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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Ronald Ng
Ronald Ng
ronaldng 3sml Ronald NgChief Creative Officer
Ah, Malaysia! Home of gorgeous white sand beaches, hectares of rainforest and jungles, year long summers, the oldest church in South East Asia, the world’s tallest twin towers, and on top of all that, a pretty kick ass and booming advertising industry.
One of the places leading the pack is BBDO/Proximity in Kuala Lumpur. Ronald Ng, Chief Creative Officer, is the one steering the good ship towards creative greatness there. This year — since his mandate to integrate the creative departments over the various mediums wasn’t keeping him busy enough — he chaired the Kancil Awards jury. His own work of course has been recognized and mentioned at all the local, Asian and international award shows including Cannes, D&AD and Clio.
Last year, Ronald was invited to sit on the super exclusive BBDO Asia Creative Council. But above all, Ronald is one of the nicest guys you’re ever likely to come across and a big supporter of young talent.
ihaveanidea: What did you want to become as a child? Did you always know you wanted to be in Advertising?

Ronald: I was a flop at school. I barely graduated from high school. in Malaysia you need a minimum of six passes to pass, and I passed six. That’s only because I accidentally took an art class. And the only reason I passed art was that a friend drew the assignment for me. So, yeah, I was a pretty bad student. I then to law school for one semester..

ihaveanidea: Wait, you got into law school having barely passed high school?

Ronald: Private school. As long as you pay, they’re happy. (laughs) That didn’t quite work out either, so then I thought of doing hairdressing, but that wasn’t for me either. I then wanted to do psychology, and then sociology because I thought every company needs one, right? That was my reasoning anyway.

Then I did business. The reason I did that was because it was the only major I was allowed to take for my parents to sponsor me overseas, where I really wanted to study. I went to the University of Nebraska.

I didn’t do too well there either, the reason I think is that I never found something I was interested in doing. My girlfriend at the time was in journalism school. They offered advertising as a major. So as I was about to drop out, and on the verge of coming home, I spoke to her about what she was studying and it sounded very interesting. So I went to see a journalism professor, and asked a lot of questions and for the first time in my life I thought it would be something I’d like to do.

So I gave my parents two options. One is you send me home, and I probably go on to become an insurance agent. Or let me try something that you don’t want me to try.

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“…for the first time in my life I thought it would be something I’d like to do. “

ihaveanidea: I bet you’re kicking yourself now. Could’ve done with some of those AIG retention bonuses! So how did you get your first job in advertising?

Ronald: I think all those different interests, and me being so fickle about finding what I want to do, all those subjects, even though I wasn’t very good at them, were a great foundation for my advertising career. In advertising, one day you’re writing ads for tampons and the next you’re writing for cars. You have to wear many hats in this industry. So being a nomadic student helped.

After I graduated from college I came straight back to Malaysia and found a job at JWT. The first time I walked into the agency I was really taken by it. It was on the penthouse of a building and they had a glass ceiling. I just thought ‘wow, I want to work here’. JWT was a great name with a lot of history of course, but the glass ceiling did it. I took my first job for US$200 a month. I just jumped at whatever they were throwing at me, and THEN apologized to my parents.

“You have to wear many hats in this industry. So being a nomadic student helped.”

ihaveanidea: You always hear so much about Singapore’s ad scene, yet you don’t hear half as much about what’s going on in Malaysia…why do you think that is?

Ronald: Malaysia is Asia’s best kept secret. If you look at what we did in the last few years, we’ve really grown in terms of being a creative industry. Six or seven years back, we used to be fortunate to be shortlisted at the One Show. If you got a finalist, everyone would call to congratulate you. You’d be a superhero!

Today it’s evolved so much, from the time we won our first One Show gold to the Cannes Grand Prix and numerous Gold Lions too. So nowadays, when you win gold somewhere, everyone waits to see if anyone else has won a gold. Which is great because we’re a relatively small industry. We can’t really be compared to the US or even Canada. There’re only maybe ten big agencies here. Singapore and Thailand have consistently done well in the region, but you’re starting to see Malaysia being on par or perhaps even outperforming those two countries. Malaysia also doesn’t PR itself really well. Maybe we’re too busy doing the work!

ihaveanidea: Speaking of awards. Most of the stuff I’ve seen from you guys has been very traditional. How would you explain the fact that the work you’ve done in interactive or other alternative mediums doesn’t get picked up as much?

Ronald: We’re still a pretty traditional market in terms of the creative approach. But it is changing really fast. I say give us a few years, or maybe even months, and you will see a lot of new work from Malaysia.

We’re definitely not on the same page as places like Crispin yet, because they’re amazing at doing non traditional work. There’re a few reasons behind that; number one is because we don’t get as many opportunities to do work like that. Digital is still pretty new to clients here. It’s not proven, and they think the ROI is not as obvious as for mainstream mediums. But we are definitely improving. Just give us time.

Here at BBDO Proximity, we try to push a lot for non-traditional work and we’ve been doing really well at the Kancils, which are the local awards here.

A cool non-traditional campaign we did was the Wheelchair one. It got a silver at AdFest last year, won the Kancil Grand Prix, and it was the sixth most awarded in one report for non-traditional marketing.

ihaveanidea: Can you tell us a bit more about that campaign? What were the insights behind it, and how did you come up with this idea exactly?

Ronald: The campaign targeted college students. Drunk driving is a big problem for them here. The brief was simple as it gets, to do a poster that was to be put in colleges. But hundreds of posters had already been done on drunk driving, and we wanted to do something different. So we took a car that was actually wrecked in a drunk driving accident, took it to a workshop, and created a wheelchair. Every piece of the wheelchair was taken from that car. Even the headline was edged into the car’s door.

From a message point a view, the insight was that if you told young guys they’ll die because of a drunk driving accident, they’re not going to be scared. So what we thought was “what if we told them you’re gonna live to suffer, and spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair”. That was a lot more effective than telling them they were gonna die.

When people saw that, other colleges approached us to showcase it around the country. This went on to become a nationwide college competition where students did their own interpretation of art installations made out of cars. They went to junkyards and created their own. It was a very non-traditional way of approaching a drunk driving campaign.

“Malaysia is Asia’s best kept secret…it also doesn’t PR itself really well. Maybe we’re too busy doing the work!”

Another cool thing we did, was two years ago. We won the first Titanium Grand Prix at the Kancils for a campaign we did for Olympus cameras. They have a camera that’s waterproof and shock proof. People usually have a hard time believing those claims, so we thought why don’t we do something about those skeptics? We went to a camera fair, and stuck one of the Olympus cameras into a washing machine in front of a live audience. And you know how camera nerds are…so with hundreds of people there, we said this is our new shock and waterproof camera. So we put it on video record, took a shot of the crowd, and then put it into the washing machine while it was still filming. We then removed it from the machine, hooked it up to a big screen TV and replayed that video. That’s another form of non-traditional stuff, so to your earlier question, we’re getting there!

Malaysia has won a lot of awards in traditional mediums, but this goes back to budgets also. For Cannes, I am only going to enter ten entries, so when you have a limited amount of entries, you want to spread it across categories. Most of our work at this point is in Print, TV and Direct, so you don’t have the luxury of saying, “hey we’ve got 30 entries let’s enter this alternative media thing”. We have to be really prudent with what we decide to enter.

ihaveanidea: Moving on to a different subject, with the economy the way it is these days, and the world collapsing, do you think we’re seeing the end of an era? Does it still make sense to have huge agencies, owned by huge conglomerates?

Ronald: The only great value of an agency right now is the idea. It’s the size of the idea, not of the agency that matters. That’s why you have ten people agencies that are doing great work and you also have 300-400 people agencies that are doing work that sucks. Whatever the size of the agency, it needs to be very nimble. To your point, yes, big agencies have a disadvantage right now, but that’s because they are still stuck in their traditional ways. Although that depends from agency to agency. If you look at some networks, some of them are actually very very innovative.

And without wanting to push it, I think BBDO is a very innovative network. If you look at campaigns like HBO Voyeur, the recent BBC campaign or the brilliant Yellow pages one out of New Zealand, as a network, we’re doing some very innovative thinking. It really depends on how the agency or the network wants to move forward. We have to look beyond our comfort zone.

“The only great value of an agency right now is the idea. It’s the size of the idea, not of the agency that matters”

Every agency needs to adapt. Not so much to what the clients want, but a lot more to what the consumers want. The people we’re talking to are the consumers. A common mistake I think a lot of agencies make is that they think their audience is the client. So it really needs to be an initiative from the agency and the network to look beyond that comfort zone and mainstream media like TV and print. We really need to go into digital and all the new touchpoints people are spending time with. It is getting more and more complex to reach consumers. We need to think of new ways they want to be talked to, and that would make them want to start a dialog with you. Campaigns need to be a dialog these days. They need to be interactive. And the word “interactive” doesn’t apply to only digital, but to all the other mediums out there. It’s all about getting people involved. That’s interactive to me. It’s important to give something the consumer actually wants.

So instead of giving the consumer a $2 promo on a product, you need to start something that’ll have him say, ‘that’s pretty cool, and I want to be part of it’.

ihaveanidea: Are you having trouble getting clients to spend more now because of the economy? Everyone is happy to say that the smart play was to keep advertising during bad times, but that was when everything was going well. Very few actually seem to put their money where their mouth is…

Ronald: I think that’s the biggest challenge agencies are facing at this point, and I always tell my people it’s not a BBDO problem, it’s not a Malaysian problem, it’s not even an advertising problem, it’s a worldwide problem. We’re all in the same boat. Even personally in the way I spend. I’m not buying as many shoes as I would’ve last year. Clients don’t have the luxury to spend like they used to, I guess the trick is to spend wisely. That’s why innovative and smart marketing solutions are more important now than ever before. It used to be here’s x amount of thousand dollars, how many TV spots can I get for that? It’s not like that anymore. Which is good I think. Because once we all pull out of this hopefully in a few years, we’ll be much better and efficient communicators, or at least I hope so, because we’re doing a lot of thinking right now and hopefully it will materialise into something! (laughs)

After three years in the industry, the 9’7 economic crisis happened. I’d only been in advertising for a few years, but I had nothing to fear because I was a young and hungry creative who saw this as an opportunity to push myself. It was an Asian crisis more than anything, but whenever there is a crisis, opportunities aren’t very far away.

ihaveanidea: This must be quite hard to hear to all the people who spent so much money attending ad schools and now find themselves unemployed after all the promises that were made to them. And the worse thing is there’s a new cohort coming out every three months or so…

Ronald: Yes it is quite hard. The trick I would give college students is to look at what everyone else is doing, and do something completely different. Because I often get ten portfolios that are all presented beautifully in some sort of computer software, but the thing is they all look the same. The dissolve transition from one ad to another is pretty much the only thing that changes.

The core of our industry is to be creative. the whole thing is to create something that hasn’t been done before and that’s different. So if the objective of going to college is to get a job in the creative industry, then do something different than anyone else and you will succeed.

“You have to be passionate about this industry, otherwise you will DIE!”

ihaveanidea: Do you still participate in the creative process? Or are client and management meetings eating up most of your days?

Ronald: Well I have to do everything. The size of agencies in this region is not as large as the ones in the US with 400-500 people, so you have to be hands on. But I think it’s a good thing, because you need to sit down and get your hands dirty everyday. You would be amazed at how much I learn from junior teams. Especially right now. The natural instinct of any creative should be that ‘I want to create every day’ so you need to find as much time as possible to actually be with the teams. It’s tough for a creative person to sit there and just stop thinking. The best creative people in the world are like that I think. Last night I left the office at 3:30 in the morning because I had to write an ad! Agencies don’t have the luxury of having extra people now, but more importantly, I do it because I enjoy it. The day I will stop enjoying it I will just leave the business altogether. You have to be passionate about this industry, otherwise you will die! (laughs)

When I was at school, I had a friend whose sister worked in advertising and she used to always come in at 11 or 12 at night. I thought she must’ve been sleeping with someone at the office. But now I understand!

ihaveanidea: You’ve been in the business for fifteen years, tell us about the coolest/craziest thing you’ve ever seen, or that has happened to you?

Ronald: I am gonna tell you about two. First, the campaign we did for Mini a few years ago got pretty crazy. It was for the launch for the second generation Mini and we created this story about an eastern european spy how wanted to get into Malaysia (and this was during the peak of the craziness surrounding terrorism) so all that put together,with no branding at all during the first weeks alerted the authorities. It went to the defense ministry who investigated it during a parliament meeting! I actually wanted that sort of outcome and buzz at first, but it turns out when I got what I wished for I got quite scared! I didn’t want to go to jail! It wasn’t really worth it. (laughs) So that’s one of the more exciting periods in my career.

Another time was the washing machine thing for Olympus. We wanted to shut everyone up, and stick it to the skeptics.This client had balls of steel. And it was the assistant GM of Olympus in Malaysia, so it wasn’t a junior client. It was in front of hundreds of people, and we did a test first obviously, but what if the camera came out of the washing machine and was broken? He really believed in his brand. So much that he put his reputation on the line.

So my fingers were crossed the whole time. If anything bad would’ve happened the competitors who were all there would’ve gone to town with that story and it would’ve been mess! That was another very very interesting time. My heart I think stopped beating while the camera was in there!

ihaveanidea: Do you think it’s still viable to invest so much money in award shows, especially in our climate?

Ronald: I will tell you what: It’s never been viable, even in the best economic times. But what’s important for agencies is that if there are no award shows, how would we distinguish one agency from another? Everyone could claim to be the best agency in the world!

Another thing is that it attracts talent. When you do well because of your work, you also attract the best people in the industry and to me that’s the most important thing. Even as a junior I wanted to join the top agencies because of the awards. As a CCO now it’s very important to get the best people in the industry and that’s a big reason for awards as well.

“I thought she must’ve been sleeping with someone at the office. But now I understand!”

ihaveanidea: Ok, last question, and this is going back to the very first one I asked you. If you weren’t CCO at BBDO, what would you be doing? A journalist? Or maybe a hairdresser?

Ronald: I would be in between jobs. Certainly. I’d be as fickle as I was when I was a student. I was very lucky to find what I enjoy doing, and even if sometimes I leave the office at three in the morning, I don’t bitch. So I’m just lucky to have found what I love doing.

Interview by:
Rafik Belmesk
Operations, AKOS

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