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Creative Catch-Up: Edelman HK's John Koay

Creative Catch-Up: Edelman HK's John Koay

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“The biggest shift in creativity is the way we do things,” says John Koay (pictured), regional executive creative director, Edelman Hong Kong, who fell in love with the ad culture during his time as an intern at an ad agency in New Zealand.

With over 18 years of experience that started in New Zealand, Australia and now Hong Kong, Koay has transformed brands with creative impact and business growth such as KFC, Pizza Hut, Nike, Toyota, Panasonic, Nestle brands, Johnson & Johnson and Heineken, amongst others. 

As a creative veteran, Koay believes simplicity is key when it comes to executing a great and compelling campaign. His favourite piece of advertising in recent years was the film for Apple HomePod – ‘Welcome Home’ by Spike Jonze. 

Find out more about Koay's journey in creative thus far and who inspires him. 

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Tell us a little bit about your role:

My primary role here at Edelman is to kick start and develop a creative culture at the world’s biggest PR agency. Coming from an advertising background, I’m interested in experimenting outside of the traditional creative model with a diverse mix of disciplines to create earned-centric work for our growing list of clients. 

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: How long have you been with the agency?

I’ve been with Edelman since the start of 2022. And what a fun ride it’s been so far. Prior to this gig, I was at Ogilvy Hong Kong for nearly nine years, and before that I was working at JWT, The Campaign Palace, Saatchi & Saatchi and ColensoBBDO in Australia and my home country, New Zealand.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: How did you stumble into this industry?

Well, I kind of owe it to my university lecturer. I was studying for a degree in graphic design and we had to do an internship in our final year. Instead of being placed in a design agency, I was sent to an ad agency.

I didn’t understand it at the time but he said I’d fit in better. I immediately fell in love with the energetic ad culture and the opportunity to work on TVCs, crazy stunts, and funny pranks- I was sold. I also used to be an actor or talent for commercials many moons ago so I got to meet a few people in the industry. I hope no one ever finds them. Ever.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What was your first impression of the advertising industry?

Scary but fun. Starting out in New Zealand was tough because the bar was and still is, very high. Getting an internship was hard, I remember having to do the "300 ideas in one week" test. If you couldn’t do it in time, you had lost your chance for an interview. And once you got an internship, you had to win an award before you were offered a full-time position.

But once you got in, you got the chance to work with the creative superstars. I was lucky to have people such as Toby Talbot, Mike O’Sullivan, Tim Huse, Natalie Knight, Dave Bowman and Damon O’leary give me a break into the industry.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Creatively, what do you feel has been the biggest shift?

I think the biggest shift in creativity is the way we do things. Technology has helped us to do things more easily and efficiently. For example, mocking things up in Midjourney has saved me countless hours with my embarrassing Photoshop skills. But I think what we do is essentially the same.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What’s the most frustrating thing about being a creative?

I think one of the most frustrating things for a creative is seeing a great idea get murdered in a presentation, but then seeing it made by the client several months later. I’ve seen a colleague watch a director's showreel and shout “What? That’s my exact script from three months ago!” I think creativity needs to be respected and credited. We never took any job prospects from that client ever again.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Proudest moment in your career?

My proudest but also most meaningful moment was when someone from the US contacted me to tell me what she had started, because of something I said. I used to do talks to university students on creativity and ways we could use it to help people rather than just sell stuff.

One day I received a message and this person said she remembered my talk and as a result, she founded a creative school for children with special needs. She said her students are so talented and most importantly, happy. I was speechless, at how she was able to take a fragment of what I said and turn it into something much more meaningful with purpose. Certainly beats any business or award wins.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What is one career mistake you won’t forget?

Not setting boundaries when I was younger. I used to think of working 24/7 and giving up personal time, and family time as signs of being a solid creative. I was wrong. One day I was so exhausted I ended up in the hospital with heart issues and the doctor said I could either keep on making ads or keep my life. Luckily the stubborn and naive younger me listened to him. Nowadays I make sure there’s a healthy balance.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Mentor you look up to most?

Aside from the default answers like mum and dad, one of them would have to be my old boss Reed Collins. As a scrappy young art director, I worked with him in Sydney and then followed him to Hong Kong where he shaped me into the ECD I am today. 

We made some crazy work – set a house on fire, waited for three hours for a tapir to poop for the perfect shot and made explosions with fried chicken. 

He always saw an opportunity with everything in a fun mischievous way. And he had impossibly high standards.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What is your favourite piece of advertising?

My favourite piece of advertising in recent years would be the film for Apple HomePod – "Welcome Home" by Spike Jonze. The film is like a creative love letter, with amazing cinematography, choreography and meticulously crafted. If you watch the behind-the-scenes video the moving set design was mind-blowing. A true masterpiece.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What do you dislike most in an ad?

Ads that try to do too many things at once, that in the end, I end up asking what did I just watch or experience. Brands need to remember it’s best to keep it simple.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What is your dream brand to work with?

I don’t really have a dream brand to work with. I have dream clients, the ones that want to partner together and do some brave work that gets attention for their brands on the world stage. I’ve been lucky enough to come across some of these dream clients over the past few years, who are now close friends. 

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: How do you get inspired when you aren’t?

A lot of people know when I’m in ‘In need of inspiration mode’ because they can hear me laughing by myself in the corner. I’ll usually watch funny, crazy, useless things on YouTube that make no sense at all. But after a while, I’ll somehow connect the dots and come up with an idea from watching elephants listening to a piano performance in the jungle.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What is your ritual/superstition before a big pitch?

I’ve heard a lot of different ones in the industry and some of them are very strange. I’m pretty easy: I wear my lucky watch and my pair of lucky underwear haha!

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What makes the difference between average ads and mind-blowing creativity?

Average ads just show you information. The mind-blowing stuff tells you a story, unlike anything you’ve seen or experienced before. Look at the most awarded pieces of work, they tell stories in original, innovative and memorable ways. As an industry, we must keep on pushing the envelope to rise to the challenge and make better work, together.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What does your family think you do?

Well, my wife is a CD at Ogilvy Hong Kong and my brother is an ACD at DDB Sydney so they certainly know what I do. My parents on the other hand think I just look out the window and draw stuff. Which isn’t all wrong I guess…

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: If you weren’t a creative, what would you be?

I think I’d probably be a great car salesman. I love cars. I love driving. I’d be really bad at the maths part though. 

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What is your guilty pleasure that you’ve kept hidden from the industry?

That would have to be midnight gaming. After work, I’m either fighting online on Mortal Kombat 11, dropping red shells on Mario Kart or trying not to die on Star Wars Battlefront 2. I’m a geek at heart.

Join us this coming 26 June for Content360 Hong Kong, a one-day-two-streams extravaganza under the theme of "Content that captivates". Get together with our fellow marketers to learn about AI in content creation, integration of content with commerce and cross-border targeting, and find the recipe for success within the content marketing world!

Related articles:

Creative Catch-Up: dentsu HK's Jeffry Gamble
Creative Catch-Up: Havas Group HK's Kenneth Tung

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