Natalie Lam on looking beyond cultural stereotypes

Publicis Groupe’s CCO of APAC, Africa and the Middle East discusses how non-profit projects give an impression of countries and cultures that falls short of reality

For Publicis Groupe’s Natalie Lam, there’s a saviour narrative that’s hard to shake off in the Western ad industry – and she suggests looking at leading awards schemes for a glimpse. “What you see that gets recognised a lot of times fits into a pretty simple mode. A lot of non-profit work still paints, I would say, a pretty backwards picture of life, and appeals to the Western world’s perception of: oh, this country has a lot of injustice or suffers from x, y, z,” she says.

The brands and agencies that come up with purpose-driven solutions to humanitarian issues in other parts of the world end up getting a pat on the back from industry arbiters, but don’t necessarily show a deeper understanding. “I think there’s quite a lot of that type of work that gets awarded, but once you’re here, the reality is completely different.”

Over the course of her career, Lam has worked in print, digital, advertising and in-house, with Google and R/GA just some of the names on her CV. The range of perspectives she has gathered throughout her career reflects her personal background, she explains. “I came from Hong Kong, I grew up in Hong Kong, but I went to New York to study and worked [there] ever since, and meanwhile I still had my quite traditional parents back in Hong Kong, so I’m constantly seeing both sides.”

After nearly 20 years in New York, she moved back to Hong Kong a couple of years ago and is now charged with overseeing Asia Pacific (APAC), Africa and the Middle East as chief creative officer at Publicis Groupe. It’s a vast portion of the planet, so Lam is constantly on her own learning journey. “Being in this market, there’s a lot of things that I’m also discovering for the first time. I also have biases … that I’m exposed to for the first time. I think it’s fascinating.”