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The One and Only - Peter Soh

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Issue #4 - Insight

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PETER_SOH-w450-w230If you want to know about the evolution of advertising in Asia, this is the man.

P
ete Soh has been in the thick of it for the last thirty years. He was Chief Creative Officer of Saatchi & Saatchi Greater China and widely believed to be the most handsome man to have sat on its Worldwide Creative Board.

He has been hailed as one of the mechanics of the Chinese advertising boom and the co-founder of the Chinese language LongXi Awards.

We caught up with him on the eve of the event ...


Agency.Asia: It was Jim Aitchison from Batey Ads that nominated you to be our next guest -  he said, "Someone I did work with and truly admire: the one and only Peter Soh, a great Chinese creative. Peter and I developed some campaigns that ran in both Chinese and English, and had a lot of fun doing so. And when Frenchy's ads needed to run in Chinese, Peter was always the first bloke he looked for." Tell us more about the 80s in Singapore ...

peter-soh-oldPeter Soh: Jim is too kind, but I humbly accept the honor. Love and miss that era -  thanks to Jim, Frenchy, Linda, Rob, Ian -  to name a few.  We  developed great bilingual campaigns, and most of all, had a lot of fun doing so. Plus we won tons of awards. There was that one year I think I took home all awards in the Chinese category in the CCA show on behalf of five or six agencies (I freelance a lot).

Agency.Asia: Singapore had a regulation that people were not allowed to set foot in the country unless their hair was cut above their collar, until the early-eighties. Just how did you get away with your famous ponytail?  Assuming art directors weren't exempt - were you always on the run from Singapore's hippy police?

Peter Soh: Oh yes,  I'd almost forgotten those good o'l days. I can see it again now, the one color printed posters that were pasted all over government offices with bad illustrations to show what they meant by hair above collar or you would be served last. Answer is rather simple my friend. I just didn't go to any of the government offices. But my long hair did get me into trouble long before they imposed the so-called 'regulation'.  I was somehow always singled out, by my principal ... when I was in the armed forces ...

NeilFrench_confe2004_webAgency.Asia: On the occasions that you were called on by your mate Neil French, what was it like translating his copy? Agency.Asia was originally going to be bi-lingual and published in Simplified Chinese and English, until our translators took one look at the colloquialisms in Neil's interview and ran for the hills. Does 'tone' translate relatively well between the languages?

Peter Soh: Maybe Jim was right after all. The one and only Peter Soh was the officially appointed Chinese writer by His Lordship.  I actually enjoyed the challenge of translating his work.  I shall illustrate the challenge.

It was the Mitsubishi campaign.  Reverse white types of MITSUBISHI on black with the 'IT' and 'IS' within it in red. "Can u do it young man?" he asked. I who know none, and fear none, answered softly, "no problem." The next three days I was shitting bricks. I tried to break down the Chinese character of MITSUBISHI, which, basically translates into three diamond shapes, stroke by stroke, but no can do.

In fact I was on my way to tell Neil that I could not do it when my ancestor hit me with a stroke of genius.  I put the character 'only' on top of the first stroke and "none" on the second one and voila, it reads, "'MITSUBISHI' The One and Only".  It picked up quite a few awards and the only Chinese entry that was awarded in the International arena.   By the way, that wasn't the MITSUBISHI logo type.  I changed them because the type didn't look good when blown up for center spread.

 

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I asked Neil whether I could do this and he just smiled.  I took it for a yes.  Back then, no one in Singapore was expecting for Chinese creativity to blossom.  I had the whole playground to myself, wearing my Adidas and believed that 'impossible is nothing' and created many bilingual ad campaigns. Well, the rest is history. You guys should really do the bilingual version of Agency.Asia. There is none so far?

Agency.Asia: Are you volunteering, Peter? Why advertising as a career?  You could have pleased your mum, dyed your ponytail and become a barrister.  Your daughter is studying zoology in Perth at present. Did she ever show any interest in advertising? 

Peter Soh: It seems like a great idea to join an ad agency.  I remember the FOB sexy receptionist and secretary.  They were part of the reason too. Nicole writes well and she loved animals from a very young age.  I remember she kept the dead body of her pet hamster and tried to revive the poor thing every day.  Almost 9 years later, she managed to resuscitate a hamster during her internship at a vet hospital.  Isn't it better to deal with animals than our fellow human beings at time?

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My son, Nicolai is very much like me in so many ways, but I don't think I will encourage any of my kids to follow their daddy's footsteps.  Nicolai is doing violin and electric guitar at the same time.  Both of them grew up playing amongst my advertising books and they seem to be able to tell a good ad apart from the bad ones.  Whoever said that if you can't make President, be an ad man. He can't be more right.  The prime minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong was my schoolmate.  Anyway, I think my mum is happy now.

Agency.Asia:
Let's say you were writing a history of advertising in Hong Kong , Taiwan and China, preface the various milestones over the last two decades and tell us how you think things will evolve?

 

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Peter Soh: I doubt I'll ever attempt to write the history of advertising in HK, Taiwan, China over the last 2 decades.  Everyone could tell you that it's all about the next 10 years. We will witness China's coming of age.  She will be very, very big.  More Chinese companies will make Fortune 500, but so far I feel that no Chinese ad agency is going to follow that lead. Ad culture revolution is needed now.  What human beings learn from history, is we simply learn nothing from history.  Maybe the Chinese will learn something.  Maybe not.

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Agency.Asia: Speaking of professions - why do you think it is that advertising is ostensibly one of the least respected professions? Look at lawyers, doctors and accountants. Generally speaking, their clients don't perennially 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?

Peter Soh: Yes, yes, yes,  we definitely brought this upon ourselves.  There is a Chinese saying, 'one has to bend for 5 sacks of rice', but I like to add to that, that we need to uphold an inch of dignity.  Like many dinosaurs of the industry, we miss those good old days, where professionalism, dignity, pride was almost like a religion, except we even work on Sundays.  Yes again, for sure we fucked ourselves.  Remember the term, 'rough visual'?  An important stage that we use to present our ideas.  At the arrival of the computer era, we hopped over this process and presented computer-generated finished artwork. This allowed client to sit down with you, spending long hours to discuss the size of the logo, color of the car, length of the copy and the outfit of the model.  How do one reverse this now? It takes more than a few good officers, gentlemen and ladies to do this.  Maybe it will happen in China?  We should know too well by now, lawyers, doctors and accountants make more mistakes than we do.  I rest my case.

 


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Agency.Asia: How about Fong, Haque and Soh - the sale of your own agency to TBWA and letting go of the reigns? Apart from receiving a tasty windfall from an agency keen to jump into Asia - describe that period of your life.  Was it sad to give up your independence?  Do you keep in touch with some of your team?

Peter Soh: The 4 years of Fong Haque and Soh was certainly a proud moment of my life from just the 3 founders to a strength of 80, zero billing to 33 million, rose to top 3 position, and it is still remembered by many. It was definitely a love story, but selling out was always part of the deal.  It was a lot of fun doing it, winning every pitch on the way until we got a little too big, too fast.

I wasn't that happy during the last days.  It was a perfect partnership on one hand, but it also tore us apart as we are 3 very strong individuals. When the time came, I was quite happy to get out. Always look forward to my next change.  I chaired a TV program with 2 beautiful co-hostesses.  Six months later, I joined Singapore Press Holdings as their marketing consultant on a 3-day week.  My tennis improved during that time and I came in second in The Business Times tournament.  Realizeing it was too late to turn tennis pro, I nearly joined an agency in Taiwan.  Of course as the story goes, I didn't go and came to China instead.   I kept very much in touch with my team mates, who made Fong, Haque and Soh looked so good.  In fact a few of them ended up working with me in China.  It is a small, small world after all.

Agency.Asia: You left Saatchi & Saatchi quite recently after being the China regional ECD for the last nine or so years and you are now enjoying a hiatus. What's next?

Peter Soh: I am enjoying my well-deserved time off.  Doing one thing or nothing at a time.  Finally understand the term 'sabbatical'.  I am writing a book,  I am studying the Chinese typefaces.  I am pursuing another of my true love, graphic design.  I am giving a lot of talks and coaching in colleges all over China in honor of another of my great teachers, Paul Arden. I am translating his good book  'It's not how good you are, It's how good you want to be'. I'm helping with charity organizations such as Jane Goodall Foundation, planting trees in Inner Mongolia.  Last month, I was selling toys which I collected over years of traveling to build a school in a rural area in China under the umbrella of the Shanghai Singapore Business Association, having so far built 3 schools.  I am now planting hundreds of miniature orchids in preparation for the next charity fair.  But building a regional Chinese Ad school is still my wettest dream.

Agency.Asia: The inimitable Jimmy Lam is a good friend of Agency.Asia and also your partner in the Longxi  Awards. Give us some history.

LONGXI-AWARD-AGENCY-ASIAPeter Soh: Playing a part in the Longxi award is probably something I would like to tell my grandchildren someday.  A friend had put it in the right perspective.  He said LongXi is all about four poor scholars screaming for a noble cause.  Well said, my friend.  It started 10 years ago when China entered Cannes for the first time and didn't pick up anything at all.  David , Jimmy, Tomaz and myself were selected by Beijing's trade ministry to explain to the bewildered hoardes how the game was played in the international arena.

I told them some of my award winning Chinese entry's English translations sound much better than the original Chinese copy, because out of a panel of 23 judges, you are lucky to get a single one who is effectively bilingual.  I have judged Cannes in both Print and Outdoor category and I was the only one who can read and speak Chinese and understand the importance of a very good translation. After that,  Jimmy Lam struck upon the idea there should be an international arena where Chinese entries will be judged by those who understand the language.  So the 4 dragons or Godfathers agreed to do it.

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Today it is the only Chinese award show that has gained international recognition including the Gunn Report. We had our fair share of issues and problems during the last 10 years but somehow we overcome that year after year.

As you would know, getting and working with sponsors each year is painful.  Upholding our principles and ideals stopped us from working with some sponsors.  Interested parties please visit our LongXi website to know more.  As far as we are concerned, we are looking forward to the next 10 years and still hoping that this baby will someday grow to be a Chinese Cannes.

Agency.Asia: Your bookshelves are brimming with hardcover photo books - it seems a good few featuring amazing design and the rest beautiful women. Which are your all time favourites? Books that is!  Are you a mad keen photographer?

Peter Soh: I had never attended any art school,  In fact I was not accepted by any art college in Singapore at that time.  So I figured I look good standing in front of my bookshelves. To catch up for lost time, I grew from Playboy and Penthouse to Araki.  I also collect block prints, oil, clay and porcelain and you probably didn't know, toys.  I am such a mess with stuff in my house.  By the way, I do read some of my books.

My all time favorite is still Paul Arden's  "Its not how good you are, but how good you want to be "and  "The Book of Tea" by Okakura Kakuzo.  Right now I am reading 'Sherman's Lagoon' with my son.  And yes, I hope some day I can travel the world and take black and white pictures.

Agency.Asia: And tell us a bit about your own book. What's it about?  We hear that you are having all your friends contribute - how so?

Peter Soh: My one and only book is all about story telling - of my 33 years of long march to the Eastern front. I am not going to talk too much about the book, as I want you guys to buy it.  I intend to invite 100 of my friends all around the world to each design 2 pages of the book.  I will write the copy, of course.  Just in case it is badly written, at least it is going to look good.

Agency.Asia: It's time to ask you whom you'd like to nominate to be our guest for our next edition. Peter, it has been a pleasure talking to you and we're keen to see what's up your sleeve.

Peter Soh: I think you should talk to the Godmother of my little girl, Linda Locke.

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