Content marketing: A filmmaker's perspective on local ads

Content marketing has really taken off in recent years. While local marketers are dabbling and experimenting in the space, what do the original content creators really think about it?

We sat down with local filmmaking veteran Kelvin Tong during this year's two-day Content 360 conference held at the Four Seasons Hotel. Tong has worked on several local, regional and global films such as The Faith of Anna Waters, Rule #1 and Men in White. He has been in the film industry for over 17 years.

Marketing: Was it a hard journey to break into the film industry?

Tong: It was a very difficult journey, actually. When I finished law school, I was really passionate about films, but there wasn’t a film industry in Singapore at the time. The nearest way I could get close to my passion for films was writing about them.

So, I started out as a film critic for The Straits Times and at the end of four years, certain things had shifted in the Singapore film industry. Jack Neo made Money Not Enough and showed that Singapore films could not only stand on its own, but actually beat Hollywood films. Money Not Enough resonated with audiences and inspired a whole generation of young filmmakers. It led me to realise making films need not be a straight path to bankruptcy.

Marketing: What’s your experience working with marketers?

Tong: When I started, I didn’t shoot many television commercials because usually we had to deal with the agencies. And that was the part of the process I didn’t like, and led to rejecting some TV ads because I felt the process to be rather clunky. There was inherent tension and we couldn’t tell what the client wanted or what the agency wanted.

As for myself I just make films, which is a much simpler process. We find the story, and we find the most creative and the cheapest way to achieve it. To me it is very direct.

When I was younger filmmaker it seemed much more difficult because of people, agency and client politics, and I just want to get on with it.

But I think the landscape has changed a lot as well. I think agencies and clients have also matured a lot more. Back then, the client would be the room asking: “Where’s my logo? Can you make louder or bigger?” But nowadays when I walk in the room, the client will usually be the first to go, “I don’t want to hard-sell. In fact, don’t put the logo here. Let's hide it somewhere.”

Marketing: We sometimes hear is that Singaporean ads are not as creative as the ones in Thailand or Malaysia. Do you feel that way?

Tong: I love Thai ads. It’s right up there with kitten videos for me. Sometimes when I have nothing to do I’ll search for Thai ads, watch them and cry. They are so heart-warming.

But I think if you look at places such as Thailand and Singapore, you’re talking about very different societies. The keyword here is homogeneity. Thailand is a very homogeneous market so Thai ads reflect their values and because we are so familiar with Thailand, we understand their values. So, their ads resonate with us.  If the market is more homogeneous, it is a bit easier to craft stories that appeal to a wider segment.

Singapore is a lot more fragmented along many more lines - not just linguistically, but racially and culturally. There are a lot more things that are taboo.

There is a tendency to be very wary about offending people. These are barriers restraining story-telling and it sort of depletes our ability to be creative.

That said, this is our landscape, there’s no point moping and groaning about it. And I do think that if the right time comes, the right creatives can make a great ads in this very rojak (mixed) landscape. It might even become a strength.

Marketing: Does controversial content work in the local Singapore market?

Tong: You know, Singapore came out from this “straightjacket”, or supposedly “straightjacket”, background where things were censored or had to be vetted. There is a sort of "naughtiness" appeal when we hear about something getting banned or being controversial. We get very excited.

But I suspect this kind of curiousity about controversy is not unique to Singapore. I think it cuts across globally and is symptomatic of the online world. Because we are always hunting down the next eye-catching thing.

Marketing: Where do you think the local ads lack from a filmmaker’s perspective?

Tong: I think we lack a big enough domestic market. The kind of ads we shoot are very plain, very small and very practical. We call it "big big loud loud"; where your logo needs to be "big big" and your price tag is "loud loud".

Back when I started, almost 17 years ago, the big ads were given to Australian or foreign directors. Singaporean directors didn’t get the chance because our market was quite small and we didn't have enough local companies. Our film industry is still a very young industry, but we do have to start somewhere. And it is starting.

In recent years, advertisers are trying to promote their messages through a much softer narrative, so that actually has given a lot of filmmakers like myself room for creativity.

But Singapore still isn’t the marketplace where we have big brands like Nike or Adidas. I mean that’s a geopolitical fact that you just have to accept and move on.

Marketing: Is it tough to keep the content piece entertaining while being in line with the brand’s values?

Tong: It is, actually. I will be there first to say it, I’m a filmmaker, I’m all for subtlety, but there is a limit, because ultimately I think you need to be honest to yourself. I mean, what do you want out of the ad?

If you disguise an ad too much, there comes a point where the message is simply lost.

So I think that balance needs to be struck right, and sometimes clients are not able to achieve that balance. That’s when I think agencies are really helpful and can advise a lot.

That said, a lot of clients are changing. In the past you used to see agency folks outnumbering the clients. Now a lot of clients have in-house marketing team. Some even have their in-house content team that does editing and post-production. So I think the work is changing.

Marketing: How do you create great ads with limited budgets?

Tong: Emotional resonance has got no monopoly on price. I’ve seen a lot of big budget work that is emotionally hollow. Just because things have gone digital, doesn't mean we need to get are trapped within the 30-second frame or the 60-second frame. We’ve had some clients who will want to shoot a three minute film and then ask, “Oh, since it’s three minutes, could we  break it up to five 30 second spots?”

No, we can’t, it doesn’t work that way. You need to know what the budget is, what you want to achieve, and then try and do something honest and resonant within that budget.

But there is a saying:

The bigger the budget, the bigger the problems they have as well. It’s about more than just the money.

Marketing: Do call to action buttons take a hit on creativity and make consumer think there is an ulterior motive?

Tong: There is always an ulterior motive. We, as consumers, know nothing is for free. I think audiences are okay with that. What is more important, is the content before the call-to-action. If the spot is engaging, whether it makes you laugh or cry, the call-to-action doesn’t look offensive.

Marketing: What is a recent ad you have done?

Tong: I haven’t done many so I’m not one of the top commercial filmmakers. But last year, I did an ad for CPF. They wanted something nostalgic for SG50. So the ad showed how CPF helped a Singaporean from his very young days, getting married, buying a flat, and as he ages and everything.

It was a difficult ad to do, because the storytelling spans over 30 years and the budget wasn't huge. But we tried our best and shot it in a way where it wasn’t too much of a hard sell.

Marketing: Going forward, what kind of content do you hope to see in our ad industry?

Tong: More local specific content which is universally resonant. In the filmmaking world, there is still this question: Do we go into a very local style with a lot of Singlish and Hokkien words? Or do we work with the American media, import the American cast into Singapore and hope to sell to the world? I think for filmmakers that question is still undecided.