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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Tay Guan Hin
Tay Guan Hin

guan Tay Guan HinRegional ECD, South-East Asia

I recently had a chance to catch up with Tay Guan Hin, JWT’s Regional ECD for South-East Asia after what might’ve been the longest game of phone-tag in history.

He is very busy.

Guan’s ihaveanidea interview has been a long time coming. After overcoming the most fearsome of obstacles a young creative’s career could face (Guan’s parents were both doctors), he went on to become one of the most respected creative leaders in the industry. Not only has his work received every accolade there is and his presence been requested to judge the most prestigious of award shows, but perhaps more tellingly, he has always been a huge supporter of young talent. He was instrumental in setting up Singapore’s Crowbar Awards, Adfest’s Young Lotus and in bringing the AWARD school across the region.

When we finally got to chat about his career from its modest beginnings to his current place on the very exclusive JWT Worldwide Creative Council dinner table, I understood how he earned his Mr.Nice Guy reputation around the region.

ihaveanidea: Why don’t tell us how you got to where you are today? Let’s start from the very beginning here…

Guan: Both my parents were medical doctors so obviously they had pretty high expectations of me getting into not necessarily the medical field but much more of an intellectual industry. During my early school years I didn’t concentrate on my work at all and would spend my time drawing and doodling on all my books, until eventually my parents got a call from one of the teachers.

So we sat down, and I thought I was going to get a huge lecture on how bad my grades were, but the teacher was really supportive and said that talent had to be nurtured at a young age or it’ll be lost .

ihaveanidea: And how old were you when then?

Guan: 12-14 years old. Grades are quite an important thing in Asian culture and mine weren’t fantastic, so that’s why my parents thought the teacher was calling to lecture on how hard I needed to study and stuff like that

So it was quite refreshing to hear that there was some potential for growth in the art field, that got my parents thinking it was good to support my artistic skills. So I did my A Levels in England studying art.

When I was searching for schools to do a degree, I applied for the Art Center in Pasadena. My uncle was living there and he recommended it. I didn’t know anything about conceptual skills when I got there so that was quite a shock to me. I had to learn everything about advertising at a very rapid pace. Advertising in America back then was very copy-driven so I had to pick up copywriting quickly coming from an art background.

I did that for about three years and then took part in the first Los Angeles Creative Competition, organized by the creative club.

Coming from Singapore, I was not really used to American culture; it’s a very competitive school and everybody works by themselves. So we all submitted work and throughout the night I saw some classmates of mine picking up gold and silver and I thought there was no chance I’d get anything. But when the final call came out, I won the best of show. That was fantastic. At that time you got a trophy, but also $1000 in cash which was quite useful. It was a lot of money for a student in 1990.

So that was a really big break for me. Especially since the show was judged by many big wigs and I managed to get a job in Santa Monica out of it.  I stayed there three years  and it was fantastic to be able to work in the states coming from Singapore.

ihaveanidea:  I hear you also taught English in Russia for a short while. Tell us about that experience…

Guan: I was in a Christian group called The Navigators and there was an opportunity to go to Russia to teach English for 2-3 months. It was at a really good time since it was when Russia opened its doors and it was a very good opportunity to see the world before I went back to Singapore.

ihaveanidea: How did that help you in your ad making career? Wasn’t it a bit weird for them to see an Asian guy coming to Russian to teach English?

Guan: There were a few Koreans in the group too so it was quite interesting in that regard since English was their second language. But they were quite open. It’s always good to see a new culture that’s so different and so unknown from what you’re used to, and to try to communicate. A lot of the time you had to come up with very creative ways of expressing yourself, and the same thing pretty much applies in the the ad world.

You try to be innovative and think outside the box to communicate something in a way that interests people. Even when teaching English.

Guan’s Early Portfolio

ihaveanidea: And when you came back to Singapore, how did you make your name in the industry there?

Guan: When I came back I worked for a local company called DMC which was one of the biggest local shops in Singapore. They needed somebody really quickly and on the cheap so they hired me as associate creative director. I stayed there for less than a year, and during that time interviewed with Linda Locke while she was at Saatchi & Saatchi Singapore and I got hired as an art director. I did a lot of good work with Linda there. It was in the heyday of the agency. After she left, Dave Droga came over. When he came to Singapore he really transformed the place and they were named Ad Age’s agency of the year.

After that I went back to Linda at Leo Burnett as head of art. It was one of the greatest jumps in my career as at that time the agency was ranked first in the regional creative rankings. It was a really good transition for me, learning about management and trying to groom people.

I then took the Regional Creative Director role for Grey as they were coming back to Singapore and opening an office there. In 2005 I moved to JWT as the regional ECD for South East Asia and last year I’ve been made the Global Creative Director for Lux.

ihaveanidea: How does that work ? What does a global CD on a particular brand do exactly?

Guan: The offices doing the creative work for Lux are in China, India, Brazil, South Africa and South East Asia.

Obviously each region has different assignments so I work with different offices to come up with different creative. The brand’s global headquarters are in Singapore, they used to be in Bangkok.

how these ideas can be translated to different media is something creatives still need to learn, and digital people need to also understand where the ideas come from.

One of the great things about it is that I get to work with the different offices.  The creatives regularly send me their work and we do a lot of tele-conferencing. I’ll also go for the shoots in some markets. I just came back from one in Rio three months ago.

It was right after our latest Global Creative Council meeting in Sao Paolo. Ty Montague runs one every trimester. In Asia we have a similar quarterly thing called Passion Meetings. We meet to review the work, improve it and to get feedback, but also to see how the global business units are doing. In Manila for instance, Dave Ferrer got the Philippines first gold for radio in Cannes so that was a very good achievement. And our Jakarta office won the first silver last year too.

ihaveanidea: We all know about the offices and countries that are doing well like Singapore, China or Thailand, but what about the smaller ones? Places like Viet Nam for example?

Guan: Interesting you mention Viet Nam since we just got a new guy there called Khai. It’s a market we are pushing on various levels.  We’ve had small successes here and there but no big hitters so far. It’s got a lot to do with the country and the culture. We’re not just hiring a lot of foreign talent and disguising it as doing good local work . We’re building that office on young local talent.

There’s a lot of education and grooming to be done there for the work to reach that world class standard.

ihaveanidea: As a regional head, is your role to concentrate more on the markets with more money, or do you have a broader mission to develop all the regions?

Guan: Obviously clients with the money are the ones getting the more time and effort spent on them since they’re paying for the costs. But it’s also about individual office performances.

When we meet up for Passion Group, one of the things we always try to encourage is integration with the big clients and also to give them bigger ideas. We’re trying to focus on the work for our bigger brands and establish a dominance in the marketplace. Big clients like Unilever and HSBC you wouldn’t associate with big creative solutions.

ihaveanidea: When you’re looking to hire an ECD for an office what are the qualities you look for in a person? Obviously it can’t just be about the work, which obviously has to be good, but what else do you look into?

Guan: Besides creative work. Quite a lot of the success we’re having right now is from putting people who are willing to prove to themselves  and what they can do it. So hunger to do great things is very important.

The hunger to succeed. The hunger to really build the agency’s reputation, not just theirs, and to really push themselves. So that’s one thing

Another thing is that at JWT we are known to be a nice bunch and to make sure that everybody is well treated and well supported. So that person should be able to nurture and support the whole agency and the network.

A lot of the time you had to come up with very creative ways of expressing yourself, and the same thing pretty much applies in the the ad world.

ihaveanidea: How would you say your region adapting to the new technologies coming up? Singapore’s always been very very good for print, but how are you guys moving on from there and pushing new stuff?

Guan: It’s interesting. I think in the West or in places like Japan, digital is huge. But if you take markets like China, the traditional stuff is still alive and kicking. TV is still the main source of communication.

At the same time, we’re still doing a lot of stuff in digital & integrated by combining some of our resources. In Japan I know the office is working with top digital production companies like GT Tokyo, Projector and that. So it’s starting a move towards the right direction. Working with partners may be the easy way, but we do understand the need for this to happen and in the future you will see more integration coming.

In Singapore we’re moving into a new office with XM who is very well known digital company in Asia. It’s not a merger, we will still retain our own identity but we will be cohabiting in the same space.

Throw titles

It’s a great move as it allows collaboration and idea exchange between the creatives and it makes us much more media neutral. The basic idea development is still a need and it’s still important. But how these ideas can be translated to different media is something creatives still need to learn, and digital people need to also understand where the ideas come from.

So it’s still very much a work in progress, but it’s gonna take us to a more interesting place.

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.
ihaveanidea: If tomorrow you had the chance to hire the greatest creative person you ever met how do you convince him to come to JWT. You’re not allowed to simply throw money at him….

Guan: Throw titles? (laughs)

Everybody wants to succeed in their own way and people need to feel a bit of empowerment and ability to have their own space. Giving them space to do their stuff. I think the most important thing is that they know what the JWT network stands for. One thing with me is that I work in partnerships with people, and maybe this is a fault of mine, but I don’t use my power; I’d rather work in a persuasive way to get stuff done.

So as simple as the answer is, working together and just offering a partnership is quite attractive to a lot of people I speak to

ihaveanidea: And do you still get involved in the creative process?

Guan: It’s a case by case basis. On the Lux role I am pretty hands on; the same goes for some of the regional pitches and for the work that requires more of our creative attention.

Most of the time though, I help sell the work to the client. Coming up with stuff is something, but selling it is another. And that’s a major major part of my job. Inspiring the troops is also really important. You have to lead by example and show them that the solution is often simpler than what they think.

During our passion meetings we also conduct some classes. It’s important to spend time in the office, even if I just go for client meetings I take the time to meet the teams in different cities. And people are curious about all sorts of things. When I came back from judging D&AD everyone was asking me how the work and about my experience being judge. Things like that help people understand how to come out with better work.

ihaveanidea: Since you’ve worked for both, who do you think is the better creative director, Linda Locke or Dave Droga?

Guan: Wow…that’s a really sensitive question.

I learned different things from two very different people. Linda’s a fantastic manager that’s very very demanding and what she wants to achieve is always very very clear. So what I really learned management skills from her. As a creative person, it’s terrible to not know how to manage people and not know how to manage clients, account servicing, and life in general.

With Dave it was all very spontaneous. He’s a genius that comes up with ideas spontaneously and picks things up on the run. When I knew him at Saatchi in Singapore, he was just starting his career and he was extremely brave. Anything goes. Coming from a conservative Asian perspective, seeing him break all the boundaries was  very inspiring. There was this ad for cooking oil and he was able to sell an ad that had mouse in it. Which is kind of taboo because you don’t mix cooking with rats.

I have to say I’ve learnt lots from both.

Interview by:

rafikcreditpic Tay Guan Hin

Rafik Belmesk
Operations, AKOS

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