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If you have something to sell and a story to tell, then impossible is nothing - not when you have Tuan Ching, the Singapore-born, New York-based branding whiz who's coached more than his fair share of A-list clients on the finer points of image-building that make the difference between sizzle and fizzle.
As a Worldwide Creative Director of Ogilvy & Mather, the 40-something has helped shape the brand identities of the likes of BP, Miller Brewing Company, Hershey's, Johnson & Johnson, Motorola and Kodak. For the past 16 years, he has worked at The Chocolate Factory - O&M's 46th Street headquarters in Manhattan. His office is on the ninth floor - one level above that of the company's co-chairman, Worldwide Chief Creative Officer and fellow Singaporean, Tham Khai Meng.
It's not as easy as it sounds, turning some chief executive's vague ideas into cutting-edge reality. While he still hasn't figured out the magic formula, he's learned one thing: "It's not about (one's) taste; it's about quality."
You studied economics and finance at university in the US and worked in a stockbroking firm in Singapore. How did you end up as a 'Mad Man'?
My father was a civil engineer who was very involved in the stock market, so he thought I should be in it too. At 24, I was the youngest person on the trading floor.
I wasn't an aggressive type and not much of a salesman - I could have been selling fish in a market. So Dad said to do something else. He was always throwing me in at the deep end. When I was 10, I asked for a plastic Instamatic camera that many of my schoolmates had. Instead, he handed me his 1955 medium-format Agfa Isolette folding camera and said, "Learn how to use this." To this day, I can estimate exposure quite accurately by eye, without a light meter. He also packed me off to America in the 1990s, a totally clueless 16-year-old; not to mention sending me on the brokerage floor to swim with sharks…
What was it like being a young Singaporean in New York? I was like a kid in a candy store. I'd lived several years in California in my teens, but it was nothing like this. Whatever I dreamed of before in Singapore I found at my fingertips: out-of-print books, record albums I'd always wanted, mind-boggling theatre and museum shows; meeting my heroes of the art, photography, music and literary worlds. One famous person I met early on was the graphic designer Paul Rand - a very friendly guy and curious about my work. When I told him about a branding project I was doing he said, "Young man, when in doubt just make the logo blue - it'll work!" Another time, a friend told me that the renowned artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois sometimes critiqued young artists' work and all I had to do was call. I looked her up in the phone book and she asked me to come by - she lived near me in the Chelsea district. She was quite friendly and very interested in my Singapore childhood but scoffed at most of my shots, except two she really liked - a photo of a broken lotus blossom taken at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and a portrait of Professor Chan Heng Chee I'd shot for a Hong Kong magazine. I've found it to be true that people who've made a success here are usually happy to share their wisdom and give some form of guidance, almost as a duty.
What impact has being in New York made on your career? The NYC of today is quite different from when I first got here. Back then I was always on the alert - whether to avoid getting mugged or simply not to miss out on whatever craziness or brilliance that came my way. This has trained me to be more particular in articulating nuance and detail in many aspects of my life and work. Designers in Singapore seem happy working there but in New York, you're exposed to so many things and it's all so intense and concentrated - you experience the best and worst of everything. Anybody with knowledge can be creative and everyone has something to offer, it's just a matter of knowing what to do with what you have.
How has the art of branding changed over the years? A lot of people pay tons of money to create identity in a world of people with discerning taste. Having a good logo adds to the cachet. Some famous brands have the ugliest logos - if I showed some of them in a typography class I'd get an 'F' - but they have the chops to back it up. Before social media, people were more interested in theory and historical precedent - nowadays you can see all sorts of fantastic designs on the internet and you can glean things from everywhere. In the same vein, there's also so much bad stuff out there.
Was Frank Sinatra right when he said if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere? We're all fish in a huge pond here and there will always be bigger, shinier fish so trying to outdo everyone is an exercise in futility - it's far more important and painless to just be yourself. When I first started in this industry, my Dad said, "Oh, that's just a toy job with a toy salary". He always saw it from a banker's point of view. He passed away earlier this year and I was fortunate to be able to come home and spend some time with him - I think he was proud of me and how it all turned out.