Ideas don't work 9 to 5, says TBWA creative director

Ideas don't work 9 to 5, says TBWA creative director

Known for his snazzy art direction, advertising guru Gary Steele has showcased many international brands in high-profile campaigns such as Airbnb, Standard Chartered Bank, Visa, Singapore Airlines, adidas, Michelin, Proctor & Gamble, Hewlett Packard - you name it.

His illustrious career has seen him delivering eye-catching craft on three continents over a 15-year span and picking up prestigious awards at Cannes Lions, Spikes Asia, D&AD, Effies, AdFest, and Webby's.

Last year, Steele was named 'Creative Director of the Year' at the 2015 Hall of Fame Awards organised by the Institute Advertising Singapore.

AsiaOne speaks to the dynamic executive creative director of TBWA Singapore - where he is the brain behind the agency's projects for global, regional and local clients - on his insights into the advertising trends in the region and advice for others who are intending to kickstart a career in the creative industry.

You feel as if you're having a joyride on an unseen train that takes you into a fascinating miniature world of changing vistas with unique homes - from beach bungalows to a castle among the clouds.

Whether you're a kid or grown-up, you would be enthralled as you zip through the interesting interiors of a variety of abodes in just over a minute.

That's the power of Airbnb's branding animation, which has garnered over five million views on YouTube since it was uploaded in November 2014. And that's not counting those on websites in various languages across Asia.

If you've had fun watching the 'Welcome To Airbnb' video, the person behind it would tell you he had loads of fun creating it too.

To award-winning executive creative director at TBWA Singapore, Gary Steele, the 'Welcome To Airbnb' was "unlike any education film", as he and his team managed to show the journey through the Airbnb platform in an "interesting and unexpected way".

The 39-year-old is also very proud of another Airbnb piece "A Different Paris', an animation video that features a woman's deeper experiences with a localised Paris rather than at touristy landmarks.

"I really had fun working on (the two pieces), and had the pleasure of working with some truly amazingly talented people. They have also been my most effective recently," said Steele.

For a person with boundless creative energy like him, there is no 9-to-5 routine.

Recharged and raring to go after a short break with his family last week, he said: "There are no normal working hours in this job, you're constantly thinking, looking and learning. Whether you are in the building or out having dinner with family or friends, you are always thinking.

"You have to constantly be filling the well with experiences. It's these experiences that could lead to the next great idea, and you have to be open to receiving it at anytime and any place. Ideas don't work nine to five, neither do we," explained Steele.

His advice to creative professionals here and elsewhere: Stay true to yourself and express it through the work.

"Don't try and copy what makes other markets successful and emulate them. It always comes down to the idea told in an interesting way that connects and engages people. Tell it and tell it well.

"We don't know everything and being honest about that is what makes a great creative director. It's taking what we know which is spotting great ideas and making them beautiful no matter which platform they will be on. It's taking that initial seed of an idea and helping (clients) bring their ideas to life," he said.

Japan, Philippines and Thailand's creative industries

On creative trends that have sprung up lately, he noted that brands have been building themselves around communities and carrying "purpose-led messaging anchored around a core promise".

"Partnerships and cross collaboration in making new products are on the rise, as well as the exploration around Artificial Intelligence - and I can imagine this continuing," he added.

Steele, who has been working in Singapore for eight years, finds the diverse creative strengths in Asia rather appealing.

To him, Japan stands out regionally as well as globally.

"They have a knack for doing things differently and the ability to create things that change the game, often resulting in creatives thinking: 'how did they do that?' And 'I wish I had thought of it'," Steele enthused.

"Philippines on the other hand are really good at telling great stories that connect with people on an emotional level and then they make it beautiful. Other markets from an emotive storytelling perspective that nail it every time would be Thailand. They can make you cry or go 'what was that?', but that is the beauty of Thai advertising," he added.

What about Singapore?

While Steele believes Singapore's melting pot presents enormous opportunities, creative work here "ends up being bland because it tries to appeal to everyone".

However he is hopeful, having seen positive changes over the last few years.

"There is some great energy starting to pulsate through its veins, and it's showing in the environment around us and the work that is starting to appear," said Steele.

"Now it's about harnessing and amplifying this energy, finding a voice and creating work that changes the way people look at Singapore.

"We need to do this by creating ideas that connect with people, not just creating ideas to win awards, which it has always been seen to do in the past," said Steele, whose role is also to build a team of creative 'makers' at his agency, mentor them and help provide an environment in which they can thrive.

"We're fortunate the talent pool in Singapore is full of potential, and to harness this talent, we have been working closely with schools and universities developing a robust internship programme, as well as joining workshops and judging panels", said Steele, who was recently appointed chairman for this year's Hall of Fame.

Pressure creates mediocre work

While new technology is being used to help brands tell their stories, Steele feels that the advertising industry isn't dealing with it the correct way as agencies and clients are scrambling to try and figure out the best ways to harness the technology that's available.

"It's this constant scramble and pressure that has created mediocre work focused on the tech or techniques to bring it to life," Steele lamented.

He advises creative professionals to take a step back and examine how each brand should be engaging with digital and their purpose to tell their story.

"Ideas have been lost; storytelling and craft have disappeared. We need to bring that back to help our clients carve a future in digital through storytelling that means something and doesn't just add to the clutter," he said.

The IAS Hall of Fame Awards is the only award show in Singapore that celebrates the stellar achievements of leading personalities, advertisers, agencies and campaigns for the year. The Awards Night will be held on Nov 23, 2016.

Submission closes on Sept 26, 2016. For more information, visit

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