Shawn Lim
Apr 18, 2023

MRM's Ronald Ng on the overdue recognition of Asian creativity and embracing AI

MRM's global CCO draws parallels between the years it took for actor Michelle Yeoh to win an Oscar and lower levels of award recognition in the Asian advertising industry.

MRM's Ronald Ng on the overdue recognition of Asian creativity and embracing AI

Asian creativity is having a moment after Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian and Malaysian to win an Academy Award in any category when she won best actress for her work in "Everything Everywhere All at Once" in March.

The movie, which featured a predominantly Asian cast, is also estimated to be the most-awarded film of all time after picking up other awards, aside from its seven wins, including best picture at the Academy Awards.

There is probably no one more delighted about Yeoh's achievement than her fellow Malaysian Ronald Ng, the global chief creative officer at Interpublic's MRM.

Michelle Yeoh

"It's long overdue because we are 20 years too late. If you look at what Michelle Yeoh has achieved, she should have reached that 20 years ago. Instead, her latest film is no better than the work she did 20 years ago," Ng tells Campaign Asia-Pacific while on a stopover in Singapore.

"If you study Asian entertainment, like Stephen Chow's work, everything he did 20 years ago has influenced what is happening in movies. Yeoh, Chow, and all the actors from before should have won an Oscar a decade ago. I am just glad it is finally happening."

Ng, who is based in New York, draws parallels between the years it took for Yeoh to win an Oscar and awards recognition in the Asian advertising industry. He argues that the work coming out of Japan, Singapore, and Thailand 20 years ago was world-class but only recognised in pockets.

For example, he points to Petronas' Tan Hong Ming ad in 2007, which Ng says was way ahead of its time. The ad, directed by the late Yasmin Ahmad, former ECD of Leo Burnett, showcased how children are colourblind when it comes to race. It picked up a Gold in Film at Cannes Lions 2008.

Ng suggests that if the same work was created today it might win multiple more awards with proper recognition.

"Today, there's more openness to different kinds of creativity. As a result, our work 20 years ago is now recognised more widely," Ng adds.

Similar to how the West has grown to accept Yeoh for her work over the years, Ng says there has been transformational acceptance of Asian diversity, including diversity in thought and backgrounds for leadership in the advertising industry.

He pointed out that two decades ago, as a creative, no one looked like him working in a global role. Today, he notes, there are more Asians in international roles.

"The leaps we have made culturally and from this industry sector have been fantastic. I would not have been able to do what I am doing today 20 years ago because I would not have been given that opportunity," explains Ng.

"Coming from this region in a small market, it's a privilege to be given the opportunity, but it would not have happened without people opening doors for me. Creativity is fascinating. Ideas can come from anywhere, and a lot of the work that helped me and my office in Malaysia at the time was regional standard and top-ranked work worldwide. Nobody cared where it came from. People just cared about the quality of the work. That guided me on how to stand out in the industry."

Ng is keen to stress that he never strived to produce quality work to leave Malaysia. He claims his agencies wanted to do the best work for clients then. That the work became famous and helped raise many profiles, including his, was a natural outcome.

According to Ng, creatives have a wider mindset around the 'business of creativity', with opportunity wide open for anyone. The work opens many doors, and Ng's mantra is: "Good work fixes everything."

"When you do work that helps your clients and helps your agency from a business and fame standpoint, it opens doors. That's what happened to me," says Ng.

"As my work for clients became more successful, more models opened, allowing me to explore new markets, including Singapore and the US. It doesn't matter who you are. Good work is what opens doors."

Attracting talent

Ng hopes the current spotlight on Asian creativity will help attract talent to the industry as there are many other opportunities for creatives to explore today.

The industry's challenge to retain talent is well documented, with common issues being the lack of awareness of advertising as a career choice among young people, ensuring staff do not become isolated with a hybrid workplace, and salary progression for most industry roles.

"We need to work harder to attract talent to our industry. This is not unique to our industry, as when I first started advertising, I had nowhere else to go if I lost my job," says Ng.

"This is a good thing, but it also means that each industry must work harder to attract the best talent. I still believe that our advertising and marketing industry is the best space to start for anyone. You can go anywhere if you spend enough time in advertising or marketing networks, whether in a marketing agency like MRM or a design company. You can also work in a technology company like Pinterest or as a marketer under clients."

Ng believes the ad industry is a petri dish of talent, and he argues it is not the same in reverse. However, if it were put to him that this ageing industry is not as attractive as it was 20 years ago, Ng would vehemently disagree.

"I believe that if you work in this industry, you will hopefully become successful and continue to enjoy and thrive in it because I believe in it. Eleven years in this industry will set you up for any industry out there, and I firmly believe that we need to design ourselves to be more attractive to talent," says Ng.

Stephen Chow

In addition, Ng points out that creativity is a team sport and requires different skills, just like in football.

He explains that an agency cannot have 11 David Beckhams but needs a goalkeeper and defenders. Ng explains that connecting the dots means working with different experts from the beginning, not as an afterthought.

"Today, we have all these amazing people around us - strategy partners, technologists, data scientists - and they are all part of the team. Sometimes an idea comes first, and then you check it against data," says Ng.

"Other times, the data inspires the idea. Either way, if you put the different experts together from the beginning, you can create an environment that allows an idea to thrive. If creatives want a long and successful career in this business, they must embrace all the different skill sets, including data and technology. These shouldn't be seen as boring enemies or something scary but as sparring partners."

Embracing generative AI

Generative AI tools like ChatGPT, Midjourney and Stable Diffusion continue to face mixed reactions worldwide, as some professionals in creative industries fear they may take away their jobs.

In the advertising industry, holding company Omnicom Group is embracing generative AI, and CEO John Wren has said the agency wants to embrace it as quickly as possible. Others, like the Chinese marketing agency group BlueFocus has gone as far as to replace human copywriters and creatives with AI.

However, some agencies are reluctant to use the tool because of copyright concerns. For example, Getty Images has sued AI image generation Stability AI, the maker of Stable Diffusion, for copyright infringement, and Samsung engineers shared sensitive corporate data with ChatGPT.  

In a recent interview with Campaign, VaynerMedia chief executive Gary Vaynerchuk said he had not approved the usage of generative AI in VaynerMedia because he is concerned about copyright and trademark. Similarly, at VMLY&R, new Asia chief creative officer Raymond Chin told Campaign the agency would not use the tools for the next six months as the agency sets parameters for their use. 

At MRM, Ng is not banning the tool because he believes AI should be a creative partner when stuck, not a last resort. He says working with different skill sets from the beginning allows creatives to create a more robust idea, not just something that looks good.

"AI and generative tools are potent tools for creatives to use. Unsure creatives might worry about their careers, but creatives who keep up with the times and even think ahead will think about how they can use AI and generative tools as average creative partners. For instance, for our creative briefs, especially the larger ones, we've implemented an idea we call Beat the Bot," explains Ng.

"When we create a brief, we input it into ChatGPT and ask it for ideas for this campaign, this client, and this challenge. About half a dozen ideas will come in, and we will pick the best six. We will tell our team, 'These are the ideas. Do not copy these. You need to be better than this.'"

Ng explains that this will prevent MRM's staff from being tempted to use the easy way out and add quality to the ideas. However, by doing so, immediately raise the bar, going to the second level of ideas because many creatives think of the first level of ideas first.

"We don't want those first-level ideas. Instead, we're using ChatGPT as a companion to increase the quality of pictures—the vast opportunities to use ChatGPT and all these generated tools as partners.

"It's a bit like a sparring session between creatives. You say something, I say something, and we make it better. That's how prompts work. If we haven't already, we should start using these tools as partners."

Regarding copyright, Ng admits there is no fixed answer regarding respecting intellectual property and legalities as 'we are all learning as we are doing'.

However, he says brands and agencies can be responsible for the usage of generative AI. Using another analogy, he says that before generative AI, there was plagiarism, and he spent much time studying the work to avoid presenting ideas as his own.

Ng recalls a previous experience where a junior team presented an idea to him. It turned out that the concept had already won a Cannes Gold Lion two years previously, and they were completely unaware.

Ng notes it was unintentional but points out that being responsible and a student of his craft is essential.

"We need to avoid presenting ideas that have already been done. Instead, we need to adopt new technologies responsibly. We shouldn't just evolve somebody's intellectual property into something else," explains Ng.

"We must create systems that say you cannot plagiarise, even if you're evolving somebody else's idea. We are looking into how we can be strict and take action when a team knowingly plagiarises. We want to avoid that. We want to be responsible and work with our clients to prevent this."

The future of creativity

The role of creativity is evolving in the era of creative commerce, where brands increasingly use digital channels like TikTok Shop to drive sales and engagement.

Ng is excited that commerce is now a focus because agencies need to convert and inspire people to buy their clients' products. However, he reiterates that commerce, like technology, should be a creative partner.

At MRM, Ng says the agency involved commerce teams from the beginning, and he will pose their questions on what platforms like TikTok and Instagram are doing that can open opportunities for commerce.

"If it is not effective, it is not creative. We are not in the business of selling art. We are in the commercial art business where everything needs to have an outcome and an impact on people's lives, creating a meaningful role for your clients and inspiring people to believe in your brand, convert, and buy products," says Ng.

"What is TikTok doing? What is happening in China with live commerce? Five years ago, it was changing the world, and the rest of the world is behind because China knows how to do things from an ethical commerce standpoint. I just wish that markets worldwide adopted commerce more creatively and quickly."

Campaign Asia

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