All in the family: Valerie Cheng and Farrokh Madon

Advertising is a tough business. There are plenty of long hours and people moves are rampant. But it is also an extremely tight-knit community. At times, your work mates almost feel like family. But wouldn't it be nice if you actually had someone at home who understood your business? Who was completely aware of the need for burning the midnight oil and of course the never ending networking sessions?

That's exactly why we started this column.

In Marketing's All in the family column, we talk to actual family members working in the world of marketing and advertising.

In this edition, we speak to ex-JWT chief creative officer Valerie Cheng, who recently moved to Facebook and Farrokh Madon, ex-Y&R chief creative officer. The two have been married for over five years and during this time, held leading roles at global agencies.

In a very candid interview with  Marketing, they share what living with another headstrong creative is like.

Marketing: How did you guys meet?

VC: We met in Thailand, at AdFest, probably seven or eight years ago. I was a judge and I was working with one of Farrokh’s ex colleagues. One evening, he told me to meet his ex boss (Farrokh). So I went down to the lobby and basically that’s how we met.

FM: The interesting thing we found out later was that neither of us wanted to meet the other person. But the mutual friend insisted on it. Valerie was thinking she didn’t want to come down and meet another ad person and I was thinking the same thing.

VC: No, I just didn’t want to meet another ad man. I just know that the guys are on the prowl. The girls always say that! And I was happy in my hotel room.



Marketing: What did you like about each other?

FM: Sometimes there is an indefinable spark and it just clicks. I guess that’s what people call the ‘X’ factor. Valerie just seemed very genuine. Usually, I am largely suspicious of a lot of people in the industry, since they aren't genuine. With her, what you see is what you get. I had a sixth sense that she was genuine and that’s what I liked. I guess partly that’s why I didn’t initially want to meet another ad person that night in Thailand - because I didn’t want another round of bullsh*t and trying to be pleasant around someone new.

VC: Yeah. I was pleasantly surprised that there was actually someone you could have a conversation with. It was so comfortable. Sometimes in this industry, you just feel like everyone is just trying to be nice and there are many superficial conversations. I can’t remember what we spoke about that night but definitely the conversation went on for quite some time.

FM: To the point where the other person who insisted on us meeting, had to go off somewhere!


Marketing: How do you guys maintain a work-life balance these days?

FM: Usually, I think we try not to talk about the ins and outs of what is happening at work and things that are confidential. But we do talk about horrible meetings or if we had a bad day. I guess you put so much of yourself in your work for nearly 12 hours a day, that you don’t want to bring too much of it back. Most of the time, you are already spending more time with those at work than each other. And if you bring that back home, then why are you married? You might as well just work together and get done with it.

VC: I mean conversations just happen between the two of us. I don’t know when, but probably on my way out of JWT, I started to realise that when you put in that much effort from Monday to Friday, you just want to make weekends a holy grail with no work. I never want to switch on my computer, I never want to check my mail - if possible. So, I think about a good year ago,  I really refrained from touching work on the weekends. I told myself everything can wait and realised, yes, everything can actually wait. It can. Once I just isolated the fact that weekends are purely for the family and the kids, I suddenly had so much of my life back.

Marketing: At one point, you were both holding top level creative roles which as we all know, can be extremely demanding. How did you find that balance?

FM: Of course initially, it’s a little bit harder to pull yourself out of that work mode. I think for the longest time, at least for me, the difference between work and time off was always as clear as black and white. When I’m not working, I’m totally switched off. But when I’m working, I’m putting 110% into it. If you’re forcing yourself to do things you don’t like, of course it is harder. We usually tried to make it a practice not to discuss details of work. Even more so, when it happens to be something that we are pitching for.

VC: I sometimes feel like I gave away my life in agencies. It really felt like that and if I had spare time, it was for my family. My life was the work. Farrokh knows that I worked ungodly hours on weekdays and even on the weekends. I was mentally not really fully at home.  My kids were very used to it. Especially my son. He grew up with me working mad hours. If you grow up seeing your mother like that, you never know another side of mom. But my daughter sees me much more and in fact, wants more time from me because she has had more time to experience with me.

FM: But like most women, Valerie is usually multitasking without you feeling that she’s multitasking. Men generally tend to have blinders on. You can tell that they’re doing one thing and that one thing only. So with her, it felt like we were doing a couple of things and it didn’t feel like we are short changed. But it wasn’t 110%. Then again, I am a very independent person, so it was fine that she did what she wanted to and I'd just find something else to do.


Marketing: How do you inspire each other creatively?

FM: I don’t think we constantly try to inspire each other. It is just personality and different perspectives that one brings to the relationship.

VC: When I see something beautiful or a wonderful piece of work, I usually can’t wait to share it with Farrokh. I do learn a lot from him and I do keep track of certain works because of him. When I come back from judging, I always tell him about the campaigns and it is just natural for us to share these things with each other.

Marketing: Who’s the more creative one?

VC: I think Farrokh is more creative.

FM: No two fingers are the same so it is interesting to get a different perspective. Because sometimes I can be more logical, sometimes Val can be more logical. So it just becomes something that just fits well. So, she’s just being kind saying that I’m more creative. It is not true really. But our creative styles are a good fit. When we talk about creativity we push each other and we are building on things. You feel like each one is getting something more out of it down the road.Val_Farrokh_2

 Marketing: Is there any way to define your creative styles?

VC: I always say I’m definitely more logical. I’m very driven by the strategy. I really strongly believe every great creative is driven by strong strategy. Then creative is just a matter of an execution that translates into strategy. So, I naturally have a huge concern about my clients and their objectives. I always start from what they’re trying to sell. And then for me, creativity is in executing it for them. Once you reach that strategic big idea, how you turn that flair on. But I always find Farrokh’s style more playful.

FM: I can say I’m fairly logical and strategic too. But for me, I like to push the execution to a limit that is surprising and uncomfortable.It is not just what is said but how you said it too. That has to be equally dramatic and surprising. The end product is ultimately how people react. So if you want to catch my attention, you have to be really surprising and fresh. Sometimes, you have to be risky. Of course, I would evaluate the risks in a logical manner but at least I want to find something interesting and out there. And then I try and get sensible about it. I don’t start with being sensible because then I find I can’t be very creative. So it is easier for me to pull myself back to reality rather than logically head into creativity.

That’s what I try and tell people at work. Even if it is illogical, it is okay. Come and talk to me, then let’s try and make sense of it, if there’s any sense in it. I find it very hard to be genuinely creative when I am very logical.

Marketing: Share with us one way you infused your creativity in your daily life.

VC: One way could be when we bought our house. It was quite amazing. Can you imagine, two creative people like us, with high standards of aesthetics and everything else, trying to look for a home? We went to so many house viewings. And the funny thing is, both of us, I guess because being creative is all so gut driven, knew the moment we stepped into a house we if we wanted it or not. The moment we went into this one house, we both just clicked.

FM: We are both very instinctive. We both know very quickly if it is not right. And when it was right, I had to pull her away because we didn’t want to say it in front of the sales person. So I pulled her aside and asked her if she liked it too and we talked about it. It was a short and sweet conversation since we both knew what we liked and didn’t like.

Marketing: Who is the bigger workaholic?

FM: I would never bring work with me on a holiday.

VC: I am clearly the bigger workaholic. I was working even on our honeymoon.

FM: And to make up for that, she tried to bribe me with another holiday at which she proceeded to work as well. Luckily, I brought a good book so I continued to read.

VC: I just had to tell him the terms of engagement. Like there will be times where I have to block out a few hours to clear my emails every day. I can’t switch off. No way. Even to the end of my JWT career, I couldn’t completely switch off. The whole agency is depending on you, you can’t switch off just like that.


Marketing: Are you guys competitive with each other?

VC: Actually I am. I told Farrokh in the beginning of the relationship, that I was competing with him. I was so serious about my work because it mattered so much. It mattered if I lost out to him. But gradually over time, there came a point where I no longer felt that I needed to compete with him. If anything I felt like I wanted to lose to him because it became a relationship where I wanted to see him succeed. His success would bring me more joy than mine. So I think it goes with the growth of relationship where after a while it is no longer about yourself and it is about the other person.

FM: I found her competitiveness quite funny because I am an extremely competitive person but I never felt that I needed to compete with her. So it was very strange because in normal circumstances she did not seem like a competitive person, but she was extremely competitive with me and I didn’t understand why. My approach was very simple - I just do my best. If you play, of course you want to win. But there is no added edge for me in winning over her. But if despite doing my best, if I had to lose, I would like to lose to her. So in a way, that’s like you running your race. You’re not looking around and seeing who’s running in the lane next to you and how they’re running.