Malaysia: Bigger creative challenges than satisfying the client’s tea lady

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Malaysia: Bigger creative challenges than satisfying the client’s tea lady

Grenville I Francis reports on how the advent of Covid-19 has challenged the creative processes and changed the game in Malaysia.


Once upon a time in Malaysia, an ad agency’s creative product was subjected to the whims and fancies of all and sundry in Clientville. What did the client’s wife or husband think about the campaign? How did the neighbours feel about it? Did the little aunty who made the boss man’s tea ‘get it’?

The advent of COVID-19 issues a whole new set of challenges, with many trials and tribulations to leave a somewhat sour taste in one’s teh tarik. But chatting with several creative leaders in Malaysia tells us a spoon full of ingenuity helps the tea go down. With the most delightful and resourceful ways the agencies have adapted to the new normal.

The new, flexible normal where working from home has more entries in the time sheet than working in the office; with Zoom, Google Meet, Jamboard and other collaboration tools being the platforms to do what used to be done face-to-face. The whole creative process – from briefing to ideation to viewing to reviewing to presenting to producing – internally and externally – is now conducted virtually.

“The pandemic has accelerated our ability to collaborate remotely and opened the minds of even the biggest sceptics who might’ve not thought that flexible working arrangements were practical,” says Emir Shafri (pictured below right), Executive Creative Director of Publicis Malaysia.

Alvin Teoh, Chief Creative Officer of Naga DDB Tribal believes the new agency life post pandemic will be a mixture of working at home, working in the office and working from anywhere and everywhere.

“People will have options – to see your friends, to feel the buzz of human connections, to feed off the energy from others so critical in ideation, and then to be at home, to spend time with the family, the dog, the plants and to work naked if that’s your thing,” Teoh adds.

A point of view Graham Drew (pictured below left), Grey Group’s Chief Creative Officer shares: “It’s forced us all to realise what’s really valuable and I don’t think any of us will ever return to how it was. It’s shown us that we can all spend more time at home, more time with family and still get the job done.”

Malaysia: Bigger creative challenges than satisfying the client’s tea lady

The industry has certainly changed, according to Woei Hern (pictured below left), Executive Creative Director of VMLY&R Commerce Malaysia and Southeast Asia. “We’ve seen a lot of resilience from clients, brands and industry people, simply by having a job and skillsets that allow most of us to work from anywhere.”

“That’s not discounting the effects of mental and physical health that advertising already faced even before the lockdown[s] of course.”

Coronavirus has taken its toll and all agree its impact on the mental wellbeing of the people prevails over even the greatest desire for a D&AD Black Pencil, Cannes Grand Prix or One Show Gold. (Although they still try their darndest to get their hands on these.)

Shafri observes a rise in depression and other mental health disorders ever since the start of the pandemic, particularly amongst the young. “We could attribute this strain on our mental health on how the lines between work and home has blurred, how we’re never disconnected from virtual meetings and e-mails, or the additional pressure this climate of uncertainty has put on our clients, production partners and us, now that we’re working from home.”

Teoh (pictured below right) says there is a feeling of loss and confusion, of isolation and longing, futility and boredom, even low-self-esteem as people question what they are doing after a prolonged period of working from home. “There is no day, no night, no weekday, no weekend, no separation from housework and agency work, no freedom as we are almost chained to our workstations and it’s a Groundhog Day every day.”

Malaysia: Bigger creative challenges than satisfying the client’s tea lady

As a result, agencies are focusing on the mental health of employees. Publicis for example provides a free and confidential counselling service with an external provider 24/7 together with talks and discussions around coping with anxiety and stress.

Naga’s senior staff checks in on the more junior ones, with one-on-one sessions and help in whatever form within their capabilities. These personal catchups can last up to three hours per person per night. Also, groups schedule time for social meetups and jump on shared digital spaces to hang-out.

VMLY&R Commerce has a buddy system and a mental health programme. The most recent being a virtual sound healing workshop that was so well received, it was then deployed regionally.

All agreed that digital platforms will continue to be the preferred choice for marketers, given consumers are spending even more time online engaging and transacting with products, services, and brands.

Even when it comes to traditional in-home formats, such as television, consumers are opting for streaming services such as Netflix instead. Furthermore, they’re doing so twice as much as last year.

COVID has forced digital to grow up rapidly says Wong Shu Kor, Creative Director of a local agency. “The normal way of working in the advertising industry [has] gone digital overnight.”

Drew believes the flight to digital in the absence of the physical has resulted in the growth of digital capabilities – to help clients pivot wherever possible. “This has accelerated an upskilling that urgently needed to happen anyway,” he says.

When it comes to the production of video and audio content, innovation turns restrictions from foe to friend. Where audio is recorded on the phone; and talent become DOPs and work behind the camera as well as in front of it, with DIY workshops and taking direction via Zoom or Google Meet.

Shu Kor also believes uncomplicated ideas and simple executions work the best; whilst Woei Hern says it’s pretty inspiring looking at the resourcefulness of brands and agencies when it comes to executing. “It’s definitely forcing us to be creative at being creative.”

Creativity in coping in drops in revenue and the effect on staffing levels as well. Thank goodness the agencies spoken to looked after their staff during the height of the coronavirus with top management taking the bulk of pay cuts and those leaving not being replaced, thus saving people’s jobs.

Shafri said: “The pandemic made the industry realise the importance of putting people before profit.”

So what does the future hold for Malaysia’s advertising industry?

Teoh says it’s a time of change and uncertainty but also one of adaptability and new opportunities; with Woei Hern acknowledging the shift of start-ups, e-commerce and other brands to in-house creative offerings.

Shu Kor agrees change is here and it’s time to move on and find a way to live with the new normal. The new, flexible normal which may or may not include the tea aunty – this time ‘getting it’ or ‘not getting it’ via Zoom or Google Meet.

Malaysia: Bigger creative challenges than satisfying the client’s tea lady