In a region where most chief creative officers are male and non-local, Valerie Cheng broke the mould when she was appointed chief creative officer for JWT Singapore in March. The Singapore native is also one of the very few creatives to have made the jump from digital production to traditional agency.
The 38-year-old is best known for her work for clients such as Singapore Airlines, Economic Development Board and Tiger Beer. Most recently, she led her team to win Changi Airport and Singapore Tourism Board (STB) accounts. Her app, Rapid Rescue, which enables people in medical emergencies to use their iPhone to locate trained first aiders, has won awards at several festivals.
Her success stems from a firm belief that advertising should go beyond the brief. The idea of Rapid Rescue, for example, arose from a Young Spikes competition, with JWT Singapore later approaching the Red Cross to further develop it.
Creative directors play a key role in inspiring and supporting their teams, she says. Similarly, an agency should approach a brief in a way that shows it really cares about creating work that carries forward the client’s objectives.
Understanding clients’ problems, before solving them with creative work, “not only involves creating great advertising, it should help clients in the long-run”, she says. “A lot of agencies solve the business problem first, and only then drive the marketing. We can create an entity a brand can own and grow, such as Nike +, which sincerely solves problems for clients.”
Cheng credits her digital background with providing a base of technological knowledge she draws on for ideas. Her goal is to “marry digital with traditional advertising”, to use result-oriented digital platforms to execute ideas.
After completing a visual communications course in which she learned film editing and web design, Cheng joined a post-production and photography house. She then worked at XM Asia-Pacific, where she learned the foundations of digital and worked for clients such as Singapore Airlines, before joining Leo Burnett/Arc Worldwide as creative director to lead its P&G account.
Digital advertising in Singapore, she says, does not keep up with technological advancements. Which is why the country has begun to slip in awards shows, she says.
This applies to other Asian countries as well, with the exception of Japan and Australia, as most ideas presented tend to be too complicated, while digital is about the simplicity of ideas.
“Asian countries don’t even begin to have agencies that can compete with the likes of Droga5,” she says.
The problem, Cheng believes, stems from the top, where global leaders are not willing to come into Asia. Agencies, she says, can only change when there is good leadership.
Defining moments come when you are surrounded by the people and leaders you can learn from. For Cheng, this happened when she was at Leo Burnett/Arc Worldwide, working with the then regional executive creative director Linda Locke (currently marketing director at Club21), and observing how Locke handled her office, herself and her clients.
Cheng still keeps in touch with Locke. “She provides a listening ear,” she says
Her husband, Farrokh Madon (CCO at Y&R Singapore) is also someone she talks to, sharing both trials and inspiration. Madon, like her, often has to work long hours, but they support each other and take turns to care for their two children.
“In this industry, you can’t stop thinking. You have to keep improving on your work with love and extra hours to make it perfect. It is good to be discontented. This is what we call a holy dissatisfaction.”