Through a green metal door on Changhua Road, you enter an intimate setting with leather club chairs, horizontal wooden blinds, and an old gentleman’s club feeling. Black Note, the only jazz vinyl bar in Shanghai, is where advertising veteran Norman Tan chose to hold the preview of his documentary film, Who Killed the Adman? The film is a passion project, made together with his twenty-three-year-old daughter, Lili Tan, to instigate a conversation about the current state of the advertising industry.
Singaporean Norman Tan has been working in advertising for 37 years, fourteen of which were in China. He won several industry prizes, including a Cannes Golden Lion in 2014 for “Human-traffic-sign,” a campaign for Buick that uses car accident victims holding street signs to remind people to obey traffic rules. Tan has recently stepped down from his C-level position at JWT to work on selective projects with his own agency, OnBrand.
Lili Tan had only worked in one film before, which was part of a university project. Fitting In By Standing Out is another short documentary about a Hong Kongese fish and chip shop owner living in London. It was this project that caught her father’s eye for her early talent in filmmaking. She graduated last year in Graphic Design from London’s Chelsea College of Arts and explored her father’s industry for a while. Her experiences interning for agencies like STINK studio in London, DDB in Singapore, and JWT in Shanghai were, to say the least, eye-opening.
其女陈思立之前只做过一部大学项目的片子。她拍的Fitting In By Standing Out短视频纪录片讲述一个早期香港家庭移民到伦敦卖鱼和炸薯条的故事。该片让父亲发现了她在拍片子方面的才华。去年自英国切尔西艺术与设计学院平面设计专业毕业后，她循父亲的步伐进入了广告圈，她曾在伦敦的STINK、新加坡的DDB和上海的智威汤逊等公司实习，这些经历让她大开眼界。
Norman Tan remembers that on her very first day in an internship, she was already working overtime: “When I went to pick her up, she blurted out, ‘Advertising sucks!'” Tan knows that the advertising arena can still be an exciting one, but, overall, fresh entrants seem disillusioned and stifled. “That got me thinking and inspired me to work on this project.” He says.
Tan distinguishes the term ‘advertiser’ from ‘Adman’: the former is merely someone who works in the industry, while the latter refers to an ‘elite’ or people who actually leave a mark. The film’s cornerstone is a series of interviews with eight members of the elite, professionals that helped to shape advertising in China over the past thirty years. Above all, Tan wanted to pick the brains of peers that, like him, love and feel responsible for the practice.
He gathered all the resources and invited the guests, all from his personal network. Meanwhile, Lili Tan worked in the setup, art direction, and the entire post-production process. She felt very comfortable among the industry’s big shots. “They are like uncles to me, so it all felt very natural,” She says. “They’ve also taught me everything I know about advertising.”
Instead of simple answers, the rhetorical question aroused different theories: some of the guests blame the digital age and the fixation on data structures and algorithms; others blame greed and the nature of the Adman himself. Not everyone thinks that there was, in fact, a murder, but all of them agree that there was definitely change.
New technologies and consumer attitudes have indeed made a shift in advertising. However, as the film also conveys, it’s the creative idea that should be at the core of it all. But, is it? Do new generations even know what creativity is?
While working on post-production of the film, Lily Tan cleverly added several illustration clips of larger than life personalities, people from the so-called “golden age of advertising,” like Leo Burnett, the creator of the Marlboro Man. By doing so, she added another layer of meaning to the film that makes the viewer wonder if some form of generational nostalgia is motivating it.
The six-minute documentary is an amusing conundrum. Yet, despite its investigative mood, finding the answer to the question is not relevant to Norman Tan. His goal is not to make conclusions, but to start a conversation that can help to develop the industry. This dialogue could happen, perhaps, in the form of another film, with the views of the new generation in advertising. Come what may, Norman Tan would be delighted.
*The preview of ‘Who Killed the Adman?’ took place at Black Note, a three-week-old snazzy vinyl bar conceived by Norman Tan himself. Access through a green metal door, on the 2nd floor, at 46 Changhua Road, Jing An.