Benjamin Li
Jun 12, 2014

Ad man turned gallery owner urges brands to see value in art

HONG KONG - Twenty-year industry veteran Vincent Tam quits the agency race to open his own gallery, but hasn't left the concerns of brands behind.

Vincent Tam
Vincent Tam

Tam, who spent more than 20 years in advertising and marketing in LA, New York and Hong Kong—most recently MD of Doremus MD handling Asia Pacific region—founded Voxfire, a Hong Kong art space and creative consultancy in 2010. The business has allowed him to merge his two passions (art and advertising), bringing the two disciplines together for the benefit of both. He has worked with high-calibre brands including Nestlé, Epson and Skullcandy on art collaborations.

Talking to Campaign Asia-Pacific at his upstairs gallery in Aberdeen Street in Hong Kong’s Central district last week, Tam, exaplained that he opened the gallery before leaving Doremus in last December. The name Voxfire reflects the art that he showcases, which he described as thought-provoking and sometimes controversial: “Hopefully that they ignite conversation and generate dialogue,” he said.

Tam's ties to the art world came from his upbringing, as his mother was a sculptor and his grandfather a watercolour painter. At Doremus, Tam took part in handling the Andy Warhol exhibition in Asia. BNY Mellon was a sponsor for the exhibition in Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo, so Tam spent more than two-and-a-half years leading the marketing effort from market to market. The exhibit attracted almost 800,000 visitors across the region.

Tam's goal is to provide a platform for up-and-coming Hong Kong artists in the hyped Central and Sheung Wan area of Hong Kong. “A lot of times local artists and creative people tend to be neglected by the mainstream galleries,” he pointed out.

In the past six months, Voxfire has evolved from just a gallery to a brand consultancy. "As an agency, our creative team is very fluid," he said. "Our creative teams are the artists—video artists, sculptors, writers, musicians, pretty much across different media. What we do is try to pair the right artists with the right aesthetic and passion, with the clients based on their brands and strategies and what they are trying to do for a particular campaign."

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Tam shared several recent collaborations with clients. Voxfire worked with Nestlé's Pak Fook Beancurd Dessert, which sponsored a photography exhibition by a photojournalist, which focused on a traditional tofu dessert maker on Lantau Island who dedicated his whole life to making and selling tofu locally. The exhibit took place on the anniversary of the tofu maker's passing. "That was a perfect match with what Nestlé was trying to do with Pak Fook Beancurd Dessert," Tam said. "They are trying to inject a sense of heritage and the natural ingredients in their products."

Another example was a Valentine's photo exhibition earlier this year, where four local Hong Kong artists shared their sexiest hotspots in the city. The gallery reached out to Epson Commercial Printing, as it has a heritage of working with the art community, and the brand left the brief very open to the artists.

"It was very refreshing, because when I was at the agency side, usually when a client has a campaign or brief, the client has a strong level of control over the creative process," Tam said. "But when it comes to art collaboration, if the brands are actually quite sophisticated and have done this before, they understand that the value of an art collaboration is the perspective of the artists. They can give a very different artistic and personal perspective into telling the brand story. The clients tend to be more free-handed when it comes to getting the artists involved."

Skullcandy, a headphone manufacturer, sponsored an exhibition in which 30 different artists painted 2.5-foot-long skateboards. The brand also commissioned a few of the artists to turn some of their headphones into art sculptures.

While in the agency world, Tam heard many clients assert that there is not much innovation in Asia-Pacific in terms of delivering creative solutions that have never been seen before.

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He understands this well. "In an ad agency, you have a creative team that is assigned to a client's business on a day-to-day basis, and its bread and butter is based on the client's retainer relationship," he said. "I guess the motivation to push the envelope or really to challenge the system may not be as aggressive. So even if the client is asking for 'new creative ways' to demonstrate the brand, it is very rare, unless it is absolutely necessary fror agencies to task a completely different creative team to work on that client."

Tam reckoned that in this day and age, brands just cannot execute an ad campaign, they need to not only differentiate but also rejuvenate the brands. "To do that with the same creative resources, it is not realistic to demand the same creative team from the same agency to offer you 500 different points of views looking at the same thing. They could try to reinvent and reinvent, but at the end of the day, it has limited resources, the creative directors, art directors and writers have their own POVs and styles and a lot of agencies now don't have in-house copywriters.”

More and more brands are valuing art as creative content, versus highly produced message-driven creative content, Tam said. Artists participate and observe and get inspired in the world, rather than spending the day in an office in front of a Mac. “So a lot of times, the perspectives that they give to a creative assignment are actually more multi-faceted," he said. "They see it from the world or society's perspective, they don't just see it from an agency staff's perspective, which is very easy to be caught up if you are part of the creative team of the agency.”

He stressed the importance of local creative talents, and not just in the visual arts, but also music, video and multimedia, to help create value through marketing and branding collaboration, “Once brands start embracing collaboration with art, then the market will see that there is a value there, and you can leverage brands to help artists to get there, at the same time, helping brands to differentiate and engage and resonance with the audiences," he said.

What challenges do brands face in collaborating with artists? Tam joked that “working with artists is not easy: They don't wake up at noon and work at the middle of the night. An artist, at the end of the day, they are not makers, they don't make or do things only, they are thinkers. Most artists spend more time thinking, or execute while they think, they analyse and think, it becomes a very emotional process."

Tam also said brands need to find the right balance and understand the role of art in their overarching communication strategy. "We are not saying that you throw away your traditional campaign and just use art to run your campaign," he said. "You have a marketing strategy that includes traditional, digital, social and PR. Art has a role within that toolbox."


Campaign Asia

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