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Elliot Faber

Sunday Spirits

Sake Central


John Koay’s Big Agency Dreams

by Charlie Zhang

In 2016, you might’ve been compelled to eat chicken-flavored nail polish. Why? Because it was the most bizarre and fascinating thing you would’ve seen in a long time. KFC Hong Kong’s Edible Nail Polish campaign was an international sensation, reaching headlines of Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post, to name a few. It became the No. 1 trending Twitter topic and generated over 200 million digital impressions. That kind of buzz doesn’t just come from business planning, it comes from strange ideas, and someone strange enough to think them.

“When I get a new brief, I always start off by thinking what’s going to get this campaign on news headlines or get us into legal trouble” 

says John Koay with a laugh, the brains behind the campaign. The former Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy Hong Kong, Koay’s magic helps brands get extraordinary press coverage and helps them make dents in consumer culture. Brands have been queuing up for a chance to work with one of Asia’s top creative directors. His work continues to push boundaries and makes you reconsider the bad rap that ads sometimes get.

But how did he get there? What’s his story?  We sat down with John Koay to uncover his cross-cultural up-bringing, his creative development and his views on the world of advertising today.

Could you describe your childhood and where you grew up

I was born in Hong Kong and moved to Auckland when I was really young. Growing up in New Zealand was amazing because I had less homework and more time to play. Since my brother and I didn’t have the latest and fanciest toys back then, we spent a lot of time drawing, making stuff and creating our own comics. 

The laid back kiwi way of life allowed me the luxury to develop my creative side from childhood through to high school, where most of my subjects were all art-related. I was lucky my parents were ok with me to pursue my creative skills, and they still do today... (They probably already knew I sucked at math and science anyway).

Did you always know what you wanted to do? Please tell us about your career journey.

I always knew it would be in the creative industry as I’ve always been fascinated with making things. I did a university degree in Graphic Design then a post graduate in Creative Advertising. My career kicked off in 2005 with an internship at ColensoBBDO. It was tough! 

“Every two weeks they would do an elimination battle and the team with the better work would stay on and survive to stay another 2 weeks.” 

After this I moved to Saatchi & Saatchi Auckland where I got my proper big break and was mentored by some of the best: Toby Talbot, Andy DiLallo, Tim Huse, and Levi Slavin to name a few. They helped me land my first full time job as an art director and also win my first award (which still sits in my living room today). In 2009, I relocated to The Campaign Palace Sydney, where my CCO Reed Collins and I made some crazy stuff. 

“We blew up a house to educate about bushfire preparation and also worked with a Star Wars SFX expert to recreate fake poop coming out of a realistic robot arse for a tough camera commercial.”

Soon after I joined JWT Sydney where I got to create some limited edition illustrations using Kit Kat chocolate and then in 2013, decided to move to Ogilvy Hong Kong. It’s great to come back to my original home, working with some very talented people and putting Hong Kong on the global stage with several campaigns we’ve done.

How do you see the industry transforming?

There’s an increasing amount of talk around how data will transform everything. I’m seeing a lot of advertising and marketing people talk about how it’s the answer to everything. While data is great, it is only half the equation. 

I personally believe how we use the data, whether it be for a bespoke offline / online experience with an interesting story is much more impactful than just using it to validate a business decision to push a product, or dictate a media channel just because the numbers indicate there are more eyeballs there. Creative ideas and data should work together for creative impact that leads to engagement and sales.

What’s the most important mindset to have for someone in your field?

For me it’s having an inquisitive mind and always on the lookout for something new, something old you didn’t know about, something random AF then rearranging and connecting that knowledge to make something new out of them. All my friends know I’m constantly watching and sharing weird crazy random stuff online, talking (maybe too much) about anything with anyone I meet, nerding out on the latest tech and traveling to interesting places. As Damon Stapleton said, “Creativity ignores reality. Creativity decides what reality is. Creativity can make reality”.

Who do you look up to most and why?

I have many people in mind, but this time I’d like to mention my father. He invested in drawing lessons for me at a young age because he saw something special. Ironically, it’s what I do today- identify great ideas and talent. He’s not your typical Chinese dad who is ultra strict and serious, he allowed my brother and I to do what made us happy. 

“He taught us that being rich in life experiences matters more than being rich in the bank.”

Rather than going on lavish holidays like my friends, I remember he would take the time to draw, make paper mache and costumes with us on school holidays. Even to this day, he still enjoys his watercolor paintings, his creative garden and his own imaginative (and very odd) D.I.Y contraptions around the house. So I really owe my creative success to @PapaKoay - Check him out and his crazy styles on Instagram.

How do you split your time between work and play?

It has taken me years to figure this out. My wife has been great in helping me find this balance. These days I get most of my stuff done during the day so I have time in the evening to wind down, watch some Netflix or donate some time on the Playstation and give my brain a rest. In our industry we always hear there’s no line between work and play when it comes to creativity: it’s bullshit. There is, and we should all take time out to recharge and think better the next day.

How should young people find new clients and work?

Starting out is always the hardest thing. Networking is important, you need to advertise yourself and let people know what you do. Get that Behance, Vimeo or LinkedIn page up and running. Secondly once you secure a meeting with your prospective client, don’t be boring. 

“Be that person who you’d like to sit next to at a dinner party, with interesting conversations full of weird facts and interesting ways to look at life.”

If you get rejected don’t give up, keep hustling till you get there!

Please describe your creative process and how you discovered it.

All creatives work differently. But for me when I get a new brief I always start off by thinking what’s going to get this campaign on news headlines or get us into legal trouble haha! Then I jot down these crazy thoughts on a piece of paper and laugh by myself until my partner gives me a funny look and he adds to the stupid thought. The KFC Edible Nail Polish is a good example (Pre-COVID-19 days obviously). One of my art directors just had her manicure done, I was eating KFC — all of a sudden I had a thought, 

“What if we made KFC Edible Nail Polish to make people remember the slogan ‘Finger Lickin’ Good!’?”

This went viral, on Times, CNN, Hypebeast and even on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Ideas should start off with something crazy, something out there, something that’s going to make you think, “WTF, that’s cool!”

What’s been the biggest turning point in your career?

My biggest turning point was being given the opportunity to lead as a Creative Director when I was just 31. Previously as an art director, my job was to come up with concepts and craft the living lights out of them. But once you become a creative lead your priorities change dramatically. You feel more rewarded to see others in your team grow and create globally recognized work as well as being in a position to form great relationships with your clients to grow their business. 

What advice would you give to young creatives now pursuing a similar career?

Starting out is always the hardest thing. Put a distinctive portfolio together and send it to the best creatives and agencies you want to work for. If they turn you down the first time, ask them for a brief and give it another shot and don’t give up. 

“When starting out don’t chase the money, chase the opportunity.”

In case you missed it, check out our previous article on "Casual" Instagram and the Death of Aesthetics.

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