2 Minutes With ... Natalie Lam, Publicis Groupe CCO for Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa

On Nike+, HSBC's 'Art of Progress,' and those mesmerizing Burberry films

Natalie Lam moved from New York to Hong Kong to lead Publicis Groupe's creative community across Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa in early 2021, amid the chaos of the pandemic. She has been focused on uniting creatives across the region as one giant creative team—a true community of integrated creative thinkers with a breadth of skillsets.

As someone who loves to break down walls and build new worlds through the power of creativity, data and technology, she now oversees 60+ agencies across the region. Natalie made her mark working on Nike at R/GA, later joining Ogilvy One Shanghai, followed by McCann, Razorfish and Google in the U.S. She has grown and led creative departments for branding, digital and advertising agencies; helped global brands such as Google, Ikea and Spotify chart their future; won many international awards and served as juror too many times to count. She once took some time off from advertising to build a brand in the real world. She doesn't have a dog.

We spent two minutes with Natalie to learn more about her background, her creative inspirations, and recent work she's admired.


Natalie, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I grew up in Hong Kong, went to NYC for art school and stayed to work. Twelve years ago, I worked at Ogilvy Shanghai for a change of scene for a few years, then back to NYC for a slower pace. Now in the middle of a pandemic, I'm in Hong Kong to be closer to my family and as a base for my APAC, Middle East and Africa responsibilities.

What you wanted to be when you grew up.

Actually, I never thought about it.

How you realized you were creative.

I never thought I was "creative" but I couldn't stand the "normal, responsible" studies. My parents made me do Chinese calligraphy and compete when I was little; both became pretty easy for me. I still always doodle when stuck in a boring situation.

A person you idolized creatively growing up.

I was zealous about the Hong Kong Cantopop singer and actor Leslie Cheung.

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

I went to a very strict girls' high school in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony. You couldn't talk in class unless you were granted permission by the teacher, kinda like how you'd interact with the Queen. If you made noise, back then it was legal for the teachers to put tape over your mouth. Going to art school in New York in the early '90s and seeing kids get pizza delivery during class was a big shock to see there's a different way of life.

A visual artist you admire.

James Turrell.

A band or musician you love.

It's hard to say just one, but those who are in the Spotify genre "Icelandic Minimalism," and Leonard Cohen.

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

Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Someone worth following on Instagram.

@subwaycreatures

How Covid-19 changed your life, personally or professionally.

Like most people, it made me re-prioritize what matters in life, and it's very tough. Thankfully, myself and all my close loved ones are healthy. Covid is one big scary social experiment besides all the lives lost and societal damages; it has constantly forced one to choose between extreme options. Is a trip outside Hong Kong worth 21 days of hotel quarantine? Could I communicate with the teams in Singapore seamlessly without going there? When I was on a brief vacation in the Swiss Alps in the summer, I wondered why the cows live in better conditions with perfect fresh air and storybook settings every day, while my whole world was reduced to small screens most of the time.

Your favorite creative project you've ever worked on.

It is still launching Nike+ back in 2005 with a small talented team at R/GA New York. It was something that was never done before both in the agency and the brand world, whether it's the scale, the long-lasting industry impact—digital fitness is now a $10 billion global industry—or the personal impact to the team who worked on it. It taught me there's no one definition of being creative, and anything is possible if you set your mind to it. It was also a marathon: Building a brand and product from scratch and growing it required a very different mindset and dedication from a campaign that lives only for a month or two. I spent three years on Nike+ after the launch and tasted what it takes to handle real users' complaints and feedback on a daily basis, while trying to add new ideas for growth and seeing results at scale.

Best of all, everyone in the team went on to amazing things beyond "advertising." One of them started Vine, the six-second video app, some moved on to create Instagram, and most are global agency and brand-side leaders.

A recent project you're proud of.

It would have to be the Hong Kong team's launch of an elegant stock market visualization inspired by traditional bank notes for HSBC, "Art of Progress." Hong Kong has been going through a lot in the past few years. When I first arrived in February, I heard doubt about the future of both the city and the advertising industry, yet our creative team is young, hungry and dedicated. I love the confidence and progressive spirit of this piece, and the can-do attitude behind the team. I think more fresh work like this would really inject new energy into the Hong Kong advertising industry.

HSBC - Art of Progress
Someone else's work that inspired you years ago.

I've always been a fan of great modern design, as I started as a designer. Way back, I loved Frost Design in Australia and the U.K. studio Why Not Associates. In fact, I've been using "why not" ever since to question everything, every fear and every pushback.

Someone else's work that you admired lately.

The creative team at Burberry behind all their wonderful films. The whole world has gone through a lot in recent years, so it's great to see some consistently fresh, beautiful work that's not too loaded.  

A main strength of yours as a creative person.

I can strip the ultra-complex down to ultra-simplicity.

Your biggest weakness.

Knowing when to let go if I'm invested in something.

One thing that always makes you happy.

Nature, without man-made complications.

One thing that always makes you sad.

Social injustice.

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

A wood furniture maker. No other material, I'm obsessed with wood. 

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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Jessica MacAulay
Jessica MacAulay is a senior broadcast journalism student at the University of Colorado Boulder and a contributor to Muse by Clio.

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