Close-Up: Asia finds confidence in its creativity

As Asian agencies move up The Gunn Report rankings, Tay Guan Hin believes a unique set of cultures could be responsible.

In the past, the discovery of silk, ink, the magnetic compass, gun powder and arithmetic were some of the great innovations from Asia. And yet it may seem that Asia's ingenuity and creativity in the advertising world has only just started to take flight. The fact we've always previously put commerce before creativity was probably one of the reasons why.

Last year's Gunn Report saw Asia rising up the rankings in global awards shows, with the region's agencies taking top-five places in TV, print and interactive categories. As this year's Cannes Outdoor jury president, I had the opportunity to witness even more exciting Asian work doing the region proud. India had a particularly strong year in Press. China had some worthy winners too. Even developing South-East Asian markets such as Indonesia managed to pick up their first ever gold Lion, with Y&R Jakarta winning the coveted prize for its LG electronics campaign.

I have a theory as to Asia's rapid rise, and it's one that might have something to do with our diverse culture. In the past, tapping into our Asian heritage was seen as a boring way to stimulate creativity. I'm a Chinese from Singapore, from a conservative family. Studying to be an engineer or a doctor was what parents instilled in their children. Little attention, if any, was given to fostering creative talent.

In the early days, we looked to Western culture for inspiration. We were heavily influenced through TV, movies and imported magazines. Self-expression was not encouraged and freedom to exercise creativity limited. It was only when I left Singapore to study at Art Center, Pasadena, that I managed to find myself. It's funny how it took living in a foreign land to discover my own cultural identity.

Asia, best known for our diverse food flavours, is also known for our colourful and rich diversity in cultures and traditions. Economically and socially, we have reached a place of confidence - once reserved, we've grown to display our cultures more freely. Now, instead of looking to the West for inspiration, the West is looking at us. Thai and Japanese horror movie remakes have now become Hollywood's mainstream source of income. Asian heroes such as Jackie Chan and Ang Lee have become household names in most Western markets. There is also a heightened appreciation all over the world in our differences of cultures, art forms and expressions.

This success, I believe, lies in our newfound ability to tap into those unique cultures, and now creatively express it with an Asian flavour. This has given birth to quite a few memorable recent pieces of work.

A personal favourite is from McCann Mumbai, a Cannes 2007 winner called "Happy Dent Palace". It's not a product proposition that's unfamiliar - "Chewing gum that brightens your teeth" - yet the backdrop of a traditional rich palace setting with a song inspired by the Sufi style of music, a genre that is fast gaining popularity among Indians, was a massive hit not only in India but around the world. And what about the "Bruce Lee" Nokia viral films that were an internet hit last year? The way they were shot looked so real that they created talk-ability and spread like wildfire, and their success was only amplified further owing to the fact that Lee is a pop culture icon, one of our earliest Asian heroes to gain global recognition.

The influence the East has on the West is growing stronger and stronger. Perhaps the West is finding it far more interesting in decoding our cultural nuances as we become much more open in showing our true colours to the world.

Either way, there's no denying that creativity in Asia is exploding as we grow to understand ourselves better.

- Tay Guan Hin is the regional executive creative director for South-East Asia at JWT.

1. Singapore Bose by DDB Singapore
2. Indonesia LG by Y&R Jakarta
3. Thailand 3M by TBWA\Bangkok
4. India Transasiapapers by Taproot India
5. India Fujifilm by RMG Gurgaon