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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Kay Hsu

Global director for Instagram Creative Shop on why being a middle child made for being a good planner and building Instagram’s ad platform from the bottom up

5 Minutes with… Kay Hsu

800 million people visit Instagram every month. 500 million of those visit every day. That’s a lot of eyeballs and so it should come as little surprise to learn that Instagram’s advertising platform is booming. There are now 2 million advertisers and 25 million businesses with a business profile. 80% of Instagram’s users follow a business profile and in the month of April 180 million people took action such as visiting a website, getting directions, calling, emailing or messaging a business as a result of its Instagram activity.

But four years ago none of those advertising stats existed as Instagram didn’t have an advertising platform. One of the people that’s played a pivotal role in the build and evolution of ads on Instragram is Kay Hsu, global director for Instagram Creative Shop (and juror for the inaugural Immortal Awards). Prior to joining the Facebook family she served as a planner at Huge and LBi (not to mention a post-university stint in politics on Parliament Hill in her home country of Canada). 

LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Kay to find out more.

LBB> You’ve been at Facebook / Instagram since 2013 - what inspired you to jump ship from agencies at that time? 

KH> My friend was at a startup after previously working at Saatchi & Saatchi and Y&R. Her startup got sold and she came to me and said that she had a really great job offer from Facebook and another great one from a big, global agency - ‘which should I take?’ she asked me. Not even a question - absolutely take the Facebook job, which surprised her because everyone had been telling her to take the agency role. But why would you not want to join a company / business / brand that has fundamentally changed the way we communicate? And the exact same reason I told her to join is also why I did the same.

I was still working at an agency and doing a lot of planning, and I wasn’t bored with what I was doing but I felt like I’d done it. I think I got to a level where I was pretty satisfied with the skill set that I had, the clients I worked with and the teams I worked with, so I was ready to move on for another challenge. One of working in a totally different media with a totally different business model and totally different people, and working on really interesting things. 

Then there’s the vision. It’s very simple - make the world more open and connected. That really inspired me and in a lot of jobs I had before I never really felt that vision or felt very connected to the leader of the organisations I’d worked for. Mark [Zuckerberg] was someone I could look up to and be inspired by. 

When I thought about what Facebook really is as a business, it really captured my curiosity and from being there for the past five years, it’s lived up to the dream. 

LBB> Your role of leading Instagram’s Creative Shop is an interesting one because it’s still so young! So, in a nutshell, what does it entail? 

KH> In the shortest possible way, I would say that I’m responsible for the strategic positioning and approach to creative product development and storytelling on our platform. At its most basic: make sure Instagram is a really cool and creative canvas for creators and advertisers to tell their stories on. That takes shapes and forms of many types. I work with product designers to ensure what we’re building is right for agencies and brands, I write narratives on where Instagram is today and how it can inspire, I have to think about new products that we need to roll out. 

I do a lot of things that are related to my old job in planning, like creative testing and working with our measurement science team to investigate and explore what kind of creative is working so we can advise our advertisers on how to find success.  

LBB> You touched upon it there, but how does your experience as a planner feed into your role at Instagram?

KH> I think a lot the analytical skills are important in understanding consumer behaviour. At Instagram we’re very community first - that is our superpower. We exist to serve our community and connect them to the things they love, so people is at the heart of that. I think that being a planner has been critical in understanding that when we build products it’s about people first. What problem or opportunity are we trying to solve for people? And then if it ever becomes an ad product, what kind of creative canvas provides the business solution to a problem that brand has? So it’s all very purposeful, and I think that a lot of my planning skill set helps me understand the market, the audience, how to write a proper brief, how to work with UX researchers, and how to boil all of that down to a simple strategy. 

LBB> When working at an agency you obviously work with quite a regimented roster of clients whereas I imagine you now work with a huge array of both brands and ad agencies. How do you find that experience?  

KH> I find it exciting. When you’re at an agency you often dedicate yourself to one client for quite a bit, but I find it very exciting to work on all of these different businesses with different challenges and different competitors. Talking to CMOs about how they restructure their digital team or their media team in order to maximise the resources and talent they have has been really interesting for me. And being able to work with any client such as a big established one like P&G - with the problems they face as an established brand - right to startups. It’s such a spectrum and I am learning a lot. 

LBB> You started working for Facebook before moving over to Instagram - is there anything about Instagram that made you personally want to work on it?

KH> I’ve always been passionate about Instagram. Before I worked here I was in China on a personal trip. The signal in the countryside was quite patchy and I was trying so hard to upload my photo and my sister just said, ‘what are you doing?!’ I told her but she thought I was crazy, she has pictures of me with my hand stretched up trying to get that signal. 

As well as the personal passion for it there was also the challenge. I loved the challenge of building something. When I started four years ago there wasn’t an ad product. When I look at the changes we’ve made in that time, it looks like I could have been here for 20 years. It’s gone from a series of square images with no ad product to the huge range of tools and the rich experience that we now have. I loved that challenge of really helping to build a world-class advertising platform. Who could ever resist the opportunity to help build the money part of an already amazing thing? 

LBB> I’ve seen you say that brands need to ‘Play More’ - what do you mean by that?

KH> Experiment more. Do not be so scared. I think there’s a lot of reticence to experiment, right? We have a poster at Facebook that says ‘shipped better than perfect’, which sounds horrible to a lot of art directors, for example - why wouldn’t they want to put out the perfect thing? The problem with that is that sometimes you end up never putting out anything, whether it’s good or bad. The longer you wait and work on something, the more you’re investing in something. I think it’s about revising that mentality and realising that it’s ok to put something out that isn’t perfect, because you never know. 

There’s an episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix with Christina Tosi, the founder of Milk Bar from the Momofuku chain. She was talking about her crack pie. It was actually a failure and now it’s her best-selling product so there’s more of a philosophical acceptance of failure as something positive. That’s what I mean by ‘play more’. Being braver, putting more things out there, being more prolific, not always being perfect, not always needing to know what the right answer is. All of these things stop brands from doing their best work. But sometimes the things that aren’t perfect make things way more interesting and open way more creative doors. 

LBB> You’re a strategist by trade which involves quite a particular set of skills - analysis of data, understanding of people. Do you think you had any childhood traits that signified that you might go to work in that field? 

KH> I don’t know if it’s a trait but being a middle child is definitely one. Negotiation is key, finding my own way, being extra curious - that’s all made me extra driven. You have to work a little bit harder to find your niche because you’re not the first and you don’t get the most attention. 

The analytical part of strategy I’m quite split on - I think I’m quite intuitive but I can also work with numbers. My dad was a computer engineer, whereas everyone else in my family was the opposite, they were all writers or editors of newspapers. That actually runs right down the line - my great-great grandfathers on both sides were newspaper editors and so were my grandfathers. The writing part is very prevalent in the Hsu family. 

LBB> How did you get into advertising industry in the first place?

KH> Believe it or not I actually started out in politics. I studied economics at the University of Toronto and volunteered quite a bit for a councillor named Judy Sgro. In my last year of university she ran in the federal bi-election and I decided to work for her. I worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and she became a cabinet minister under the Liberal party. I worked there for a couple of years but - maybe because I was quite young - I felt as though politics was a very hard place. I realised that as passionate as I was about my civic duty, perhaps it wasn’t quite the right thing for me. 

I really dug deep to figure out what I wanted to do. I moved to Hong Kong and started a company trading trims with my best friend, anything from zippers to buttons, working with big fashion clients. Another friend who had lived in Hong Kong worked at Leo Burnett and was telling me this amazing story about how he was a planner and did all these amazing things for McDonald’s in China. And it just sounded like something I would 100% like to do. It’s about thinking, cultural anthropology, data and a lot of creativity. I ended up doing a masters in communications with a focus on advertising and then thought about the best place to be a planner. I naively chose New York - but I got a job and it’s history from there. 

LBB> Outside of work, what inspires you? 

KH> My friends. I know that sounds really cheesy but a lot of them do such amazing things. I have friends deeply engaged in politics and they give back a lot to the community. 

I also work with an organisation called Bottom Line and the kids I work with there inspire me. We mentor first-time university students and help them figure out a career, and my angle is always that you can make a viable living doing something artistic. A lot of first-time graduates don’t have that kind of mentorship in their immediate network so they think that when they go to university they have to do economics or business, but they end up dropping out because they’re not interested or they don’t have an aptitude for it. We’re trying to prevent that by providing mentorship but also helping them from that point on to find a career out of it. I’m really passionate about that because I think it’s at the heart of the problems we have around us. Take diversity in leadership, for example - that all starts at the beginning, we can’t fix the end.