TEENAGE YEARS AT A BENEDICTINE CONVENT
‘Chairmom’ and chief creative officer, Dentsu Jayme Syfu
I learned to climb trees to harvest local blackberries in the summer months. I cleaned water tanks as big as a car, 20 feet above the ground. Watering hundreds of newly planted trees was no joke. I fetched water 100 meters away from a drum and emptied a whole milk can on each tree.
Imagine a restless, rebellious 13 year old who packed a bag one day, left a goodbye note, made that big step of leaving home and family for a quiet, more meaningful life in a far-away convent.
That was me. This three-year adventure at a benedictine convent in Pampanga, a northern province of the Philippines, fundamentally influenced who I am today.
I was strongly determined to do something more useful in life. That something was to help the world in any way I can. And absolutely nothing could stop me.
Three years in a cloister can totally blow you away physically and emotionally. In retrospect, I am thankful for that. Today, I am still surprised at myself for having done things I never thought I could do.
It was a world of utter simplicity. There were no watches, so I knew when to head back from the fields by telling the time from standing under the sun. To kill vanity, the convent had no mirrors. I remember being taken aback seeing my own reflection in a drum of water when I was watering the trees!
The rigid life toughened me up. I slept in a narrow wooden bed without a mattress that prevented me from twisting or turning. My stomach got used to a plain diet of rice, vegetables and a sprinkle of salt.
Lights out at night was at 7pm. After the hard day’s toil, sleep was easy. Following seven hours of sleep, I went through the longest prayer of the day at 2am, at the height of sleepiness. This, I realized, is a way to teach the body to keep itself awake when needed.
My convent years gave me adventure, and lots of muscles. I learned to climb trees to harvest local blackberries in the summer months. I cleaned water tanks as big as a car, 20 feet above the ground. Watering hundreds of newly planted trees was no joke. I fetched water 100 meters away from a drum and emptied a whole milk can on each tree. If you cheated, and watered with less than a full can for each tree, it turned yellow the next day! Every rainy season, I caught catfish in the mud.
From taking care of orphans and the elderly to making my own sandals from pieces of tire rubber, I made big and small things happen.
When I think about it, those three years were simply a preparation for learning how to hone creativity. Those were three years of precious training to be a good writer, an inspiring leader at work, and a loving wife and mother at home.
After all, three years mean 26,280 hours of cleansing one’s thoughts, erasing ill will from the heart, absorbing the meaning of faith and understanding how nature and people work.
My years in the convent satisfied my relentless curiosity, and my thirst to learn the meaning of life was quenched.
When that day of enlightenment came, I knew it was time to come home. I was 16 years old.
This remarkable experience paved the way for me to come back to school. When my only training was building a great vocabulary from the Fathers of the Church, it was little short of a miracle that I passed my subjects with high grades.
In my fourth year in College, I found myself winning the school elections as president of the Student Council. In a very short time, I was able to help some students who had been bullied, and sexually harassed. By gathering 100 signatures during our graduation rites, my Student Council successfully kicked out an abusive male teacher. I then joined a women’s group that campaigned to end violence against women and children. This group, Gabriela, is my beloved client to this day.
From a life of silence, I relished the art of communication. Armed with fresh thinking, discipline, the ability to filter through clutter, resourcefulness, calmness of spirit and the power to read people, I have survived 30 years of advertising through thick and thin.
Living with the “sisters” has given me the ability to understand people inside and out. I love searching for human insights, especially those that concern women. CSR projects give me ultimate happiness and self-fulfillment. Anything to help underprivileged children, the poor and the hungry is always at the top of my list.
I look back on those years with fond memories and zero regrets. I still shake my head in disbelief! I tell myself: ‘I’m definitely a survivor’.
Deep inside, I am still that restless and stubborn 13-year old. Still that relentlessly curious teenager looking for a way to help the world in all the way I can.
Today, my agency’s vision is “to create ideas that will change lives and change the world”. Who would have thought that this was that teenage nun’s life vision all along?
Executive creative director and founder, Party
He became my creative mentor during my university days, and led me to become interested in design and creative work. I probably wouldn’t have become a designer if it weren’t for him.
Various pieces of cultures have weaved together inside me to enable me to create the things I do today, but if I had to choose my biggest influence, it would be Masahiko Sato.
He isn’t much known abroad, but he was (and still is) possibly the most celebrated creative director in Japan. He started off at Dentsu and then moved on to creating his own work at his studio, including video games like “Intelligent Qube”, several Cannes-nominated short films and various award winning TV shows. He then switched to teaching, and I was lucky enough to join the Masahiko Sato research laboratory he started in 1999 at Japan’s Keio University, when I was a second year student. He became my creative mentor during my university days, and led me to become interested in design and creative work. I probably wouldn’t have become a designer if it weren’t for him.
His class was titled “Think of new ways to think”. The aim was to try and decipher the creative process and find radical ways to help come up with groundbreaking content. I personally collaborated with Masahiko to create some books and TV shows using this methodology: one of the shows was called “Pythagoraswitch”, a quirky education show for children, which is still ongoing after almost 15 years. [Find videos on the unofficial Youtube channel here].
Once I started working in a creative agency, I rephrased Masahiko’s method in my mind to “make new ways to make.” This has since become my core ethos, and the basis of all my concepts. Finding a new way to make something is actually the shortest way to make something no one has seen before.
I'm alone at 2:19 am on a Tuesday. Nights in Shanghai are spent alone in bed with the tomes of novelists, poets, academics and screenwriters to lull me to sleep. But I don’t feel alone at all. Maybe it’s because you’re reading this.
It was March 2016. Civilization, the agency I co-founded in 2012, was riding high on our biggest hit thus far, Pepsi’s “Monkey King Family”. We had just moved to new premises with the intention of reaching a staff strength of about 100 in the upcoming months on the back of new account wins. I was also the doting father of an 8-month-old baby boy.
But little did I know I was about to enter a period of melancholia, punctuated by bouts of depression, that would last more than two years. How did this happen?
I believe the extremes of anxiety and ennui that plague a lot of us are symptoms of modern urban living, particularly its preponderance of solitude and self-dependence. For an entrepreneur living alone in Shanghai, solitude and self-dependence come in spades. I had been mired in the nerve-racking, backbreaking work of trying to build an agency and by the time it was able to take on a life of its own, I was in danger of losing connection with the place it was thriving in, the people I was building it with and the purpose it was serving.
But in the same way the work threw me into the abyss, the work found a way of leading me back into the light. Here’s the story of that journey.
If there was sunshine before the storm, it would be represented by our ‘Thank You Brother’ campaign for Sedrin Beer in 2015. This was the first film I directed at Civilization, wanting to prove I could direct, and in all 4 protagonists I saw the friends I wished I had and the friend that I hoped I could be. In portraying the lonely struggles of those who moved to the big city to pursue their dreams, I borrowed heavily from my life and the lives of those who chose to tell me their stories of trying to “make it” in Shanghai or Beijing or Guangzhou.
Then came ‘Monkey King Family’ for Pepsi in 2016. I saw my personal struggle in our protagonist’s struggle, and we were reflections of every other individual’s struggle throughout history. This racked up almost 250 million views during the Chinese New Year period. Everybody, including me, believed we had turned a big corner when this became such a success. There was hope - but some part of me feared we would be pigeonholed by it.
For the next project, almost immediately after “Monkey King Family”, I needed to get as far away from urban Shanghai as possible. Shooting in the Somerset countryside, in Britain, really gave me time for reflection on where my life and work were headed. In writing the script, directing the film, composing and writing most the of music and lyrics, I was able to think ‘Yup, I’m going to be a director’. Chinese movie star Amber Guo, who appeared in the ad and took the role as seriously as she would a feature film, was born on the same day as me. I borrowed her story to tell mine.
In almost every mainstream movie, there is an “all is lost” moment just before breaking into the third act. This 2017/2018 film for Lay’s, ‘In Pursuit’, probably represents mine. I came back from a long break in Spain and Portugal to a Shanghai I wasn’t sure I belonged to, to a large staff, half of whose names I didn’t know, and I was still shooting commercials instead of working on my feature film. I had lost connection with place, people and purpose. After completing this film, I realise they were not the problem, I was. I was lost, in terms of place, purpose and people.
We always overestimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can do in three. I preach that, but sometimes I neglect the sermon. The two 2018 films we made for Master Kong Jasmine Tea, ‘On the road with you’ and ‘A song for the leaving’, brought me home. They made me think again about place, people, purpose. I realised that wherever I am, that’s where I’m supposed to be. If you connect with me, I’ll connect with you. If you don’t care to, there’s nothing I can do about that. And my purpose? I am here to tell stories that will hopefully make the world a better place to live in.
That’s about it. I’m wrapping up this essay alone at 2:19AM on a Tuesday. Unless I’m on the sofa passed out from too much whisky or wine, most nights in Shanghai are spent alone in bed with the tomes of novelists, poets, academics and screenwriters to lull me to sleep. A postcard of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, one of my favourite paintings, serves as a bookmark. Sometimes I wonder if it is also a mirror. But I don’t feel alone at all. Maybe it’s because you’re reading this.
THE POWER OF MUSIC
Founder of Tune Air and AirAsia
Musicians also dare to dream, and I like to think this is how I approach my own life and the people who work for me at AirAsia.
I think music in general still influences me most. If you’ve ever read my book Flying High, you’d know that it played an important part of my childhood as a young Malaysian going to boarding school in London. It was years later that my friend called me to say his mother had found my tuck box, inside were two cassettes, Abba’s Arrival and Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam.
Music is still a big part of my life.
In fact, just last month, wearing my Malaysia Stadium Corporation hat, we brought in Ed Sheeran to perform in Kuala Lumpur. And we plan to bring in more big acts like BTS and who knows, maybe even U2.
Musicians also dare to dream, and I like to think this is how I approach my own life and the people who work for me at AirAsia. We have cabin crew and baggage boys who are now pilots and ground staff who are now CEOs. I myself was a music man and now I run AirAsia. Our annual dinners are basically mini concerts.
Quite a few years ago now, the Scorpions gave me a guitar, which I proudly display behind my desk. From hard rock and heavy metal to Ed Sheeran and BTS. I think it’s a reminder that music is often what keeps us young.
Executive creative director, DDB
I like the way people twist language and tone and physicality to communicate... Stand-up often treats us like we’re smart. Which is nice.
Stand-up comedy is a serious source of inspiration.
As a form of creativity, it moves in real-time. It comments on the state of all things, from the sense of self, gender, politics, sociology, pop culture, dating, parenting… to simply being a human. It cuts to the heart of the human condition from personal points of view that tap into the greater whole. It captures the mood of society and lets us know what people are really thinking underneath it all.
Stand-up can inform a way to structure, write and think about comedy. I like the way people twist language and tone and physicality to communicate. A story or point of view can unfold, bringing the audience along, filling in the gaps and reading between the lines. Stand-up often treats us like we’re smart. Which is nice.
But beyond humour, stand-up can also be so very clever and insightful.
I’ve often thought that a great advertising insight is like good stand-up. It’s a notion you know to be true but hadn’t heard articulated before. You have that ‘a-ha’ feeling that other people in the world feel the way you do about something, when you may have thought it was just you. A connection to the human race. And often the absurdity of life.
Although I love to laugh, having stand-up as an influence on my work doesn’t mean it’s all funny. Often quite the opposite in fact. I like the raw, often dark and dangerous truth of it. The way it can be poignant and brutal and unapologetic. Human’s showing their vulnerability. And doing so courageously.
From Bo Burnham and Ricky Gervais to Chris Rock, Hannah Gadsby, Tim Minchin and Amy Schumer, there’s no one stand-up comic for me. I like varied styles and points of view. To understand the skin I’m not in. It’s not about agreement. (Although sometimes I really do). It’s more about having my thoughts provoked and brain tickled. At times that can push me outside my comfort zone. And that’s exactly where I want to be.
There, and having a laugh.
Claude Monet, perhaps, will be that disgruntled ECD asking why he can’t submit the same print ad in 200 different colour hues as separate campaigns.
In 1969, an artist was having a cuppa with his friend, who expressed his need for a new logo for his lollipop company. Between sips and words, the artist doodled his first visual expression of the logo. The lollipop company is Chupa Chups. The artist is Salvador Dali.
My former life as a Fine Arts student for some 15 years has cultivated a keen sense of art appreciation in me. From Egon Schiele’s strokes of impatience to Claude Monet’s defiance of the art world’s rigidness, drawing a parallel to the advertising universe I now live in is tempting.
If Egon Schiele was alive today, he’d be submitting his work under “Best Real-Time Response Campaign”. Claude Monet, perhaps, will be that disgruntled ECD asking why he can’t submit the same print ad in 200 different colour hues as separate campaigns. Try telling him his work is an FA.
Ask any ad person about the difference between art and advertising, and a steady diet of differing opinions will be served for your entire lifetime. You might get nauseous at some point too. Personally, I relate to what Professor Jef Richards had said:
“Creative without strategy is called art. Creative with strategy is called advertising.”
Art does not need for the audience to understand it. Ironically, the value of the artwork might rise with the level of public confusion. The effectiveness of Advertising, on the other hand, is dependent on the audience understanding the message it is trying to convey. If your audience doesn’t get it, you’re fucked.
Have we since evolved to welcome a common marketplace where both Art and Advertising meet? We witnessed The Next Rembrandt by JWT and Portraits Completed by Ogilvy, both leveraging on the Public’s general art history knowledge on one end of the spectrum. On the other end, we see creative partnerships forged in the likes of Prada with Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset.
In my country, Singapore, a city-state that is at least 200 years younger than any impressionist painting at Musée d’Orsay (and some members of the board of directors even), we do have a long way to go. The future does look promising – 3D illustrator Andre Wee working with Apple, mural artist Ben Qwek with Guinness, sneaker designer Mark Ong with Asics and street artist Samantha Lo for Nike. A decade ago, brands would have treated the local artists as cheap labour.
I traded in my brushes and paint for Photoshop and PowerPoint when I entered the advertising industry. No client will wait for my paint to dry. I have no regrets for creativity is not limited to a format or technique. I find myself now playing the role of the agent between an artist and a brand, facilitating the birth of newborn campaigns from the partnership. I relish the role for it gives me the best of both worlds.
Managing director and chief executive, Futurebrands
We are now getting to see an unapologetic form of creativity.
The rise of video-sharing app TikTok in India [despite a brief ban earlier this year] is redefining our cultural understanding from the way we perceived it earlier: that cultural influence travels downwards.
What I find really exciting about the TikTok revolution is the new burst of creative expression that you find on it, particularly among young people from smaller towns, who were previously invisible or have been marginalised. These are the voices in society that we normally do not hear.
Instead, we are now getting to see an unapologetic form of creativity and there are several elements to it. One is in the form of uninhibitedness of selfexpression in the videos that they put out. The other is in the music tracks that they are dancing to. They are not the biggest hits in the country, but regional songs from Bengali to Tamil, and everyone does their own version of it. You are getting a pan-India commonality of expression from this medium, with variations emanating from a common pool of creative expression.
The other thing is that there is no embarrassment about the very modest surroundings where the videos are being filmed. The people posting are not trying to hide the fact that they are in a small house with plaster peeling off the walls. They are not pretending to be anything but what they are. And that’s in a society that is so hierarchy-driven, classconscious and caste-conscious. To have a playing field where everyone is able to express themselves so freely is a very interesting development.
You might expect a hierarchy in the music that the people on the app choose for self-expression. For example, the “metros” might be comfortable with a certain style of music and as you go down the strata you expect another genre of music. But there are enough examples where you will find people in villages grooving to Western tracks. The entire distance that was presumed between one class and another is renegotiating itself.
The fact that there is a certain edginess and freedom is very exciting culturally. It throws open the doors to reimagining what a big town or small town is or how fashion moves from one place to the other. Some of the old assumptions in retail or fashion could get dismantled. There are so many possibilities, and that’s the exciting part of any new cultural phenomenon.
THE PEOPLE OF RAJASTHAN
Chief creative officer, Ogilvy
The lack of colour in their lives didn’t 'kill' these people, and nor does the addition of colour help them survive... But the colour and the music made them live happier—made their lives better. If this is not creativity, what is creativity?
My inspirations go up and down the elevator every day.
I was born in India in a state called Rajasthan—a desert state with very little water and vegetation and, therefore, very little natural colour.
Yet it is known as the most colourful state of India because, for centuries, its inhabitants made up for what nature did not give them. Men and women wear the most delightful colours. Colours that make the desert look like magic. The colour is seen everywhere: in architecture, in their clothes, even in their colourful folk music.
Cultural gurus may call it survival instinct. To me, there is nothing about survival here. The lack of colour in their lives didn’t “kill” these people, and nor does the addition of colour help them survive. These people would have survived and lived anyway.
But the colour and the music made them live happier—made their lives better. If this is not creativity, what is creativity? If this is not inspiring, what is inspiration? Emotion is probably the only difference between the human race and other species that inhabit the earth. Technology is a tool to make life better and happier—but technology doesn’t create itself. People do. Creative people who are constantly seeking ways to make life better—be it healthier living, more useful information or easier communication. All these are efforts of human beings—millions of them—to build communities that are the basis of human existence.
In this fast-changing world dominated by technology, I still get inspired by ordinary human beings who understand the meaning of life better than most of us.
I was recently in a taxi with a younger friend. The cab driver, in conversation with us, said that it was his last trip of the day. My friend asked the driver why he was ending his earning day so early (it was just 5pm). The driver said that he had an aging mother he had to go back home to, to attend to. Why not enrol her into an old people’s home, my friend asked. The driver half-turned around and gave him a withering look. “Because she did not put me into a young people’s home when I was too young to look after myself,” he said.
Is this not inspirational? Do you see a story of life in this little exchange? In India, we practice a 13-day mourning period when there is a death in the family. In most parts of the country, neighbours send meals to the house of the grieving for all 13 days—all meals – regardless of the number of people present. Modern technology makes it easier to churn out the meals, but it’s human beings who cook them—human beings with large and generous hearts.
Is this not inspirational? Do you see a story lie in this little peek into India? Big data helps marketers segment and target specific audiences. This is useful technology and I have an army of colleagues at Ogilvy who are experts at decoding the data.
But personally, I prefer searching for the pulse that is common to human beings—the pulse untapped by formal researchers and social analysts. A pulse that is not found by long questionnaires but found by hearing real stories of real people in a real society and reading between the lines of these stories. And when I find that elusive pulse, I get reassured that there is nothing that inspires me more than people.
When in trouble for ideas, I turn to very young and very old people. Young people have uncluttered and innocent minds uncontaminated by “experience”; nothing but purity comes out of their hearts and minds. The older set has seen the world and has all the “experience”—and don’t give a damn about what anyone thinks of their views. The outcome is another form of purity.
So what inspires me? People. Only people. The Rajasthani villager inspires me, the taxi driver inspires me, the neighbours who generously come to your aid inspire me, the young inspire me, the old inspire me. People inspire me. People, people, people.