Conversations with Pearlyn Ong

Pearlyn works at Kantar Millward Brown, a brand management and consultancy firm, as a creative lead. Her work encompasses a broad spectrum of creative work, from crafting the shortest, snappiest headlines to longer scripts for films, though her specialisation is in copywriting. Through her work, she has engaged companies like Philips, LEGO, and SK-II. Currently, she is the overseeing the Philips’ account with her company, a portfolio she finds amongst the most meaningful that she has had to handle thus far as Philips’ new brand platform is that there is always a way to make life better. She appreciates being professionally challenged to be creatively invested in this platform and think of ways to demonstrate how such products may add value to people’s lives.

P: I’m Pearlyn and I work in advertising as a Creative. Within the creative department there are many roles, so Creative is just an overarching term. There are art directors, who work specifically with art work and who have an eye for art direction. As a copywriter by specialization, I’m in charge of a broad spectrum of things, from the shortest, snappiest headlines, to long scripts for films that could be up to 2-3 minutes long or even longer depending on the project.

Currently I’m the creative lead for Philip’s account. As a client in general, Philips is a bucketful of surprises. People know it as this electronic shire and most people probably associate Philips with TV and Hi-Fi, but Philips also produces consumer electronics and has even been venturing into healthcare. The challenge for us is to break people’s perceptions of what Philips is as a company, and also to humanize the innovation that drives all its products.

Working with Philips is really meaningful to me, because Philips’ new brand platform is that there’s always a way to make life better, so I’m challenged to be creatively invested in this platform and think of ways to demonstrate how these products can value-add to people’s lives. All clients face difficulties and budget issues, but this is one of the most meaningful portfolios that I’ve handled.

On the lifestyle front, I worked on SK II and I made something that a lot of girls would be interested in — beauty and skincare. Through working on that account  I realized that very often what most people see on TV about a brand is just the tip of the iceberg, and behind every creative campaign there’s a lot to process in terms of script, in terms of even the way you want to strategically position the product. There’s a lot to negotiate and navigate.

In a project we did for LEGO, we invited professionals to build a very futuristic looking city using Lego, and  invited  kids to come in to rebuild some aspects of that city. And what we found was that no matter how futuristic your city is, what your future generation cherishes about Singapore are the aspects that makes home home. They would replace skyscrapers with a garden or maybe a very sci fi looking airport with houses so families can live, which was very telling.  It was a great project for SG50 — it was very different since it delved very deeply into how people felt instead of playing on themes of progress. The message was that what makes our home home is something that resonates with us all.

P: I think it’s different across every agency. Usually if you’ve got about 300 people in the whole company and the creative department has 100 people, you can pretty much afford to have a dedicated creative team on every account. That means you’ll be working on Singtel or HPB projects your whole life. But in smaller agencies, what happens is you might have 1 or 2 main accounts — mine is Philips. But I’ve also had to manage other smaller projects for Lego and it’s always very collaborative so currently I’m on 4. We try not to get overloaded, but obviously there are very busy seasons where you are swamped.

P: So we get to work at 9.30. Certain agencies say 9 o’clock but people come in at 9.45 or 10 so it depends, but we’re quite strict. I’ll need to revive myself with coffee and look at the list of things that are on my calendar. We have a system that shows you what projects you’re on, which creates some transparency so everybody can see that, ‘Okay she’s very busy, don’t touch her for today.’ It allows people to see at a glance what you’re doing, but you can imagine that whenever people see a spare window of time they just swoop in. I’ll look at the schedule and plan out what to do. Stuff we’ve already brainstormed and which just requires executing and writing the script is scheduled for the later half of the day. Things that require brainstorming, where we haven’t cracked the idea yet, we schedule for the earlier part of the day when our brains are still fresh. Depending on whatever’s scheduled for the day, I’ll just go for brainstorming sessions, which are pretty informal and which happen at cafés around the office or even sofas we can huddle at around the company.

It’s quite a casual environment. it’s an open concept office, so we don’t have cubicles. Of course you also have more official internal meetings where we present preliminary ideas to the wider team outside the creative department. This includes the accounts servicing people who are basically your liaison between the agency and the client, and your strategic team, your planners who think of the strategy by analysing the client’s business problems. So there’s a wider team besides Creatives, and during these huddle sessions we present what we have so that we can cross check whether it ties in with the strategy objectives  or the business objective because sometimes creatives aren’t the most business-like people. Then client meetings are also slightly more formal, and those usually happen at their office too.

P: I think you need some aptitude, whether it’s at making sense of art or having a flair for writing. That’s the bare minimum.

You also need, to put it bluntly, to enjoy suffering and to be resilient. Be a bit of a masochist, simply because for every successful campaign that we present and produce, that comes to life in the way that we love, there’s going to be 10 other difficult ones that end up boring. So you need to love the art process.

Humility would probably be the most important attribute. When we creatives start out, we always think, “Maybe I can change the world with my ideas.” I think it’s great to have those aspirations, but along the way people do get changed, hopefully for the better, where you face rejection so much that you actually develop humility and more empathy for other people. I used to get frustrated when people couldn’t get their point across but after facing my own personal rejections, like when I present to bosses, I’ve realized that creativity is really collaborative and you can’t hold on to your ego when things don’t go your way.

P: In the advertising industry, there are advertising awards ranging from small student-level ones to the Cannes Lions creativity award on the global stage. Everybody has dreams of winning that gold Lion or at the very least some awards in the local circuit, and it was no different when I started out. I had all these dreams before I realized how difficult it actually was. I also idolized a lot of creatives overseas.

But as I interacted with more people over time, I realized that while awards are important, they are not everything. Thankfully, I’ve managed to have my own share of achievements, but I’ve realized that I actually don’t define myself by them anymore. Instead of looking out for myself, I find myself more invested in helping people see what I have seen. Using the privilege we have as advertising creatives to solve problems has a more lasting impact, even if it’s not in the form of a trophy or shiny plaque. To me, this is more meaningful.

P: If I were to compare myself then to youth now, the platforms for exposure are just so much better. In terms of social media, youth today enjoy all kinds of platforms on which to showcase your work. It’s easier to get feedback and information and approval from your peers, and of course, the industry people. Now I could put my portfolio on Instagram and tag some creative director I know in one of the pictures to get his attention, compared to the past, when we would try ways and means to obtain or predict the director’s email. These more consumer-friendly platforms make the chances of being recognised higher. It’s also made everything more approachable, because if I like your work, I can just follow you and request for an audience.

In addition, internship opportunities today are more structured to help the next wave of young creatives. This a significant change from the past, when people work for free but end up doing saikang (rote work). Now, I think the welfare and opportunities are a lot greater.

P: We don’t know either. You obviously have to put in a lot of effort. You just have to keep going at it and I guess when you get enough fails out of your system, rounds and rounds of rejection from your boss, you eventually hit that point where you think, ‘Yes, yes, that might be it”.

Take for example Nike’s slogan, ‘Just Do It’. The creatives were super lost and they were listening to an interview with a murderer on radio, and then they asked the murderer if he had any last words and the murderer’s words were ‘just do it’ — and that’s where they got the inspiration from! Sometimes these flashes of brilliance happen when your brain is so exhausted that you can’t do any more. That’s my method.

Besides that, you should read a lot and expose yourself to all kinds of media because we all recognize a common pool of pop culture references even if we don’t speak the same language. Getting exposure is very important. Copywriters must read, cannot have limited vocabulary, and cannot have bad grammar.

P: That would probably be having to come up with work that will top the last best piece of work that I have —it’s really scary to think that you can’t do any better. You can do your due diligence by getting the necessary exposure in terms of reading and all that, but sometimes by a stroke of luck and chance, you get the right factors to combine and then you’ll have an eureka moment. But a lot of times, your success comes from a combination of factors, so it’s just the constant worry that the next project might not be as great and the stars may not align or like you just have a mental block.

P: Everything you see on Mad Men is no longer true! We have, in many ways, progressed from that Golden Age. People still think we’re all a bunch of boozy, very happening people. I think that’s partially true, in that we dress casually and have alcohol with clients. But if you come into the industry wanting to live that life, then you probably won’t last very long.

P: It’s interesting because in university, I took photography and design modules, and I never saw myself as wanting to be a writer. I always thought that I would do art direction. I had this portfolio of work for my course and I thought I was a Photoshop pro, having picked up a lot of tricks from the internet! For our fixed internship module in Year 3, I applied to 13 companies, but only 2 of them replied. So I first interned at TWBA. I was terrified because I wanted to work for the arts side and then they took one look at my portfolio and went, “Would you consider being a copywriter?” And subsequently I learnt that art direction has demands which are far greater than basic Photoshop skills you pick up from the internet. NAFA, Lasalle and Temasek Poly design grads are the ones with the impressive skills and work to show.

At my first internship was very lost, very confused, and didn’t dare to talk to anybody. I guess, as an intern, you always feel like you’re imposing on people. You feel self-conscious when you want to ask for more work or to get involved in things. But that experience made me realize that I could actually work in advertising. By being quiet, I also got to observe the best creatives and how they work or come up with ideas. So after that I decided that I wanted to work in advertising.

After my internship, a senior there actually told me, “Your portfolio is really bad, you need an advertising portfolio,” and he recommended a course called Award School. I don’t think they have it in Singapore anymore, but I went for the course and I got to work with creatives from different agencies, go for lectures and complete challenges assigned by the creatives. Every week you’d come up with like 10 ideas and then present to them. So that was an exercise in creativity and humility the same time. This was a very important part of my life; with my final year project and this course, I was able to develop a portfolio, but it wasn’t as impressive as that of NAFA or Lasalle grads.

When I graduated, I think the job market for advertising was really bad, like nobody was hiring, much less for someone with like not a proper portfolio. Nobody really wanted to hire me until I met my current boss, who was my first boss as well. My first agency gave me a chance. I interned a second time — so I guess maybe this is just a caveat that one internship is not enough — and the rest is history.

P: Again, this would be the shoot in Taipei, because we had a really cool client who was very open to new ideas despite our limited budget, and because our team was very resourceful. We worked with a freelance producer from Taiwan. Through this project, I realised that you’ve really got to trust that your team will make things happen, and you also need to inspire trust in your team. It’s telling when the people you work with are so sincere that they’re willing to do 101% for you even when the profits are not so great. So I really enjoyed that collaborative experience with them.

Even the production period was a great experience. Three of us stayed in a very small apartment, and the whole experience of living with your colleagues and waking up and going to work and working with the Taiwanese crew who came over was amazing. It also showed that if you are resourceful enough and you meet the right partners, then a lot of things can happen.

P: Yes, but of course you don’t have a lot of contacts when you start out, and you’ll meet people that you’ll work with from previous projects along the way, and if they’re good then you’ll keep those contacts until you can liaise with them again. But sometimes you don’t have connections right away, so you’ll just go on online and you literally just google “Taiwanese production agencies”, or scout production agencies who produce award-winning ads.

This becomes challenging because you have to balance the interest of your project with the interest of forming a good relationship with your partner. Because if you work with someone who’s very good but not nice then you probably don’t want to work with them again but if you work with someone who’s nice and maybe this project could leave a good profile for their agency, then you’d want to play that role as well.

P: The first of it is that I’ve experienced what it’s like to work in a big agency, because my first agency was a really big MNC, with over 300 employees. I thought it was a good start and I think a lot of young creatives want to work with the big shots anyway, because of their reputation and the opportunity to work with cool clients, but it’s worth noting that for every cool client they have and every ad that goes out for people to see, there are probably 10 other smaller scale projects that are very routine for a bank and you write their mailers, or for a furniture store and you write their sale ads, it’s not so glamorous. (A side note: you shouldn’t ever choose an agency for its size or for its cool clients, but actually through the vibe of the person who interviews you, and you should always find out what account you’re working with if possible.)

Working in a big agency made me realise that the role and opportunities you get as a junior are very limited because you have a very predefined role relative to your midway writers, your seniors and your bosses. They don’t bring you on shoots and you don’t really get to meet clients that much, so it’s a very defined role.

From there I went to a really small agency with just 30 people and that gave me a lot to do. At a s,a;; agency, you don’t just write: you meet clients, you attend radio recordings for radio ads, you attend shoots, so small agencies are also good in the sense that they throw you in the deep end and you learn how to do it because no one can help you.

On the flipside, when an agency is small, clients don’t trust you enough to give you big projects. So you can go the whole nine yards and everyone can be really passionate in that really small 30-man agency but you always bend over backwards to try to do things in a way that gets you business, because it’s hard for them to trust you on a permanent basis. Frequently you’ll get assigned a small project with a budget that’s loose change to the client, and then you’ve got to work magic and if you can’t, it feels like you’re stuck.

Compared to that, I think a mid-sized agency is that nice sweet spot between the two options above. It’s not so big that you are dwarfed by everybody else, and you’ll have a lot of cool opportunities to do stuff, you have a lot of freedom to do whatever you want, but at the same time your clients trust you a bit more because people know your agency is a bit more established.

P: Writing is the bare minimum, and as you advance up the creative ranks, you are expected to mentor the younger ones under you by providing them with some guidance and general tips to make sure that we are all gearing towards the right direction.

If you are leading a project, you have to coordinate and get everyone’s ideas and streamline, funnel them and pick out the best ones. For writers, we are expected to be more linguistically proficient, and we need to have the requisite presentation skills when we present to the giants.

For me and my current role, I also need to make sure that the Creatives are working in tandem with the other departments. I feel quite lucky that we have no conflicts. On shoots, we have to help the producers, looking through the script, making sure that we have the right expression and right tone with the talent, and that the punchline comes at the right time.

P: Don’t embark on it unless you accept that the first few years will be more difficult in terms of finances. If you compare yourself to friends who took the government route you will be very disappointed. You will have limited savings and feel like you are a constant disappointment to your parents. Don’t go into it until you have support from your family and financial support.

In terms of work opportunities, take internships and be a sponge and absorb everything and learn the best solutions to the madness of the ad industry.

Don’t be mean, because the industry here is small and there’s no reason for you to have bad blood with others.

Speak up. I’ve always been very vocal about female creatives and how we are, it’s a male dominated industry so it might be quite daunting to speak up, especially when you are a woman. Even when you’re a junior, speaking up is scary. You really feel dwarfed by males’ personalities. To all juniors, especially if you’re a female, don’t be afraid to speak up, admit your mistakes and enjoy your process. It may be unpleasant to work at 2am, but when the work is going somewhere, just enjoy it before you advance to a more managerial role and are not as entrenched in that creative process anymore. Don’t be afraid to enjoy!