim Chinese look like Europeans but speak Mandarin. They are known for their noodles and kebab-like barbecue. The chef kneads the dough and turns it into noodles right before your eyes. Impressive stuff.

I’m back to directing today. I get very nervous no matter how many times I’ve done it. The smallest shoots are the hardest. Got to be on top of it. The Beijing production company just came back with a comprehensive proposal for this ‘big’ project I’ve been working on for months. It’s a great deal. I’m super excited but a little overwhelmed. So afraid I would jinx it. I wonder if creatives have superstitions like athletes do? I know I have a lucky shirt.

I saw an ad in the front window of a convenience store that blew me away … quite literally. It was for an ice cream popsicle that has milk in it with a choco­late coating. The picture showed a girl enjoying the popsicle while an explosion of milk comes out of it. I can’t believe that got past the strict Chinese censors. I had a spot rejected once because one of the talent showed off her belly button….

Going to present revised boards for the ‘spoof’ public service ad that we’ll be doing. In order to avoid coming across as an overt ‘mockery’ of the government, we had to adjust some scenes. In fact, we made it even more ‘far out’ funny, just to suspend reality and the spot got better. The clients bought it and also the director (Lai He). I can’t wait to shoot this: it’ll be loads of fun. Hopefully, this spot could affect the way comedy is used in commercials here.

I walked on to a street today (Nanjing Road near the Bund in Shanghai) and felt like I was on a movie set. A bad movie set with all sorts of stores that have fashioned their logos like those of other famous brands. It’s uncanny how they’ve made such dramatic replicas. I suppose copyright infringe­ment is a way of life here. Such is perhaps the nature of developing nations. The Japanese made replicas of simple elec­tronics very early on and innovated on them thereafter.

It has warmed up in Shanghai. People are outside while it’s another day at work for me. Typically, I don’t cut tv spots in China but these guys (Fly Cool/Cartoon post productions) are quite good. And yes, directors do cut their own films in China, as opposed to North America where their job is sort of done when you have it in the can.

My visiting mom has found her way to a cooking class. Sounds like a lot of fun. It’s interesting how entrepreneurial people are in China especially in Shanghai. The school was started by a young chef. He figured that aside from just being a chef in a restaurant, it would be good to have a school to teach expatriates who have loads of free time on their hands and are fascinated by Chinese cuisine. Another weekend of work. It’s starting to look like a perpetually long week. I don’t mind it so much, it has a huge impact on my personal life though.

Funny thing is, I’ve heard everyone around me, from North America to China, ‘bitch’ about their work, but they love it anyway. These are incredibly bright and successful people who could figure anything out but truth is they are – we are – all suckers for pain. We love the ‘action’, no matter how much we say we hate it.



The day started with yet another uphill battle with the clients. The challenges here are probably echoed everywhere else around the world. How much does one fight? Will a creative tantrum work? Not only are we asked to change the cut for the worse, but we’re expected to wave the magic wand and make things happen with limited funds and time.

There should be a psychologist of some kind on the agency staff. Sort of like ‘profilers’ in law enforce­ment, or intelligence officers that can understand human psychology, so that we can craft arguments that can change clients’ minds.

Just reviewed loads of work today. I realise that the ones that I like are the ones where teams have tapped into skill sets of other ‘experts’, be they tech guys, musicians, filmmakers, retail store designers or tv show producers. There’s an abundant pool of talent in the latter part of the production process that we hardly tap. Creative teams should be engaging such talents right from the initial phase of the creative process. It’s just so much more exciting and fresh. This is something I’ve got to do more with the teams. Encourage and link them with talent outside the shores of Asia. People who are truly original in whatever field they specialise in. Many inter­national production companies and post-production companies (eg rsa, The Mill, Smoke and Mirrors, Backyard, Psyop etc) have expressed interest in China. This is the perfect time to team up with their experts and whoever they are linked to as well. This is the future of advertising.

I can’t believe a month has gone by. I guess this is the last entry of this journal. I haven’t done some­thing like this before and have enjoyed it. I might just keep doing it. Often, we forget the things that inspire us or provoke some thoughts as the days go by.

It’s tough in China. I wish there were more brave clients. It’s even harder when we’re new and small. Getting new business is harder than anything I’ve ever experienced in New York. But there isn’t a more dynamic and crazy place to do advertising right now. I wouldn’t have it any other way or be anywhere else. I’ve got some amazing people from all over the world (it really is the un in this office) who share the same vision and fire. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. Stay tuned … there will be more special work coming out of here….

Johnny Tan is creative director at BBH China. This is the second part of a journal that he kept for CR during one month earlier this year. See CR August for part one