The mindset, musings and mileage of a long-distance runner

What does it take to create great campaigns year after year after year? Mark Fong answers.

Edited by Edward Ong.

About two years after starting as copywriter, I learnt the one lesson that would change everything I thought I knew about advertising.

In less than 20 months, I had been promoted out of the open cubicles and into the second largest room in the creative department which I shared with a senior art director.

I had just hung my latest framed award and was wondering where to display my first London International Advertising statute.

“This needs to be somewhere prominent”, I thought to myself, “as a sign of gratitude to my ECD and Deputy Creative Director for paying and freighting the bloody thing from London to Singapore.”

(I definitely wasn’t going to spend half my not-yet-senior writer’s pay check on that naked idol).

“Why are you looking so pleased with yourself?” asked my ECD as he adjusted one of my awards on the wall.

“20 international awards in 20 months”, I replied. “For almost all the agency’s major clients.”

“Not bad”, he smiled “but get ready to keep doing the same thing year in and year out for the next 20 years.”

That’s when Patrick Low- my Deputy Creative Director/ mentor/ partner and all-round goodfella- uttered these immortal words: “Life isn’t a sprint but a long-distance race.”

And every day since, life just keeps confirming that no truer words were ever spoken.

Advertising is all about the moment. It’s about now.

It’s all very transient, isn’t it?

Today’s print ad is tomorrow’s nasi lemak wrapper.

Tiktok videos have a 2-second shelf life, if you’re lucky.

The awards we strive for have a Best-By Date.

Red-hot-must-hire teams are barely lukewarm after two agency Christmas parties.

Maybe that’s why many canny creative teams choose to cash in their creative chips from one agency and dash to another.

Rather than stay and take on the same brief from the same client.

Patrick Low stayed on in the same agency for over 22 years. He went on to retain and grow a demanding telco client for 19 years, the same car brand, same bank account for over 10 years and an FMCG client now in its 4th decade.

Not by doing the same-old same-old but coming up with consistently fresh campaigns that connect with new generations of customers across different media platforms – on briefs that are fundamentally the same over the years.

His advertising relevance and personal tenacity in raising the creative bar has never fazed this creative marathoner’s mindset.

Going the distance scares the hell out of flash-in-the-pan creatives.

Nothing is more cerebrally demanding than working on the same brief year after year- knowing that the product benefit is marginal and the brand promise is identical.

Anyone can make a great impression on a first date. Making a marriage work is an entirely different ball game.

With the hindsight of over 3 decades, I can count on one hand the number of creatives who can create consistently fresh ideas for the same brand.

Likewise, there is no shortage of teams, who after achieving some measure of success on one-off ads- job-hopped themselves out of agencies and countries as soon as the next award cycle hits.

Their follow-up ideas never get off the ground.

Their proposed ads never run. Instead, they do.

This short-sighted mindset and inability to create a killer follow-up is killing our business.

When award-winning creators giddy after one great campaign choose to cut and run because they dread the pressure and expectations of a sequel, the brand has no opportunity to build on its initial success.

Without a track record, clients begin to doubt the value of consistent brand building.

Clients stop seeing advertising as an investment but a budget to woo the ever-fickle customer by any means.

Insecure clients dangle it like a pitch prize for shops to compete for.

If their current agency cannot capture lightning in a bottle once again, they begin to wonder whether if the spark exists in another agency.

If one-off campaigns, creative sprinters and agency hopping clients are a three-legged stool, it explains why agency-client relationships as so wobbly.

Great long running campaigns is the only glue keeping agencies and clients together.

“Creating one great campaign is hard enough. Doing it year after year is impossible”

Is it, really?

Let’s look at some examples.

Bud Light’s Real Men of Genius started as a regional radio campaign, then went national and jumped from radio onto tv.

Each script was better than the last.

Bud Light drinkers looked forward to new versions year after year.

Americans could recite their favourite ones.

The multi-year Men of Genius campaign became a cultural touchstone inspiring spoofs, memes and riffs.

Did this campaign win awards?

By the truck loads and for over a decade.

Want more examples? 

How about ‘Got milk.’ There’s even a coffee table book featuring all the ads.

Hungry for more? ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry.’

Ah, so it’s all about the tagline? Well, Silk Cut had none.

Mainly because the British ad body banned headlines (and pack shots) for cigarette advertising.

Is it all about rigidly following a given creative discipline?

The Economist campaign showed anything is possible if the work continues to respect the intelligence of their subscribers.

Are there any Asian examples?

A small local shop on a small island created a global brand and held the account for over three decades.

The brand promise was anchored on ‘inflight service even other airlines talk about’.

They kept the message consistent.

They made sure production values were always on par with the best. And often even better.

Their work may not have won many awards.

But it won something more valuable-the loyalty of frequent customers.

And this was before the advent of air-miles.

Consistency is better than freshness

Mature clients take a less disposable view of tenured agencies.

As brand guardians, these agencies are not mere vendors but co-pilots who have earned their seat at the captain’s table.

To the teams working on the umpteenth campaign on a brief that was carved in stone before they joined the agency- keep doing what you do best.

Instead of a reel with one-offs, you’ll have a personal brag book that shows your creative versatility and strategic discipline to the core promise.

You are brand custodians of the past, and business creators of the now – before handing over a stronger brand to the next agency team tomorrow.

You are not just a gun-for-hire but mature creators who can continue to build the brand and sail it at the same time.

In my view, you’re worth more than your weight in gold.

24-karat gold, mind you. Not the worthless, spray-painted gold on ad trophies that lose their shine after 365 days.

In the long run, isn’t that what every creative professional truly wants?

Mark Fong has been a copywriter, creative director, agency CEO for 22 years before becoming a client for the last 13 years. He doesn’t run. But his ads have.

Edward Ong is the Founder and Creative Director of Borderless.


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