5 Minutes With… Ly Tran
Ly Tran’s journey into advertising was indeed ‘accidental’, but also, she hopes ‘purposeful’. After growing up loving the smell, smudge and stories of large newspapers, she pursued a career in print journalism, until trying out Advertising 101 and immediately changing her major. An internship at BBDO during her senior year in Los Angeles eventually led to her becoming one of only six people that made up the agency’s first ever interactive department in 1996. Since then she’s travelled across five continents, but now finds herself back home in Texas as Director of Digital Strategy & Architecture at Proof, and working under the agency’s ‘Nothing Watered Down’ mantra. Tran spoke with LBB’s Laura Swinton about ‘the next big thing’, mentors and Proof’s Speakeasy ‘bourbon hideaway’.
LBB> What is it about Proof that makes it so unique?
LT> Our culture and philosophy is crafted by the two opposites that run the agency: two Texas boys with big hearts and easy rules:
1. Apply a “Nothing Watered Down” philosophy to everything you do.
2. 5 Cs. Be courageous, curious, collaborative, creative and courteous.
These are the mantras of our principals, but we are guided by principle. Beyond this, Proof’s uniqueness stems from two main things: our location and our people.
Proof is in the people. Proof’s top leadership grew up in nameplate firms on the east and west coasts, but most of us really grew up in Texas. Our maverick spirit is a birthright (or, for the transplants, we develop an entrepreneurial spirit). We hire that drive. We pass along that drive. Our people have a proclivity for innovation and a yen for disruption. Ultimately, we crave bold ideas.
Austin is our playground. We run around the clock. We work hard. We play hard. It helps that our office space is nestled amongst inspirational things – Texas history, cosmopolitan art, bizarre politics, wicked food and booze. We are in the heart of Downtown Austin, and we have a view of the Texas state capitol. But we’re also located next door to the Austin Contemporary Arts museum and hover five stories above a steakhouse with wine locker walls. But, the gem is our own private annex, the Proof Speakeasy, a bourbon hideaway on Austin’s infamous dirty 6th St.
LBB> Which recent projects have you been involved in recently that have particularly resonated with you?
LT> I grew up in Houston and often road tripped to San Antonio, a bastion of freedom for me. Fond memories. I went off to college in Boston, started my career in Los Angeles, traveled across five continents, but I knew all roads eventually lead home. I moved back to Texas.
My youthful connection with San Antonio paid a dividend when Proof landed the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau’s account two years ago. Our re-launch of the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau’s key communication channel, VisitSanAntonio.com in May 2013 resonated with me. My personal past and my digital present coincided.
LBB> As Director of Digital Strategy and Architecture, I’m interested to know what your thoughts are on new and evolving platforms – for example Vine &Instagram’s micro video and Snapchat. It seems like there are a lot vying to become the next big thing, but which do you think are going to be most useful for brands?
LT> We all know that “the next big thing” is a broken record. We mindstorm and we mindread, and we seek to drive decisions. But platforms are plentiful and brands, like always, will need to make strategic choices on which of these evolving platforms make the most sense. The fact that Netflix has more paid subscribers than HBO is telling. The fact that YouTube rivals Facebook (in terms of usage) is telling. The fact that each social platform, old and emerging, has latched onto video distribution is telling. The brands with roadmaps for producing original video content should be winners. Video engages nearly all the senses; it is, to some degree, future proof, whatever the next big thing happens to be.
LBB> I’ve read a few articles and interviews from fairly senior digital people who are now starting to question the ‘digital revolution = 100% good’ mentality of the past decade. What are your thoughts? And when is less more when it comes to brands in the digital space?
LT> What fascinates me is that our sense of self in this world, and our need to connect to others in the world to produce that sense of self is fundamental: our need for sustenance or our need for others are equivalent. Connection is not a luxury, but rather a necessity. Digital access, social media and the incomparable power of today’s smart devices enable all of us to demystify the world around us, creating, in the process, a responsive and responsible dialogue with more people than we have even imagined at any time in human history. Serious shit, and a massive sense of connection.
Let’s consider it a positive until proven otherwise.
LBB> The Austin advertising scene seems to be really thriving and there’s lots of interesting work coming out of the city… why do you think that location has proven so conducive to creativity?
LT> Something about SXSW, VC’s, Fortune 500s and a government with a lax sense of taxation. The rotating nature of population maybe – in any given year, there are 500,000 UT Austin students, undergrads, grads, and researchers plying their trade in our fair capital. People get educated here, non-Texans flood in, Texan diasporans like myself come back to share the wealth. Austin is a win-win.
LBB> How did you find your way into advertising? Was it a deliberate choice or a career that happened by accident?
LT> Growing up, I loved reading giant newspapers. The smell, the smudge, the stories. I loved the idea of news reporting and holding people accountable in public record. I chose journalism early (yearbook and newspaper staff) and then applied to Emerson College, a highly-hyphenated-communication-liberal arts-private College based in Boston. I wanted to pursue a career in print journalism. My course advisor got to know me and recommended I try out Advertising 101. After taking the course, I immediately switched my major. Communication was what I was after. Accidental, yes. Purposeful, I hope.
I was lucky in that I came into a field which was rapidly evolving. When I got an internship at BBDO in Los Angeles during my senior year, BBDO was staffed with 250 ad professionals. I was one of only six that became the first interactive department in 1996.
LBB> What pieces of advice do you wish you had been given at the beginning of your career?
LT> I’ve always had great bosses that gave me great advice, every step of the way. The common advice is that no one knows what they’re doing, you fail fast and learn from them just as. I try my best to pay this forward, a handful of people at a time.
Recently (17 years into my career!), my 14 year old son, Max, gave me some solid advice that got me through a wavering moment. His words actually summed up my entire career and what everyone needs to be reassured: “Once you do it once, you’ll always be able to do it.” It’s his own confident rally when he’s at the skateboarding park relentlessly pursuing his skate tricks.
His advice came to me while I was in a high stressed moment working on a project that hadn’t been done before. Digital is about always learning and perfecting, learning and perfecting, and being confident that everything we do is about collecting experiences that make us better.
LBB> And what are your thoughts about nurturing new talent – given the different skillsets demanded by big data, digital and the ever-broadening remit of agencies, how hard is it to find the right people? Is advertising still an exciting and cool career prospect for young people, do you think?
LT> Advertising is still an exciting and cool industry because people inherently want to connect and express. We get paid to facilitate that expression, to troubleshoot it – not necessarily to profit from it. Everybody today is a consumer and a potential publisher, whether it’s my mom, my dad, or my son.
As for mentoring, I believe in two key things…they’ve been passed on to me:
The first: the 40:40 principle.
Everyone needs a mentor under 40 and over 40 teaching you things you never would have thought of. Everyone is smart and sharing this is critical, but wisdom comes with age and experience so the balance of 40:40 is paramount to nurturing talent. It doesn’t just come with your direct peers or someone older than you.
The second: understand people.
Our brains aren’t just right/left, they’re top/bottom. It’s not about hiring one person to do a job, it’s about building a team to do the jobs. You have to know and understand what type of brains you’re bringing into any equation, build people, build teams.
LBB> Outside of advertising, what are your passions?
LT> Travel, music, writing and painting. Things that have creative influence on humanity and arts. I love walking away from something with pure empathy. How people express themselves and how places shape themselves. Why people are unlike me and why places are unlike anything I’ve known.
I learned to read music, play it. Used to love playing jazz and classical music on clarinet. Now I love finding good music and listening to it, live or recorded.
I try to paint my dreams. I jot them down when I wake up.
My favourite spot growing up in Houston was The Rothko Chapel. You must go there.
LBB> What does the rest of 2013 hold for you?
LT> Deep hibernation. Winter boots ready to wear. The awakening.