Mike Fromowitz
Feb 10, 2015

Made In Hong Kong: When creativity was king

In his new book "Made in Hong Kong", longtime advertising creative Chris Kyme challenges the territory’s advertising industry with the question “Where’s the creativity?”

Made In Hong Kong: When creativity was king

Kyme's present day observations as regards Hong Kong advertising do not bode well. “From the bland and predictable to the downright trashy, the industry today does not present itself very favourably overall, albeit with a few exceptions.” 

Mr. Kyme has always been outspoken about the state of advertising in the territory. “There was a time when one could be pleasantly surprised by the odd nice TV commercial. Either funny, or beautiful or borne out of a really clever idea. These days there’s as much chance of that happening as there is England winning the football World Cup again. That’s right, remote.”

If anyone should know about the state of creativity in Hong Kong, it’s Chris Kyme. He first arrived in the territory In 1987 having accepted an offer to work with Leo Burnett, where during his first year he created an acclaimed TV campaign for property developer Hong Kong Land which won ‘Best TV Campaign for Asia’ at the Media and Marketing Awards.

After a stint with Grey in Hong Kong he arrived at FCB in Singapore as Regional Creative Director, where he was voted Singapore Ad Man of the Year in 2001, thanks to his efforts helping set up creative workshops for young people.

Chris returned to Hong Kong in 2002. Today he runs KymeChow his own award-winning creative services agency.

Chris Kyme

“The industry (in Hong Kong),” he maintains, “has been dumbed down. Advertising is no longer driven by carefully thought-through strategies based on consumer insights, and messages are just blurted out amidst sub-standard design and art direction. Government Public Service campaigns are a good example: 'Do this' or 'Don't do that'. There’s no thought given to the art of persuasion.”

To be fair to Hong Kong, this scenario would not be inconsistent with any number of today’s big advertising markets. “Cut-through creative work,” Kyme suggests, “has always been the exception rather than the norm, and something to strive for. Why we all get up every day.”

Given that Hong Kong remains today the world's highest per-capita ad market at about $1,000 per person (2014), and is set to grow 9% to $7.8 billion this year, it’s hard to think that advertising creativity in the territory could be so down in the dumps. 

Kyme argues that Hong Kong needs to find its way back to being creative again to stay competitive with other markets like Singapore, Thailand, and centres like Shanghai in China. He makes his point quite effectively. “There was once a period in Hong Kong where agencies at the forefront of the creative evolution competed to out-wow each other. It was a time when the city was a hotbed of creativity. A time when awards were a rewarding by-product of selling in hard-fought-for ideas that were unleashed onto the unsuspecting public with a real purpose—as opposed to being a self-gratifying sideshow financed by big agency budgets to appease ambitious creative people as consolation for enduring the late hours grinding out the revenue-generating, daily bread-and-butter work.”

Kyme's book, written with Tommy Cheng (now business director at McCann), is about a unique time in Hong Kong when a variety of factors conspired to produce an air of creative competitiveness the like of which this fascinating city had never seen before and has not seen since.

Kyme’s story highlights the pioneers of the Hong Kong creative advertising scene, the foundations they set in place, and the period which followed when creative competition and standards were at their peak and taking on a personality and identity all of its own as a new generation of home-grown creative talent rose to the forefront. This culminated in what Kyme calls “a uniquely local style of insight-driven and often witty local creativity that brushed off the cobwebs of the industry’s colonial baggage and declared itself ‘Made in Hong Kong’—and proud of it.”

The early chapters of the book set the scene from the 1950s through 1960s paving the way for the big international brands looking to cash in on emerging middle-class consumers and the big name ad agencies which were hot on their heels.

Mike Chu, one of Hong Kong's great local advertising legends

The book is a tribute to all those who built the industry and features a who’s who of the Hong Kong creative scene during the last 30 years. The book also explores some of the greatest campaigns that the territory has seen, pre and post-1997, the ads that helped to put Hong Kong on the global creative map. 

Made in Hong Kong traces the evolution in style of creativity from the earlier, western influenced, and expatriate-driven creativity of the 1970s and 80s, through to the emergence of a more unique, local and very Cantonese voice which preceded and followed the handover. The final chapters of the book look to the future, to China, and to the role that Hong Kong might play in the bigger scheme of things. 

“Made in Hong Kong is a nod towards Hong Kong’s creative past”, concludes Mr. Kyme, “and hopefully, an inspiration to help encourage its creative future”.

I believe Mr. Kyme’s  book illustrates the hard truth. The standard of advertising in Hong Kong has taken quite a nose-dive since the late 1990’s. Many of Hong Kong’s local and expatriate creative stars that were paraded in the 1980s and 1990s as being among the best in Asia, have moved on to Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore, all of which has added serious risk to the future of Hong Kong as a key advertising centre. 

Sadly, from what I can see, advertising agencies (especially the big international shops) are doing very little about it other than delaying the inevitable. Many of them are placing their bets on other centres such as Shanghai or Singapore. As for Hong Kong, they are putting Band-Aid upon Band-Aid on the festering wound.

Hong Kong’s marketers, for the most part, have returned to the trader mentality of the 50’s and 60’s chasing the deal driven consumer. They have forgotten how to build their brands for the long term, relying now on dull, stereotypical messaging to move their constipated supply chain. 

Hong Kong needs to shift gears from reverse as it seems to be populated by passive marketing participants who have lost their competitiveness. Can Hong Kong regain its creative competitiveness?  I think it could, if the territory’s advertising practitioners are willing to invest in great people again and build a centre of excellence where individuals and organizations can prosper.  

I recently read an article about Subrina Chow, director of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in San Francisco. She was rejoicing in “Hong Kong's growing appeal to entrepreneurs and in the territory’s innovation, technology and creative industries. With the number of incubators and co-work spaces growing five times over the last four years, Hong Kong is now one of the hot spots for global startups.” That may be true for some businesses, but doesn’t seem to hold water for Hong Kong’s advertising industry in its present state. 

The Hong Kong advertising industry of the 1980s and 1990s was based on imagination and invention, not so much as an advertising incubator but a super accelerator. Hong Kong was a marketplace of advertising disruptors, entrepreneurs and organizations that turned Asian advertising upside down. It was a marketplace where first mover advantage was paramount for attracting consumers, media and capital.

Hong Kong could once again become a centre of creative excellence and the envy of Asian advertising if the heads of international ad agency groups are willing to re-invest in the best creative minds and put in place management leaders who understand how powerful a “creative culture” can be at building a powerhouse agency. Ask any creative person and they are certain to tell you that they would want to be where the future is being played out and earned.

After all is said and done, Creativity is as essential today as it has always been. Perhaps now, more than ever, ideas are expected to drive measureable results. Great ideas get talked about, change behaviour and ultimately build brands. I for one believe that creativity is not exclusive to creative people. I believe creativity is everyone's responsibility in an ad agency. Managers who run agencies big or small, must try and create a culture and an environment that inspires, protects and celebrates creativity. And yes, creativity can be nurtured in everyone.

Hong Kong needs ad agencies willing to invite top creative people, planners and management to the territory and measure their success not only through their contribution but also by their ability to collaborate and deliver big ideas that will help clients succeed. If we don’t, we will continue to see even more of the best minds and capital leave to chase the future elsewhere.

Made in Hong Kong, by Chris Kyme and Tommy Cheng is published by WE Press, and is now available from Amazon.com, and sold in Hong Kong bookshops including Page One, Eslite, Basheer and Swindon, as well as Pacific Coffee outlets.

Proceeds from sales go to Youth Outreach.

Mike Fromowitz
Partner and Chief Creative Officer
Ethnicity Multicultural Marketing + Advertising Inc


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