Throwback Thursday: Tribal WW’s Jeff Cheong on the power of old school advertising in the digital age

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Digital disruption and traditional advertising collide as Jeff Cheong, president, Tribal Worldwide Asia, reflects on his favorite advertisements of all time.

Digital transformation is moving as fast today as it was in the late ’90s when the world began grappling with this thing called ‘the internet.’

Cheong had just completed a visual communication degree at Singapore’s Temasek Polytechnic, and the possibilities of the internet excited him. He saw freelancing as a graphic designer and art director as a great way to move around and learn from the best people.

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By 2003 he had a well-established digital career, working as an associate creative director for pure play digital agency XM Asia.

“I was constantly on the look out for the best interactive experiences, Flash websites ruled the Internet and there was a surge of new technologies emerging every month,” says Cheong.

All that changed when he saw Wieden+Kennedy’s “The Cog” for Honda.

Honda: “The Cog”

“When I saw the Honda “Cog” film, it embodied the absolute opposite of the digital world. The beauty of analogue came alive on digital film,” says Cheong.

It was also a turning point of what the possibility of film could be and how it could go viral, he adds.

At first, Cheong and his team thought the ad was CGI. They then discovered it had taken over 600 attempts to get the money shot. As a creative director himself he was well aware of the energy and passion required to sell an idea like that to a client.

It’s an ad he still draws inspiration from. Drawing from another effective Honda campaign, difficult is worth doing, he says.

2009 – the year of the Flash Mob

In 2009, flash mobs weren’t new, but T-Mobile had taken existing ones, studied the mechanics of the successful and not so successful ones and put together something really smart, says Cheong.

T-Mobile: “Life’s for Sharing Flash Mob”

It drew on the British cultural strengths of stage performance, live performances, music, art, street, song and dance, and brought it all together in one ad.

The event was prolonged just long enough for passersby to stop, look, take videos and then share on social media.

“It challenged the conventions of advertising – instead of push media, to something that was entertaining, that was live and that people could actually share again and again,” says Cheong.

T-Mobile’s success served as the basis for Cheong and his team (now at Tribal DDB) to use a flash mob concept to promote Changi Airport’s inaugural annual shopping day in 2010.

The promotion would see a winner walk away with $1 million. What would that shopper look like? Most likely singing and jumping and dancing with joy. And a flash mob inside the airport would capture those emotions perfectly.

According to Cheong, it became Singapore’s flash mob to beat.

Of the flash mob format, Cheong says it changed the possibilities of advertising platforms from traditional media space to a ‘free’ space online. After T-Mobile’s video was viewed millions of times globally, flash mobs became a staple in part, of clients’ briefs to agencies.

“This was probably a key driver and catalyst to drive more attention to the strength of social networks and social currency,” he adds.

2015: The art of storytelling

Insurance is possibly one of the most boring (but most important) things in our lives, but presents a big challenge for the agencies tasked with selling it. Adam and Eve DDB’s work for John Lewis threw all the boring bits out, reminding viewers instead of all the little things that really matter, says Cheong.

John Lewis: “Tiny Dancer, Home Insurance”

“The iconic song, the warmth and relatable scenes make you want to finish watching the ad and go, ‘awww’,” says Cheong.

“Here is this kooky little dancer, a walking disaster, and a story that doesn’t unfold until much later in the final seconds of the film where she is consistently toppling things over… It’s classic storytelling mechanics – it draws you in, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and out of curiosity you follow through,” says Cheong.

The line: “It matters to you, it matters to us,” is a good way to stage an insurance ad without saying, we are going to protect you – it really humanizes insurance from policy to product ‘memories’, he adds.

Cheong says the success of this campaign is the way it used a key consumer insight to move the focus from policy, to precious memories the consumer wants to protect.

“Since the beginning of my career, we have been challenged by different platforms, different mediums. And whether that is TV or the Internet, the story always sells,” says Cheong.

“If you have an incredible story, from an incredible insight, it will always connect with people,” he adds.

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