Danielle Long
Jun 15, 2023

Saviour narrative vs real life: Natalie Lam on creativity in Asia

Creativity in Asia is globally misunderstood, says the Publicis CCO for APAC, who wants Asian agencies to stop producing work that feeds a saviour narrative and instead unleash their experimental and innovative spirit.

Saviour narrative vs real life: Natalie Lam on creativity in Asia

Natalie Lam is passionate about mosquito campaigns, but not in the way you might think. The chief creative officer for Publicis Groupe across APAC and EMEA—and the recent recipient of Campaign Asia Pacific’s Women Leading Change Award for Creativity—believes the mosquito campaign epitomises the genre of purpose-driven work that continues to surface in awards seasons and perpetuate stereotypes of Asia.

Speaking to Campaign in the lead-up to the Cannes Festival of Creativity, Lam is calling out the brand-purpose work, or as she calls it, the Save Asia work.

“When you look at the work from Asia that won at Cannes over the past two decades, it is mostly work that I would call the “Save Asia” work. Every country has something like this to be saved— mosquito problems, child brides, gender equality—it’s not just Asia. These types of issues are universal for every country, everywhere.”

Lam believes this work – often pro-rata - is feeding a Western saviour narrative with outdated stereotypes about Asia as a developing region needing help and guidance.

Moreover, she says celebrating these campaigns at global awards shows have seen them increase, driven by a belief that this is the work that wins awards. “There's this gap of understanding that this type of work is not the only way to be recognised.”

Lam believes this work is holding the local industry back. Still, worse than this, it points to a deeper issue about stereotypes and Asia’s perceived position within the industry’s creative hierarchy.

As a Hong Kong native, who spent two decades in New York working at agencies including R/GA, Razorfish, Ogilvy, McCann Worldgroup, VMLY&R and Google, Lam brings the unique perspective of having experienced both "worlds". Her return to Hong Kong, at the height of the pandemic, saw her “blown away” by the creativity in the business world and in everyday life in Asia.

“Globally, New York and London have been viewed as the two top markets for the longest time. In the world of creativity and advertising, they are perceived as having the best work. Part of that is obviously the truth, given how sophisticated and accomplished the industry is there. But the reality is that what we do as an industry does not always reflect the world it comes from.

“In our industry, the Holy Grail of being creative is to solve real world problems and deliver real business impact for our clients. When I came back to Hong Kong and saw

the real business world here is so creative. They're doing so many things that I would otherwise see in these big award shows, as ‘world-changing’ or ‘industry-leading’ innovative ideas, but here in Asia, these are real-life and not necessarily created by the advertising industry.”

Lam points to Hong Kong’s K11 Art Shopping Mall and its unique solution to health and safety during the pandemic as an example of the region's thriving creativity.

K11 Musea mall's sanitising robots in Hong Kong

“I always tell people about K-11’s fleet of sanitising robots that were dancing around during the pandemic promising to keep everyone healthy and safe. That idea was not created by the advertising industry, that was someone who runs the business thinking about the best way to solve a problem,” says Lam.

“The level of creativity, thoughtfulness and innovation of the business world here, would be the dreams of someone in the advertising industry," she continues. “Unfortunately, the output here from agencies does not match that high level of innovative, stylish creative work.”

“If you look at [Asian creativity] from the Western lens and you only look within the industry, unfortunately, yes, it's not the same as the rest of the world, but Asia’s true creativity is a part of everyday living, which the industry needs to embrace more,” says Lam.

So how do you encourage a diverse, cultural region like Asia-Pacific to celebrate and value the everyday creativity in their communities to lift creative thinking and agency work? Lam believes it requires a significant communal effort. However, she is driving it in her wide-reaching role at Publicis Groupe.

"I challenge every single agency leader to talk about three things that they're proud of in their market - for example, I always use the K11 sanitising robots. I'm sure there's things from each market that the Western creative world doesn't know about, that would make their jaws drop,” she says.

“If we focus on working with our clients, and leveraging these interesting, creative, innovative trends that are happening in real life, then we can create an amazing piece of work to showcase the innovative, experimental nature of brands and the customers in Asia – and the hunger for more of this work.

“If we create work based on that, rather than solving mosquito problems, I think it will be a very different thing for the industry and creativity. People just need to see more examples of that type of work being recognised in the big creative shows to see the gap, and then we can bridge that gap,” says Lam.

“Asia is one of the most innovative, fast moving, creative markets,” says Lam. “We are putting a huge emphasis in helping our clients do the best work to showcase this modern progressive Asian creativity.”

Campaign Asia

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