I'm just back from loitering with intent in sunny (depending which side of Twin Peaks you're on) San Francisco.
Apart from dodging rented bikes on the Golden Gate Bridge, gorging dim sum and partaking of incomparable bahn mi in Berkeley, I popped by a small ad agency to interview the Executive Creative Director, Sunny Teo.
Last time I met Sunny was thirteen years ago, when he was a senior art director at J Walter Thompson, Singapore. I'd just finished a stint at Saatchi & Saatchi and was saddled up to ride my bike from the bottom of Britain to the top. Thirteen years later, Sunny is stateside, having decided to "return to his roots" and "serve his culture" by heading up Asian American advertising agency DAE*, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in September.
Since we've both spent time at big, ostensibly Caucasian-run agencies I had to ask, what's the difference?
Over cold spicy eggplant and tofu noodles at Hunan, a typically cacophonous downtown Chinese eatery, Sunny explained how Asian advertising is less about the individual, more about the collective.
"Apart from being very pragmatic—typical of Asians—it's about the family. Your kids, the future of your kids, much more so than in western culture," he said. "You want your kids to do better than YOU."
If you've ever grown up in a Chinese family you'll know the pressure to be a doctor, lawyer, or dentist. "All work and no play makes someone who can write their own meal ticket," insisted my immigrant father.
So does it take an Asian to market to an Asian?
"You don't necessarily have to be Asian to do Asian advertising," said Sunny, deftly sweeping up grains of rice with his chopsticks. "What is important is the keen understanding of values and cultural nuances. Imagine a white guy growing up in the Sunset district of SF, hanging out with Asian friends in school, and marrying an Asian girl. He'll hopefully develop Asian-related sensitivities and sensibilities. Growing up around the Asian environment and being aware of the taboos, and the likes and dislikes are more important than "being Asian".
Sunny cited an example of a poster he created for a financial product: a mother handing her daughter an heirloom Chinese wedding dress. The idea, subtly posed: "when this moment comes, make sure you're financially prepared for it."
"Maintaining face" is important in the Asian culture. Despite some nutty extreme sports shows coming out of Asia, you won't see a lot of marketing using heavy-handed irony at someone else's expense, or shock-for-shock's sake. It's pragmatic, yet respectful and polite. As a teen I was told by my mother in a seemingly multicultural Australia, "you can't run around after boys. It doesn't look right with a Chinese face." And though things are changing, we have yet to see—apart from gunslinging nut cases—a Chinese Behaving Badly or doing a Lindsay Lohan.
There's a temptation to think this kind of advertising might be cloyingly sweet or unadventurous, but that would be shortsighted. Understanding a culture at a deep level—learning how to say it right, then say it tight—is the skill of any communicator. Having taken marketing to the nth degree by living with customers for much of my tenure as a Customer Evangelist, I view advertising very differently from back when I was freely spending client's mortgage money from a high floor in a glassy tower.
And what about the Asian elders, in this society where we "worship a youth we all lose"? Does one need to be older to relate to the elderly in advertising?
"There is certainly much more respect for elders in the Asian market," said Sunny. "And I do think maturity helps to understand the state of being in old age. But as an advertising person, you really need to be a chameleon. Men can sell lingerie (and have successfully done so), woman can sell shaving cream. At the end of the day, for good or for bad, with the right insights and the right messaging, an ad person if talented enough, can sell most anything."
During my visit to Singapore, I learned that offspring are fined if they do not provide for their parents. Now wouldn't that solve a lot of concerns about becoming foreclosed and homeless in our society ...
I brought up the cliche about Asians being geeks and into technology. Will we see more Asians Facebooking and Twittering into their seniordom?
"The elders are a bit disconnected, but as soon as they learn to navigate user interfaces, they're all over it ..."
Speaking of interfaces, I'd like to see Google or some open consortium skin all apps for seniors. I'm envisaging any screen with just four visual elements. For example, in the case of a purchase screen: a picture of the product, a 1-line description that pops up or talks if you touch it, the price, and a big button you hit with your credit card that says "buy". I'm staring right now at a ridiculous pile of remote controls without a clue how to turn on my partner's TV, and I can't imagine this stuff is any easier for seniors.
As I left, Sunny handed me a Year of the Tiger calendar, and a Tiger-shaped porcelain bank from Wells Fargo, one of his banking clients—made in China, of course.
"Chinese people typically love to display at home a calendar or two on their wall, and the more colorful the better. This is very likely unique to the culture. The premiums we typically design at DAE are tied conceptually to the calendars."
And the tiger?
"A premium very specific to the Asian market, being that 2010 is the year of the Tiger. Asians respond to all kinds of promotional gifts—as long as they see a benefit. Most popular are those that carry a deep meaning or, at the other end of the spectrum, those that appeal to children."
He then jetted off to a shoot for his commercial, happier than I had remembered him thirteen years ago. There's nothing like connecting with your roots.
* The story of the agency's name goes something like this: three bright young professionals from pretty varied backgrounds came together in 1990 for an opportunity to pitch an ad assignment for a national beer label (Miller Lite I believe) targeting Asian Americans. In the midst of their preparations, the founders realized it wouldn't do to go into a pitch without an agency name. So they came up with "DAE" which stood for "big" in several Asian languages. Perhaps "thinking to go BIG" was in their mind. All said, they won the assignment and the agency was born - Sunny Teo