Made in China (part 1)

What’s it really like to work in China’s burgeoning ad industry? We asked Johnny Tan, BBH China’s creative director, to keep a diary for a typical month.

A Month In The Life Of Johnny Tan


Sometimes, I feel like a firefighter rather than a creative person. Every day, there are so many blazes to put out. I’m doing so many more meetings as opposed to spending time creating ads and guiding the teams.

I had to talk to my team leaders today. I had to ask them to start thinking like creative directors. They need to be able to assess what are good ideas and what aren’t and what could be sold. Far too often, creatives rely too heavily on their cds to decide what should be sold and how to make creative work better. They have to assess strategic effectiveness instead of just claiming that something is funny.

We have to sell a tv spot to a shampoo brand today that is a full-on laugh-out-loud spot. It’s going to be a tough sell. We can’t go in there with creatives saying, “It’s just cool”, especially in China, where clients are generally less brave than we’d like them to be.

It’s 9 pm…. we just had a tough meeting.

A tough sell. Essentially, we threatened to lock the clients in the room if they didn’t buy any­thing. It worked. Of course, there was the dreaded question of which to recommend. It’s a small victory, but a significant one.

The day isn’t over yet. Three more reviews to do on three other projects. Hungry. Going to get some ‘lunch’.

I’m up at 5 am today. God, I feel like I slept for 10 minutes. It’s the Qing Ming festival (a time where the Chinese people visit their ancestral shrines to pay their respect) and it’s raining hard. There’s a saying that it’ll always rain on Qing Ming. The Chinese believe they are tears from heaven.

I’m heading to Guang Zhou for a Johnnie Walker press conference to promote its new TV campaign. It’s a very different campaign (a five-part series of spots) hence they are promoting it heavily. I’m not that great with events like this especially when I have to present to the press in Mandarin. Got to get a speech coach.

Guang Zhou is really depressing – grey every­where with factories and malls that sell only specific things like underwear or toys. The event is pretty elaborate. I don’t understand why clients will spend so much money on such events yet fighting for an extra dollar for production is like pulling teeth. Most clients in China favour them but I wonder what the ‘returns’ are from such PR.

The show is about to start. Gosh, I’m feeling the pressure now. There must be a thousand journalists in here. My stomach ulcers are hurting like there’s no tomorrow. I do my ‘thing’. Quite surprised that I didn’t choke as bad as I feared but I’ve got to work on my Mandarin presentation skills. This sort of task is happening way too often.

Good grief! Got up at four today and it looks like the Apocalypse outside. Dark and rainy. Just depressing. My ceo and I were at the airport check-in counter where there was a service person who was just rude and clueless. It’s strange, but often the frustrations of working and living in China are really trying. The opportunities here are great but these little things can drive a person up the wall.

Got a call today about a job offer. While I was in New York I don’t remember agencies changing their ecds as frequently as they do over here. I suppose it’s the reality of a growing market – the ‘locust mentality’ of getting successful fast and moving along quickly.

Coming to work on weekends has become the norm. It’s tough working on presentations and pitches out here. Far too often, the clients give very little time to develop anything. This office is probably the most productive agency in the network but we still continue to pull long hours.

I saw something really bizarre today. I was walking through a park and witnessed a massive gathering of people trying to match-make their children. Apparently, it’s a weekly event. Kind of similar to a flea market. Parents bring their children’s resumes complete with pictures, job description and salaries. These are printed on pieces of paper and hung up like posters. People will then wander about and start chatting about potential ‘hook-ups’. It got me thinking that perhaps, I should bring the creative department down here for a training session. You know, offer our services and create ads for people on the spot. I remember in college when I took a class with Mark Fenske from Wieden + Kennedy where he trained us to come up with ideas really fast. He’d take a phone book and have us create ads for what­ever brands he picked up in ten minutes. It was a challenge but boy was it exhilarating.


It’s Monday and it feels like Wednesday. Got to stay positive … and press on forward.

Have to look for directors for the shampoo gig. It’s a spoof ad so we’ve got to find someone good with comedy but who also understands the sensibilities of what makes China laugh. I just realised that they are few and far between, most tend to make stuff slapstick with very thin storylines. Despite China’s reputation of producing many outstanding film directors, there is a scarcity of commercials directors who can tell good stories. Often, the work seems to have great cinematography but when it comes to the story, it’s usually pretty thin. Perhaps one of the better ones is Hong Kong director, David Tsui from Moviola, who has great abilities in capturing real emotions, has good storytelling abilities and is able to make any small idea look epic. A couple of other decent ones are Alfred Hau, Louis Ng and perhaps Man Chung.

Given the budget and the insane timing, I’ve decided to go with a Beijing director, Lai He. I’ve collaborated with him before on a few short films for Visa.

OK, this is depressing. It’s eleven o’clock at night and I’m still here at the office with a couple of others. I should go grab some food.

Just like commercial directors, great photo­graphers are few and far between here. We need to find the right guy for our Fila campaign. I worked with a couple of really good ones recently though. Mark Law, a fashion photographer from Singapore and Christian Chambenoit, a French photographer who was based in Taiwan for many years and now in Shanghai. And, another Singaporean who has worked in New York for a bit, Jonathan Tay. He’s got a pretty good range.

Had to prep for the sale of an unconventional spot to Frank Braeken (the biggest cheese at Unilever China). Selling a funny ad is actually a very serious business. You have to make the strategic case for it – it’s not just funny for the sake of being funny.

In China, it’s so much harder to make things funny because the marketers are generally quite linear in their thinking. Humour in China is particularly troublesome. Irony and self -deprecation don’t quite work. Physical and situational comedy do … as long as one is not the butt of the joke.

I’m finding myself switching my role from sitting and writing to doing lots of these ‘sales pitches’. In China, creatives have to sell their own work. No one else can or will. It’s not just salesmanship but being able to think strateg­ically. There’s a lot of homework to be done to understand a client’s business in order to make the creative sales pitch convincing.

We got to do a very unconventional project with a former client of mine simply by challenging him on some business and strategic loopholes he had neglected. Once he acknowledged that truth, we offered up really creative solutions with very little resistance. We ended up writing and directing six five-minute films that ran on the Discovery Channel.

Got off work early…. It’s really weird. I’ve never gotten off work early before. Maybe time for a movie and a good Singaporean dinner (I’m such a Singaporean when it comes to food).

Going in to battle today – clients want to change the music on my spot. Can I convince my clients to be more brave?

One of my closest friends from New York who is now working in Beijing is looking to go back to the States. China has a way of doing a number on you. It’s got great opportunities while at the same time, it has a way of making one feel a little like a ‘fish out of water’ and displaced. In time, this feeling really makes you want to run for cover.

My mom shows up unexpectedly. I mean she just appeared in front of the door, literally. (She lives in Singapore.)

This can’t be good. My day is full. There’ll be reviews for Mentos, Bose, Johnnie Walker and Lux. My mom’s going to have a tear in her eye to see the hours we put in for work. I’m sure most expatriates will face this problem sometime – where friends or family visit but you have no time to hang out with them. Oh well… back to the salt mines.


Super busy morning Pre-ppm; Meeting with celebrity talent Jenny Ji (famous Chinese fashion designer). She seemed really nice. A lot older than her pictures but I think she’ll be OK to shoot. I really want to see her smile. She’s really stiff. I imagine it’s going to be a tough shoot.

Damn! I’m starting to look like one of those cliché creative director-type guys in movies (think Keanu Reeves in Sweet November or Mel Gibson in What Women Want). People trail around me for answers and attention while

I rush about. It’s nauseating.

I had to rush to the airport. I’m heading out to Beijing to meet the Hua Yi Brothers (an entertainment giant in China, responsible for film distribution and productions, music and artist management) on a project.

It’s bloody warm in Beijing! And there are these little cotton ball-like things in the air. They come from plants indigenous to these parts. It’s making me sneeze like crazy. I can’t explain it but I never seem to like this city no matter how many times I’ve been here. There was a 40-minute bus ride to get from the plane to the terminal. And it’s a brand new airport. OK, I’m being whiny now.

Met the Hua Yi bros. Fantastic guys. (They are like the Asian Weinstein brothers but nice.) They’ve got their hands in everything – movies, commercials, music, tv shows … the works. Meeting went well. Can’t quite describe the relief. I know it may very well be short-lived …  but at this point , it’s about the little victories.

Press conference day. I’ll be presenting some work to about 300 Chinese journalists today in Beijing. While I’ve gotten better with my Mandarin, I still think there’s a long way to go before I could do it in the way that I do in English. I’ve got to get better at it.

Jasmine Huang (who is the associate account director on our World Gold Council business) had a great idea: could this be a business opportunity? To teach presentation skills to business executives? Wouldn’t that be great? A new career path? To direct films and tour around, giving workshops about creativity and how to sell work. Write books and all. Well, just being silly.

I’m really nervous. Keep picturing myself choking. The clients were very complimentary of the agency in front of the press. That’s really rare to see.

Up at four. I’m going back to Shanghai and then heading over to Unilever. I hate that journey. Don’t know what it is, but I feel like my energy gets sucked out in that place.

It’s cold with misty rain and it’s dark. I often wonder about the need for these pre-production meetings. There are so many of them in China. On average, there are at least three pre-pre-pre-pre production meetings.

Overall, it was quite a decent meeting. I sold in the cast but they wanted their logo to float around the frame throughout the entire commercial. Good lord! Sometimes, I actually think, they’ll say “gotcha! Just kidding” right afterwards.

Back to the agency and the work pile is insane. Another long night. Trying to figure out what I’m going to shoot and how I’m going to get the performances out of what seems like a pretty stiff and inexperienced actress. Beyond that, I have to find lots of ways to shoot around a body double because we don’t have the other celebrity. I’m the only one left walking out of the office at 11:30.

On set bright and early – today I am the director. While I’ve worn the two hats many times before, I have to constantly remind myself that they are two very different jobs. Many creatives have ambitions of doing the two, which I must say I’m lucky to be able to do quite a bit of compared to most … it is a rigorous process, planning the shots and thinking how to get the right performances. As a director I need to know how everything should go before anyone else. Anyone who wants to try this needs to be able to fully reconcile both aspects of the jobs and the expectations attached to them.

The camera broke down. Probably the first time it has happened in my career. But doing this is such a thrill. We had to improvise a lot. The actress did warm up and it all came together eventually. The body double was gorgeous and the methods and shots I vamped were actually really cool. Great dop.

Surprisingly, we got quite a bit of good stuff. Really happy. Got to head back to the office and do my ‘day job’.

This is an important day. I have to get a big script approved. Every one of our global, regional and local clients will be involved in this meeting. Got to sell it. Got to get my funding.

First we have a Fila meeting. True to form, it wasn’t easy. Trying to convince clients who are conservative in their ways and stubborn towards doing groundbreaking work is frustrating. Lots of debates, even to the extent of drawing on walls and posing (long story). The translation and Mandarin bit was quite an obstacle too.

Back for that important meeting. I’m frustrated. Too many chefs in the kitchen! Too many people over-thinking through everything, which leads to massive indecision. I’m disappointed. You know what they say, “It’s often better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission”. That’s the way to go now. I’m making a tough call without real ‘approval’. The project can’t wait and I’m confident that I’ll be right at the end of the day.

What a day. You have to put up a strong façade and have the answers for everything. Your spirit takes a beating. It’s a lonely experience. I feel quite empty inside. Just tired….

It’s Saturday! It’s still a work day but I’ve learned to be very positive about life. The weather seems encouraging despite the rain. Took the time to go out and picked up a few things. Went shopping for a vacuum cleaner and picked up some clothes. Fighting for taxi cabs in Shanghai is still very much a full contact sport. Had to look at some work but it was rather painless.

I can’t quite remember when the last time was I’d looked forward to a weekend where it looked and felt like one. Oh well, this is China after all. I will make the best of what I’ve got.

A native Singaporean, Johnny Tan is creative director at BBH China. After graduating from Art Center College of Design in California in 1997, he worked at BBDO New York. After a spell at Y&R New York, in 2005 he moved to Asia to become executive creative director at BBDO Shanghai before joining BBH China in 2006. The second half of Tan’s diary will be printed in next month’s issue of Creative Review


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