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The Power of Disruption with TBWA's Jan Cho


The Mag’s “Power of…” series is a series of interviews that highlight our interviewee’s status as an industry leader. We speak to them about their experience, insight and the “power” of their initiatives in relation to everyday life. In January, we speak to TBWA\Hong Kong’s Managing Director, Jan Cho, about the power of disruption.

I suppose I met “disruption” even before I started my career in advertising. I grew up in the time of great influence by [Carl] Sagan and Star Trek: [The] Next Gen[eration]. This “semi-pop culture” is where my immense interest in science stemmed from, which eventually led me to study physics at university. I always thought of myself as a man of science (AKA a massive nerd). And I guess I still think this today…

Working in a lab environment put my interest in science to the test. My only duty during those days was to tinker with the carbon nanotube specimen and measure its photoconductivity. I didn’t have to talk to anyone for weeks, if I didn’t want to. During this time, I realised it’s not just the Sagan and Star Trek’s science I was attracted to, but it was the beautiful stories they told. Today, I feel fortunate that I’m in a position to use both science with storytelling to help brands tell their beautiful stories. It’s incredibly rewarding. And there has never been a moment of regret about making that life choice to change my career path and venture into advertising 18 years ago.

My role at TBWA\Hong Kong is to set the strategic vision for the agency. Advertising reached its height in the 70s and 80s, or what we call “The Mad Men Era”, when broadcast media ruled the world. Today, with the proliferation of social media and data, everything about advertising as we knew it, changed. And of course, we must change with it.

Over the past few years, I have been working to re-engineer our teams to catch up with the tech-led paradigm shift without losing the crux of creativity, which is hugely important and arguably the only thing that matters in our industry.

“Can you change where the game is played, change the rules of the game, or simply start a new game?”
But just adapting to changes is not enough. It’s challenging the expected, the tried-and-true, that propels us forward. We need to understand and know what to disrupt, and shake up, and what not to. This is when we, at TBWA, apply our Disruption® methodology.

Our methodology maps out the driving forces that constructed the convention in the first place. It identifies what can be changed and the plausible outcomes of those changes. There isn’t just one way to do it: sometimes you change the way you talk about brands and products. Sometimes you change the ideology that the brand represents. Sometimes, you need to be more radical. Can you change where the game is played, change the rules of the game, or simply start a new game? In fact, there are infinite permutations. Regardless of how much you’ve planned for it, in the end, it’s a leap of faith that jumpstarts the journey.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I don’t know if it was Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin or Mark Twain who said it; that’s still being debated. But it accurately concludes the very need for brands to disrupt. Tower Records could have been the music streaming giant. Kodak could have been the biggest digital camera manufacturer. They never lacked technology, the patents or the resources to make it happen. But they decided to cling on to their past glories, which, admittedly, are very seductive. In the end, these brands had to step aside and hand over the baton to the newbies who didn’t have such resources or technology, but who succeeded with their bravery.
Internally, we’ve been “unlearning” a lot of the old ways and relearning new ways through our new capabilities, including consulting, precision marketing, in-house film making, and creative technologies. Externally, we’ve been trying to “de-stereotype” our image as a creative agency per se – the category convention intertwined with a great deal of characteristics, both good and bad, from the Mad Men time.

We live in an era of “Identity Economics”
where there is little space neutrality; our identities shape our decisions. We’ve seen its impact in the worldwide green movement, the Extinction Rebellion, and the recent local social unrests. It’s important for brands to present their values that are greater than just tangible benefits.

There are a few reminders that I have for myself that keep me focused on the idea of disruption. Firstly, we need “zero in” and make no assumptions about what we know. It’s then also important to find the real enemies, and to be meticulous and vigilant with our plans and goals. But in order to do so, we must put our skin in the game, and be brave. And lastly, as we will also remind our clients, don’t cling on to past glories or failures. Learn and move on quickly.
Disruption was in action for us during a campaign we created for Standard Chartered bank. Conventional use of data in content only guides us how to target media and optimise distribution in terms of cost efficiency. Instead, we used data as the input to inform our creative from the get go: if someone is watching a makeup tutorial on YouTube, a six-second video explaining credit card benefits in a makeup scenario was shown ahead of the tutorial. In other words, we made permutations of scenarios that were contextually made to fit whatever popular video content people were watching. I’m incredibly proud of how we challenged the obvious use of data…we even won a Grand Effie at the Hong Kong Effie Awards as a result. 

Humans are less intelligent than what we’d like to admit. We have inherited a great deal of animal characteristics that protect us from venturing into danger (the unknown) and to stay in safety (the status quo). Without a great deal of courage, it’s not easy to cross the line and step out of our comfort zone. There are only a very few moments in our lives where we would take such a leap, but it is important that we have those “very few” moments. Otherwise, we still wouldn’t know how to cook our food with fire, and personally, if I had not taken the leap early in my career I might still be grinding carbon nanotube specimens every day, instead of enjoying these humble stories that I’ve just shared with you!

How can you harness the power of a collective? Read about the power of community with BCLP’s Andrew MacGeoch.

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