Tuesday Mar 28

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Edmund Choe - The Amazing Saatchi-Man

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Issue #01 - Interviews

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Edmund Choe is one of those bizarre creative types who genuinely don’t derive pleasure from being in the spotlight. This must prove prickly as he keeps winning awards that draw colossal amounts of international interest. Take the last Cannes Festival. The Ringmaster’s Saatchi & Saatchi Malaysia team clinched an exceptional five awards – which is just the tip of their iceberg.

he ad paparazzi tend to congregate around these events, but somehow Edmund always exits stage left and gives them the slip. So when this publicity shy guru grants you an interview, you nail him to his desk lest he change his mind and run away.

Agency.Asia: What did you do to Andy Greenaway that he appears to dislike you so much? First he appoints you the ECD of both Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur offices - a couple of hours apart by airplane, but which rain and traffic jams often make closer to eight hours. To add insult to injury, knowing you are a dedicated family man, he then puts you in charge of offices in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taiwan. Tell us about your outstanding Saatchi years!

Edmund Choe: Andy absolutely hates me. The last time we spoke, he mentioned something about setting up in Afghanistan.

I’ve been with Saatchi for over 18 years. I wish I could give you a whole page on what it’s like to be with this company all these years, but the truth is it’s all a blur to me. All I can remember is having a blast. It’s like a roller coaster ride - you can’t remember what exactly happened but you just can’t get enough of it.

My first 10 years was spent in Saatchi Singapore, where I had the pleasure of working with the likes of Linda Locke, Francis Wee, David Droga, Craig Davis, Jagdish Ramekrishnan, Tay Guan Hin, Calvin Soh, Ted Royer, Andy Clarke, Danny Higgins, Farrokh Madon, Ng Tian It, Graham Kelly and Rowan Channen – so need I say more?

I moved to Kuala Lumpur late 2000 – to help rebuild an agency that’s been badly hit by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The first 18 months was nerve wrecking, we only had 2 clients and a staff of 11. We couldn’t find anyone who would want to join us because of the bad publicity from the lay offs we made in 1997. It was only after we pitched and won the Toyota business in Malaysia that the job applications and business opportunities started coming in.

A young and dynamic CEO by the name of Matt Seddon was brought in soon after. We got along very well and the partnership soon paid off - later that year we picked up a D&AD Silver Pencil Nomination and the Golden Kanchil (the Gong at the local awards). The rest as they say is history. Saatchi & Saatchi Malaysia is today an agency of 90 people and one of the most awarded in the region. Our tally to date includes 11 Cannes lions.

In 2005, I was asked to take the creative lead in Jakarta as well. This was a harder nut to crack, as it is a market that I’m not familiar with. But here again, I was blessed with a couple of great CEOs namely Paul Roebuck and Dini Makmun. With their support and guidance, Saatchi & Saatchi Jakarta went on to dominate at award shows and made Agency of The Year in 2007.

Agency.Asia: The partnership with Adrian Miller saw Saatchi in Malaysia become the lean, mean, awarded machine that it is. It must have been a hard decision for you and the network to break up that dream team. In building one of the best creative departments in the region you unearthed some real talents. Tell us about those people - and the day you announced to your flock that you were off.

Edmund Choe: Adrian is an absolute rock star. We would not have had such a big success if he hadn’t joined us. He is scarily talented and under the leadership of an incredible CEO like John Foley, Saatchi & Saatchi Malaysia had no excuses.

You are right, we were a dream team but if we look at it from a networks’ point of view, it would make more sense to spread the talent around.

When the news about China arrived, it got pretty emotional. I guess many thought I’d be with Saatchi Malaysia for a lot longer, if not for good. And to be honest, so did I.

Most of us have been with the agency from day one and have watched it grow from strength to strength. We’ve seen stars being born - like Primus Nair who came to us straight from college to become the youngest copywriter at 22 to win a Cannes lion.

Lydia Lim, a young graphic designer who took on the challenge of a ad campaign for the first time and walking away with a gold lion. Amin Taib who started with us as an assistant producer and now an awarded creative director. Pardon the cliché, but we were like big happy family.

Leaving Saatchi & Saatchi Malaysia was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make. China would never have crossed my mind if Andy had not brought it up – I guess he must have sensed that I was getting a little restless and in need of a new challenge. Or who knows … it could be part of a cunning plan!

Agency.Asia: So, you packed up the family - and all the gold you’ve won - and moved to Beijing. Did you have to polish up on your Mandarin? Perhaps you can shed some light on the age old question – are most meetings between client and agency in China conducted in English or Chinese?

Edmund Choe: I know enough Chinese to get by but there’s still a lot more to learn. Most meetings here are held in Chinese – but many clients here (at least the ones with Saatchis) are bilingual and will make the effort to translate their questions into English for the benefit of the non-Chinese speaking participants. Meetings in Shanghai however are mostly done in English but then again, it all depends on the clients.

Agency.Asia: There’s a very old joke about “seagulls” - regional creative directors who fly in, eat your food, shit on your work and then fly out again. From a people perspective, what additional challenges does looking after five Saatchi offices bring? Do you have any hints for creative directors of tomorrow?

Edmund Choe: My role in China will be pretty much the same as in Malaysia or Indonesia - but on a much larger scale. It’s not just to bring in the awards (that’s a taken) but more importantly to clear the path and lay solid ground that will help grow and attract good talent.

Imagine building a runway that will not only help smaller planes take off but capable of allowing the F-16s (like Adrian Miller) to land as well. My advice for CDs of tomorrow is to always hire and surround yourself with people better than you. This will frighten away the seagulls.

Agency.Asia: You were originally from Malacca, yet ultimately you got your start in advertising in Singapore, right? What about your early days in the business - how did you settle on such a crazy career path? Aren’t most good ethnic-Chinese boys supposed to be doctors, accountants or lawyers?

Edmund Choe: I’ve always wanted to become a vet -but can’t handle the shoulder length rubber gloves. I’d make a lousy accountant as I think with my heart and a terrible lawyer because I can’t hold a straight face. I think I would make a great chef though, but that’s a different story.

My first job offer came from a small agency in Singapore where I spent a year being yelled at by absolute morons called Art Directors and sticking bits of type onto sheets of white card, smeared with intoxicating cow gum. Evenings were about cleaning the airbrushes and wiping down the spray booth. Not very exciting.

Until the studio manager discovered my drawing skills and made me storyboard artist, a role that puts me in direct contact with the ECD. My career in advertising took off from then on – in just six months I was made Senior Moron.

Agency.Asia: In company with the Singapore old guard of Donald Ee, Patrick Low, Tay Guan Hin, Linda Loche, Tham Kai Meng, et al, you were among the very first wave of local stars to take up residence in the senior ranks. Did you feel like trail blazing pioneers or were you just too busy getting on with business?

Edmund Choe: Too busy getting on with business.

Agency.Asia: Neil French has put his World Press Awards into a state of suspended animation for this year. Budgets for the slough of others in Asia are going to get tight. How is the highly awarded Saatchi & Saatchi going to approach the hard times regionally? Are you going to throw it all at just one or two shows and presumably expect to dominate, or take a wider spread and still expect to dominate? Might there be a secret society of creative bosses colluding on what awards will survive the recession?

I love swimming in the deep end and get a rush when faced with a near impossible task. Whether I can pull it off or not is another matter!

Edmund Choe: Awards are a necessity in our business. It is the only way to build and maintain our creative profile. They are also very expensive to enter. In this bad times, it would be foolish not to manage our awards spend and be selective with the shows we enter. In my view the ideal plan would be to dominate at key local and regional shows and aim to do well at Cannes - plus maybe one or two other international shows if budget allows.

Agency.Asia: Malaysia and Indonesia undoubtedly boast the most stringent protectionist policies regarding the use of local resources within the advertising and commercial production industries.

Many around the region have opposed what they claim is mollycoddling and meddling by local plutocrats and government. People say that it is high time these countries should compete on level ground. You’ve worked in both markets. Fair call, or do you feel that they should keep playing in the sandbox?

Edmund Choe: I’m afraid we can oppose all we want, but it’s not going to change - not for a long time. It hasn’t stopped some agencies from doing great and award winning work. So let’s stop complaining and move on.

Agency.Asia: Edmund, Saatchi places a lot of emphasis on what it calls “Lovemarks”. In fact, it falls immediately under “Nothing is Impossible” in Saatchi-speak on the international website. Taking a look at the LM site, however, it is apparent that it has been hijacked by over-exuberant Bollywood fans with an actor by the name of Shah Rukh Khan voted the #1 marked love. [You’d maybe need to see the film “Slum Dog Millionaire” to understand]. What are your “Lovemarks”?

Edmund Choe: I only have one and know this boring, but it’s my wife and kids. The family.

Agency.Asia: Not boring at all, Edmund – we’re a sensitive new age magazine. Speaking of love, what is it about the creative process that really charges your adrenalin and equally what aspect of your job would you happily pass to a capable virtual assistant?

Edmund Choe: I love swimming in the deep end and get a rush when faced with a near impossible task. Whether I can pull it off or not is another matter! I hate complaints.

Agency.Asia: You’re art based, so most copywriters would half-jokingly say that art directors can’t really spell. We don’t believe that. We know for a fact, however, that you have three ridiculously cute young children - so we’re going to ask you what your favorite kids’ books are. Young minds need feeding, hey? If you’d like to throw in a few big kids’ books that you feel altered your life, feel free.

Edmund Choe:

1. Tales of Amanda Pig – Jean Van Leeuwen
2. Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey
3. Ruby’s Wish – Shirin Yim
4. Horrible History series by Terry Deary
5. Mighty Robot series by Ricky Racotta

Big Kids
1. Where the Sidewalk Ends – poems and drawings by Shel Silverstein
2. Rhyme Stew – Roald Dahl
3. Brisingr – Christopher Paolini
4. Millions – Frank Cottrell Boyce
5. Watership Down – Richard Adams

Agency.Asia: Two of your kids are in school by now. Asian classrooms are traditionally seen as one-way streets of learning where being questioning is not altogether encouraged. Yet surely it is the very act of questioning things that creates creative people? In your view, what subject should be taught that isn’t currently on the curriculum?

Edmund Choe: Comedy.


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