VCCP Singapore’s executive creative director on how a ‘misspent’ youth in hospitality prepared him for advertising, the multi-faceted role of an ECD and getting under the hood of a brief
When I see a strong idea in front of me, things get noisy pretty quick. If a great idea is on the table – especially in its rawest form – that’s when things need to get expressive.
According to creativity researchers, there are four sides to creativity. Person (personality, habits, thoughts), product (the thing that results from creative activity), process (how you work), and press (environment factors, education and other external factors) all play a part. So, we figured, let’s follow the science to understand your art. Creativity Squared is a feature that aims to build a more well-rounded profile of creative people.
Now, we speak to VCCP Singapore’s ECD Andrew Hook. Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, Andrew first plied his trade in Middle Earth, working at boutique shop Generator for five years. Then in 2005, restlessness took hold of him, so he packed his bags and set sail for the tropics. His first stop was the venerable Batey Ads in Singapore. He was promoted to ECD of Batey and managed the global relaunch of Qatar Airways out of the Singapore office.
He then spent four years at DDB, as creative lead for the Health Promotion Board, before taking the reins in 2014 at Havas. During his tenure there, the agency’s work was recognised at Cannes, Spikes, One Show, D&AD and the Effies, while also picking up metal at the Agency of the Year Awards in back-to-back years. In early 2019, Andrew joined VCCP Singapore as regional executive creative director.
Here, he shares his approach to creativity.
A while ago, we did a basic personality test for the whole agency, assessing how different people process information, express themselves, and so on. It generated some interesting results. Some people who saw themselves as expressive and emotive were deemed analytical and logical – and vice versa.
The test landed me in the Expressive / Driven quadrant. This was a bit of a surprise. A lot of people would characterise me as quiet and laidback, and I know myself pretty well as a hardcore introvert. But to me, the contradiction made sense.
Firstly, most of the creatives I’ve known over my career tend to be a bit of a mixed bag. They pivot across a spectrum of logic and emotion, analysis and expression. Why? Because that’s the nature of the job, and the skill set. Creating ideas involves fusing together logic and emotion in surprising combinations. You need to access different parts of the brain, at pace, under pressure, and with fluidity and flexibility. So, I think a lot of creatives have that kind of natural ‘sliding scale’ to their personality.
Secondly, context matters. In the early phase of your career, a creative can be more aligned to their dominant bias (introvert, extrovert etc). But at CD level and above, the demands of the job change dramatically. Being a CD is all about communicating. You’re talking all day long – to planners, clients, account service, operations, production, everyone. And of course, you’re in constant contact with the creatives as they develop their ideas. The job requires you to leverage parts of your personality which might not naturally be there on the surface.
Which can lead to some interesting contradictions.
Personally, I’m impatient and stubborn when it comes to fighting for and protecting an idea. But I’m very patient when it comes to the process of creation. An idea won’t always reveal itself according to schedule, and you can’t force it to come out of hiding. Patience is critical to allow great ideas to come into the light.
More than anything, I value periods of quiet to be able to really focus. You have to demarcate this time away from the noise of the day-to-day.
But when I see a strong idea in front of me, things get noisy pretty quick. If a great idea is on the table – especially in its rawest form – that’s when things need to get expressive. I want to talk about it, pull it apart, look at its good points, bad points, risk factors, and ultimately put a spotlight on its true potential.
That’s the creative director’s key responsibility. In that context, the passion needs to come out of the bottle. We want to create an atmosphere of energy around the idea. And that will set us up nicely to go into bat for it.
Creatives... tend to be a bit of a mixed bag. They pivot across a spectrum of logic and emotion, analysis and expression.
The role of an ECD is multi-faceted. You’ve got a lot of hats to wear: coach, psychologist (some days, therapist), diplomat, producer, operations director, and so on. But the real beating heart of the job is judging the creative work.
And to be honest, it’s also the most mysterious part. If only I could write down a sure-fire methodology in a few sentences. I’m sure I could retire in the Bahamas… or maybe I’d just be out of a job. This part of the process can’t be wrapped up in a neat little bow. Everyone wishes it could, but it can’t.
The one thing I can say though is this: to assess whether or not an idea has any real power, you have to feel something for it at a deeper level. It’s as simple – and as difficult – as that.
Sure, there’ll be surface-level criteria that help put things in words. Is the idea surprising? Disruptive? Ownable?
But they are not really ‘the thing’. I think any good – or potentially great – idea needs to generate a certain magnetism. It’s got to pull you in like a tractor beam.
At first glance, an idea may be perfectly logical, sensible, and tick all the right boxes. But if you feel nothing for it, then down the line you’re going to have a problem.
On the other hand, a beautiful idea in raw form can have all sorts of issues. Maybe the logic is wonky, it’s not tidily expressed, or it doesn’t execute easily. But if it draws you in and punches you in the gut, then you might just be onto something.
That’s when you have to buckle up and fight like hell for it. I see the gut-punch test as a simple proxy for how consumers as a whole might react to the idea. Obviously, the notion of ‘consumers’ involves a vast spectrum of personalities, tastes, ways of thinking. So it’s far from perfect, and it’s definitely not scientific.
But out of the gate, what we’re looking for is a kind of batting average for the idea. An immediate, gut-level signal of whether or not it’s going to have any kind of power – and whether it’s worth investing valuable time and energy to bring it to life.
The start is slow, and begins with a critical mindset.
Typically I want to get under the hood of the brief, and see what’s going on. Are there issues that could arise later? Is the ask realistic? Do we have all the information we need? We try to troubleshoot as best we can what obstacles could appear in the coming days. Then the creative process begins.
The healthiest starting point is always a blank sheet of paper. No preconceptions. The answer could literally be anything.
This approach gives you the best shot at a really powerful idea. Of course, it’s an ideal: there’s often baggage around the brief for all kinds of reasons. But we do the best we can to have a purely open mind.
Then we get into the thick of it – and that’s when things start to get murkier. The creative process can go off in all sorts of strange directions. Deadlines and meetings engender a kind of momentum, pushing you along. But that momentum can be stop-start, fragmented, and sometimes just all over the place.
Nothing to worry about. That’s how it works.
Creativity is inbuilt with frustrations, tensions, and volatility of all kinds. But this opacity and strangeness is what makes the process – and the job – so unique. These are features of the system, not bugs. In fact, the best ideas often have the most labyrinthine path to expression.
You might see the seed of the idea on day one. But it doesn’t really ‘show itself’ in its true form. It’s like looking into a cracked mirror: you can make out shapes, a broad outline. But the distortions don’t permit you full recognition… just yet.
Sometimes a great idea can be thrown out in the early stages. I’ve done it, it happens. And then serendipity allows it to rear its head again at the eleventh hour. And that’s when you realise, this is the one.
When things get difficult, as they invariably do sometimes, usually the answer is ‘brute force and ignorance’. You keep banging away at the problem until it yields – and through a mix of patience and tenacity, it usually will.
That’s when it’s critical to have faith in your own skills. Everyone has episodes where you say to yourself: “I’ve lost it, I can’t do this anymore. I’m no longer creative.” But it’s a mirage. The skills are still in there – they don’t disappear one day for no reason. The well never really runs dry.
Yes, there are days when your brain is not going to play ball. But you need to have faith in yourself that with time and patience, it will come right.
I grew up in New Zealand, and my formative years were spent working in an amazing agency (Generator), at the top of its game, surrounded by tremendously talented people. To witness an agency firing on all cylinders is something to behold, and that experience really cemented my career choice in my mind.
We were making so many things, at such pace, my initial learning phase was supercharged. I was shooting commercials within the first few months, even though I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. We had a huge emphasis on production, and I was ground into the realities of making things from day one.
Since then, I’ve always believed a great agency understands the full value-chain of what it makes – right down to the last detail of every production.
In fact, I think this understanding is what separates the best from the rest. Great agencies don’t just make keynote presentations. Our work doesn’t exist in the abstract. The very best agencies roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, every day of the week – and they do it with aplomb.
During my misspent youth, I also spent years working in hospitality. I think it comes in handy having a solid understanding of a very different type of business. It gives you a bigger perspective on how things fit together.
On the surface, the restaurant trade has little to do with advertising. But in reality, there are some interesting parallels.
A restaurant is another form of commercial-creative enterprise. Creativity is built into the product (cooking is inherently creative – in answer to the ‘client’s brief’); there are clear commercial outcomes (the customer should be happy with their meal, see value for money, and hopefully keep coming back); and it all happens thanks to a robust system of collaboration between ‘departments’ – the kitchen, the bar, and front-of-house.
My experience in hospitality gave me an appreciation for disciplined operations as the bedrock of great creative outcomes.
A great agency is always a strange tango between chaos and control. No matter how much our business changes, I think that underlying principle still applies. You need a deep-seated respect for the chaos of the creative process, while at the same time being wedded to a rigorous system of operation.
You need briefs, contact reports, meeting invites, cost estimates – and you need the whole agency to understand the protocols and what is expected. But you also need everyone – and I mean everyone – to walk into a room with a mindset that embraces creativity, and all the strangeness, messiness and ambiguity that it entails.
Not just to tolerate it.
But to welcome it with open arms.