With this interview we inaugurate the cycle Adfest 2009 (more info in our new section Adfest).


ruthlee1Ruth Lee, Chief Creative Officer for DDB,  was named one of the Top Ten Creative Directors in China. Her work has been recognized at Cannes, The One Show, D&AD, Clio, London Festivals, Media Awards and ADFEST, as well as at the Longxi and China Advertising Festivals.

As one of the leading industry figures in China, Ruth has amassed plenty of expertise as an awards judge at both local and international levels. Prior to her return to DDB Hong Kong as Chief Creative Officer, she helped build Leo Burnett China into the country's most influential brand building agency.

Ruth also worked at Admerasia in New York for two years before coming back home, where she guided a creative team of diverse ethnicities towards developing conventional and interactive campaigns.


AdWomen: First of all, we would like to congratulate you for being selected a jury member of as significant festival as Adfest. How one feels when gets a new like this?

Ruth Lee: This is actually the second time I've been invited to judge Adfest. Around Asia-Pacific, Adfest is regarded as a very significant advertising award show, so of course I'm very honored to be part of it.

AdWomen: ¿Do you think that Adfest, since its first edition, has influenced the advertising industry in the region?

Ruth Lee: In the 12 years Adfest has existed, one thing that has become clear is that the jury imposes very, very tough standards on ads, so only the best of the best even make it in front of the judges. That's why a lot of people say that Adfest is the Cannes of Asia. Ads that do well here often go on to do well at other international awards, so Asian agencies definitely see Adfest as a must-enter show.

AdWomen: Just some years ago there were almost no women in the juries of international advertising festivals. Do you think that since their incorporation the type or style of awarded campaigns have changed?

Ruth Lee: I'm afraid there are still very few women on the juries at these shows-consider there are only five women this year out of over fifty jurors. I think this is mainly because few women creatives stay long enough in the field to get in a position to be invited. Advertising is an extreme profession, one that's not easy for women to work in. It requires people to endure huge stress levels and put in extremely long working hours. And it's just a simple truth that women who have other priorities in life, like children, usually can't afford to do that.


AdWomen: You work as a Chief Creative Officer for DDB . Without any doubt you needed to work hard to get where you are. What was the clue moment in your career until the moment? And who is the person that has taught you/helped you the most in the word of advertising?

Ruth Lee: I think my endurance stems from my background. I was raised in a single parent family. From the age of 11, I had to try and support myself by selling dim sum, and this taught me that to get anywhere in life requires perseverance. As for inspiration, of course the great ad men-Paul Arden, Leo Burnett and Bill Bernbach-are up there. They were different… yet they shared the same visions for creating ideas that would change people's behavior. They took great pride in what they did, and had strong convictions for what they did, despite all the rejections, doubts and criticisms they faced along the way.

AdWomen: A woman in the territory dominated by men. How did you survive and what's the experience you're living now?

Ruth Lee: Firstly, I don’t think of myself as a ‘woman creative’. I don’t expect privileges, and this kind of mindset helps. However, when it comes to creative judgment, I’m sure gender bias will create some interesting debates for the judges.

Let me illustrate this with an idea for the ‘outdoor’ category in this year’s Adfest. A pepper spray brand installed special electronic mirrors in ladies’ toilets. When a woman was looking at the mirror, it would activate a sensor and an image of an attacker would appear suddenly behind her. It’s a simple but shocking idea that both myself and the other female judge liked. However, the guys on the panel didn’t think the same. They thought it would be too intimidating for a brand to scare their target market like this.

I remember when I was judging another awards show and I came across a print idea for Panadol, which was promoting a formula to cure menstrual pain. The visual was a bomb disposal robot holding the product approaching a house, with policemen cowering nervously behind their cars in the background. I didn’t get this at first. But then some guys on my panel explained that on days when women face this problem, they really are like a ticking bomb, hence the bomb disposal robot delivering the product. As a member of the ad’s target audience, I think this ad only really works from a guy’s perspective, and I think it’s quite intimidating. But hey, it won a Cannes Lion.


Panadol Robot

Advertising Agency: Ogilvy & Mather SingaporeExecutive Creative Director: Todd McCracken

Creative Group Head / Art Director: Ashidiq Ghazali

Photographer: Groovy Studio

Retoucher: Procolor

Creative Group Head / Copywriter: Troy Lim

AdWomen: Presently, the number of women working in the creative departments is increasing, little by little. Does it change somehow the way how agencies and creative teams work? And what about the influence on realization of ads and campaigns?

Ruth Lee: Many young women with creative talent have a great interest in joining advertising. This means the gender balance is quite even to start with. I do actually find women more insightful, especially when it comes to advertising personal or household products. However, as I mentioned before, there aren’t many that stay on to achieve the top positions.

AdWomen: The data show that the majority of women do not feel identified with advertisements. What are the creative keys that make it possible to connect with women successfully? And the most efficient techniques and advertising strategies that work with women the best?

In our industry, teamwork is essential. Usually most of the women are in account servicing and planning. But they do work closely with the creatives to derive insights that really touch women, so that way even male creatives can come up with effective ideas for cosmetic brands.

Most people still define advertising as being just television commercials and print ads. The media landscape has changed so much now though. These days, consumers are much more likely to trust something their friends tell them, rather than official messages from advertisers. This is why I am a true believer in the power of social marketing.

We have to facilitate a platform for people who share the same interests. This way, they can play an active role in the communication and build good relationships with brands. The communication needs to take a more organic form. One with a responsive attitude. If we do that, consumers can connect with a brand as they would a person, and not just as a cold range of products.

AdWomen: You have mentioned one of your mentors. Could it be that the scarce presence of women in creative teams is a consequence of the lack of female role models in this field? What can be done in order to change this status quo?

Ruth Lee: In my mind, Leo Burnett’s ‘apples’ story is always the best example of conviction. He started his company during a recession. Everyone told him he’d soon be selling apples on the street. Unfazed, he decided to put fresh apples in the reception in his office, greeted clients with them, and used them to remind himself of his determination. Nobody should tell you what you can or can’t do. Stand by your faith. That’s what I tell myself every day.


From Joan of Arc to Hillary Clinton, female role models have been everywhere throughout history. I don’t think we should just restrict ourselves to modern advertising for inspiration. Whenever the media pays attention to successful women in other fields, it’s very inspiring to us. It makes us think: if she can do it, so can I!

AdWomen: To end up a brief questionnaire:

Your best campaign:

I can’t say which is best, as it should always be your next piece of work! Although, I did a campaign for Park n’ Shop that featured a 70-year-old grandmother named Mrs. Wong. She was hired as the supermarket chain’s quality controller. Her experience and fussiness in selecting the best products really resonated with housewives in Hong Kong, and the campaign was a huge success.


The recent campaign that you like the most:

It was a campaign launched last year but they are constantly refreshing it – The Uniqlo clock screensaver. They found a new way to reach their target audience, and it was hugely effective. At one point, I saw that screensaver on at least 70% of the screens in our office. And what I thought was brilliant was how the screensaver would update itself automatically when a new fashion collection arrived. It’s such a refreshing idea to see fashion shows on your desktop.


A friend from work:

Bob Scarpelli, our global chief creative officer. He sends an inspiring thought out regularly to everyone in the DDB network. Even though I’ve never met him in person, I feel that he’s a friend.


One creative woman:

Linda Locke. She’s retired from her advertising agency now, but she’s still active in the advertising world as a consultant. She devotes a great amount of time to training and inspiring creative professionals.

Your tip for young creative women:

It's tough. And it's the same for men.


A farewell:

Advertising is an exciting career choice. Even though there are a lot of ups and downs, it's a worthy ride.

Find out more interviews, here.


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