DDB’s David Tang on the rugged pragmatism of Asia

Tang chats to LBBOnline about what DDB’s new slogan, Unexpected Works, means in Asia.

“Every agency can cover a new slogan, but what does it mean?” are DDB Asia’s CEO David Tang’s opening words when we discuss the agency’s global new focus under ‘Unexpected Works’.

He continues: “I do think that the whole Unexpected Works does encourage a lot of innovation, but far more importantly, we have to begin to relook at what has worked in the past, to begin to rethink the future.”

For a role that spans Asia’s Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Korean offices the mantra of looking back before you look forward is going to be key over the coming months. In fact, one can go back to David’s own past to understand how it’s driven his way forward. He started working as a consultant “back when consulting was the cream of business school” until he realised his “left brain hurt so much” so he switched to advertising. “I ended up at DDB with a bunch of creatives, strategists, planners and then increasingly, brought in the technologists, digital, data analysts and content makers.”

He’s been at DDB since 1998 and with his student days filled with the stories of David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and George Lois he learnt so much more from those three than just what he was taught at business school. “They practised a form of intelligence that makes you smile, laugh, cry and then buy. It’s helped me see marketing in a very different light – that creativity can add a very powerful edge for business. I liked the open-endedness, the blue sky of consulting, it is very smart, but it’s not as clever as creativity.”

The notion of creativity as being clever is something David believes the world needs more of “in these times” along with innovation and fresh thinking. Looking at the direction the DDB offices in Asia are heading, this seems to be at the forefront of the minds of employees.

“Unexpected Works encourages more ambition for innovation, especially in Asia. The honesty and the courage to say that we must find better ways as we go forward – what really works, what really matters to marketers, that we don’t get stuck with a formula. It actually brings out that creative spirit that is always within us, to be applied for tomorrow.”

As the world becomes more connected and practices are shared from different corners of it, David believes that this is now a time for the world to look at not only the crossover between the West and East, but also what the West can learn from the East. “We’re at an interesting crossroad between East and West, where change and innovation is redefining markets, brands and consumers. So we’re particularly excited about three areas in ‘centres of excellence’ for the whole DDB network, which would benefit Asia and where Asia too has a lot to contribute.”

The three ‘centres of excellence’ boil down to: the best practices in growth strategy, delivering on marketing engagement and redefining creativity in Asia. The latter is perhaps easier said than done as the Asian market encompasses a host of different cultures. “I think there’s a rugged pragmatism about Asia, because the ultimate litmus test for creativity is what sort of results you produce. In some ways, the ‘Works’ is the obsession, the ‘Unexpected’ is the how to. But I think that when you look at it, the very interesting things emerging out of the countries are its strengths.

“DDB Korea has a thriving gaming division called Tribal-X working with DDB FTW, it has even partnered with an entertainment company to launch a K-Pop group; Singapore produced a movie that Netflix and Discovery have bought global distribution rights; DDB China has a planning division built around social commerce and DDB Hong Kong does some of the most amazing work in digital banking. These are the sort of Unexpected Works in Asia.”

While Asia is a market that seems to have a clear vision of its capabilities, David draws upon the global community of DDB to inspire him in what he calls the ‘federalist, entrepreneurial culture at DDB’.

“We’re not cookie cutters. Juan Carlos Ortiz in Latin America has just been amazing winning clients and awards – they topped the D&AD Awards. Europe has The Brain and the Hunters Club, winning over key clients across categories. Justin Thomas Copeland and his team in North America are tailoring Accelerator Workshops and OMNI to transform business.”

David believes that looking at these markets and understanding what’s producing remarkable results across different regions is extremely important because “we have spent a lot of time looking at the pure execution of ideas at the campaign level and in some way we’ve sort of not really been ambitious enough to look at strategies.”

He adds: “I think we should be fearless to take in all the best practices and look at what is working and think about it and say, could this, for example, produce the kind of results and growth that we want for clients in different regions and markets?

“You have to respect the fact that what works in one market may not work in another. We’ve got to be very careful that the world may not be as uniform as what we made out to be, at least in the short term.”

Creativity, if done correctly, has the power to change the world, it’s perhaps for this reason that David’s ultimate icon is Steve Jobs. “I think we should immortalise Steve Jobs for showing us the way – look at the iPhones, no wonder we dumped our Blackberry – and thank God for it.” However, he goes on to say that right now the human race is at a crossroads, the ‘intersection’ of liberal arts, science, AI, technology and human interface.

“Where we begin with facts and data, but must make that imaginative leap to something greater, better. Arguably creative agencies have more of the right-brain stuff – the dreamers, the poets, the artists, but there’s not a reason not to embrace the engineers, the coders and the UX specialists.”

According to David, Covid-19 provided ample opportunity for Asia to create in greater and better ways. Though, in his philosophical nature David laments that “in tough times, some people cry – others sell tissue paper.”

However, for someone who’s headed up DDB’s Asia offering for the past six years, David is adamant that the region is “fuelled by change. We’re pretty used to fast-and-furious acceleration. If it doesn’t work, it’s just not pretty. Just look at the rise of online commerce, digital banking, fintech and hyper-personalisation. This period of uncertainty means we have more opportunities in search of better returns – especially for our clients and our business.

“If we’re creative, we should be courageous. I think Paul Simon puts it better: ‘If you’re so smart, why are you so afraid?’”

Aside from the pandemic accelerating new and different kinds of change, something that’s really fed into conversations in Asia – and around the world – is pop culture, or more specially, just pop. Korean pop band BTS is one example that David believes you just can’t ignore. “You can’t argue against BTS, because, like it or not, I mean, they are chalking up the hits on YouTube. How do you explain that? I mean, I must say, it’s totally unexpected, but you got a better example?”

The younger generation are fuelling this love of Korean music in the four corners of the globe with astounding results and David believes that this isn’t just a fetish, but actually how the world is converging. He’s proud that a country he’s closely associated with has a lot to offer.

I ask David how creativity has changed since he started out at DDB many moons ago. His analogy is one football fans will love: “Creativity looks as elegant and as easy as Messi playing the beautiful game – but it takes a lot of effort and intelligence.” Though he adds that DDB’S global strategy lead Alex Hesz says that ‘It’s simple but it’s hard’.

David reverts back to his left-brain-right-brain comparison when summarising what creativity is for him: “I think creativity is both right and left-brain intelligence, it’s supposed to be both magical and efficient. It’s kind of an irony – I left consulting where strategy and analysis reigns supreme, in search of this right-brain creativity. We now realise it’s the fusion of both. That makes it exciting for our business ahead.”

Now that DDB has a new slogan – and more importantly – a new vision for where it’s headed, what does that look like for Asia? “When I look at all the Asia offices, I think that that community spirit, it’s so vital. And we always talk about the fact that it’s a people business.

“So I’m really optimistic about the fact that we can we can encourage more of the offices in Asia to rise up and say that you should have the ambition to be fearless to take on things you can help transform your clients’ business and with the centres of excellence that are created, I think that makes it a lot viable. But far more important to reverse a question and say what have you got to offer the world?”

David Tang, CEO of DDB Asia believes that bravery isn’t just about looking at what’s out there. It’s about wondering what you can offer the greater world out there.

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