CB Asia Q&A: A cup of tea with recently retired agency founder Andrew Lok

| | No Comments
CB Asia Q&A: A cup of tea with recently retired agency founder Andrew Lok

Campaign Brief Asia speaks to Andrew Lok, co-founder of CIVILIZATION Shanghai, one of China’s most successful independent advertising agencies. Lok quietly signalled his retirement from agency life midnight April 30th, after almost 30 years on the job, of which 20 years and one month were spent in China working on brands such as Zhujiang Beer, Converse, Motorola, FedEx, Tiffany & Co., Wrigley’s, Jack Daniel’s and many more.


However, he is best known for his work on a slew of PepsiCo brands during his time as a creative director at BBDO China up to his final year at CIVILIZATION Shanghai, as well as his campaigns for China’s leading food and beverage conglomerate, Master Kong.

20 years and one month? Why the one month?
It was China’s final gift to me actually.

I arrived in Guangzhou on April 1st, 2004, as ECD of Ogilvy Southern China, and I wanted to drop the mike on the same day in 2024. Then I got a call from Alex Xie, CIVILIZATION’s co-founder, who said Master Kong’s head of marketing requested an encore, for me to direct two films in April about China’s tea craftsmen.

So there I was, mid-April, perched on Lancang Mountain in Pu’er, Yunnan, a source of tributaries that feed the Upper Mekong River, waiting for sunrise so we could film tea farmers as they start their day. This was after we had wrapped a shoot of another clan of tea farmers practicing their ancient craft in Anxi County in Fujian, a stone’s throw from where my father was born and spent his childhood. As the sun rose and flooded the terraced tea plantations with amber and vermillion, I told myself silently, yes, this is exactly where and when my advertising agency career in China should end.

Do you have a favourite piece of work from your two decades in China?
I suppose most parents lie when they say they don’t have a favourite child. Two of my kids that made the biggest splash were Wrigley’s “Petrol Station” and Pepsi’s “Monkey King Family”, commissioned by Clarence Mak and Danielle Jin respectively; they’re clients with courage and have excellent taste. These campaigns really moved the needle.

But if I had to choose, it would be the music video of a song I wrote for Pepsi’s 36th anniversary in China, commissioned by Lilly Yip. It was my billet-doux to the youthful energy and boundless optimism of Chinese consumers from the ‘80s up to the immediate pre-COVID period. It seems to belong to another universe now, doesn’t it?

Has Chinese creativity in advertising changed a lot post-pandemic and in light of growing geopolitical tension?
Well, I’m sure you’ve all read the trade news that says the tone and manner of mass communication here has gravitated towards being more insular and parochial, as well as towards cultural chauvinism and nostalgia. But as long as the insights behind the ideas and concepts are universal and relevant to timeless human desires, does it matter that it comes packaged in narratives and executions and language nuances that are very Chinese and are irrelevant to foreign audiences and advertising award juries?

You mean Chinese campaigns now are less likely to win awards?
I mean Chinese campaigns are now less likely to be tailored to win awards. Oddly enough, this makes winning more valuable. The past few years have seen clients requesting for work to be submitted for awards, as well as paying for producing the case study videos and even the submission fees. Meanwhile, the truly stellar creative people demonstrate their bonafides by starting side hustles like vintage boutiques or motorcycle customisation garages or ice cream parlours, and then gather fame through social media “likes”, “comments” and subscribers. I think that’s the kind of creative nous that agencies and clients in China are looking now, and not just a piece of metal from Cannes.

That seems like a generational thing. I’ve also noticed that in other markets.
Yes, Gen Z in developed countries have instant access to infinite information and inexpensive creative tools; and the platforms to be be their amplifiers. And advertising agencies have to embrace that and not stick to our old ways of inspiring and drawing out good work from our young creative people. That’s why I’m more than happy to yield the stage and spotlight for whoever comes next.

For the benefit of these young creative people, could you give up a brief recap of your corporate career before entrepreneurship?
I started agency life at Bozell in 1995 as a copywriter. I never heard of the advertising industry until my friend showed me a beautiful Norwegian Cruise Lines print campaign by Goodby Silverstein. I was amazed there were jobs where we got paid to play with words and pictures. It’s like kindergarten with a salary. After 3 years, I spent a scant 9 months at DDB before I joined Batey Ads. Those 2 plus years at Batey were Cambrian. Our creative directors were Gary Tranter and Matt Cullen, and the rest of us were just creative teams trying to outdo each other, sparring with ideas by day, and then celebrating together with beer by night. No job title inflation, no politicking. Then I joined Y&R on the Colgate business and promptly got fired after a few short months. It was so boring, I fell asleep during conference calls in front of my bosses. For me, a job is like a lover; the body doesn’t lie. Then I wandered the freelance circuit like a forsaken troubadour until I landed at TBWA. I won and led the agency’s largest account for almost 3 years before getting dismissed again after a change in agency leadership. Needless to say, I was not everybody’s cup of tea. But as they say, when Yahweh closes a door, it’s because the phone rang. A phone call from T.B. Song (ex-chairman, WPP China) and Tham Khai Meng (ex-chairman, Ogilvy Worldwide) in 2004 led me to Ogilvy Guangzhou. I could barely speak and read Mandarin then. I thought I would do two years in China and then head back to Singapore. I ended up staying two decades. I was with Ogilvy at Guangzhou and Beijing until the summer of 2008 when I got, you guessed it, fired again; this time because Apple launched the iPhone and decimated Motorola’s smartphone business, which paid for my salary. I freelanced at BBDO Shanghai, where I won a slew of pitches for them, like Tiffany & Co. for example, and they decided to retain me in a smaller role. And it’s in the trenches with the troops where I really thrived. My small team consolidated the PepsiCo business and I had 3 plus glorious years there before I decided to strike it out on my own.

Why did you decide to start your own agency?
Because I was about to turn 40 years old. And in our business, there is always somebody younger, smarter and, more importantly, cheaper than you waiting to take your job. I wanted to own something. So I took 6 months of garden leave, out of respect to the hands that fed me, and travelled to parts of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil before settling in for a month in California to watch the sun set on my corporate life. In October 18th, 2012, my business partner Alex and I opened shop with a staff of 4, us included. On the day I left CIVILIZATION, we were 110-strong, with an archive of brand campaigns numbering hundreds.

So what does post-retirement have in store for you Andrew?
For starters, being a dad. I’ll still be writing of course, that’s hardwired. As for directing, we’ll see.