Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

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Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

Chris Kyme continues his “Postcard from Hong Kong” series and this month his topic is what makes a good creative director? …..


It’s August, and Hong Kong is all hot and very very bothered, and England are about to make an amazing comeback against those upstarts from down under at the Ashes. But enough about that. Let’s talk about creative directors.

Just recently more than one person has come to me to pick my brain about talent. In particular, looking for ‘top creative directors’ in Hong Kong who might be interested in a move.

The word senior was also used, but not as senior as me (when you get to my stage, senior takes on new meaning and also qualifies you for discount at the cinema).

So I get it, what they are looking for. The problem was, unlike say 15-20 years ago, I couldn’t think of anyone, at least with a local background in this market. I mean, I know who some of the top players are, they’re pretty well known. But not those who might be under the radar a bit.

Partly because I’m probably out of touch. The best of the locally raised creative generation I grew up with here have all kind of moved on, or, are in very firm top jobs already.

Not because there isn’t some good talent out there, there must be. But no-one I could think of who is making a name for themselves at that level.

Which got me thinking about what it is that qualifies someone for that job.

Just being a more senior person in a creative department who has been up and down on stage a few times at the award shows is not credentials enough.

People who really qualify for and are ready for the job, need more strings to their bow than just that. Naturally your own body of work and experience should already be up to scratch or you would not be considered for the job.

(I say should be, I’ve come across enough people with the title who it might be said that that’s not the case. They just happen to have got the title. Everyone’s a creative director these days.)

Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

I always think that you’re only as good as the people who beat you up when you were younger. Made you sweat a bit. Taught you the ropes.

Growing up in a London agency, I’d worked under the fearmongers, who’d screw up your ideas and throw them on the floor if they weren’t up to scratch. And the gentle advisors, who would calmly explain why what you had was not good enough, and what you might want to be thinking about.

I learned from both.

I also learned from good managers, who taught me how to be one. How to delegate. Take pride in the work of others. How to look at the bigger picture. And earn respect from clients. (Thanks in particular to Ben Barnes, Leonie Ki and Bhaskar Rao.)

I’m always a tad proud to say that there are people out there in Asia doing well at top level who have passed under my guidance during their careers (mostly they’ve done better after working with me..dunno what that says).

Let me think…Carol Lam, Tony Hon, Ng Fan, Sylvester Song, Man Chung, Jeffry Gamble, Richard Tunbridge, Robert Gaxiola, Eric Yeo, Chow Kok Keong. I can probably say that at some point I’ve helped them along the way, even if it was how to blurt out rib-ticklingly hilarious gags on cue anytime anywhere.

They’ve all proven themselves to have the qualities it takes to lead others. And the guidance they got when they were younger probably helped shape that.

I almost think there should be a school for creative directors, in which you would learn about leadership:

– How to set and maintain high standards. How to get better work out of people. Is it the carrot or the stick?

– People management: how to motivate, how to get the best out of people, how to grow and nurture talent (and stop them from leaving). How to inspire. How to cope with conflict and ups and downs.

– Strategy: developing the creative brief so that your very talented people can do something with it. Working with planners (half creative half suit) to lead to something great, based on insights or research.

– Client management: selling in ideas. If your whole reputation has been built on winning awards with scam ads, you probably can’t handle this. It takes skill, patience, trust and perseverance to get great ideas through. It’s not just about asking permission to ‘run it’ and “would you please sign here”. And the work you’ll be pushing through day to day will not necessarily be what you ideally would like it to be. You have to live with that.

– Money management: managing a creative budget, hiring the right people for the right price. Knowing ideas you’re presenting are affordable and within budget. All of that.

– Business leadership: the best leaders are doers who lead by example, so that’s a start. But you need to grow in this area and be able to hold your own with the best. In the grown up world you can’t just throw your toys out of the playpen every time you don’t get your own way.

I recall someone who was working at Saatchi & Saatchi Singapore when David Droga came in as the ECD (or CCO or whatever). He got everyone in the creative department together and asked them to name the most difficult clients to work on. Once informed, he told them “Right, I’ll directly tackle those, and you guys will do the rest”.


So thinking about these qualifications, I came back to the questions I was being asked, and had to rack my brains a bit. I did want to help. I always like pairing good people I know with good opportunities.

Maybe I should start a headhunting firm, or a school for creative directors. Then I could help those people who keep coming to pick my brain.

Chris Kyme is Co-founder and Creative Director at Kymechow, Hong Kong.