McCann Erickson's dynamic creative duo lead a winning young team
"WE would've been childhood enemies!" quips McCann Erickson (M) Sdn Bhd deputy chairman and executive creative director (ECD) Lee Szu-Hung when asked whether he and his colleague Huang Ean Hwa had known each other as kids.
Lee and Huang, who also holds the same positions (deputy chairman and ECD) at McCann, are definitely not enemies. While they come from different backgrounds and life experiences and they do have their arguments, the duo actually share many core values that make them work well together.
In fact, they have had one of the longest creative partnerships in the local ad industry. And among the most successful, to boot.
Next year will mark their 17th year as partners, which started way back in 1994 when they worked under the late Yasmin Ahmad at creative powerhouse Leo Burnett.
Both had joined forces to create a Ma Ma Sustagen print ad that won Huang the inaugural Young Creative Award at the Kancil Awards in 1995 (Lee didn't qualify as he had been in the industry for more than two years).
This year the creative team led by Lee and Huang again scored big at the Kancils, an annual event hosted by the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents (4As). McCann was named Agency of the Year for the second time (the first was in 2006) and its copywriter Ng Bee Nee grabbed the Young Creative Award.
This was in contrast to just two years ago when McCann whose current clients include KFC, L'Oreal, Bank Negara (Malaysia International Islamic Financial Centre), Libresse and Coca-Cola didn't even make the top 10.
Huang, who is all too familiar with the fickleness of award show juries, says: “We never go into any award show expecting anything.”
"While winning the Agency of the Year and Young Creative Award is important to us, it's not the whole thing that actually makes McCann Malaysia special," he tells StarBizWeek.
"This company is not just about Szu or I or Tony (Savarimuthu, the chief executive officer). It's also about everybody else who works with us. McCann Malaysia has got a great legacy, and I think that legacy is not only built on creative awards, not only built on effectiveness awards or business wins; it's the whole sum of its parts. What makes an agency great is just people; I don't care what the name on the door is."
Finding a balance
Lee says it is also about balance fulfilling the creative ambition but also ensuring that the agency performs well financially. McCann is indeed in a healthy position. It lost client Proton this year but will still end up with higher revenue.
Lee still remembers his and Huang's first interview with this reporter in 1999 when they had just joined BBDO Malaysia as joint creative directors. "We were going on and on that we wanted to create an environment that was fun. Yes, it is still an environment that has fun people with passion would still enjoy the job but it's a very tough business. The demands placed by clients on agencies are very high," he says,
Lee notes that the young members of the team contributed immensely to this year's wins.
"A lot of our young writers got on the scoreboard and it was not just for one campaign. The winning pieces of work won metal across almost all categories in the award show, from radio to print to integrated," he says.
"Ultimately, it's not just about communicating in one channel; it's what we feel is the best channel for a given assignment," he says.
McCann has hired about 10 young people over the last six months, mainly in creative.
"It's the next generation of, hopefully, creative hotshots," says Lee. "If they do well, they may leave and go to foreign shores one of these days. We're very proud if the rest of the world wants to hire our people because it shows we're doing something right."
Asked on the challenge in motivating the young people, he says that ultimately, the motivation still has to come from the individual.
"You cannot motivate someone who is already not motivated. You can, however, provide an environment for the motivated people to thrive in and we do that by encouraging teamwork, by trying to keep everything as open and transparent as possible, by rewarding them appropriately, by coaching, and by understanding their special individual needs."
Lee, 42, says attention span nowadays is very limited with "the stimulus just overflowing."
"I think being able to focus on the task at hand is the skill that up-and-coming people need to pick up. It's not a cut-and-paste society; they need to understand what they're cutting, what they're pasting, how do they write the copy, how to understand the insights."
Huang, 40, sees high confidence in today's young people.
"Today a 23-year-old can be a multi-billionaire; Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook co-founder), for instance," he says.
"There are perhaps some issues. Some young people who come in, if they work and don't like it, they will move on because they can do it. There's an amazing amount of confidence in them. It's a matter of how you harness that and use it in a creative industry, a communications industry," he says.
Lee says it's not just about hiring young people but also "keeping everyone young." "We can't be too world-weary like Oh gosh, we've seen this before' and be too cynical about things. You still have to look at things with a fresh eye all the time," he points out.
The shortage of talent in the country is one reason McCann is trying to bring in a new generation of people and training them.
On the brain drain to other countries, Lee says there are still a lot of opportunities in Malaysia, especially in the marketing communications field.
"To all the people who feel the grass is greener outside our borders and are doing very well, I think Malaysia should be very proud of them. But at the same time, we (he and Huang) take an alternative view where this is still a land of opportunity and there's a lot that needs to be done and can be done, and the talent pool is actually very deep; we just mustn't feel so negative about things. It's a lot more optimistic really than most of us give credit," he says.
Both Lee and Huang have received job offers for overseas posting, but they have turned them all down.
Lee says: "If you're talking about the job (as opposed to moving overseas due to family and other reasons), it's the same everywhere. We've gone to so many conferences and judged shows overseas and we've met so many people. Every single country from Malaysia to Sri Lanka to the US, they have the same problems talent shortage, frustrations with some bureaucratic elements of whatever code, cultural nuances, language differences, tight economy, shrinking budgets or growing budgets. It's the same."
Huang says perhaps the reason why he never really considered leaving is because he thinks the people he work with are incredible.
"Szu has been my creative partner for many years, and I've worked with Tony and our finance director before," he says.
"It's not about being comfortable and being complacent. The business is quite tough. I trust the people that I work with implicitly. To get a bunch of people with the same ideals working towards the same goal and wanting to help push everybody to greater heights is very hard to come by.
"Perhaps that's why creative guys tend to move. It works so well for us. We've done it year after year and proven we can do it."
This year McCann netted two silver, nine bronze and 28 merit awards at the Kancil Awards, in addition to the Agency of the Year title (joint winner with IF Interactive) and Young Creative Award.
It's a year where no gold was awarded. Lee, who is also 4As creative council deputy chairman, concurs with Lowe Malaysia managing director Khairudin Rahim that this does not mean the country's level of creativity has dropped.
"There're some very good pieces of work this year. Rightly or wrongly, they didn't get gold, but I think it was a deliberate thing to be tough for all the judges during the briefing given by the jury chairman; the intention was to be extremely demanding. It's almost like a year where everyone runs 100 metres in under nine seconds, yet they don't get a gold medal."
The winning work
The campaign that Lee and Huang is most proud of is the Receipt Stories integrated campaign for BookXcess, for which McCann got the two silvers (in integrated and direct campaign categories), a bronze (for Rebel Idea) and a merit (for digital campaign). Lee and Young Creative Award winner Ng are credited as copywriters for the campaign for the BookXcess bookstore in Petaling Jaya, which sells overprinted books at discount prices.
The ongoing Receipt Stories campaign, among others, makes use of store receipts as a communication medium. It is aimed at getting more Malaysians to read and write.
Someone who buys a book or magazine at the store would get a receipt printed with a call for entry asking him to write a story of up to 100 words. He is directed to a website where he can write the mini-story, and the best stories of the week are voted on and printed on the receipts!
"There have been more than 1,000 stories so far and the number of votes are in the tens of thousands. BookXcess has taken this platform and used it across a lot of their promotions. For example, for their Big Bad Wolf sale, they had Big Bad Wolf themed stories."
Another campaign that Lee and Huang are proud of is a series of three animated KFC cinema classification commercials that clinched three bronzes at the Kancils in the craft (animation) category.
Asked who inspires him and Huang, Lee says that a key figure was Yasmin Ahmad, whom they worked with from 1994 to 1999. “The amount of inspiration and motivation we got from those years still carries through even now, more than 10 years later,” he says.
Huang says he also finds inspiration from different things outside advertising, from industrial design to architecture.
Asked how the industry has changed since they first joined, Huang replies: "The speed the time that you have to sit and craft a piece of work. Back then you probably got four weeks to do something; now you can count it in days or even by tomorrow. So the speed of which technology is helping every industry move quicker, advertising hasn't been spared as well, which means we have to work faster, with more stress and shorter deadlines. But it's part and parcel of how the world is moving, so you just got to move with it."
Is his job still “fun”?
"Sometime in the future, this present time will be the good old days," Lee says with a chuckle.