Q&A With Leo Burnett Shanghai’s Executive Creative Director, Thomas Li – ‘Be Water’

Earlier this year, Leo Burnett Shanghai was shortlisted for an INNOVA at ADFEST 2022 for its ‘Crowd-Sauced’ campaign for Soup Daren. It was another piece of creative work as part of the agency’s mission to put China’s creative industries on the map when it comes to category-breaking, artfully crafted, culturally insightful work, says Leo Burnett.

To learn more about the work and his creative life in China, Branding in Asia recently caught up with Thomas Li, Executive Creative Director at Leo Burnett Shanghai.

Over the course of our conversation, Li talks about life in Shanghai, including the lockdowns and the city’s vibrant creative scene, taking risks like launching an unfinished ad, kuso-style parodies, Chinoiserie, and more.

 
 

The lockdowns have been tough for Shanghai this year. How is life there right now?

The city started recovering from over two months of lockdown on June 1st. People truly had a hard time with life and work. A lot of SMEs struggled to survive. Many clients’ marketing calendars have been affected, projects canceled, budgets reduced, and things like that.

We did a bunch of online QC monitoring on TV and print shoots and although it took more effort to deliver high-quality productions, we’re proud of the final outputs: agency and production house evolved to master a new technique, not bad.

What is the creative scene like in the city? Can you recommend artists or creators who paint a picture of Shanghai’s creative industries?

Shanghai has always been the central hub when it comes to creativity: a place where east meets west, a place with a long history, and also a place for seeking new inspirations.

 
 

I’d like to recommend my friend Weber Zhang, an artist/illustrator with a strongly individual style and a signed artist of MARVEL. His signature style perfectly conveys the essence of east meeting west.

Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu are the Founding Partners of Neri&Hu, an architectural design practice based in Shanghai. Their work rests on a clear contrast between what is old and new.


Image via Neri&Hu.


Above are just two examples to paint a picture of Shanghai’s creative industries, deadly charming.

Can you tell us about your career thus far?

I always quote Bruce Lee’s “Be water” as my understanding of a career: be formless, be shapeless. As your career progresses, you shall adapt to the age and evolve yourself to master new weapons and step into a new generation of consumers’ minds and souls, like water. Stay foolish, stay hungry.

“We made this bold and daring stunt in China by releasing an “unfinished” ad. This had never been done before. We knew the “mistake” would bring rumours and misunderstandings, in turn, helping us create lots of buzz.”

Apart from working in advertising, I was deeply involved in the production of a variety show, “Chef Nic”. It kinda connected the dots between storytelling / script writing / plot setting / show production / branded content – it became a very valuable experience for me to take a look outside and bring something back inside.

When did you join Leo Burnett Shanghai, and why? What do you enjoy most about the agency’s culture?

I joined Publicis Groupe 5 years ago and landed at Leo Burnett at the beginning of 2020. Leo Burnett is all about ‘Humankind’, all the ideation starts from reading insights from being human. And I think the culture internally is also very “human”. People here are really like a big family with a close connection and bond.

Your ‘Crowd-Sauced’ campaign for Soup Daren scored an INNOVA shortlist at ADFEST this year, a category that’s all about innovation. What made it so innovative?

Soup Daren is a leading instant noodle brand in China. Leading sometimes makes you conservative: you need to take tons of things into consideration when launching a new campaign. But nowadays, leading brands realize initial success can’t be sustained without real engagements with young consumers.

“The FMCG food category here in China focuses on well-crafted spots that stimulate the appetite, so we went the opposite way to break the category norm.”

So, we made this bold and daring stunt in China by releasing an “unfinished” ad. This had never been done before. We knew the “mistake” would bring rumours and misunderstandings, in turn, helping us create lots of buzz. These discussions were valuable for its success. Yeah, sometimes, negative is good.

The other thing we aimed for is a category breakthrough. The FMCG food category here in China focuses on well-crafted spots that stimulate the appetite, so we went the opposite way to break the category norm.

It seems gutsy to launch an unfinished TVC. How did you persuade your client to take this risk?

Leo Burnett has been working with the Uni-President Soup Daren brand for years. And our client is always encouraging us to be disruptive. At a meeting, when we checked the preliminary CG demo of the spot, an idea just popped out: the Genki world in grey CG modeling looks so interesting. Why don’t we just show this to consumers and trigger something big? Our clients totally got it and let us blow out a full plan.

“I always quote Bruce Lee’s “Be water” as my understanding of a career: be formless, be shapeless. As your career progresses, you shall adapt to the age and evolve yourself to master new weapons and step into a new generation of consumers’ minds and souls, like water.”

I’m sure they had discussions and arguments internally. But in the end, we were all aware that this first burst of buzz would lift the idea to a higher level. Our client also played the important role of persuading a celebrity and his manager to accept this idea. Trust and mutual understanding led us to this bold territory.

After you revealed that you launched an unfinished ad on purpose, you invited people to submit their 3D animations. What was the response?

Over 1,000 people contributed their ideas to Bilibili, China’s biggest re-creation platform where lots of content creators constantly generate extensive kuso-style parodies. A bunch of content submitted was truly inspiring, such as a twilight halo of gods, a mushroom Kungfu master, an ancient raft… People even took part in the color grading voting to guide us on what color tone youngsters prefer. We put every contributor’s name in the rolling credits. People were very excited to find their name on a brand spot.

The result was huge: ultimately, we gained over 200 million video views, over one billion topic views and over 9 million topic engagements.

Leo Burnett Shanghai seems to make lots of beautiful campaigns that tap into Chinese culture. Can you tell us about the recent ‘Burger in Chinese Painting’ campaign for McDonald’s?

McDonald’s China developed a preserved vegetable burger for Chinese New Year – a limited-time offer product featuring preserved vegetables that elders and youngsters both like. We decided Chinese artforms would be the perfect way of conveying the preserved flavor of both the ingredient and the ‘togetherness’ mood of CNY.

This brought us to Shanghai Animation Film Studio, which is famous for its traditional animation IP, to create a Chinese ink painting-style film. Its style not only sparks elders’ long-time memories but also appeals to young people’s love of Chinoiserie, which helps to connect both sides of the generation gap.

As we developed a 60s film, we needed a poster. Naturally and fortunately, we managed to collaborate with HuangHai, China’s famous movie poster designer, to develop an artistic movie poster to further amplify this preserved festive flavour.

What is your goal for 2H 2022?

Hopefully, everything can get better from the pandemic, and we can develop better work, make another risk-taking adventure, and make something big.

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