Staff Reporters
Sep 21, 2023

Creative Minds: Linus Chen's fortuitous introduction to advertising

Chen's waiter-to-creative tale is a marvellous lesson in seizing unexpected opportunities.

Creative Minds: Linus Chen's fortuitous introduction to advertising
In Creative Minds, we ask APAC creatives a long list of questions, from serious to silly, and ask them to pick 11 to answer. (Why 11? Just because.) Want to be featured?

Name: Linus Chen

Origin: Singapore

Places lived/ worked: Singapore, Shanghai

Pronouns: He/Him


Ultrasupernew Singapore, Creative partner, April 2023 - present
DDB Tribal Singapore, Creative partner, 2020-2022
Multiple agencies, Freelance creative director, 2019-2020
Govt Singapore, Creative grouphead, 2018-2019
Anomaly Shanghai, Associate Creative director, 2016-2018
Tuitionary Singapore, co-founder, 2015-2016
Ogilvy & Mather Singapore, Freelance senior art director, 2016
Leo Burnett Singapore, Art director, 2012-2015
Kinetic Singapore, Junior art director, 2010-2012
BBH Singapore, Junior art director, 2007-2008

1. How did you end up being a creative?

In the mid-2000s, I was studying and working part time at Singapore’s first fine dining restaurant. In my final year in school, we had to look for an internship and all I wanted was to intern at the nearest place to the restaurant so that I could resume working after office hours to do dinner service (they paid well). And so, the closest place was the office right next to our restaurant. It had three alphabets on the doorBBH. I had no idea what they did or what the alphabet meant.

As luck would have it, I was assigned to be the al fresco waiter to cover for another colleague and ended up making friends with the black sheep coming out occasionally for their smoke breaks. Chris Chong (CEO, Southeast Asia, We Are Social), then at BBH, gave a ring to the then ECD, Todd Waldron and said that the next-door waiter wanted to try his hand at serving ads instead of food. They took me in as their first-ever intern in Singapore and grounded in me a very strong foundation in both strategy and conceptualisation. I also had the privilege of working with one of adland’s OG—Steve Elrick, who then converted me to a freelance junior art director before Military Service had to whisk me away to serve for a compulsory two years.

2. What's your favourite piece of work in your portfolio?

Much like diving into the world of the unknown when I first joined BBH without any prior advertising experience, I went into the world of startups head first after picking up my first-ever copy of Fast Company while waiting to board a plane. That was around the same period that Uber was getting off the ground and barely even the Uber we know today.

The case studies mentioned in Fast Company fascinated me in the way creativity was used in another way to solve real-world problems. It made me rethink and redefine the applications of creativity and how it need not be limited to advertising.

With plenty of boldness and a dose of foolishness, I quit my job at Leo Burnett to co-found an education tech online marketplace where we listed tuition and enrichment centre classes for students looking for one. It challenged everything I knew of and learnt from in advertising. I could no longer just be a creative. I had to wear multiple hats and inject creativity into every part of the process—from pitching and onboarding tuition centre owners to designing and launching the brand from scratch to even coding to make simple changes to save costs. Although we ran out of funding after two years and couldn’t raise the next round to continue our vision, it was an incredibly fulfilling time birthing and building a brand from scratch and then having the bravery to let go of it. Most importantly, it broke the mould of what I knew of creativity, transforming me as a creative.

3. What's the one piece of work you most wish you'd done?

What happens when you get to see your work comes alive on the bottom of a swimming pool, on a Cadillac, on a burger wrapper, and even on the inside of a Gucci jacket? You pretty much make every other creative jealous that theirs still exists as mocks on their Macs.   

For me, the 'Decoded' campaign for Bing is the benchmark for integrated thinking. It proves that advertising can take on any format or shape. It was a simple idea played out on an outrageous scale and beautifully executed. And proof that media and creative agencies can still make beautiful babies. OOH, Social, PR, and Digital all rolled into one genius and gorgeous piece of work.

4. Who are your key creative influences?

L-R: David Chang, Bob Iyger, Phil Knight

My daughter, Phil Knight, Bob Iger, David Chang and John Hegarty. Each a rockstar in their way, I’m inspired by how they use creativity to connect the dots to go beyond just solving problems, but actually innovate and create impact in our world. They are the epitome of how creativity need not and shouldn’t be boxed into a job title but into a way of living.

5. What's on your bucket list?

Driving a Defender with my family on a year-long (at least) road trip with no end destination in mind. I believe that the journey is as important as the destination and in this hustle and bustle life that we live, I think it is necessary to take a deliberate, slower pace for the soul to recharge by reconnecting with the great outdoors with your loved ones.

6. Who’s on your dream dinner guest list (alive or dead)?

Phil Knight. I would love to dissect his brains and guts and almost relive his whole creative and business journey in creating one of the most iconic brands of our generation. Some autographs on my sneakers would be the perfect sweet ending to the whole dinner.

7. What career did you think you'd have when you were a kid?

I was never good in academics and growing up in Singapore’s rigid education system then always made me feel like I could never fit in or excel. The only source of comfort was the consistent voice of the radio DJ as it was the only device not banned by my strict parents. I had a simple thought of recreating the same experience for others and decided to study Mass Communication, wanting to be a radio DJ.

Imagine my shock when I attended my first lesson and realised that the pros were all talking to a mic alone in an empty sound-proof room all this while. I draw my energy from people and that explains why I probably never showed up much for school and was mostly found working at the restaurant.

8. What really motivates you?

The idea of rest. Which is contradictory to the world’s idea of hustle and grind. I think husting is over-preached and glorified, and we need to understand and experience the benefits of rest, which is the only way you can hustle anyway. I intentionally take time to rest and recharge, which has proven to keep my motivation humming.

9. What would you do on your perfect day?

Something is mesmerising about rain and the atmosphere it creates, so a perfect day for me will have to include waking up to the sound and smell of rain. Followed by a no-frills local breakfast at the neighborhood coffee shop with my family. I also have a pile of books I’ve yet to read so getting through by the beach on a foldable chair will be nice. My daughter has also been really enjoying water play recently so ending the hot Singapore day at a water park and seeing her shriek with joy sound just about perfect to me.

10. What’s your favourite music / film / TV show / book / other of the past year, and why?

Alice in Borderland. I’m into dystopian films because I think it’s an expression of the extremities of contemporary sociopolitical realities and what I always look forward to is how humanity bands together in the narrative to overcome it.

11. Tell us about an inpiring artist (any medium) that we've never probably heard of. 

15-year-old Lee Jun Le with his calligraphy paintings

Lee Jun Le—diagnosed with autism at the age of three, Lee Jun Le has never been well-versed in expressing himself verbally, yet he practises writing daily, This led to an unexpected creation of his own unique handwriting which results in calligraphy strokes that are non-traditional and graphic. I like things rooted in heritage and history but with a contemporary twist.

Campaign Asia

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