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1 year on: SearchGuru’s SP Lee’s shift from creativity to tech geekdom

A year after he was appointed head of creative at digital agency SearchGuru, SP Lee (pictured) said he feels “very comfortable” in his role and in the tech led space. Lee told A+M that when he first started in SearchGuru, some asked if he was out of his comfort zone, having started in a creative agency with a media department. To this he generally replies, “I began in a creative-media model agency, so I am very comfortable here. I’ve worked in a silo before, and clearly having creative, paid, search and web in one space makes better sense.”

Prior to joining SearchGuru, Lee spent 16 years with Dentsu/DYR group, helming various roles such as CEO, ECD and writer, exiting the agency in 2016. He was also with Draft:FCB and Bates for six years each as ECD. He added that SearchGuru has an open and agile culture, and an exploratory mindset and is very clued in on innovations.

“If I may use an analogy, I started as a cook in a kitchen in a hotel and ended up running the entire hotel. Now I am back in the kitchen and it is good to be here,” Lee explained.

He added that technology has also changed the way consumers consume content and regardless of how that evolves in the future, the job scope of those in the advertising field remains the same – to engage and sell. Previously, he told A+M that it is “refreshing” to be surrounded by “tech geeks who live on the left-hand side of their heads”, having mainly worked with individuals from the creative and media industries for several years.

When working with the techies, Lee said it is important to be mindful that both parties are looking at the same issue from different angles. As such, he always tries to understand their points of view. “Visualising the problem-solution on a board always helps,” he added.

Read more about his transition below:

A+M: Do you think being data-driven might cause creativity to lose its human spark? 

Lee: Data is only as good as the person who uses it.

Data should inspire, not instruct. To follow it blindly is to paint by numbers.

The difference in how information is interpreted has always been what sets good creatives apart from mediocre ones. Someone with a little data but a lot of intuition and imagination will produce better work than someone with all the data in the world but little talent. You can give two chefs the same recipe but the outcomes could be very different because talent matters.

A+M: What are some of the challenges you have encountered?

Lee: In the new generation, I see a lot of people who are good at methodology but lack madness. Yes, read the manual. But if all you do is what the manual says, you are just ticking the box.

In any creative industry – advertising, music, movies – you need technical know-how but you also need people who understand that taking no risk at all is the biggest risk of all.

Break the rules, hack the system.

A lot of the work creatives do today are templated and controlled by the platforms. But how do you stand out and get noticed given the walls they put around you? That is where the fun begins.

A+M: What skillsets are necessary to survive in today advertising and marketing world?

Lee: Technology may dominate our work but ours remains a business of having soft skill and a business of understanding people. Good marketers have high EQ. They are astute at reading people.

All the bells and whistles in digital are necessary but do not get blinded by all that bling. They are there to help us engage better but they remain tools, not solutions.

You must keep up with tech, but invest time learning how the best salesmen and entrepreneurs think.  The channels of reach will keep changing, but at the other end of all these pipes is just another human.

We humans function emotionally in many ways, and marketers know that. We think with our eyes and decisions can be merely hunches. Then we post-rationalise our actions with logical explanations. Spend time learning online, sign up for classes to upskill, but the best classroom is out there, in the real world. That is where you get insights and ideas.

A+M: What are some trends marketers should be on the look out for?

Lee: A lot more fragmentation. Take a typical home of four where the kids, mom and dad are each engaged on different platforms.  We have more channels and sub-sets in sensibilities and psychographics. We are moving from broadcasting to narrow-casting, from mass-marketing to niche.

Just look at cars, which used to come in three basic sizes. Today, Mercedes has some 70 variants.  Once you could have your coffee cold, hot, black or with milk. Today, Starbucks has over 80,000 variants of coffee around the world.

You need to slice your audience thin and find insights within.

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