Q&A: Nic Brennan – Executive Creative Director at Digitas China

Along with being home to the most populous market it in the world, China is also one of the most rapidly moving markets, where consumer trends are remarkably ephemeral says Nic Brennan, Executive Creative Director of Digitas China.

“One thing I have noticed is the amazing speed at which things come and go, and also the speed at which consumers devour information,” Brennan recently told us from his office in Shanghai.

Brennan started working in Asia back in 1997 in Japan, where he held senior creative positions until 2011 when he took a position in Singapore as ECD at McCann. A year later he landed in China with DDB Shanghai, followed by AKQA before joining the Publicis Groupe family in 2014 where he has been ever since.

 
 

What’s been keeping you busy lately?

Oh, so many things! Our industry seems to be in a constant state of change which makes it exciting from a creative perspective. Our teams at Digitas are currently working on a large mixture of exciting new projects with some really amazing clients. Work ranging from developing cutting edge WeChat mini-programs, holograms and augmented reality right through to full film shoots.

For me, the variety of work and constant learning is what makes the job so interesting and definitely keeps us all busy!

You’ve spent the past few years in China. What is the creative culture like there compared to other places you’ve worked?

Creative culture in China is gaining traction every day, it reminds me a lot of my days in Tokyo. The young creatives here all seem to be very keen to find inspiration wherever they can, and more importantly, seem to be trying their own thing. I love the energy and hunger people have for learning new things in China, and I see an amazing future as local creative culture develops further here.

 
 

What have you learned since you’ve been there in terms of what resonates with Chinese consumers?

I am privileged to be working with some amazingly talented people across the Publicis Groupe in Shanghai, and I think I learn something new every day. Technology is evolving so fast here but we have a lot of fun keeping up with it all.

Data now gives us the ability to correlate vast amounts of information which can sometimes lead to some amazing results, but without a human touch, those results are still just facts.

As far as Chinese consumers are concerned, one thing I have noticed is the amazing speed at which things come and go, and also the speed at which consumers devour information. Topics and products trend quickly and then make way for the next hot item so quick and fun activations or product-based executions can easily be as influential as large-scale brand campaigns.

You had a great line in something you wrote a few years back saying, “Great insights are usually based on a truth that everybody already knows.” Tell us more about that and how it applies to your creative process.

Hah, great question. The core of my answer remains as it was back then but there are also some new factors in play nowadays. Namely, data.

Insights are, and always will be a real passion for me. Uncovering that simple human truth which sparks tension is the key to unlocking any great creative ideas, but the way in which we find those magic insights is changing. Data now gives us the ability to correlate vast amounts of information which can sometimes lead to some amazing results, but without a human touch, those results are still just facts.

The key is interpreting that data in a manner which appeals to human nature or culture in an eye-opening way.  When you watch or see something and immediately say or think “oh, I thought I was the only one who did that!” it is probably a well-delivered insight.

Creatives working in China have talked about feeling restrained by censorship on advertising. What has been your experience?

My only experience with this is that occasionally when we are brainstorming ideas, myself or one of our team has an idea based on a product or brand being “Number 1”, or “the first ever to do something” etc… But censorship has never really been a big problem for us. I think it actually helps maintain better standards of honesty since brands cannot simply claim “We are the leader in this” nor entice consumers with “Click to win this”.

What is some work you’ve done that you’re most proud of?

We have been working with many brands in designing and developing a mixture of different types of WeChat Mini Programs. Some built for specifically for CRM (Pernod Ricard), some for e-commerce and loyalty (Nike) and others for travel (Tourism New Zealand).

Insights are, and always will be a real passion for me. Uncovering that simple human truth which sparks tension is the key to unlocking any great creative ideas,

Another recent launch we are very proud of is for “Beyond Boundaries: Cartier and the Palace Museum Craftsmanship and Restoration Exhibition” in Beijing. Mini Programs are a great platform for events like this and working directly with such an iconic brand like Cartier is a wonderful experience for our teams.

Where do you seek creative inspiration when your tank is running low?

Everywhere and anywhere to be honest. I’ve never been a fan of art galleries or design exhibitions for inspiration. I prefer to think by trying to switch off whenever possible, however, since switching-off for a few minutes is not easy in Shanghai, it’s often best to embrace the chaos head-on.

I sometimes use an old trick I learned in Tokyo, which was to jump on the JR Yamanote line train loop and travel round and round until I had some ideas. Just looking out of the window through the mix of people and scenes would trigger so many thoughts.

In Shanghai, I tend to cycle around instead. The sights, smells, noise, and energy are enough to stimulate anyone’s brain into action. If all else fails, sleep is my secret weapon. I often wake up at 4 or 5 am with the answer to a pitch brief I have been struggling with.

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