AdWomen

The feminine side of advertising

HomeInterviews

Interview to Carol Lam

by No Comments

Feb
18,
2009
0

The following interview was made by ihaveanidea to Carol Lam, creative director of TBWA China

ihaveanidea: Tell us about how it all started? What got you hooked on advertising? I hear you wanted to be a journalist at first…

.

Carol: Yes, I was trained as a journalist at University, but that was an accident. It turned out to be a happy one, thank God. My childhood dream was becoming a medical doctor (yes, a medical doctor). I wanted to save people's lives.

.

ihaveanidea: And now you work in Advertising. There's a lesson here somewhere I guess…

.

Carol: Oh, I did try. I was a top student in high school – straight As in Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Math. Unbelievable, huh?

I applied for Medical School and was granted an interview. Due to some unknown reasons, I was rejected. What happened during the interview, you may ask? To be frank I didn't realize any fatal mistakes I had made. To this day, I still don't think I performed that badly during the interview. Maybe that's point - I failed to figure out what went wrong, and that insensitivity proved that I wouldn't make a good medical doctor despite my excellent academic results.

.

Failing to get into Med School, I turned to The School of Journalism & Communication - my second choice at that time. Why Journalism? Because it was the second on the 'hardest-to-get-in' list. I have to confess that it was a matter of "pride and face" for a naïve 18 years old. I had no idea what Journalism was all about. I guessed it had something to do with reporting and writing. Writing has always been my hobby and I've never been afraid to write. I thought I could handle it without any pressure so I was happy to go with the flow.

.

I enjoyed the four years at Journalism School. Liberal teachers, bubbly schoolmates, a free life. So free that I slept in when the internship placements were open for application. According to the school system, internship was mandatory  (a final year course of 3 units) for graduation. I was so late that when I arrived at the appointment office, only two placements were left - One was 'research writer' at a TV station and the other was a place called Saatchi & Saatchi. I needed to finish the internship in a three-month summer break. I was the last student to be placed. No harm to try both, I thought. So I spent the first month at the TV station and next two months at Saatchi & Saatchi.

I was placed in the creative department at Saatchi & Saatchi for two months in 1989. I wrote some stuff, had some fun and knew some good people. Then I went back school to finish my final year. A week before my degree examination, the CD at Saatchi called me to ask if I'd found a job yet. I hadn't, I was a laid back type. So he offered me a job as a copywriter. He was a very nice man. I went to work 10 days later.

Till now, looking back, it's not really that I chose advertising. Advertising chose me. It started off like a 'blind marriage' but I feel blessed that it has worked out. So far.

.

I am not a Buddhist but I do believe things happen for a reason. Just go with the flow and try to enjoy 'coincidence'.  You never know where your destiny will take you. That's the fun part.

.

ihaveanidea: That seems to have worked pretty well for you so far, seeing as you're now heading one of the most talked about Creative Departments in Asia. Not too bad for a laid back type.

Was your move to China a homecoming of sorts?  And do you think it's important to have local people heading the creative departments in China versus Westerners? How big is the cultural gap?

.

Carol: I was born and bred in Hong Kong. My parents originally came from Mainland China and have resided in Hong Kong since 1950s. Quite a common background for your typical 'Hongky'.

Emotionally my coming to China could be considered as a return home (well to my parents' home). But practically it is more an exploration of something new away from my 'home'. China to me, before my moving here, was so close and yet so far, so different yet so familiar.

Despite my relative ‘westernised’ upbringings in Hong Kong, some basic Chinese values are still deeply rooted. E.g. How we look at family, the ‘losing face’ concerns when dealing with people… And while I don't always agree with all that, at least I know where people are coming from.

Compared to westerners, my physical reality and familiarity towards Chinese culture and values help me have a better understanding of how to work with my local colleagues and business partners. Gaps do exist, inevitably, but not to the extent of shock, fortunately.

.

ihaveanidea: That’s great to know for all ihaveanidea readers looking to embark on an ad making adventure in Asia.

So was it tough for you to get to where you are in the notoriously boys club-esque Asian market? Do you have any examples of obstacles you had to overcome as a woman creative? And do you think these obstacles are still present for aspiring women wanting to get into advertising in that part of the world?

.

Carol: I think I’m lucky to have developed my career in Hong Kong, and now in Shanghai, where the ‘boys club’ culture in the ad world is not as significant as it is in some other parts of Asia like Japan or Korea I guess - or maybe I'm just too insensitive to realize any gender-related obstacles. Ignorance can be a blessing sometimes. When you don't feel it, it doesn't exist nor does it bother you.

To be honest, I feel the 'white boys club' culture amongst the international network is even more prominent - my humble observation as an Asian. On the contrary, I do find some attributes of being a woman actually help overcome a lot of obstacles and hardship when it comes to work.

.

Generally speaking, women tend to have smaller egos. A smaller ego leads to open-mindedness. The concept of 'face' is much less prevalent for an Asian woman than it is for man. Because women are less afraid to 'lose face' by making mistakes, we give ourselves more allowance to speak up, to think wild and to experiment things that may look 'stupid' at a glance. I value it as an important quality for a creative career.

.

ihaveanidea: There is a big case to be made for bravery when making ads. No one dies doing what we do, it's only advertising.

.

Carol: Exactly. We don't take 'failure' as seriously as men do. After all, it's just a game. A woman has her own priorities, and literal success in career hardly top the list.

The ability to handle failure helps us develop endurance and resilience - important weapons to win battles in the world of advertising, where we encounter 'NO' every day.

.

It's 'The power of softness'. If you know 'ying-yang', you know what I mean.

.

ihaveanidea: You don't seem to encounter failure very often anyway, so you must be doing something right.

.

Carol: Sorry I gave you the perception that I didn't encounter failure very often. That's not true. The failures I encounter every day - big and small – are no less than anyone.

Nasty clients. Ridiculous deadlines. Unprofessional work counterparts. Skinny budgets. Huge pressure of bottom lines and top lines. Ideas get killed, and killed and killed. Losing a pitch. Sometimes you will feel doubtful and guilty for not pushing things hard enough… But then you realize you and your team already work 18 hours a day to crack and push…

An emotionally demanding industry it is. It hurts and annoys if you put in sweat, tears and hope but things don't turn out as good as you'd wished. My life is not privileged, as a creative professional, and as a human being.

But instead of crying over spilt milk, I tried (well not every time, but tried as much as I could) to let go of the hard feeling. Wipe the tears away ASAP, and move on.  There are always two sides to a coin. Try to look at the silver lining of the cloud.  Be grateful instead of bitching about the cruel reality… It took me many years to learn how to adjust my emotions to deal with failures that happen every day and every hour.  And I'm still learning it. It's not about EQ or virtue. To me it's more about survival. Consistent depression causes cancer… And I don't want to die young yet… I'm glad to find myself still alive, happy and healthy.

.

ihaveanidea: How did it feel winning China's first ever Gold Lion this year? Were you elevated to the same status as the Olympic heroes, or did it go largely unnoticed?

.

Carol: Of course I feel extremely happy and proud about our company for this remarkable win. The credits go to the team, literally. Because when I joined, the campaign had been 90% done. The victory went largely unnoticed in China but it creates a very good momentum for our company, as well as for the industry - China makes it. Implication is huge - For TBWA, the First Gold Lion made us the most talked about agency in the country. Many prospect clients call in to ask if we can do things for them 'as good as what you did for Adidas'. Well whether they are ready or not is another story, but it's a good sign because it sets a standard, a tangible one of what ad creativity should be on clients' mind. For me and my team, apart from pride and glory, it also means pressure. Good and healthy pressure. Because one is only as good as his next piece work.

.

ihaveanidea: You’re judging the ANDYs this year, a show that’s pretty different than most other shows. At other award shows, you have different judges for each category, and they tend to specialize in that category. Over at the ANDYs, all of you judges judge everything in every category. Any thoughts about that method? Are you excited or nervous to judge a category that may or may not be your personal forté?

.

Carol: This is not the first time I attend an award jury with the same panel judging all work across the board. In 2004 when I was judging the Asian Media Spike, we applied the same methodology. I found it's great fun - simply because I was able to see all the good work from all categories. Quite tiring, but very stimulating. At the end, the idea comes first, regardless of category or format. This method allows us to have a bigger overview of how 'creativity' should be manifested.  And I believe the ANDY panel has a very diverse yet balanced jury of different fortés and backgrounds. I'm sure all the 'technical' issues can be solved. I don't feel particularly nervous, but very excited indeed.

.

ihaveanidea: So looking back, is there anything that you've learned during your advertising career that would've helped you fare better during that Med School interview?

.

Carol: If I have to state ONE thing that I’ve learnt from my advertising career that made me a better person, I'd say: “Always take interest in people.” Your colleagues, your counterparts, your clients, your consumers, friends, enemies, strangers, everyone. You don't have to agree them. But you have to know WHY and where they are coming from. Even if you are up against someone/ something, first you need to know what you are actually against.

It’s paradox that most of us claim ourselves experts in communication, but we sometimes do very badly in communicating with people around us.

.

Interview by Rafik Bemesk, ihaveanidea.

.

Previous

Next

Tagged: , , , , , , ,