5 minutes with DDB Hong Kong’s Adrian Tso

When your day job includes spearheading strategy innovation, challenging industry norms, and championing cultural immersion, it pays to be unconventional.

And unconventional is exactly what Adrian Tso is. His path from political science to agency life has sculpted a unique approach to brand strategy.

Now the head of strategy at DDB Hong Kong, Adrian draws parallels between understanding governments and deciphering consumer behaviour.

Adrian offers wisdom to emerging strategists, urging them to blend practical learning with critical observation to navigate the dynamic landscape of advertising and branding.

LBB> Your educational background includes a BA in political science. How has this shaped your approach to brand strategy, especially in the context of working internationally?

Adrian> Political science gave me a glimpse of how to make sense of the world, though the same can probably be said about a variety of subjects.

A large part of political science is a breakdown of the state of the world through the lens of history. How different events have transpired, leading to decisions and policies, conflicts and alliances, that in turn shape the world as we know it. Essentially, it connects the dots that are not necessarily immediately apparent.

And while this has absolutely nothing to do with selling hamburgers, marketing and brand strategy is also about understanding motivations and anticipating response, connecting dots beyond the obvious. Just that instead of governments, it’s brands; instead of constituents, it’s consumers. Insights and strategies are more or less the same, just the variables change.

That aside, one can also argue that endlessly reading the translated rhetoric of French, Russian, and Greek philosophers throughout history did shove a writing style suited for pitch strategies and brand manifestos down my throat.

LBB> Your journey includes working at Brand Union and Nanoleaf. What prompted your transition from a well-established agency to a more niche, innovative brand like Nanoleaf?

Adrian> Working at an agency / consultancy has its perks – exposure to diverse industries, opportunity to work with high-level decision makers early on, the promise of tackling different problems with every project, etc. However, you are forever an advisor. You will always be contributing to someone else’s vision, and never seeing yours come to life.

At the time, both to my curiosity and hubris, I wanted to experience what it would be like to hold all the cards. To direct a brand and see it through. So, the decision was really to venture into the client side of the business and see what it was like. The opportunity with Nanoleaf was perfect at the time, because in addition to what I was looking for, working at a start-up was a bucket list item that I’d rather scratch off earlier in my career, while I was still young.

This ended up being perhaps the most impactful decision I have made in my career. Going from checking the 4Cs boxes as a senior strategist at an agency, to overnight, taking a much fuller view of a business, from R&D to product distribution, opened my mind up substantially and accelerated my growth tremendously. Furthermore, as working at a start-up would go, wearing multiple hats and getting hands-on with functions that extended beyond drawing up PowerPoint slides also gave me greater appreciation and empathy for the different disciplines that go into operating a brand, and a better idea of how these different roles can work better in concert.

In the end, it became clear to me that my journey on the agency side was far from over, as there was still much for me to learn. And as much as I appreciated the grit of working at a start-up, I never managed to get over the trial by fire, MVP mentality, and missed the pristine and polished output from a resource rich environment. Ironically, it would seem that agencies had by then also adopted a ‘leaner, meaner, faster’ approach to work.

Catch Adrian’s full interview with LBBOnline published on 15 April 2024.

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