2021 Creative LIAisons creative coach Baris Gencel on changes over his 20 years in China and the China Lunar Exploration Program

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2021 Creative LIAisons creative coach Baris Gencel on changes over his 20 years in China and the China Lunar Exploration Program

Creative LIAisons coach Baris Gencel is Creative Director for the China Lunar Exploration Program. He is an obsessively curious creative and brand consultant from Cyprus, who has been living in Asia for over 20 years and is currently based in Shanghai.


Baris is a rare hybrid creative talent who keeps reinventing himself as a result of working seamlessly within the different areas ranging from Art, Video Content, New Media, Social, Digital, Experiential. He also judged a wide range of categories for The Drum Experiential Advertising Awards, ADFEST Digital / Mobile / Lotus Campaign Effectiveness / Lotus Branded Entertainment Content, and International Film Festival.

Baris, who this year has given time to LIA as a Creative Coach, will be kicking off our Creative LIAisons Virtual Speaker series with this very timely topic – ‘The Power of Visual Communication in a Digital Age.’ As a top creative person who has blurred the lines and worked seamlessly across different areas and channels, Baris will definitely inspire and open the minds of the next generation of creative people.

Barbara Levy, President of LIA, said: “In today’s digital landscape, visual communication is very important for brands that want to establish trust and emotionally engage their consumers. People love with their eyes. Visuals etch themselves in people’s minds to make lasting impressions, stirring emotions and desires. In short, they encourage dialogue between the brand and consumers. Baris Gencel with his vast experience in branding, immersive experiences and deep passion for digital art has done that. He has raised the creative bar several notches higher through his work.”

We got to spend some virtual time with Baris and discussed a wide range of topics.

You graduated from Eastern Mediterranean University with a degree from the faculty of Business and Economics, Department of International Relations. How did you discover your passion for digital art and new technologies? What was the ‘aha’ moment?

Baris: Yes, that’s true, but in the last two years of my university studies I selected all courses on branding and marketing.

Since my primary school I have been doing art. I kept getting punished for drawing during math class. When I was growing up, my parents never thought to put me in art school, which looking back would have been the right educational fit.

Growing up and loving art was difficult. It wasn’t until I was 17 years old that I went to see a psychologist. I thought I was abnormal as I did not seem to fit in with any group of friends, was seen as weird and did not fit into society. I just wasn’t like them. The psychologist said I was fine. I was just creative and looked at the world in a different way.

I had wanted to go to art school. My family, however, said there was no money in art and to try social sciences, which is why I got the degree I did. My career began on the business and marketing side. It wasn’t until later that I started creating my own brand. I began to get offers and that’s what pushed me into the creative field later on.

Although you are from Eastern Mediterranean, you ended up in Asia. Can you tell us your journey from your homeland to the Far East and finally to China?

Baris: While I was studying in University, with a couple of classmates we opened the branch of the AIESEC; AIESEC is an international youth-run, non-governmental and not-for-profit organization that provides young people with leadership development, cross-cultural internships, and global volunteer exchange experiences. I hosted Japanese interns one summer of 1998; I fell in love with the Japanese culture and from that point of time I told myself I must take an internship in the far east, so I started my career as an exchange student in Hong Kong with AIESEC HKBU in a Swiss pharmaceutical company, working as a marketing intern.

I had come from Cyprus and was used to big houses. Then I got to Hong Kong where spaces are small. You walk the streets and it smells of soy sauce. Honestly I experienced culture shock; it took a bit of adjusting. It was my mother who encouraged me to stay on after my 6-month internship was over. Within a year, I fell in love with Hong Kong and ended up staying in Asia. Since then, I have worked in Singapore, Mainland China, Hong Kong and back to China.

I was working in a digital agency in Hong Kong, later bought by WPP group, as Head of Art. My client was Tommy Hilfiger and they offered me a job in Mainland China to start their social media campaign plus creating O2O the flagship store in Beijing back to 2014. That’s how I ended up there. At the same time, another client in China wanted me to do another project in a media lab with new technologies and immersive spaces, it was very interesting that while I was briefing media lab for the pitch, the boss offered me a full time job. So that really convinced me to stay in China.

When you go to another country, you gain different perspectives from which comes wisdom and understanding. I think it is very important for personal development, but also very important for humanity to live with harmony and understanding of what the world is about.

What were your biggest obstacles when it came to marketing branding in the Chinese digital ecosystem and how did you overcome it?

Baris: In China, I do not use the term ‘e-commerce’ or digital anymore. It is all ‘commerce,’ because the digital ecosystem is much bigger in China than in any other market. The digital ecosystem is a living organism that is ever evolving. It is inspiring (or forcing) brick-and-mortar commerce to adapt, change for the better, and deliver improved experiences. China is shaping the future of new commerce, new retail and new marketing in a digital world. Mobile purchases are happening at any time and at any moment of our lives. There is full freedom in the form of options. Living and shopping are also blended very tightly, as consumers are shopping 24/7. The digital ecosystem in China has never been a challenge to me. China is not changing the marketing, as we know it. The local talents, however, are. Their culture, mindset and education are totally different. It was very difficult to understand and it was a big challenge to work with the talent there. Skills and talent are no problem, but curiosity, passion and taste appeared behind the times. That was the biggest hurdle, but again challenges make us better and strong. We have to remember that branding and advertising are here for something new. So in terms of craft they are still learning, but they are learning fast, look at the acceleration of innovation, mobile, digital innovations. It is mind blowing in such a short time this place is now leading the world. I think in our industry it is the best place to be, China “an amazing, life-changing experience”.

The second hurdle in my career was to convince international clients that it is different here. If you want to be successful as a brand in China, you have to do it in the way this market works. Most of the overseas brands struggle to understand that the western playbook does not work in China, but clients have recently started to understand that the Chinese market is totally different and requires a totally different marketing approach.

The key, I believe, is that you don’t have to speak Chinese. It’s about understanding the market, it is all about knowledge and it comes with experience.

Your love for nature was clearly seen in your work Amoris Lumina – the love story of nature told through interaction, art installation and technology. What inspired you to create “an environment to be explored so visitors could be part of the story.” What innovative, custom-designed technology did you use to make the experience more immersive?

Baris: This project was six years ago when these kinds of works were not very well known. It was new for everyone on the team. Art installations and immersive spaces had never gone beyond just the beauty. I wanted to bring story, inspire people and go beyond beauty; to immerse people and let them enjoy the space, but still have them take something away.

We built custom-made technologies in house. We used Kinect sensor cameras, which were quite popular, as well as breath sensors, face recognition and gesture recognition technology to make the experience more immersive.

We also collaborated with Disney education, creating coloring books with AR (Augmented Reality).

It has been said that “new retail has to focus on the experiential. Spaces are not trying to sell you anything but let you see, hear and experience all the brand has to offer.” Do those words still hold true with e-commerce being so prevalent and people social distancing? How would you work through these issues and still make retail novel and experiential?

Baris: Give your audiences something that they can’t experience at home. Stimulate their senses, connect with their emotions, and offer an experience that goes way beyond a simple transaction. Consumers will only venture out if you can offer them an inspiring experience that goes far beyond the transaction. I can easily get any product online. That means physical stores need to do more than just sell products. That’s why stores should sell experiences. This means they have to give me an experience, make me really understand about their branding, use their physical assets to get me engaged with the stores in their physical space.

You need to Show, Don’t Sell. Use your store as media! Use your physical space to engage consumers. Shift your focus from being transactional to being relational and experiential. Physical spaces need to step away from being places of pure transactions, to places of pure experiences. This will build relationships and drive brand loyalty. I spoke to a CMO years ago and he said they opened a flagship store that was not going to sell anything. I asked why. His answer: “people can buy my products anywhere. What I want is for people to come here, be a part of the community, understand what I stand for and how the product works.” It is very important to create and build communities. This is where the future of retail needs to stand – do something in the store to engage and immerse people; something people can’t get online.

Take the recent Burberry and Cartier studios in China. When you walk in you don’t feel like you are in a store. You have tea houses, hands-on games, and you can see and touch the products. If physical retail wants to change the mindset of the 21st century consumers they can’t just keep stock and sell products. They have to act as a place that provides an experience where they can educate and create engagement with the customers.

Innovation Must Be Seamless. Advancements in AI and image recognition technology are allowing retailers to experiment with ‘in-store GPS’ systems, where customers can use mobile apps to guide themselves around a store quickly, finding the product they’re looking for at speed. *Find innovative ways to utilize your store, extend the reach far beyond the shop floor, and be connected with a seamlessly integrated experience. Customer experience and service are vital. While we need to use technology seamlessly, we also need to bring top-notch customer service across all the touch-points from packaging to the online – offline store experience. Another example is when L’oreal created an in-store simulation and digital experience. From the moment you enter the store you have digital mirrors scanning your face and analyzing your skin. It shows what the problems are, prints out a card you can carry and share online. You go to a digital table and they recommend products, which you can read about based on the scan. Then you interact with another device and they give you free samples to try. To make it really fun, there’s a photo TikTok station where you can hold the products you are trying, change the background to different streets or whatever. They take your data and later, based on your skin analysis, send you a list of new products or recommend products that fit your skin type and assessment, etc.

You are now Creative Director for the China Lunar Exploration Program. That’s very exciting. Can you tell us how you managed to be part of the program and what your duties entail?

Baris: When I first entered this role, I was a little scared due to the thought of having limitations working for a government agency. So far it is going very well. I have full creative and professional freedom to help them do what is right for branding and building campaign strategies.

I look at overall branding – how they dress up, merchandise development, how the website will be set up, etc. I also work with their marketing team on campaign creations, strategies and events, etc.

We cover the Mars program and the Lunar exploration program, marketing and education. This also involves young adults’ science, mainly teaching about the cosmos.

We are working with some of the biggest global brands at the moment. I cannot disclose the name, because we have not officially announced it. One of the brands will be a partner in running the program and crossing over with their product in upcoming programs.

All programs are targeting ages 11 all the way to 35/40.

Can you share some examples of work you have done for the Lunar Exploration Program?

Baris: I’ve only been working there a couple months. I have mainly spent time on rebranding everything. I created a couple of IPs under registration and working on the animations at the moment. This is for the China Lunar Exploration Program with cute characters. I am also working 6 episodes for Netflix. Plans include a series of events for next year – a concert and fashion show involving astronauts. We need to bring Mars to public in an immersive way with new technology. It will be very interesting. It will be online, too.

Another thing I am pleased to be working on for the past 3 months is a film and experience center/theme park. For the first time in my life I am working on a feature film as a film director. It is an adaptation of a story of the famous Chinese science fiction writer, Liu Cixin. He is the only Asian to win a Hugo Award. I am working on his book, to be adapted into a 90-minute animation movie that will be running in the cinemas. This came to me by chance and I felt like I was in Nirvana when I had been selected for it. Then this theme park for the same writer came up and they had seen my background full of expertise to build experience centers. I’ve been happy in my career previously, but when you do branded campaigns you have limitations. You have a brand, which comes with certain limitations, limited space, borders and so on, but with a feature film and sci fi you are creating planets, cities, things that never or don’t exist. There is no limit. That is amazing and makes me feel so fulfilled! Very happy.

Working on contract with the Chinese space agency gives me the luxury of time privileges.

What do you see as the next big wave in new digital technology?

Baris: I think the problem is that everyone in the industry is going for the next big wave. People think that everything from cave paintings, printing, cinema, television to social media, and so on is a medium. They are not.

The medium is the human. What we and clients are missing is the human aspect. Example, an I-Phone does not open by itself. We are forgetting that we are still targeting humans.

I believe the next thing is the age of mixed reality. The pandemic has moved a lot of events into virtual event spaces. I think the future will be more in that area. However, the physical will not disappear. It will be more a blending of virtual and physical together, with mobile phones and other devices doing more complex and sophisticated things. AI (Artificial Intelligence) is coming fast. A bit scary. What is the next thing? I really don’t know. We will have lots of new technologies coming in, but very limited people will be using those in the right way to bring sales or return on investment.

An example is working with a brand, doing something for the sake of technology that has nothing to do with the brand idea. It is exciting, but difficult as agencies are up to speed with technology, but not clients. Data, marketing and creative need to work together, perhaps under the marketing team. Existing structures in organizations are not able to cope with the speed of technology. IT departments are still working like they did 20 years ago.

Warren Buffet once said, “Temperament is more important that IQ.” Do you believe that? Or do you think that creativity is the most valuable asset, even more important that temperament?

Baris: Both are very important. Creativity is attitude towards life, it is not a occupation, it is preoccupation. Business also needs creativity. Creativity is not just limited to art. Elon musk is a creative person.

I find it an issue when we discuss creative things with only the creative team. I always like to pull in the account managers, the planners, etc. to share and listen ideas.

What is the biggest lesson you have learnt from working with the Chinese in China?

Baris: Well, I am still learning, trying. As a Mediterranean hot blooded passionate guy I am very straightforward, direct and expressive. This causes challenges; so I have learnt how to hide emotions, deal with the politics. It’s my biggest challenge, because culturally in Asia especially Japanese and Chinese, they don’t tell you anything to your face and just smile. But there is something happening behind that smile. Also, I think it is very important to the Chinese not to lose face in front of others, so they have to be careful when they say something to someone in front of others.

You say you are, “burning with fire to inspire and nurture young talent.” As a speaker on the Creative LIAisons program this September, what do you think is the best way to inspire young creatives?

Baris: The best way for young creatives to be inspired is if they have curiosity and passion. As long as they have that then they can be inspired. Love what you do. I “don’t have Mondays”. I am burning to go into the office every Monday.

Be passionate, be curious, dream big. Everyone talks about this, but the problem is you cannot force someone to be curious or open minded or passionate. That comes from inside. You cannot keep pushing talent to make them passionate. Nor can you teach passion. You can just nurture them.

Ogilvy used to have a master class every Wednesday where Graham Fink brought this culture. In my previous jobs and after Ogilvy I would hold sharing sessions – best practices, encouraging people to go out on weekends, take some photos, look at something and bring it into the office and share it or find some best-case studies on the internet. However, if the person is really not interested then they will not get it.

If there is no input, there is no output.

You can be the most creative, most talented, skillful person, but if there is no constant input, you cannot come up with new ways of thinking or doing things. You have to be a life-long learner and if you go looking in the same place for inspiration as everybody else, you will find your work quickly resembles theirs. Go and see how flowers are blooming, look at window displays, look at people’s faces. Belief is important; believe you are talented and very creative. But if there is no input there is no output. In this age, there’s no excuse for ignorance. Everything is at our fingerprints. Want to find or learn something? Go to Google. When you are constantly learning and looking at things you come up with different or better ideas.

Second – comfort zone is poison. I always push myself to do something new – in different industries or areas of interest. Young talent has to have the attitude to start as a new beginner. This is not just for young talent, but applies to all. Be a beginner. You need interest, curiosity and passion to do that.

Another advice is to get out of where you are. It can be your office, city or country. This will give you a different perspective. Try to go into different industries, experience different ways of working. “Jack of all trades, master of none is total tosh” as Graham says. I believe in today’s world we have no luxury of just knowing or mastering one thing. Sometimes it is hard for me to fit in, because I am a bit of everything. But that also gives me a lot of skills and a wide variety of solutions, because I have experienced diverse backgrounds and have worked with diverse people. It has brought a lot of value into my life.

Finally, you need to surround yourself with people better than yourself, do not be the smartest person in the room. Go meet people from different walks of life who are better than you. Get engaged. Build your network with different people better than you. Keep someone next to you who is better than you. That’s important. Our circles define and push you. Once my team asked me why I was resigning from my job; I asked my team if they wanted to be the smartest person in the room. Everyone said yes. I said I don’t, so that was the reason.

You’re certainly very passionate about creativity. What else have you fallen in love with?

Baris: I am in love with life and nature, we are living in an amazing world, so much to learn, so much to try, taste, see, engage. I am obsessively curious and became like an intellectual tourist. Limited knowledge and interests create a limited life. If you want to expand your life, you must be hungry, curious, which will expand your references by pursuing knowledge, hobbies, trying and learning constantly new things, and all these will make your life much more interesting and eventually will make you an interesting person.

I have a cat named Nana, I am in love with her. It is like a magical box, everyday I am discovering new things about cats, and 4 years I am still learning and gaining inspiration from her a lot. She is proving to me how creativity depends on visual observation ability and curiosity, as cats are master of these. She taught me true communication is not about language, but it is about paying attention, constant observation.

So I have always been inspired by nature. But after adopting her, I fell in love with all cats and all other animals. Despite the fact that I don’t speak cat, we absolutely understand each other.


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