5 Minutes with… Ronald Ng
It’s been a big year for Ronald Ng. In January he moved from Singapore, where he was regional Chief Creative Officer at BBDO, to New York to head up DigitasLBi in North America. He’s been busy reacquainting himself with the Big Apple, where he previously lived for three years while working at BBDO NY, and getting to grips with life in a multi-disciplinary digital-first agency. One of the things that drew him to DigitasLBi was their 2012 Cannes Grand Prix-winning Small Business Sunday project for Amex (created in conjunction with CP+B); the fact that the original germ of the idea came from an account person was, he felt, totally inspiring and showed an agency with a true department-spanning creative culture. The learning curve has been great for Ronald, who reckons that curiosity and ‘healthy paranoia’ are the keys to creative growth. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him in Las Vegas where he was heading up the digital jury for the London International Awards to find out more.
LBB> You’ve been at DigitasLBi in North America since January, which covers six offices – how have you found the set up there?
RN> Before that I was at BBDO for 11 years. I was at the Malaysian office for five years; I first became the ECD of the BBDO Malaysia office and then Chief Creative Officer in 2004 and then in 2009 they moved me to the New York Office for three years. And then in 2012 they moved me to the Singapore office, which is the lead office for the region. Then prior to that I was at JWT, McCann. So it’s my second time around in New York but first time in a multi-disciplinary digital-first agency.
The different DigitasLBi offices have very different scopes of work because of the clients, so there’s a very diverse range of skill sets in the agency. That’s why we are large; we cover so many things that you won’t normally find under one roof.
Each office is a unit on its own and the kind of work that we do is different from brand to brand. We are a media agency also, so we do media for certain clients, media only. And then we do strategy and analysis, which is data crunching, for certain clients. We have some clients where we do everything from broadcast film right down the maths. The thing is there’s no one definition of what Digitas does but I think as an umbrella we are an agency that is intelligence driven, using data to build brands.
LBB> The ‘data’ debate is still something of a hot potato for creatives…
RN> Data is still just seen as information. I think if we look at data beyond information it becomes intelligence. It depends what you do with that information. Think of a book – that’s data. You can read a book but what that book does for you and how you live life and how you see life, that’s the intelligence that comes out of the information. So I think that’s the big leap that agencies need to take; data isn’t just ones and zeros, it’s about what you do with it.
It can sound extremely boring because it’s extremely scientific but the real magic is when you take that data and you mix that science with art. If you let your data write your work then you become like a research group-approved brand and you don’t want to do that.
LBB> So were you consciously trying to find a role that involved more of a digital-first mindset?
RN> BBDO is an amazing agency, no doubt, and I was very privileged to spend 11 years working for the place. And getting the opportunity to work in three very different and diverse markets was fantastic. But there was a conscious effort to look beyond my comfort zone and to look at what else was out there that would help me expand as a creative leader.
I think a lot of it has to do with me being very curious. The reason that some people are still in the industry and have survived the changing times is that they have looked outside of what they’re good at and have thought, ‘wait, I don’t understand this and I need to know and I need to then be good at it’. Otherwise you’d be out of a job in three years. What drove it for me was the need to spread my wings.
LBB> Is that what motivates you to keep learning?
RN> I’m a constantly paranoid guy! I always think someone is going to do a better campaign than mine, which is why I’m always trying to learn more and get better.
My wife always tell me ‘you’re too paranoid, you’re constantly worried that you’re going to get fired’ but that’s what drives me. But the paranoia should not consume you. It needs to be paranoia that drives you. It needs to be healthy paranoia – I have seen people whose paranoia has gotten the better of them. You need to know when to move on.
LBB> What are your thoughts on using new and evolving platforms in advertising? Are we a bit too obsessed with novelty at the moment or is ‘non-traditional’ the new normal?
RN> I started as a traditional guy doing print and TV and radio – remember radio? But then you know, we evolved and did non-traditional. We [BBDO] were one of the first agencies to do non-traditional work and now… everything is non-traditional. If you’re not non-traditional, then you don’t make a name for your client and your work doesn’t get recognised.
These new mediums and platforms and categories are new opportunities to reach out to your consumer but if you strip all of that away – today there is Snapchat and Periscope and whatever but tomorrow there will be something else. Facebook has become so big and has evolved. But if you strip all of that away, thinking of ideas doesn’t change. If you look at award shows, for example, the categories keep evolving and increasing but you need to understand what everyone is really looking for is an idea and ideas will never die. I think that’s the only constant – but the way they’re exchanged will change. We need to keep up with both the strength of the idea and the strength of the expression.
LBB> What are your thoughts about craft when it comes to digital work? In advertising it’s a word that still is largely used in the context of print and film...
RN> I think it’s because, especially in the digital space, a lot of things are new and it’s a case of ‘life in beta’. Gone are the days of six-month production jobs. These days if you have a six-month production period you’ll probably be irrelevant by the time you’re done.
Craft has also evolved. In the good old days, craft was ‘oh my God, you got Jonathan Glazer to shoot for you!’. Craft was the aesthetic support for an idea but today part of craft is the experience. So if you build an app or a website you are finding an expression for an idea in terms of the art direction and the design. If it’s beautiful but slow, non-responsive, doesn’t feed off what I want then it’s bad design and bad craft. Craft is the experience. Which is why we don’t call our team UX, we call it experiential design – that’s craft and craft has evolved. Imagine you see a good-looking bloke or a really hot woman, it’s like, hey can we also have a conversation? It’s gone beyond that which I think is great.
Films used to be a one way storytelling experience. I watch it and that’s it. I don’t get to tell you if it sucks or not, I don’t get to build on your story. Today everything depends on how I feel and whether I want to engage.
LBB> How have you found the move back to New York?
RN> Melting pot is such a boring expression but it’s such a kaleidoscope and there’s so much life and you’re just trying to keep up, which is awesome. I love being in an environment where you feel like you need to strive to keep up and you don’t think you’re ahead.
LBB> And what’s it been like getting up to speed with everything DigitasLBi does?
RN> You try to learn new things every day and that’s what I’ve done all my career and I’ve always been curious of agencies like Digitas, which is why I wanted to do this. The learning curve has been unbelievable and I’ve been working with such an amazing team. They have a great culture of ‘getting shit done’. They have this thing called ‘speed to real’ which is about getting things to fruition in the shortest time possible. My head of experience and design Andrew Carlson often says that we can finish an app build in the time it takes an agency to finish the brief.
LBB> You’ve been judging the Digital category for the London International Awards. Has your experience at DigitasLBi changed the way you judge and evaluate digital work?
RN> I think working in a place like Digitas, you see a lot of new and different perspectives towards the work. But at the end of the day, whether you’re on a judging panel or you’re my mum, you react like a human, like a consumer. When I’m in front of the screen looking at an entry I either go ‘yay’ or ‘nay’. If I’m interested I’ll download the app and play with it, but it’s all based on whether there’s an idea or not. My approach to work in the digital space has expanded but the core of it hasn’t changed. It’s really about the idea. And the way consumers approach any idea is how they’ve always approached it: is it useful to me? Is it relevant to me? And do I care?
It’s all emotional. I think that’s how I’ve approached the work and that’s how I’ve always approached it. Last year when I was at BBDO Singapore we won a FWA award for a microsite based on a Google Maps hack for environmental awareness. We won it but it was based on an insight and an idea. Whether I’m at this agency or another agency I approach the work in the same way.
On the first day of judging we spoke about what we wanted to have seen on the LIA website because that is what makes the show and that is what informs the industry in terms of ‘this is where the industry is right now, let’s beat it for next year’. I told them to look beyond the case study. What is the idea? Don’t get taken in by beauty and case study production, look beyond it.
With every judging session there’s some subjectivity; things you agree on and things you disagree on. Are we judging the case study or are we judging the idea? Having said that I do think a good case study is important. Get to the idea as quickly as you can. I judge like a consumer. What does a consumer do when he or she doesn’t get it? They flip channels. They open a new tab and go somewhere else.
LBB> And what has the standard of work been like this year – without giving away any spoilers regarding the winners!
RN> With every award show you get agencies that really try their luck and agencies that submit really, really good work. The LIAs has always been a show where people always enter their best work. LIAs has always had a higher quality, distilled amount of work so the standard is very high.
I think there are very few pieces that are blowing all of us away, which is a concern. There’s good work but very few pieces of great work. One reason is that there’s so much good work out there. In the past we only had to compete with a few agencies and a few advertisers and now we’re competing with YouTube bloggers, makeup tutorials, kids who are in high school who are making money from their Instagram accounts. We are competing against entertainment companies. The work is not exclusive to ad agencies any more, which is fantastic. You really have to keep on your toes. There’s so much good work, people are spoiled with content so it’s harder to stand out. I wouldn’t say the work was bad in the old days; it was a narrower scope of work. When there’s so much good Haagen Dazs, it’s hard to find the cherry on top of the ice cream.
LBB> The Creative LIAisons event that runs in tandem with the LIA judging sees young creatives from around the world sit in on the judging as observers. What are your thoughts on that?
RN> I’ve been in judging at LIA in previous years where the Creative LIAisons folk were in the back of the room and I was totally blown away by it. Before that I knew there was this programme – obviously they have great, inspiring speakers coming in talking about creativity in general, but when I saw the young creatives sitting in the back of the room I thought ‘oh my god why didn’t I have that when I was younger!’ It was mind blowing.
This is such a unique thing – and I’m not just saying that because I’m here and was invited. I’m a huge fan. I’ve got two young creatives here, one from Boston and one from New York and I’ve told them to take as many photos as they can so they can go back and do a presentation on their experience here at the monthly town hall. I want their experience to be experienced by the whole agency. What does it feel like to be at the back of the room when you see top creatives from around the world, talking about an idea that you love going ‘eh bronze’. Or maybe there’s an idea you love and a top luminary says ‘that’s great’. It makes you reset.