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Sean Lam

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Issue #02 - Interviews

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Sean Lam, KineticThis man has won more interactive design awards than most people have had hot dinners. He is the co-founder and creative director of one of the hottest interactive design studios in the entire Asia-Pacific, Kinetic.

o, make that the entire world! Until 2008, his funky boutique shop held the record as the only interactive agency in the world to win two One Show Gold Interactive Awards in a sitting.

Without a word of exaggeration, it took us close enough to ten minutes to scroll through Sean and his team's phenomenal list of awards.

It is brimming with Communication Arts, HOW, Webby, Clio, Graphic, Cannes Lions, One Show, D&AD, FWA, Art Directors Club, Ad fest and more. You’d never hear such a haughty claim from Sean Lam, but if there's a Gold awarded, it is more than likely to have Kinetic engraved upon it...

Agency.Asia: It’s rare to see a list of awards as long as your own coming out of a huge multinational agency with offices spread from Sao Paulo to Sydney, yet your relatively teeny Singapore agency has almost made big look bad – or superfluous, at any rate. Let’s start from the beginning, ten years ago. What’s the Kinetic difference?

Sean Lam: 10 years ago, 3 friends, Carolyn Teo, Benjy Choo and myself, grew tired of working for MNCs and decided to strike it out on our own. Under the wing of Adrian Tan, head honcho of the Ad Planet Group, Kinetic was born. 10 years ago, our 'shop' was a tiny room within sister company Ace Dayton's office.

It had 4 lime green walls, 2 of which were taken up by filing cabinets (containing documents from our sister company) and no windows. Even though it was a tight squeeze, it felt good because it was 'Our' office. With a fiery determination and an intense desire to prove ourselves worthy, we went about our business.

10 years ago, the web was experiencing explosions... the big one, was the dot com bubble bursting. Luckily, that had little impact on our boutique business. The other was a creative explosion.

Macromedia (now Adobe) Flash was beginning to catch on big time and everyone was keen to explore ways of presenting dynamic content on websites.

We were at the right place at the right time and with that, Kinetic quickly built its reputation as Flash specialists. 10 years ago, we were a lot younger and coffee, cigarettes and alcohol were the order of the day. Didn't seem to sleep much back then.

Agency.Asia: You guys originally sprung to our attention when Kinetic was nominated for a Webby Award with your agency’s own website some years ago. To our mind it is still one of the very coolest sites that we have ever seen.

In all sincerity, we have forwarded your link www.kinetic.com.sg to people on numerous occasions saying, “THAT is the sort of work WE should be doing!”  We’ve never had anyone disagree. Tell us about the making of it. Did your animation team die giving birth to this monster undertaking?

Sean Lam: This is really embarrassing, but our website has not been updated for eons. And a re-design is clearly long overdue. We plan to launch a new one as soon as we get some downtime. It surprises me that till this day, people are still writing in to us telling us that they enjoy it.

I'm guessing it's the timeless appeal of animation and a humorous storyline that's doing the trick. Truth be told, this website came about by accident. I was working on an earlier version that was of a totally different style. Given the complexity of the craft, there was clearly no way I was going to make the self-imposed deadline (couldn't spend too much time on it as we had paying jobs to clear).

Out of frustration, I crushed some sketches and threw them in the bin. At that moment, inspiration struck. I realized I could make all this work and all in record time too... by choosing to go 'ugly sketchy drawing' style. Everything could be done fast and dirty on a wacom tablet and people will forgive it looking like that because... that's the look!

Everything fell in place nicely, the grittier the better was the theme. Even the theme song was simply composed and recorded by playing my electric guitar through the computer via a distortion effects pedal! It was a blast working on that website.

Agency.Asia: It’s safe to say that many people would envy that site. Let’s say we are prospective client and having seen your own site, we want something equally dynamic – and labour intensive. How much would you be looking to charge for something on that scale?

Sean Lam: You'll have to ask my partner Carolyn when it comes to costings. She's in charge of the business side of things.

Agency.Asia: We try not to fixate about awards in this magazine, but it’s rather unavoidable considering we have a bias to the creative side of the advertising business. Once you’ve set the bar so high your absence – in the unlikely event it should ever happen – would be conspicuous. Are you cutting back on entries over the coming year?

Sean Lam: Needless to say, it's good to be represented in award shows annually. It shows creative consistency and maintains your company's profile. That said, awards should still be treated as bonuses. There are bound to be some good years and some not so good ones.

You can only try and it all depends on your creative output that particular year. Don't think I'm cutting back, but rather, I'm more selective about our submissions these days in the sense that I only enter the works which I deem have a shot, in the relevant category.

I've been involved in multiple award show juries to know that it's pointless to submit one good work for multiple categories. These days, unless it's some really groundbreaking work, it's unlikely to see one submission walking away with multiple metals... at least in the interactive shows.

Agency.Asia: This is a how long is a piece of string question. Speaking beyond the banner, what makes a brilliant interactive campaign - other than you want your audience to interact with it, of course?  Perhaps you could point to some campaigns that have transformed a client’s brand even beyond your own great expectations.

Sean Lam: First, it has to be engaging. A successful campaign engages on an emotional level so that people are willing to spend their time exploring it, and want to be associated with it. In addition, good interactive campaigns should leverage on the ever-revolving online technologies.

And being on a medium with no physical boundaries, a good campaign should cross cultural barriers and reach a vast audience. A good example of a brilliant web campaign is Uniqlo's UNIQLOCK (www.uniqlock.com) by Projector Japan which won best of show for most of the big award shows last year.


Taking a different approach from the traditional media emphasis on the 'big idea' /theme/concept, the project broke grounds not so much based on the creative idea per se, but with its creative use of the web medium.

Just by allowing users to download a simple clock widget showcasing dancing girls in Uniqlo outfits onto their various Web 2.0 social networking applications (eg Blogger), it was a web sensation that raised the profile of the Uniqlo brand globally, quite literally overnight.

On a much smaller scale, we've also been able to reach a sizeable audience for one of our clients, a yogurt store based in Indonesia, called Sour Sally (www.hellosoursally.com). In this case, the project was not so much technologically-driven, but rather it engages on an emotional feel-good level with its charming illustrations, music and animation, in typical Kinetic fashion.

We've had people from various countries including US, China and France, asking about franchise possibilities. The site was also well received creatively, winning a coveted Site of the Month award from FWA, as well as garnering features in web design magazines from Korea, Japan and UK.


Agency.Asia: Back to banners: we’re not sure of the exact statistic, but the ratio between page impressions compared to ‘click through’ is meager to say the least. One would assume that banners are at very least as valid a means of branding as any outdoor poster. What pressure is there for you from your clients to get that click?

Sean Lam: To be honest, most of our clients come to us for our strength in web design and beyond-the-banner campaigns. We do banners but not a whole lot, and clients who request for them have not really demanded hard quantifiable results. That said, we do provide web stats to clients, and I'm happy to say that most times, the statistics are very healthy indeed.

Agency.Asia: Kinetic also boasts an ‘above the line’ division that works on print media and television, et al. That actually came about some years after you and your partners launched Kinetic to be what was ostensibly solely an interactive agency. Did that happen because you were frustrated at frequently being asked to adapt creative work from other advertising agencies without being fully involved in the strategy and creative process right from the beginning?

Sean Lam: Thankfully, our expansion into above-the-line has a much happier beginning. Pann and Roy (who left us in 2008) were roped in so that clients can come to us for a holistic advertising solution. It also makes for a more focused end product, eg Sour Sally. The corporate identity and branding, right through to the website, were all done in-house.

Agency.Asia: There was a time not so long ago that ‘digital’ or ‘new media’ was definitely seen as the poor cousin to print and television. Some Luddites might argue that it still is. It’s a bit old to call ‘new media’ new in this day and age. Go back ten years and you’ll recall that people were predicting that Internet advertising would result in the death of print and television. Obviously there has been an impact, but not like Hailey’s Comet smashing into the Earth.  What do you predict the lay of the land will be, say, in another ten years?

Sean Lam: Sadly, in this region, interactive advertising still takes a back seat to that of traditional media. Clients are mostly unadventurous in this area, and budgets for the web are usually cobbled from 'leftovers'. There are signs that this is changing though it may take a while before online advertising here is on par with that in the western world, and recently, Japan.

Speaking about the future, this reminds me of when I was 6 and the art teacher asked me to draw my vision of the year 2000. Needless to say, I drew spaceships and flying cars and all sorts of fancy stuff. Not happening yet... So as for 10 years down the road, your guess is as good as mine. But I'll give it a shot: Looking forward ten years, I would love to see the boundaries between web and traditional media not only blur and merge, but eliminated.

So what is a 'traditional' medium like TV today will also be a 'digital' medium, capable of processing web content and more. Another example is that of interactive outdoor advertising that reacts and changes to user input. These are already happening now but they will be much more commonplace.

Agency.Asia: All the talk right now is about Web 2.0 and social networking. It all seems a bit ludicrous to suggest that this is the way of the future, the new wave. Quite frankly, while we would love to have created Face Book, Twitter and half a dozen others, they are vacuous crap in our modest and quite impartial opinion. If this is ‘empowerment’ of youth, then the future looks bleak, right?  What creative movements like Open Source impress you right now?

Sean Lam: Since I'm into animation, I'm kind of impressed with Blender 3D (blender.org). Especially when most 3D software cost a fortune. It's usually beyond reach for most aspiring 3D artists to afford a proper 3D software without resorting to piracy. So this is good stuff.

Other than that, I've really not been reading up much on what's happening out there in terms of Open Source software development. It may come as a surprise to you, and even ironic, but I'm really not that into techie stuff. I mean the online medium has many facets and I'm more keen on the visual and craft aspects of it.

Agency.Asia: Sticking with that – it never ceases to amaze us the tireless amount of truly selfless work that goes into Open Source on the Internet. Our own Agency.Asia platform is built on Joomla 1.5, which is effectively free to anyone that chooses to learn it.

How therefore do you feel when you hear about people who occupy their small minds engineering viruses and basically being idiot vandals? We’ve never seen a campaign from any quarter that attempts to counter these behaviors. Might you, now we’ve mentioned it?

Sean Lam: Nah. Don't think campaigns can change their minds; we'll just egg them on. They're here to stay.. who knows, maybe these so called idiot vandals have a role to play after all. Without them, lots of people at anti-virus firms will be out of jobs!

Agency.Asia: Unlike Westerners, Asian people are generally not born self-promoters and some may proffer that this is why there are so few media darlings. They are simply too self-effacing. You have kindly agreed to be a ‘talent scout’ on our non-for-profit sister site, Designweek.Asia, where emerging visual artists will hopefully be discovered. Can you briefly give a shout out to these publicity shy guys and girls and get them to come out of their shells!

Sean Lam: Us Asians are usually more reserved and the creatives tend to let their work speak for themselves. It's great that there's now a platform for these works to shout out loud. It's also a great way to gather feedback, critique as well as build connections with other emerging talents and other fields of expertise.

Agency.Asia: While you obviously spend the lion’s share of your days and nights in front of your Mac [presumably!], what do you read? It would appear that you could write the book on interactive advertising, but it seems you were neither inclined nor had the time at this point in your life. Is one in the pipeline? What are the existing books on the subject that you would highly recommend?

Sean Lam: Actually I work on both PC and Mac. Gotta be cross platform in this line :) Honestly, I don't read much. Especially on the subject, because pretty much of what you read in print will already be outdated in practice. For all its worth, I would recommend:

1. Guidelines for Online Success edited by Rob Ford and Julius Wiedemann (Taschen)

2. Advertising Now! Online edited by Julius Wiedemann (Taschen)

Agency.Asia: You’ll be aware of the next question. Who would you imagine that our readers would most like Agency.Asia to interview after your good self? And perhaps nominate a brand would you like us to showcase? Thanks for being such a thoughtful guest, Sean.

Sean Lam: Chris Lee of Asylum Singapore Chris is the founder and creative director of Asylum, a creative company that comprises of a design studio, a retail store and a workshop.

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