Born and raised in the UK, Paul Chan “stumbled” into his advertising career after what was meant to be a three month stint in Hong Kong. Now Chief Creative Officer at Cheil Hong Kong, Chan is a highly-awarded copywriter and CCO. Under his guidance, Cheil Hong Kong has become one of the most awarded agencies in the region.
In 2020, Cheil Hong Kong won two D&AD Wood Pencils for Samsung’s BACK2LIFE campaign, which hacked China’s Blood River game platform and taught over three million players how to perform CPR to revive their characters. And in 2021, Cheil Hong Kong was awarded another Wood Pencil for Joy Sticks, a print campaign for which Chan himself was a copywriter.
Having served as D&AD 2021 Direct Jury President, Chan talks to podcast hosts Beth O’Brien and Joe Carter about his unconventional start in the advertising industry, what the jury were looking for when judging the work and why creative awards are important.
The Love This podcast spoke to several D&AD jury presidents, and will be broadcasting those interviews over the summer. You can listen to the podcast here. Here are our top takeaways from Chan’s episode.
Create your own career path
Like many people, I stumbled into advertising. As a kid I was always into advertising. I loved advertising, I loved watching TV. And growing up in the UK, I think we were spoiled with brilliant ads in the 80s and 90s, but it was never really on my radar as a career. It wasn’t until six months into my first job – I was an English editor – that I came across a D&AD Annual by chance, and that was it. I was completely mesmerized. I just remember seeing page after page of all these incredible ads – some of which I recognised from my time in the UK – and then from that point on, I just became single minded. Advertising was the only thing I wanted to do.
But then the problem was I didn’t go to ad school; I had a marketing degree and I could write somewhat, but I didn’t have a book of ads. So I bought an early edition of Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This; I bought The Copy Book [by] D&AD and a couple of [One Show and D&AD] annuals. I read everything from cover to cover many times over and then I just sat down with a big fat marker pen and a sketch pad and spent the next couple of months working on a book of made-up ads, which I still have to this day.
With my book in hand, I then called up every creative director in town who would answer my call and politely asked if they had any openings for an entry-level copywriter. So that’s how I got my first big break in advertising.
Lead with your idea, not your capability
We tackle each brief as it comes in. So we don’t really think about whether we can do something or not from the outset. We’ll try and come up with a solution first and then find a way of doing it once we’ve hit the solution.
We don’t think about the kind of work we do by medium or experience. We think about how it’s going to connect with people and that’s really our strength. We connect ideas, technologies, experiences in the most meaningful, creative ways imaginable to help build brands. And once we’ve hit upon an idea – a solution – we’re quite excited about, then we will look at our capabilities within the agency and if we can handle it within the agency, we will do so. But if not, then we will call upon help from [our subsidiaries] PengTai, Barbarian or Iris.
What makes award-winning work stand out from the rest
I think we were tough, but I think we were quite fair. We were looking for work that could carry the weight of the Pencil. So obviously we were looking for brilliant, inspiring ideas, beautifully executed. But over and above this I asked the jury, ‘How does the work make you feel? Does it pass that holy shit test?’. Great work always stops you in your tracks. It punches you in the gut and it stays with you long after you’ve seen it.
So does it make you jealous, like ‘Damn, I wish I had done that’ and ‘I-want-to-go-have-a-little-cry’ kind of jealous? You know, the best work does that, doesn’t it? And once the crying is over, you realise that it also ticks every other box as well. And then you ask yourself, ‘How the heck did they think of that?! It’s such a leftfield idea. And how on earth did they sell it to the client?’. This is the work that is really inspiring.
Now in the category we were judging, we also had to ask ‘Is it direct?’. It had to be creativity that’s targeted and response driven. So as a jury, we saw some great work that we simply couldn’t award. It wasn’t direct, which was a shame.
We had to ask ourselves so many questions: is it targeted? Is there a direct response mechanism? Does it make a difference? Does it move people? Did it move the brand? Did it move business? The Pencil winners did all of the above and more.
Why creative awards are important for the industry and individuals
You look at award shows and there’s no doubt that the Pandemic has definitely sparked a priority shift, hasn’t it? It’s made us re-examine different aspects of our industry and that includes award shows. But it’s only right that we look at everything through a new lens after the year we’ve just had. And last year, there was a pause with most award shows, including some of the bigger shows. And I think as an industry, we have a lot of award shows – too many – and I think the relevance for some of them is changing. But creativity is what helps businesses and brands survive. There’ll always be tensions and problems to solve and that’s our difference. That’s the value we bring to clients.
So awards for me, and awards for this industry – especially D&AD – are really important. Award shows like D&AD are here to inspire the industry, to raise the bar, to show the way forward, to attract new talent, to attract new business and show new ways of doing things for brands and marketers. So regardless of what you think of award shows like D&AD, they’re magnificent talent magnets. And also, I’m a fan of celebrating the best work we have. Awards like D&AD are an important way to define and promote the best work from any given period. They help us learn from the best, they help us grow as an industry, they make us feel proud of what we do.
Know when to defend your work, and when not to
One of the things we’ve always done, not just at Cheil but even when we were at DDB, is we’ve always looked at creative work through a strategic lens. That helps quite a lot. So you think about what are you trying to say? Is it relevant? Is it compelling? Is it worth fighting for in the first place? There’s no point going out there with meaningless fluff. If it’s not compelling, if it’s not relevant, then don’t fight for it. If it is, then fight for it. Pick your battles really and look at everything through a strategic lens – that’s what we always do.
Remember that we’re storytellers. So our greatest power is connecting the dots others can’t see and persuading them to act on it. That’s advertising. But you’ve got to connect the right dots and say the right thing.
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