2 Minutes With … Harry Chen, Group Planning Director at BBDO Shanghai 

On merging logical thinking with empathy

As group planning director at BBDO Shanghai, Harry plays a pivotal role in shaping brand and communications strategies for a diverse portfolio of clients including Mars Wrigley (Dove/Galaxy, Snickers, M&M's, Extra, Doublemint), AB InBev (Budweiser & Harbin), Pepsi and Goodyear. 

We spent two minutes with Harry to learn more about his background, his creative inspirations and recent work he's admired.

Harry, tell us …

Where you grew up, and where you live now.  

I grew up in a small city called Sanmenxia in Henan, central China. My grandparents migrated there in the 1950s to build China's first dam on the Yellow River while also building the city (come to think of it, it's quite like Los Alamos), and they continued to live there. I did my undergrad in Guangzhou, went to grad school in at the London School of Economics, and then made my way to Shanghai. I've been living and working here ever since. 

How you first realized you were creative.  

My personal realization came when I delved into photography. It was a two-fold realization. Internally, I experienced the thrill of creating something entirely fresh and innovative, sparking my excitement. Externally, I received positive feedback from others who appreciated my work. 

A person you idolized creatively early on.  

I was a huge fan of Jay Chou in my teenage years. In the 2000s, his music broke new ground in so many ways. Back then, the Chinese pop music scene was largely centered on themes of romantic love, but Jay's songs brought you to a totally different world, similar to a movie-going experience. His songs could be about environmental protection, anti-war sentiments or domestic violence. What truly amazed me was his fearless experimentation with various genres and production techniques, never constrained by the perceived "right way" to do things. It was incredibly inspiring. 

A moment from high school or college that changed your life.  

I majored in philosophy and my first class on the subject was no doubt THE life-changing moment. It gave me a whole new perspective on everything. It became clear that things I had taken for granted were worth reflecting on, that long-held beliefs might not be as good as they sounded, and that asking another "why" can never be too much of a bother. It's helped my career as a strategist—and more importantly, it helped me develop as a person.

A visual artist or band/musician you admire.  

The first who comes to mind is David Hockney. The way he challenges dominating conventions through art—with, for example, his Polaroid work—is creative and at the same time philosophical. 

A book, movie, TV show or podcast you recently found inspiring.  

Recently, I got a lot of inspiration from the book The Inner Game of Tennis. It's not just about improving your game. It's also about adopting a mindset for learning and excelling, particularly in areas that rely less on pure reasoning and logic. I realized that playing tennis shares a lot of similarities with the creative process. You don't "reason" an idea based on rationality, just like you don't think consciously about how you make a move on court. But, in a more subconscious yet effective way, the idea or the move just come to you.

Your favorite fictional character.  

Don Draper from Mad Men. Matthew Weiner did a great job creating this multi-dimensional, complex, struggling and evolving character.   

Someone or something worth following in social media.  

Mark Pollard and his podcast Sweathead. Any strategist (or anyone) can benefit a lot from the talks that he hosts. 

One of your favorite creative projects you've ever worked on. 

Dove/Galaxy has made a major transformation in the past few years to turn into a purpose brand, with an ambition to "create a world where chocolate does as good as it tastes." Understanding the issues with the cocoa growing community, Dove/Galaxy, with the support of Mars Wrigley, is making tangible efforts to help growers thrive. As the long-term strategic and creative partner, we were tasked with making the brand relevant and meaningful to consumers after the transformation. We were able to do so with our "Your Pleasure Has Promise" platform by evoking empathy and showing the impact consumers are making with every bite.  

A recent project you're proud of. 

Harbin Beer is a Chinese brand owned by AB InBev, and last year they wanted to ride the wave of the FIFA World Cup as a home-party choice. It's a mainstream, affordable beer that targets first-jobbers, so we dug deep into the life of these people to find creative opportunities. We found that the target's main obstacle to hosting home parties was the small size of their apartments and budget constraints. This insight led us to a brilliant solution—Harbin Sit Pack, an innovative packaging of 10 beers that seamlessly transforms into a bench, accommodating up to eight people. Not only did it create viral buzz, it also resonated deeply with the target demographic.

Someone else's work that inspired you years ago. 

My first love for advertising came from seeing the Avis ad by DDB. "Avis is only No.2 in rent-a-cars. So why go with us? We try harder." Boom. It's simple yet impactful creativity, which marked a turning point for me, because that was the ad that inspired me to have a career in the industry.  

Someone else's work you admired lately.

"Ketchup Fraud" by Heinz. So smart and witty. No need for further explanation. 

Your main strength as a creative person.  

My ability to merge logical thinking with empathy. This allows me to ground my work in people's real motivations, desires and struggles while not getting carried away by them—and I make sure campaigns still achieve the objectives we set. 

Your biggest weakness.  

Afraid of judgment and hesitant to fully present my work and myself to the world. 

What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising.  

I'd probably run a classic menswear shop.

2 Minutes With is our regular interview series where we chat with creatives about their backgrounds, creative inspirations, work they admire and more. For more about 2 Minutes With, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.

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