Noor Ashikin Aziz, or @drNoor, has been in the advertising industry twenty years and, propelled by his artistic talent, is currently the Executive Creative Director of digital at DraftFCB in Kuala Lumpur. He studied Fine Arts at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore, and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a painter because by his own admission, “My math sucked big time.” Noor began his career as a software trainer at Apple computers in 1988, a skill that at the time was desperately needed by up-and-coming agencies who took him on as a freelance graphic designer.
Over the span of his career, Noor has only worked at three agencies; from Dentsu Young & Rubicom as it was then called, to the early stages of direct marketing at Wunderman, before he began at DraftFCB Singapore. He even experienced the client side of advertising, having done a stint at broadcasting company, Astro. Over the years, Noor has ridden the wave of the dotcom bubble into the present where Facebook and Twitter reign as the king and queen of the digital kingdom.
In the two months I spent interning at DraftFCB KL, I can’t recall a single time when I saw Noor without a smile, and yet I was still nervous to interview such an advertising heavyweight. When I stopped being such a wuss, Noor, of course, graciously gave me an hour of his time to discuss every aspect of advertising from client difficulties, cultural differences, digital trends to advice to young starters like myself.
You seem pretty positive all the time, how do you maintain such a positive outlook?
I’m unhappy on the inside. (Laughs) How do I maintain positivity? I don’t know. Every morning I wake up thinking, ‘I wish I didn’t have to go to work.’ Then I take a cold shower, after that I say, ‘Ok, I think I’ll go.’ I guess [I seem positive] because I smile a lot.
How would you describe DraftFCB?
I think my way to describe it, my sales pitch is that we’re one of the, if not the, only agency in Malaysia that can actually deliver platform agnostic, platform neutral campaigns, where we look at the client’s KPI first.
What sort of challenges do you face in digital?
There’s the misconception that digital is free. That social media does not require anything. That you just need somebody to punch in status updates. Yes, of course you don’t pay the media fee. There’s no media cost, but production costs are still there. The people cost money.
What do you think of the move towards social media?
I think it’s a lot of hullaballoo. I think the term social media is overrated in that sense. It is the way the evolution of digital is, but it should not be the single focus. I think social should be the platform for everything, it’s just the way digital works. Digital from day one has always been social. E-mail has always been social, IM has always been social. So it just happens to be a term that people are using now.
But the misunderstanding of that term by the clients is that social media equals Facebook. When I can say that it cuts across everything. You need to make your website sharable, your product shareable. People should be able to easily comment on it if they like it. It’s already available, Facebook and Twitter just help propagate it even more.
How difficult is it to balance what the client wants with the creative work?
My honest answer to that is that it really depends on the client. I think clients sometimes have expectations that are really beyond anybody’s delivery capability… and then at the same time you have the creative who just wants to be creative, so how do I find balance in that? Try to find balance in what’s required. Try to understand from the client side what’s required. The simplest aspect of what they want to see versus what the creative wants to do, and then help the creatives to try to deliver it.
How do you measure success in a digital campaign?
Well it depends on what the KPIs are, it depends on what the KPIs for engagement are. For some clients the KPIs are fan-based, or feedbacks, shares, so it’s kind of more fortified. We can always say it’s a deep-level of engagement, but as much as I would love to say we have a small set of really passionate users, bottom line is, the clients are looking at a larger set of numbers. You have to justify the spend.
It seems like a lot of the campaigns here are Facebook contests? Does it work? Do people respond to it?
If you get a big enough price, it will work. It depends, what is the measure of success? Is a thousand good enough for success or is a hundred thousand good enough for success? So it really depends. Do people respond to it, yes.
Especially if you look at the data. The people that tend to respond to contests tend to be from lower to middle income, I think in general it cuts across the globe, because the prizes are aspirational. And unfortunately the lower-to-middle tend to be the mass majority. Especially for Malaysia, a lot of the people are from rural areas, so even a 10 dollar top-up or prize will be huge for them.
What are your favorite iphone apps, or ipad?
Twitter, Facebook. (Laughs) Ok, you take that out.
Flipboard, news discovery. It’s a news application that aggregates from twitter and Facebook and other Twitter content. To me, anything that allows me to discover. But here’s where I think that the evolution will be, everything being a cycle, curated content has become the new news. Curated content is going to be the new wave. It’s a nice discovery.
Do you even look at the news in print at all anymore?
No, not at all. It’s so dumb. There are no opinions, and coming from someone in advertising, we all know that everything can be spun.
What’s the best part about your job?
The thinking, the ideas. That is what I missed most on the client-side. There’s no ideas on the client-side— content is all out of your hands. But in advertising the content is in your hands.
Everyone always says when I ask them what their advice is, “Don’t get into advertising.” Give me a couple reasons why people should.
It’s a creative field. It’s an opportunity to be creative. You can practice creativity at every level. If you think of all the top agencies in the world, the chairmans, the vice chairmans, the deputy chairmans— they’re all creative people. Whether they are creative directors, or even the guys who are business-centric. Not just in advertising, but in any industry. [But] advertising is the only industry where you can actually afford to be creative.
What would your advice be to students who are trying to get into advertising?
You have to love advertising. Understand what advertising’s all about first. That understanding, I don’t think anybody can teach. It’s not all about doing TVCs, it’s not all about making claims to good campaigns, having worked with brands like Nike, Adidas, it’s not all about that. It’s really a lot of hard work.
They have to know that for every campaign that is successful, that everybody loves, there’s probably a hundred thousand that are mediocre or just under the radar. And most of the time you will end up doing that. Occasionally, once a year, you’ll get that good brief, if you’re lucky. So you have to understand advertising and know that that’s what you are getting into.
So how do you handle the setbacks? What do you do when you have a campaign that didn’t go off how you wanted it to?
Oh gosh, I don’t know, it happens right? So we just have to make sure that, you know, it delivers at least a certain portion of the KPIs. The whole thing about digital is that you can actually track that kind of KPIs. You can switch back, or switch strategy, mid-campaign to reach at least a certain portion of the KPI, versus doing ATLor things like that where a lot of them are really not up to the agency’s visibility.
How do you manage the hours?
I’m glad that I don’t have to do such long hours like some of my team, but when I was young, [I did]. It’s just for the love of it. I’m certain that among the people who work with me, half of them are probably just getting by with the hours, half of them are doing it because they really like doing it.
So I can’t say how I manage it, because I’m just doing it because I like doing it. It’s funny because I can’t speak for everybody but I’m sure creatives are like this as well, but I’m not sure of the account services— Once you get into the groove of design and everything, you are not going to stop until you get to a stage where you believe it’s almost perfect. You just go home to rest on it, and you come in the next day.
I’ve been on locations where I’ve done it almost perfect and then I go back the next day and say, “Oh I don’t like it” and then you go through it all over again. It’s just for the love of it.
What do you do when you’re stuck for ideas?
Surf the net a lot. (Laughs) Copy other people. That’s what they do—trust me—everything is based on something else. Everyone does it, it’s just whether they admit it or not—trust me, I know. Every art director, every copywriter, every strategist, every planner, always reads books [and there’s an] item that just sort of jumps out at them and they say, “There must be something I can do with this.”
Do you think there’s any difference in gender in the way that women present advertising versus the way men do?
Yes. Ok, I can’t say about the glass ceiling because I’ve seen women who’ve done really well and who are doing really well. Even their styles, males have a different style than females. Females, their advertising style tends to be a little bit softer. Where males tend to be a little more…. I don’t know, I can’t say. They’re just different. Even the way the client relationship happens. A male client relationship tends to be more in terms of drinking buddies, but females tend to bond more.
What do you look for when you’re looking to hire somebody?
Thinking. It’s showing that they can think, I think if they can show that they can think well, they will also show that they will have the passion for advertising. If you can actually show that your thinking is very strong, then the passion for advertising does come out very easily. A lot of people say, ‘Oh I love advertising, I have a passion for advertising’ but I’m not sure if that does translate. I would say, output.
If I came you, applying for a position, and I brought my portfolio, what would you like to see in it?
What would you like to do? (Laughs)
Let’s say copywriting.
Basically, your ability to think conceptually and your ability to write really strong, witty copy.
What do you think is the biggest mistake that people starting out make?
Not knowing about advertising. Just thinking that advertising is all glamorous. Because the work load— it’s huge. I think most of them want to work for brands, big name brands, and everything without having knowledge of the kind of work that is required to make that brand. And the biggest mistake for the agency is to hire someone who just says, ‘I’m passionate about your brand’, but there’s [actually] a lot of work. You have to have the work ethic.
Are there any restrictions on the advertising here in Malaysia?
Yeah, censorship all the time. You can’t show skin, you can’t show kissing, you can’t show proximity—a guy and a girl together—yeah, a lot. No girls in bikinis or swimsuits.
So if you’re advertising underwear or swimsuits, what do you do?
You don’t. You use social media and put pictures of girls in bikinis. (Laughs) No one is censoring that. In Singapore you’ll see a lot more skin, literally every ad will be girls in bras, girls in panties. They even advertise boob jobs.
Yeah, in Singapore on Orchard Road I found that a lot of the ads seem to be imported from America and feature a lot of caucasians. Does that get on your nerves? How do people here relate to that?
[It’s] aspirational. It’s funny because, it’s good and bad. Singaporeans are really aspirational and see the whites as being a model to follow. Which kind of like helps push that society towards the way it is right now, so it’s not so inward looking [and] more progressive. But of course that comes at the expense of the culture.
Whereas in Malaysia you cannot show western people, it becomes very inward, but at the expense of progression. How you balance it is very difficult, because there’s always a gray area between how much skin you can show.
What are the difficulties in trying to cut across cultures here in Malaysia?
That’s where regulation comes in. You can’t do a campaign that talks only to the Chinese. You cannot do a campaign that talks only to the Indians. That’s where regulation comes in and it helps, it does help.
Are there any types of products that are not allowed to be advertised at all here and in Singapore?
You cannot advertise medical services. A doctor cannot advertise his clinic. If you are personal care, like facial [you can], but if you are a doctor you cannot. They want to keep health care costs low. They want to make sure the prices are controlled or transparent. They don’t want doctors that are making more claims than proof.
Do you feel like there’s an element of manipulation to advertising?
Yeah, of course, I’m part of it. The thing is, advertising has been getting the flack for it because we’re up front about doing it. But the truth is, there’s always an element of manipulation everywhere. You talk to a lawyer, he’ll scare you to death and you’ll hire him. You talk to a doctor, the doctor will up-sell you.
That’s why people are always advised to get a second opinion and things like that, but you’ll never know if the second opinion is right. Any sales-person, even if there’s no advertising, there’s an element of manipulation….and I should know because I’m part of the whole manipulation machine.
Do you think that people are getting more cynical about advertising?
Yes, only because it’s our own fault. We don’t progress as fast as the knowledge of the people. We still try to do advertising as it was in the 60’s or 70’s when the truth is, the market, the people, are so much smarter. [Back then] a small handful were degree holders, now a majority are degree holders. So advertising needs to catch up with that. Unfortunately sometimes their hands are also tied, because the client thinks that the audience is dumb.
What do you think is the key to getting people to listen?
To make people believe that you are on their side. That’s why social media works very well. Make it believable.
Would you agree that advertising is kind of the art form of our time?
Yes, yes. I would agree. It’s an art form, not the art form. There’s always paintings but bear in mind that paintings can also be sold as advertising. Even artists and painters can be advertising. Even they need advertising to sell themselves.
They can say they love and live for the work but you kind of like know that advertising’s behind it. The way that we push the media to sell that guy, that painter. Nobody gets picked up by sheer talent alone. This guy has an ability to grow into a space where nobody’s been before. So it’s an art form, not the art form.