Despite being the creative force behind one of Malaysia’s top ad agency, Alvin Teoh appears to have a love-hate, inspired-frustrated relationship with the advertising fraternity.
On one hand, the Naga DDB Tribal executive creative director sees so much potential for the industry to play a more meaningful role in society (instead of it being a mere vehicle to sell). Yet, the pushback and risk averse nature of clients and the brands that people like Alvin is entrusted to promote, may not be too receptive in pushing themselves out of their comfort zone.
Even advertising people like us skip ads and banners
“I think we are not engaging people in a meaningful way,” says Alvin, when asked what is lacking in the industry right now.
“If we don’t start thinking like that, marketing will become irrelevant because people don’t just want buy stuff.”
To drive his point home, he uses web banners as example. “Even advertising people like us skip ads and banners,” he says as a matter-of-factly. “We do a lot of permutation for banners, sometimes 300 to 500 permutations. We try to contextualise things. But people’s engagement with the banner is less than one percent.”
“There’s something very wrong. So, when you look at advertising that way, you are missing the mark.”
Engage People Where it Matters
Alvin is neither prosaic nor despondent, though. In fact, fresh out of hosting the Kancil Awards 2018, where he serves as creative council chairman, Alvin observes that brands are increasingly recognising the need to be more meaningful to customers.
“They are beginning to. I think the conversation is going to be constant. We don’t have all the answers and neither do clients,” says Alvin.
“Advertising is about respecting the audience, to understand what they are going through.”
“For example, if you want to sell soap, look at the needs of the people and what the soap is really for. It goes beyond just cleaning yourself; maybe it’s about sustain certain communities or bringing sanitation to communities which lack sanitation.”
“You have to speak to the person with respect and have sensitivity to his or her condition. These are the kind of stuff that matters, stuff that lasts longer than a click on the banner.”
To push that kind of conversation forward, for the very first time, the Kancil Awards was revamped into a two-day creative festival featuring talks and workshops, which made humanity and inclusivity as its centrepiece.
Two-third of the speakers featured were non-ad and marketing people; they were poets, journalists, writers, cultural activists, technologists and a politician.
“We are very limited in what we can do as an individual but if you collaborate and work with people from different disciplines who have different ideas and ways of solving problems, you become more effective.”
Kancil Awards, which had always been seen to be exclusive for the ad industry and their clients, also introduced a new award called The Kancil for Good which recognises purpose-driven creative ideas that have a positive impact on community.
People Don't Buy Products, They Buy Stories
Alvin is no stranger to advocating the use of creativity to raise awareness on societal problems. He and industry peers started a social collective called Kita Kawan Mah to promote interracial friendship and dialogue when racism reared its ugly head in Malaysia.
There is also Project I See, an event that started in 2013 to raise the plight on misunderstood or abused communities like the migrant, refugee and indigenous peoples.
Naga DDB, with other industry partners, also worked together with child protection advocacy NGO, Protect and Save the Children on the Nursery Crimes campaign to create awareness on the dangers of paedophiles.
Emphatic and attuned to the problems and needs of the different segments of society, Alvin recognises the expansive power of creativity (and movements, not just campaigns) in helping to bring about positive impact, even it meant by just sparking a conversation on a difficult topic.
Clients, however, are understandably less forthcoming in putting their brands on the line to do so - who would want to jeopardise its image or stock price with bad PR? Or get hit with a boycott for alienating one segment of its customer base in order to please another? What more if these campaigns are not helping its bottom line.
Has anybody deep dive into why unity is so difficult to achieve, what is the root of racism?
And there are few quicker ways to put a company in that predicament than taking a stance of a political or sensitive issues, even in light of Malaysia Baharu.
“Every client who is inspired by this new Malaysia, they will be giving out this brief to everybody - let’s do this new Malaysia thing, lets ride on this wave and optimism and hope,” says Alvin, who’s been kept busy working on briefs, with Merdeka and Malaysia Day around the corner.
“So, how do you stand out from the crowd?”, he underlines the first challenge.
“And everybody is looking at culture, society, sentiment at the very surface level. We are not thinking deep inside,” That’s his second grouse.
“The challenge here is, we are going to have a flood of content, very shallow content based on what Malaysia Baharu and patriotism is. But I wonder if any of us are able to dig beneath the surface to speak about the things that matter.”
“And the scary thing about things that matter, is that if you really analyse it, it is usually risky.”
“Let’s say we want to talk about unity - which is the common thing to talk about - but has anybody deep dive into why unity is so difficult to achieve, what is the root of racism?”
Pakatan, BN, Pas... We All Have the Same Hopes and Fears
Advertising is, of course, not in the business of telling the hard truth if there is even a slight chance of it tarnishing the brands’ image.
“The fear is not just among the marketeers but is also among people like us. So how convinced are we in this belief and that we should take it deeper? And can we sell it?,” says Alvin, adding that it is difficult to measure the success of campaigns which are more sentiment-driven.
The consumers we are speaking to want their respect to be earned
Having said that, Alvin is quite hopeful for brands to be more purposeful.
This, he say, will be driven by a growing push from consumers who do not want brands that improve their lives only but also to improve the lives of communities too.
“In this day and age, the consumers we are speaking to want their respect to be earned; (they want) to make positive contributions to society. They are looking for heroism,” Alvin explains.
“And I think it is important for marketers to realise to that.”
Brands, too, are awakening to the fact that consumers are gravitating towards companies that do good, he says.
“They are saying, ‘Hey, if people are thinking like that, maybe - in a selfish way - we better be a part of that conversation too because we don’t want to miss out from where people are. Because without people, we can’t do business.’”
“This conversation will become trend, trend becomes culture, culture becomes habit and habit will lead to results,” he concludes smilingly.