5 minutes with… Natalie Lam
Natalie Lam has spent most of her professional life in New York, but returned to Hong Kong to take on a newly created role at Publicis Groupe earlier this year. She is now leading the network’s creative agenda across a vast and wonderfully diverse region, which extends from Asia to the Middle East and Africa.
Lam made her mark working on Nike at R/GA, later joining Ogilvy One Shanghai followed by McCann, Razorfish and Google in the United States.
She speaks with LBB about the opportunities she’s exploring in her new role, and how she’s adjusting to life in Hong Kong after many years as a New Yorker.
LBB> It’s been a few months since you joined Publicis Group as the network’s first regional creative leader for APAC, Middle East and Africa. How is it going so far?
Natalie> Amazing. I feel like I’m doing a cultural tour, meeting new people and discovering new cultures, ironically during a pandemic. I cannot ask for a better and more exciting job. After non-stop marathon video meetings for three months, I’m truly convinced that there are lots of exciting opportunities, and I’m looking forward to working with all the new friends I made in the network.
LBB> You’ve returned to Asia from the United States. How do the markets differ?
Natalie> The United States is very polarised and many brands have been taking a political, cause-related stand over the past few years. Having a purpose-driven or political stance has almost become a must-have for the U.S. market, which is great, except sometimes you see work that’s a little forced.
Here, every country has a very different culture, religion, customs – there is true diversity. Thailand sits right next to Singapore and Japan, but they all have tremendously different cultural cues. You can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach, and brands don’t necessarily want to verbalise a political point-of-view. There are a lot of social challenges here too, but for brands, the opportunities and optimism are quite different.
LBB> Of all the agencies or networks you might have chosen for your next career move, why Publicis?
Natalie> Honestly, I think out of all the networks, Publicis has all the elements, people, building blocks in place to do modern and relevant work. There’s strength in scale and reach, and an aggressive conviction that we must win in the areas of data and digital (though I hate labels). I spent the past decade being in “traditional” agencies wanting to go more “digital,” and “digital” agencies wanting to go to a bigger, more strategic space and I think Publicis has both the desire and the infrastructure to truly deliver modern, integrated work.
LBB> Your remit extends to the Middle East and Africa: what have you learned about these markets so far?
Natalie> I’m still learning, but there are some really fascinating opportunities. South Africa, for example, is a very young country. For us as a network, it’s an interesting opportunity to rethink what is truly authentic for a young, rising millennial market – the possibilities are endless.
With the Middle East, I see the amazing texture of a region full of rich traditions paired with big ambition for the future. Many clients are realising that tech is the new oil so lots of efforts are put into smart cities, future living and travel destinations. Some of the work in the plans feel straight out of sci-fi.
LBB> Can you tell us a little about your mandate and goals for the year ahead?
Natalie> I’m looking at creatives across the region as one giant creative team, and we’re receiving a lot of exciting, big global briefs. I have been asking creatives around the network for quickfire ideas, and everyone has been very supportive and open to working with other markets, no matter how busy they are. There is a huge appetite to come together as a true community. Knowing that you have a big back-up force supporting you when the right opportunity comes – it’s quite powerful, and one of our strengths.
LBB> You returned to Hong Kong in 2021 after many years in New York. Was it a culture shock, or strangely familiar?
Natalie> Yes, it’s a cultural shock, especially during a pandemic. Hong Kong is a very well-functioning society, yet NYC is a very imaginative society. I love the convenience of life here and miss the sense of space in NYC, both mentally and physically. I think there’re pros and cons and like Confucius says, we need a nice middle ground.
LBB> You are known as a trailblazer in the world of digital advertising, yet began your career as a print designer. Is there an art to marrying technology with storytelling and craft: where do creatives tend to go wrong?
Natalie> I wouldn’t say I’m a trailblazer, I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, mostly. I think the biggest challenge for most are the boxes we put ourselves in. Since I started in design, I’m trained to be obsessed about how things look, and I always say to the creatives that “no one rejects a good design”. In previous roles, I often saw creatives purposefully make FMCG work feel like it’s FMCG – bright colours, loud design – without even trying to show the clients something different, more elevated. Since then, I have always tried to encourage creatives not to box themselves in. The same mindset goes for the attitude towards tech. I encourage creatives not to be fearful of tech, thinking it is complicated and not suited to “big ideas”. There are truly magical uses of tech, and we can’t deny that most of our daily touchpoints in our lives are all inseparable from tech. Putting in that extra little effort to understand tech is a very useful tool to help with the work, it goes a long way.
LBB> You spent a year at Google in New York leading the creative team for Art, Copy & Code. What did you learn during this period of your career, and is there anything you missed about ad land?
Natalie> I truly saw the power of data and technology; they’re the golden geese that keep laying golden eggs. Google employs some of the best integrated creative minds who use technology as a tool to make work that’s modern and relevant. But some of the things I was exposed to were so abstract and deep in the data world, and when I asked someone to distil them in layman’s terms, they couldn’t. So, I missed working with people who can relate things in a more culturally relevant way in the context of daily life, which the agency world is very good at. And I missed people telling simple jokes that I can actually understand!
LBB> Do you have a creative process: is there a certain way that you approach a brief or get into a state of ‘flow’?
Natalie> I work backwards, start with the most ambitious clear goal and figure out the best pieces (teams, process, timing, resources) to get there. Once that goal is clearly defined, then I get into the flow zone wanting to explore as wide as possible with the teams. I also think about the impact of the work as reflected on social media: will people care? Is it relevant?
LBB> Do you think the pandemic will change the creative industry in any positive ways?
Natalie> Strangely, it helps us communicate in a much more efficient way and helps stretch our abilities to collaborate across borders and time zones without face-to-face interactions. However, we can never replace the emotional bond with face-to-face interactions.
LBB> Have you made any interesting discoveries lately: what are you reading, watching, listening to...?
Natalie> Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to put aside recently for pure discovery/inspiration so I go with the flow: meeting all the amazing minds within the Groupe; learning new cultures by meeting them; checking out the latest and glossiest malls in Hong Kong (no kidding) to understand the latest gen z, millennial culture; asking for tips and advice from everyone I meet; even getting new plants (one of my little obsessions) native to the tropical weather – this all gives me inspiration. If I have time, I’ll get back into watching international films online, something I did a lot when I was in NYC.
LBB> You are joining the Executive Jury at AD STARS 2021: what are you most looking forward to?
Natalie> Meeting new people and seeing all the exciting work that I wasn’t exposed to while I was in New York. It’ll be a creative feast for me.
Natalie is leading the Interactive, Integrated, Innovation, Mobile, Data Insights, Social & Influencer categories at AD STARS 2021. Winners will be announced online on 27th August.