Don't Chase Awards: Gary Steele, TBWA\Singapore

Just do what you think is right. When you focus on doing that, you not only will be happy but the awards will also come.

Gary Steele
Executive Creative Director TBWA\Singapore

Gary Steele stepped up as TBWA\Singapore’s joint Executive Creative Director in 2016 alongside Hagan de Villiers. It took them just two years to fulfil their goal of the network being named Southeast Asia Creative Agency of the Year in Campaign’s Agency of the Year 2018 awards.

The agency landed 23 new business wins since 2016, including Netflix, Uniqlo, Accenture and Singapore Airlines – Singapore’s biggest account move of 2018.

Steele has just announced he's moving to DDB New Zealand as ECD in May 2019. He is also joining AD STARS 2019 as a Final Judge this year. The festival runs from 22nd to 24th August in Busan, South Korea. In this Q&A, he touches on everything from the art of winning pitches to the dangers of rule breaking. 


You’ve worked on multiple, very different continents. How have those different cultural experiences changed or enriched your creative style over the years?

No matter where you work in the world, all ideas should come from a basic human insight. When those human insights are then mixed with cultural nuances, the work starts to have that magic feeling. So my style has evolved by soaking everything up around me, listening more and really getting into the local culture and then telling those stories in an interesting way as best I can.


You often create advertising that doesn’t resemble advertising. Does it become easier or harder to be less conventional the more experienced you are? What rules are you breaking lately?  

Advertising is and always has been evolving around us. But at the core of it the fundamentals remain the same. Our jobs are to find new and interesting ways to tell the story of a brand or product – but we have to be careful that we are constantly trying to break the rules for disruption’s sake. Sometimes the right medium is the most conventional medium to deliver that idea. 


So my advice is: you don't have to always try to break the rules. Just be artful in the stories you tell and be interesting in the way you tell them. That could be doing something completely different, other times it could be a conventional medium such as film or radio – just do it in an interesting way.


You seem to have a flair for pitching having won 23 new business wins since 2016. What’s the secret to pitching well?  

The first thing you need to make sure of – before you pitch any account – is to decide whether this is something that will fit with the creative culture of your company. If there is a fit and the client is right then you go all in. 


The second thing you need to agree on is your guiding principal, which for us is: You only present the work you want to make and the work that is right for the direction you want to take that brand. Then it is about making sure that whatever you have shared in the pitch, should you win it, becomes the work that you make.


Fortunately in our case, most of our pitch wins we have had have ended with the work being the work we launch with. Our most recent success was on the Singapore Tourism business. The work on pitch day was the work that ran, albeit a couple of years later.


With such an enviable client list, what projects are you most proud of being involved in lately?

That’s a hard question as most projects I have loved for various reasons. However, the ones that I would say I am most proud of would be the bigger brand platform work, from launching Airbnb to creating global platforms for Standard Chartered to Singapore Tourism. The latest pride and joy would be the platform we are creating for Singapore Airlines, so watch this space.


You’ve said that your proudest achievement is watching those you’ve mentored succeed. Which mentors have had the biggest influence on your own career?

Oh, wow – there have been so many amazing people who have helped me in ways I never would have imagined. To single out one or two would seem unfair. If you squeezed me for an answer, I would say the amazing John Hunt. He was the reason I wanted to do this from the age of 16 and he has always been someone I have learnt a great deal from. His influence on me has led me to where I am today.


You’re no stranger to winning awards. What is one piece of advice you would give to those hoping to grow their trophy cabinet this year?

Don't chase awards. Just do what you think is right. When you focus on doing that, you not only will be happy but the awards will also come.


Having won Creative Agency of the Year in South East Asia in 2018, what are your goals for 2019 and beyond?

We have achieved our goal within two years here at TBWA\Singapore. Now we need to set our sights on something much bigger than South East Asia. This means picking up Agency of the Year in Cannes.



You’re judging AD STARS 2019 this year, and the theme is ‘Influence’. What influences you the most creatively?

People. Without that we have nothing. People have and bring ideas to life. So for me, it is key to surround yourself with interesting people and let them do what they do. Their influence then lives around you and you can soak it all up.


With judging any awards show, the most exciting thing is sitting down and only focusing on the work. This is why I love being on judging panels as it is the pure focus and the ability to see work you would never have seen from around the world all wrapped up nicely in a few days.