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Ruth Lee

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Issue #03 - Interviews

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Last time we tried to hook up with Ruth Lee, she had just judged the outdoor category at Adfest and was back on a plane to Hong Kong before the event had officially began.

er stellar success and frenetic working life seems almost incongruous when you discover that this laid back woman - formerly the host of Hong Kong's #1 rated radio show - is equally at home mixing Chinese herbal remedies as she is heading up the creative department of a highly awarded advertising apothecary, DDB Hong Kong. Agency.Asia: You actually started your career in radio, not as a copywriter but rather on-air, becoming one of the most popular DJs in Hong Kong. That must have been great practice for improvisations in client meetings later on your life.

Ruth Lee: It had never crossed my mind, to be honest. But yes, you have to be one step ahead of your audience and expect the unexpected. So the ability to think on your feet - without tripping up on your toes - is key. Mind you, just because I was a DJ, it doesn't mean my clients agree with my musical tastes!

Agency.Asia: Creative directors mainly tend to fall into two categories. There are those that are hands on and others that prefer to offer direction without physically creating ads, for the most part. If pressed, which of those two categories would you fall under - and why aren't you the girl in the other?

Ruth Ruth Lee - DDB Hong Kong: Ask any of my teams and I'm sure they'll tell you I'm more hands-on than I need to be! As a creative head, you try and take a step back and just offer direction. But when it's deep in your blood, you never stop thinking. I still enjoy the challenge of staring at a blank sheet of paper and coming up with solutions.

Agency.Asia: You have personally won awards at Cannes, The One Show, D&AD, Clio, New York Festivals, Spikes, Ad Fest and many others. You expressed a real pride about China's recent growth on the international scene. Before returning to HK, you spent some time working on the mainland. Describe the evolution of advertising in China versus Hong Kong that has been established for decades.

Ruth Lee: The pace of change has been startling. The budgets, for example, are generally bigger in China, and that gap is growing. The levels of understanding and the demand for great advertising have risen too. If you look at the international awards scene, China now often outperforms Hong Kong. That would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Also, tactical advertising now dominates the Hong Kong advertising front, whereas China invests more on pure branding exercises - investing even in China as a brand itself. Just think of the recent Olympics; it put itself on the map by setting an unprecedented benchmark for the rest of the world.

Agency.Asia: DDB Hong Kong has seemingly thumbed its nose at the global economic crisis. You have not made any of your 100 staff redundant. Indeed, the day we arrived at your office, we were amused to find you and he were handing out vouchers for all your staff to go and get a massage. You're also winning a lot of new business. Have you approached things differently since last year?

Ruth Lee: We didn't go about reinventing the wheel. In fact, it's all the little things we changed that have made the big difference. Every agency's success is down to the people, so rewarding every family member is rewarding for us too. The teams have worked so hard this year, so a massage just felt like an appropriate pick-me-up. We also set up was a daily session called, 'Inspiring 5', whereby a random member of staff talks to the rest of the agency for 5 minutes in the morning about anything that has inspired him or her lately. We found that it's a great way to start the day with the right creative mindset.

Agency.Asia: You also have a real fascination with Chinese medicine; in fact, the word is that you actually dispense potions to your staff - including your English CEO. Was this something that was passed down through generations of Lees?

Ruth Lee: My mother was a great believer and it just captivated me, especially the ideas within Chinese medicine and culture that could bring benefit to people. In the early '80s, when my interest in Chinese medicine started, people looked at me like I was from Mars. They thought I was nuts! So I learned to be selective in who I talked to about my interest. But things have changed and it's become almost fashionable. Now I get asked for advice all the time, even from some of my British and American clients!

Agency.Asia: Tell us what ingredients you ground up for your CEO. Hopefully there was no tiger penis in the mix. In all sincerity, the trade in endangered species is a grave problem in the region, whether the parts are harvested for medicinal purposes or simply as an exotic dish in a restaurant. Are the various public awareness campaigns having any effect in altering these practices?

Ruth Lee: Whether it's tiger penis, centipede or bear bile, these are the types of ingredients that never go into my concoctions. I'm more into mainstream Chinese medicine - using only natural herbs to bring benefit to people.

Agency.Asia: Do you have any personal mantra or particular hobby that helps you to center yourself and be more creative in your everyday work? What do you do when you're just clean out of ideas?

Ruth Lee: It sounds clichéd, but the most important thing is to have fun. As soon as the fun starts to wither, take a break. Pour a nice glass of red or go watch a movie. Just forget about it for a while and come back to it feeling refreshed.

Agency.Asia: What convinced you to enter advertising? You mentioned that it came about almost by accident.

Ruth Lee: Before I was a DJ, I actually studied advertising. So after two years, I decided to give it a shot. I flipped though a bunch of advertising annuals and made a few cold calls. Shortly after meeting the ECD of Bates, he offered me a job. And although I had a better offer on the table from Newsweek (to work as a journalist), he was pretty persistent. He said I had the right mix of ingredients, which was surprising - given that up till that point, I had worked as a receptionist, secretary, dim sum lady and even a telephone operator. Anyway, his winning hand was when he told me to join to find out exactly why I was perfect for advertising. He never did tell me though. Even up to this day, he hasn't told me why!


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Agency.Asia: While many people are hesitant to reveal their age, you are exceedingly comfortable with your 44 years - maybe because you look at least a decade younger. Are you going to share the secret to your youthful looks? And before anyone jumps in and asks us if we'd ask a man the same question, when we find an ad man that looks as amazing as Ruth, we most certainly will.

Ruth Lee: There's no big secret, I'm afraid. But since advertising has always been a young person's industry, I'm constantly surrounded with new blood, fresh ideas and novel ways of thinking. It helps keeps me young at heart. And let's not forget my Chinese herbs!

Agency.Asia: Why do you think that advertising is increasingly a younger person's game? Do you believe that creatives have a 'use by' date?

Ruth Lee: It all boils down to the old brain-drain dilemma. Some people simply burn out while for others - women primarily - the strains of the job become incompatible with starting a family. Ultimately though, I think every creative person can fend off their 'use by' date by reinventing themselves. You know, we're experts at reinventing brands and yet, we seldom do the same for ourselves. We should see more creatives using their skills to reinvent themselves more often - whether it's in an advertising capacity or not.

Agency.Asia: When it comes to Chinese advertising awards, there is the excellent Long Xi Awards, touted as the Olympics of Chinese language advertising, and Hong Kong's Kam Fan. The latter has introduced a handful of new categories to recognize the Best Use of Search Engine Marketing, Best Use of Ambient, and Best Social Media Applications, as well as Best New Ground-Breaking Innovation. Are there simply too many awards in Asia now and do you feel that the categories are perhaps unduly reinterpreting what is creative?

Ruth Lee: Awards are good; they are a positive reinforcement for excellent work. But currently, I feel there are too many award shows and categories within the shows. With so many, there's always the danger of the prestige and distinction of winning decreasing.

Agency.Asia: Your son must be in junior high by now. What subject should be taught that isn't currently on the curriculum? Will you encourage him to follow in his mum's footsteps - and will that be as a herbalist, DJ or in advertising?

Ruth Lee: If I was to write a list of what they don't teach you in school, it would go on and on. Nothing truly prepares you for the real world like experience. However, it's an important foundation to start with. Perhaps every kid should read Freakonomics as a part of their curriculum - just to find what really makes the world tick! As long as my son picks up all the important life lessons, I'll support him no matter what he decides to do.

Agency.Asia: Let's chat about women in advertising. An particularly clever and awarded friend of Agency.Asia was being very complimentary about the magazine in an email - and yet she finished by saying, "One day I hope you would do articles on female creatives too." We felt kind of compelled to write back and point out to her that we were interviewing you, had already interviewed Polly Chu and Jureeporn Thaidumrong; that several of our esteemed guests had nominated great female stars - and that we are still only two issues old!

Let's take award shows. There are still very few women on the juries at these shows. At AdFest this year, I was one of only five women jurors out of over fifty. I think this is mainly because few women creatives stay long enough in the field to get in a position to be invited. Advertising is an extreme profession, one that's not easy for women to work in. It requires people to endure huge stress levels and put in extremely long working hours. And it's just a simple truth that women who have other priorities in life, like children, usually can't afford to do that.

Agency.Asia: Your comment from a recent interview with Adwomen Magazine is ostensibly the same as those that caused Neil French to disappear from WPP. Jureeporn suggested that had it not been for him that she wouldn't be where she was today. Considering the humongous global controversy that erupted over his comments and resignation, there seem to be some radical double standards.

Ruth Lee: On a pure advertising level, you can't knock his track record or credentials. Was he being sexist? Telling it like it is? Or did he just set out to be controversial? Who knows. Either way, it worked: it's got everyone talking about him.

Agency.Asia: It was actually your colleague Karen See, DDB director of regional communications, who correctly pointed this out: the PR industry is full of women in comparison to the numbers in advertising. Any guesses why?

Ruth Lee: well, they do say women tend to be more relationship focused, to be more methodical, more deadline orientated and better listeners - all essential for practicing PR. However, the bigger question is if there are more women who work in the PR industry, why aren't there more women at the top?

Agency.Asia: Speaking of professions - why is it that advertising is apparently one of the least respected? Look at lawyers, doctors and accountants. Generally speaking, their clients don't habitually haggle with them and question their advice at every turn. Nor do they serially choose a new doctor, say, every couple of years. Has the advertising industry brought this upon itself?

Ruth Lee: To paraphrase Luke Sullivan, you have to remember that at the end of the day, we're just creating ads. That's all. Yes, great advertising can be powerful but ultimately, we're not saving lives. People are also becoming increasingly tech-savvy. We're living in the YouTube generation, with portable video cameras becoming the norm. Nowadays, everyone can be a filmmaker. Everyone thinks they can do what we do. And so, our expertise is less revered than perhaps it once was.

Agency.Asia: What do you think of research, or to be more specific, focus groups?

Ruth Lee: Focus groups are not the be-all-and-end-all. But when conducted properly, they can help you understand how consumers view your brands, how consumers in a particular category think or whether you need to tinker with something that's not broken. We recently set up a dedicated focus group room at DDB and it's been invaluable for us - helping us determine whether we're steering the ship in the right direction.

Agency.Asia: We cherish a good fun horror story here at Agency.Asia. In all your years on the job what is the funniest mishap that has taken place to you in the course of your work - or to one of your friends if that is less incriminating?

Ruth Lee: I remember presenting a 2010 Shanghai World Expo bidding video to a panel of stern-looking Chinese government officials. At the time, we were pitching against other countries to hold an event in Shanghai, so it was pretty serious stuff. But during the presentation, the government officials started spitting with all their might into these spitting buckets. I'd never seen - or heard - anything quite like it! Luckily, I took it in my stride and acted as normal as can be. We won the pitch for Shanghai so I assume they never realised how shocked I was!

Agency.Asia: As we discussed with several guests the custom of "giving face" leaves many foreigners scratching their head. Meetings that might be over in minutes in the West will grind on for hours and even days - very politely - in Asia. Do you ever feel like screaming, "For the love of God, just get on with it!"

Ruth Lee: Absolutely. But my problem is I tend to go all the way and scream it out aloud!

Agency.Asia: Considering your eclectic history and interests, which books did you absolutely love reading? We're noticing more and more creative's have turned to the web - so perhaps you'd rather mention your favourite websites ...

Ruth Lee: I still enjoy great books, especially non-fiction. The Black Swan was an interesting read. Incredibly timely actually, in view of the recent credit crunch. And I found Malcolm Gladwell's Blink so relevant to advertising. Imagine if every client made decisions at the blink of an eye! In terms of websites, I use YouTube and Wikipedia almost daily as indispensable reference tools.

Agency.Asia: Ruth, it has been a real pleasure meeting you - don't be a stranger. As always, we ask our guest to nominate the person they think our readers would most like to hear from in the next issue ... nominate away!

Ruth Lee: I'd like to nominate Paul Chan - a creative guy I hired and still admire very much. At the time I lured him to DDB, he was ranked the 3rd hottest creative in Hong Kong. So instead of nominating the same old names, Paul represents the new breed. I'm sure you'll enjoy talking to him.

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