A JOURNEY INTO ADVERTISING IN HONG KONG

By Hans Ebert
Visit: www.fasttrack.hk

Like he had done for many, it was Tony Morias who gave two New Zealanders new to Hong Kong- Andrew Hagen and Morton Wilson, below in their band Schtung, collectively known as Schtung Music- tea, sympathy, confidence, took out his impressive roller deck and introduced them to the Who’s Who in the still somewhat fledgling world of advertising in Hong Kong. This was at the end of 1982.

At the time, Tony was running the main post production house in town- PPS- and will always be known for his generosity and unselfishly helping those who needed that first break.

Tony Morias gave so much to the advertising industry in Hong Kong and received very little in return. It’s impossible to forget all those parties he gave at his Videopost facilities and the Manhattan disco to help bring the industry together.

Tony, above, was a real life social media platform and not about aimlessly pressing “Like” buttons that today lead nowhere. His would be a helluva interesting Hong Kong story. But knowing Tony, he would say there’s no point dwelling on the past. What’s done cannot be undone. Same with everything that’s happened in Hong Kong. We can look back at what some of us enjoyed here, but none of that is coming back.

As for the journey of Schtung Music, it didn’t take Morton and Andrew Hagen long to get established here. There wasn’t exactly an explosion of creative music talent in Hong Kong. There still isn’t as the recent management reshuffle at HKTVB has proven by trotting out the same old tired names for one more round at replenishing their retirement coffers.

In advertising in the Eighties, music was usually a jingle by veteran musicians like Joseph Koo, Michael Hui, Vic Cristobal, later, Anders Nelsson and Noel Quinlan along with newer names like Mahmood Rumjahn and Romy Diaz.

There was not much going for many of these jingles other than a repetitious chorus and some pretty flaccid lyrics. It was, after all, usually about selling an unsophisticated product, whether McDonald’s or Vitasoy.

What Schtung did well was create what could be termed “soundscapes”. A few months after arriving in town, they were working on the incidental music for the Cantonese movie “Aces Go Places 2”, which introduced them to the local film world trying to find its feet. Their work also included tracks for blue chip clients like Cathay Pacific and the Hong Kong Tourism Board and a number of excellent award winning documentaries.

There was a sophistication and creativity to their music tracks. I didn’t use Schtung much as I already had a good working relationship with Romy Diaz and his engineer Ricky Cortes at MusicAd. They knew what was required, which was mainly for all the work we churned out for McDonald’s. Hardly needed was something to rival “Tubular Bells”.

What Romy and I were also doing during and after these sessions was recording our own music. It was experience gained for what was to serve us well down the road.

This was all part of the Hong Kong advertising scene in the Eighties- cliquey, pretty much expat driven, a smattering of some good work, and some overrated and very different personalities with whatever might have secretly been going through their heads kept under wraps. It was a different version of “Opportunity Knocks” to many still learning the games played in the big bad business world out there.

Personally, there was often the feeling of simply killing time by doing more of the same and knowing how there had to be more to life and creativity than client meetings, attending parties hosted by Robert Chua and being featured on the pages of Media And Marketing and winning a Kam Fan Award.

Of course, when Morton and Andrew arrived in Hong Kong, giant strides had already been made in advertising. It was a different city to those early days of pioneering admen like Malcolm Glenn, James Wong, Peter Thompson and when working on commercials meant a choice of two production houses- Salon Films and its legendary founder Charles Wang, or AdPower in Garden Road run by May Lim, Tony Hope and Poh Chih-leung.

It was with Salon Films that I worked on my first commercial as a so-called “creative director”. The featured model became my wife. The concept was hardly deep- a couple on a hammock goofing about and built around a jingle I had written and sung by Sam Hui before he became the pioneer of Canto Pop. My “contribution” to the concept was the end pack shot where three fingers formed the ‘W’ for Wrangler on the backside of my future wife’s tight blue jeans.

While some of these pioneers of Hong Kong advertising came and went, or else overstayed their welcome, and though respected as village elders were also politely ignored, there came a new generation of “Mad Men”. They brought with them heavily art directed commercials- beautiful award winning work.

There was, for example, the work for Puma by the very much missed Mike Chu. Mike was a class act we lost much too early. He opened the doors and inspired many Made In Hong Kong creative talent waiting in the wings for their time to shine.

There were other creatives with different strengths- Richard Butt, Doig and Sutherland, Stoney Mudd, Leonie Ki, Nigel Ng, the talented copywriter Richard Lam, Paul Loosely, Clarke Mallery along with new production houses Academy 1 and Centro.

There were some bursts of creative energy working with people like director Stasch Radwanski and hanging out at Videopost talking about big ideas, but those times and the long lunches at Rigoletto’s, Casa Mexicana and the Dickens Bar had run their course. We just didn’t know it. Or maybe we refused to admit that they had.

In some cases, relationships and marriages were unraveling without anyone realising it. These were outwardly happy times, but, personally, there was always a feeling that something was missing. What was missing might have been a healthy dose of honesty mixed with reality bytes.

Advertising in Hong Kong had seen some interesting times. These were when experienced cameramen and photographers who had worked on some great movies found their way to Hong Kong- people like Ronnie Maarsz, Arthur Lavis and Bob Freeman, once the official photographer for the Beatles.

What were people with these portfolios doing in Hong Kong? There were gigs here. The city had become a magnet for anyone with the semblance of an idea. Perhaps Bob Freeman- a lovely man- and others weren’t part of the creative revolution and changes, especially in film, taking place in the UK? They were from a different generation to Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne, Tony Scott etc. It was just good to have such talent and great raconteurs in Hong Kong. Maybe they also showed us how fleeting the fame game is…

As for advertising in the Eighties and early nineties, there was a certain amount of pretentiousness to some of them and changes going on behind the scenes. None of this was exclusive to Hong Kong.

Expats were being sent here from the US, UK and Australia to run multi national advertising agencies. Most couldn’t run down the road for a takeaway. It didn’t take them long however to inhale the high life to be enjoyed in Hong Kong if on an expat package.

They loved the smell of dim sum napalm in the morning- the domestic helpers, the penthouse apartment, the parties to introduce themselves to the Beautiful People, the schooling for the kids, Membership to private clubs and the five star lifestyle in colonial Hong Kong.

It’s hard to forget the Managing Director from Chicago who, upon arrival to Hong Kong, immediately hired a “gwei mui” to be his chauffeur. The pretty young thing didn’t even know most of the roads in Hong Kong. Say no more.

Before one could say “Gordon Gekko”, gelled hair was ‘in’ along with bow ties, power ties and braces. The ageing serial bully boys of advertising who couldn’t hold their alcohol were still around, but, like those propping up the bar at the Foreign Correspondents Club, knew they and their stories had passed their Use By date.

Me, I kept myself busy (and informed) by writing for the leading music trade publication Billboard, writing two weekly entertainment columns and interviewing visiting celebrities for the Sunday Morning Post- Quincy Jones, Billy Joel, Peter Sellars, Martin Scorsese etc. It helped lead to where I was going.

As for advertising and the work being produced, it was pretty good though without the originality and quirkiness of what was coming out from Thailand and Japan.

Still, being in advertising was better than doing nothing though new opportunities were opening up. The trick was being able to see them early enough- and grab them.

Advertising had its good days, but not enough, especially when a certain Aussie with a dubious background was hired to take over management where I was- DDB Needham. The Brown nosing, internal politics, and backhanders were tough to stomach.

The dramas behind “winning” and inheriting the STARTV account, the cast of characters involved in the running of the satellite channel, all the hype built around it, its sale to News Corp and where old Rupert was sold a wok in the sky on the dream that this would see him enter the China market is a dramedy waiting to be produced.

Away from the smoke and mirrors of this dysfunctional account and its enablers, snaking his way up the corporate ladder was the slick Keyser Soze orchestrating everything at DDB Needham. This took over from the fun and excitement of being in advertising, but was certainly an important lesson in the ways of corporate politics.

Along similar lines, home grown account servicing people joined the client side, and new business relationships and financial partnerships were formed. It was no different than what was happening in the music industry and elsewhere.

Frankly, these plans were being mapped out years earlier, but many didn’t see it coming. Those who did and knew they had nothing to offer made exit plans. One-time “brand names” faded to black, and advertising in Hong Kong was now in the hands of home grown talent like Louis Ng and his company Film Factory.

Louis was in that enviable position to pick and choose his jobs and knew his worth. So did others who followed in his footsteps.

Soon, instead of Tony Morias’ Videopost being the only game in town, there was Touches, the most in-demand post production house run by Nelson Ng, younger brother of Louis.

After this came other new commercials directors from advertising agency backgrounds like David Tsui and Wilde Ng.

These new players in advertising and, more importantly, the entertainment industry, signalled the unveiling of the much bigger picture of a Hong Kong in change. Just how much change and the money to be made could never have been imagined.

I didn’t need to be asked twice to leave the alligator swamp that had become DDB and join PolyGram. Advertising in Hong Kong? Mergers had seen a revolving door policy take over along with blind ambition and greed.

Good local creative talent originally mentored and supported by Stoney Mudd at McCann’s started to make their mark. Not surprisingly, there was a shift to all things Chinese.

This paradigm shift helped Schtung Music, especially Mort, who by now had married J Walter Thompson creative director Margaret Tsui, and was always interested in bridging East and West, musically.

Sure, it had been tried before, but the timing might not have been right. Add to this, the mood of the city after The Handover in 1997. It was seeing that maybe things would be okay. Maybe.

The Hong Kong film business had a short, but not insignificant boom whereas when leading Hong Kong singer Jacky Cheung started recording in Mandarin, China became a lucrative touring market for Chinese musicians. This signalled things opening up considerably with many looking at everything happening across the border. Money talks many languages.

Offices and senior executives from different industries moved to Mainland China. It meant advertising being created for a new and less sophisticated consumer market- but with huge spending power. And whoops, there goes another rubber tree plant.

A new Peter Principle set in and mediocrity was promoted in all industries to manage and feed the ravenous appetite of the world’s largest consumer market.

Morton and I reconnected when with Universal Music and working on a project for singer Laura Fygi. After this it was when with Norman Cheng, we joined our former friends and bosses at PolyGram- David Munns and Alain Levy- to run the regional office of EMI.

Andrew Hagen had left Hong Kong to work in Los Angeles. It left Mort to regroup and build a new team around him that was right for those new times.

Mort learned fast and negotiated various publishing deals including the Rights to working on the original Mandarin recordings of China’s original Shanghai Divas released on EMI’s Pathe label in China. These classic tracks were rearranged and remixed with his new team at Schtung. It was a product that worked well for all parties concerned.

Life was one big Remix and chill out party those days. It gave us recording companies an excuse to re-release a record with a couple of “bonus tracks”- usually whatever didn’t make the original cut plus a couple of Remixes of the bigger hits.

What was exciting was breaking new ground by reviving the back catalogue of EMI artists like Human League, David Bowie, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Gorillaz, Placebo and Robbie Williams. There were many more. Controlling the projects, dealing with artist management and having final approval on the work- Asian Remixes- this work went to Schtung.

Some of this work ended up on albums whereas others, especially the Bollywood Remixes, were sold to various mobile phone brands as premium deals for the Indian market. They were and still are extremely good tracks.

As they were prone to do- like with the excellent Remixes produced for us by my signing and friend Terry Lee at Chyna House in Singapore- EMI suffered from the dreaded Not Invented Here Syndrome. Too many lightweight marketing executives in Head Office refused to see their potential.

Still, at least for myself, working on these recordings and with musicians previously admired from afar was full of Django Unchained moments. It was seeing all the other opportunities that could be explored without walking on eggshells.

Mort and I still work together whenever possible. Retirement is against our religion. Will we leave Hong Kong? Is anywhere else in the world better? Maybe. But we’ve invested a helluva lot of time here. Who knows what tomorrow might bring- anywhere in the world?

My last brush with anything to do with advertising- other than meeting up with now celebrity chef Margaret Tsui at her brilliant restaurant Yin Yang Coastal a few weeks ago-was having dinner some time ago with a few names from the past.

It was a pleasant enough get together at, where else, but the Dickens Bar. I got the tab and heard how they’d “be in touch”. That was five years ago. Can’t really say that I’ve been hanging around waiting for their call.

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