Indra Irwan Mohd Sari, Senior Copywriter based in Malaysia on sending creative emails that lead to a career in copywriting, where things get tricky and looking to markets that need a high level of localisation for inspiration.
How this creative went from “10 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Hire Me”, to writing copy for some of the major agencies such as TBWA to FCB
D.IO : So, tell us... Where are you at this current moment? Are you having coffee, stealing a moment in the office or perhaps a coffee shop?
I.I.M.S : Right now, I'm in the office, taking a break from a brainstorm, because it's starting to feel more like a brain drizzle.
D.IO : What was the path that lead you to this career?
I.I.M.S : I studied Business Management and in my last semester, I had to complete an internship. Of course, being the overly optimistic person that I am, I applied for an internship position at every big company I could think of.
One of the companies I applied to was a big advertising agency here in Malaysia. For whatever reason, my application was accepted and I became an intern in the HR department.
After my internship, I guess the agency liked me enough to offer me a job as a brand coordinator, which involved sending a lot of emails. I could have written straight-to-the-point, formal emails but I thought the staff would appreciate funny and creative ones instead. So, those were what I sent out. I'm glad I did because people noticed.
An art director in the agency suggested I try my hand at being a copywriter. She gave me an email address and asked me to send some writing samples to the address.
I was excited at the chance, but I didn't have any writing samples. So I just wrote a really convincing cover letter (something like, "10 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Hire Me"). As optimistic as I was, even I was surprised when I got the job.
That was about 7 years ago. Now I don't think I could turn back even if I wanted to.
D.IO : What are the first three words that come to mind when thinking about your country / city (it can be sights, sounds, tastes, feels, mood, people, texture etc).
I.I.M.S : Lively, Diverse, Loud. Malaysia is made up of many different races and religions so the smorgasbord of cultures makes the country a very interesting place to live in.
D.IO : Have you seen any examples of brands, artists or organizations that incorporate the memories/associations you just mentioned?
I.I.M.S : Petronas (a local oil and gas company) does a very good job at portraying the liveliness and diversity of my country. They just capture the essence of being Malaysian.
D.IO : Can you provide a recent example that portrays some of the dynamics of your local culture and society?
I.I.M.S : In Malaysia, we celebrate a lot of festivals. Just recently, Malaysians observed Easter for Christians, Puthandu for Tamils, Vishu for Malayalee Hindus and Vaisakhi for Sikhs. Having all these celebrations reflect how rich the local culture is.
D.IO : What feelings does your country / city evoke?
I.I.M.S : It's warm, literally and figuratively. It's a country of contradictions but because of its flaws, the country has such a genuine soul that can't really be described. It's something that you have to experience.
D.IO : Do you think it is important to localise international campaigns? Please elaborate on the answer. Why do you say so?
I.I.M.S : Although big, international brands can get away with not localising content on the strength of the brand name alone, this puts a distance between those brands and local consumers. Malaysians in general tend to have affinity for brands that speak to them; brands that understand their point of views.
D.IO : Is it a make or break for brands to localise?
I.I.M.S : It's not a "make or break" situation but in the long term, people will just ignore the brand. If you're not speaking to me in a way that I understand, why should I be listening to you at all? At the end of the day, if you refuse to localise, you're just working towards isolating your brand from your consumers.
D.IO : Do you believe as a creative you are well placed to help brands translate local nuances? Why?
I.I.M.S : To a certain extent, I do think so. But some brands are content with just translating a global creative work. It's basically a shortcut that they take. Sometimes, it works. For the most part, people see through it. They know it's just an adaptation work. What I do is hopefully to solve that. It's my job to (try to) provide insights and nuances that would appeal to local consumers.
D.IO : What is the one thing you would want campaigns to capture about the local demographic?
I.I.M.S : That not everyone's the same. Seems like a basic concept, but so many campaigns get it wrong. There's a lot of stereotyping that goes around when capturing demographic characteristics, and I hope brands can see beyond the surface. Dig in deeper to understand your target audience more.
D.IO : Are there any examples of global campaigns that have incorporated the local nuances of your market while staying true to their brand? How do you think they captured / merged this complex relationship?
I.I.M.S : I think what Samsung has been doing in the Malaysian market is great. They have been taking their global campaigns and giving it local flavours with original content, partnerships with key opinion leaders, etc. They have good insights on what locals would like to see. For them, they don't just adapt. They make appropriate adjustments to cater to the local audiences, and I believe that's the right way to go.
D.IO : How does the process of adapting global campaigns as opposed to creating new campaigns dim local creativity? Can adapting campaigns capture the local essence when local creatives are limited to simply adapting global campaigns?
I.I.M.S : It's definitely limiting to local creatives when brands decide to just adapt global campaigns. There's not much you can do when the parameters to be creative are so small. Worse, things tend to get lost in translation. You try to make it as local as possible, but how local can it be when the idea was conceptualised to fit a different culture?
D.IO : What is the one rule you follow for positioning a brand to fit into the local environment? Please discuss a case where this has failed or succeeded.
I.I.M.S : I don't think there is one single "must follow" rule. It all depends on the brand and the messaging they want to get across. The most important thing is to create a purpose for the brand. "How can the brand enrich my life?" That's the question I always ask myself. What one market wants, might not be needed by another market. Finding how the brand fits into people's lives is the key.
D.IO : With consumers deeply entrenchment in the digital sphere, how does this affect localisation and brand experience given consumers may experience a brand online first?
I.I.M.S : This is where it gets tricky. Consumers would usually be exposed to the global version of brand communications online first. The localised version would only come out some time after.
That's why you need localisation that's compelling. If you just adapt the global communications, there's no reason for consumers to watch or see the localised version.
Of course you need the brand experience to be consistent. The localisation needs to be different enough to fit local culture, yet similar enough so that there won't be a gap between what consumers see online and offline.
It's not the easiest thing to do, for sure.
D.IO : What other markets do you look to for inspiration?
I.I.M.S : I look at markets where there needs to be a high level of localisation. Markets like China, Japan and even Thailand.
D.IO : There is this idea of culturalization vs. localization of brands, what is the difference if any and does this help brands gets closer to the local market?
I.I.M.S : Depending on who you ask, the two might be seen as one and the same. I tend to disagree. I think localisation should also have elements of culturalisation. Even though the simple task of translating should take culture into consideration. "Is this the natural way this line would be said? Is it appropriate and relevant to the current culture?
Thank you so much Indra, we really enjoyed your straightforward talk. Sometimes it is the iteration of the simplest ideas that really hits home.