Staff Reporters
Jul 14, 2022

Creative Minds: Nic Brennan is a fan of Tolkien’s dark mind

The ECD at Digitas Shanghai talks about his admiration for the LOTR author, wanting to be a cadet, and measuring ‘crying children’s smelly feet’

Nic Brennan
Nic Brennan
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: Nic Brennan

Origin: Shanghai, China

Places lived/worked: London, Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai

Pronouns: He/him


  • Executive creative director, Digitas, Shanghai, 2018-present
  • Executive creative director, Saatchi & Saatchi, Shanghai, 2016-2018
  • Group creative director, Publicis, Shanghai, 2015-2016
  • Creative director, AKQA, Shanghai, 2014-2015
  • Group creative director, DDB, Shanghai, 2012-2014

How did you end up being a creative?

My grandfather was a sign-writer and commercial artist, and my father is a publisher, designer, photographer, typographer and musician. So I guess you could say that I was born into a creative environment. I studied traditional typography at college and my first job was typesetting annual reports in London. But my interest in creativity was really sparked by the arrival of the Macs. I instantly became obsessed with technology which triggered a love affair with all things digital.

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

The AXA ‘No Belt No Drive’ social responsibility campaign for China. I have a passion for insights and human truths which is why I chose this project because it was based on a powerful local insight: Parents (and grandparents) in China are notoriously over-protective of their children, but not so much when they travel in a car. We used creativity to address the problem with a song, TVC, characters, T-shirts and school roadshows to speak to the children rather than the parents. And hopefully the work may have saved some lives.

What's your favourite piece of work created by someone else?

John Lewis’ Christmas advert from 2012 called ‘For gifts you can’t wait to give’. Once again, an idea based on an amazing human truth of ‘it is much nicer to give gifts than to receive them’. The twist being that the insight is not true for children.

What kind of student were you?

Lazy in general, but passionate and hardworking if I was interested in the topic. To be honest, I did not really see much real-world value in many of the lessons. For me, my education started when I landed my first job in London and the reality of what it means to work hard hit me on the very first day when I was handed 300 pages of an annual report layout and asked to mark it up for Berthold Typesetting in points and picas. I had no idea what that meant at the time.

Who do you most admire?

One person I’ve always admired is Tolkien. Not just for his amazingly detailed stories but also for how he fought and survived the battle of the Somme during the 1st World War. I cannot imagine what he went through, and this terrible experience gave him inspiration for some of his books which explains why certain parts are very dark.

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

Royal Air Force. I enjoyed being in the cadets and thought it could be a good career for me.

Do you work best under pressure, or when things are calm?

Under pressure for sure. I need motivation and crazy tight deadlines are pretty good at making me work harder and smarter. This is probably why I love working on new business pitches; the tight deadlines give me the motivation I need to win.

Tell us about the worst job you ever had.

Working in a shoe shop back home in Oxford. I had to measure crying children’s smelly feet for their new pair of school shoes. Nobody wanted to be there. I also attempted to work nights at a juice factory as a student summer job. We were supposed to be monitoring and boxing up cartons of orange juice which were being machine filled on a production line, but things went wrong, and the cartons started stacking up and exploding everywhere. Everyone was covered in juice and just started laughing. We were not invited back the next night.

What advice would you give to 10-year-old you, if you could?

Probably to buy something called bitcoin the moment it launches. But on a serious note, I would probably say work harder at a few things that you love doing. Being able to play an instrument or being great at a certain sport is something that stays with you for life, so it is important to start young.

What really motivates you?

From a creative industry point of view, I am really motivated when we discover a brilliant insight, and then the creative work all falls into place so effortlessly. It’s a great feeling when you go to a client presentation knowing that everyone is going to absolutely love what you present and either laugh or cry in the meeting.

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

It would have to be the Chernobyl by HBO. For me, that was one of those times when everything just fell into place perfectly. A true story, the best cast, the best production quality, everything about it was just fantastic.

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