5 Minutes with… Suthisak Sucharittanonta
Suthisak Sucharittanonta - or Suthi as he's known to his friends - has an impressive trophy cabinet, as he's one of the most awarded creative directors in Thailand, if not Asia Pacific. But the slate grey walls of his office, which towers over a network of slow-moving Bangkok ring roads and lush city parks - are lined not with shiny trophies but with guitars. For Suthi, you see, creative inspiration reaches far beyond the confines of advertising. The man who started his career photographing nudes now loves to apply his creative problem solving muscles to social issues. That's apparent in the agency's work for the Thai government and the Thai Health Promotion Foundation - a smart helmet that alerts emergency services to motorbike accidents, for example, or a porous plate that drains excess oil from food and, chillingly, pitch black calligraphy ink wrought from the lungs of smokers. Out of the office, he devotes time to projects to improve the lives of those living in Bangkok slums; one concept that's currently in search of a supporting brand or finding is the idea to turn birdcages into grow-baskets so that families can grow vegetables and herbs cheaply, maximising space in cramped shanty towns.
The upshot is that BBDO Bangkok has become a hotbed of innovation. Where much of the country's advertising has slumped into drama and melodrama, following years of political and economic upheaval, Suthi's team has carved out a niche as inventive, pro-active problem solvers. LBB's Laura Swinton caught up with him.
LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about Thai advertising today?
SS> Thai TV commercials were famous 10 years ago. People know about the wacky and very entertaining Thai humour... but that's our past. Today we don’t only have TV, we have new platforms, for example, digital, mobile, social and innovation, which have become our main media too. New generation creatives are more likely to embrace new media and create compelling content and innovation, instead of TV commercial scripts.
LBB> Politically, Thailand has been on a rollercoaster over the last few years, how are things now? And how has the wider social/political situation impacted or changed the tone of Thai advertising?
SS> We get used to our country’s political situations. We don't worry much as long as our economy and safety are stable. We can adapt ourselves to fit in with the situations by making advertising that works within our clients’ budgets. The political uncertainty definitely had an impact on advertising. Luckily it didn't last forever...
LBB> Thailand is often characterised as the ‘land of smiles’ and in advertising people often talk about the unique humour and the strengths in emotional storytelling – how far do you feel that’s true or a cliché? And if it is true, is there another side to Thai advertising that, perhaps, people from outside of Thailand are not so aware of?
SS> People know that Thailand is the ‘Land of Smiles’. We have a 'laid back’ way of life which results in humorous Thai TV commercials. Nowadays Thai ads have been shifted to 'drama’... TV commercials of heartfelt emotional tears which reflect Thais' ways of life too. We love humour and we also love drama.
LBB> You trained as an architect – what was it about architecture that so intrigued you as a young man? And how do you think that training has influenced your approach to creativity?
SS> My first job was a photographer – a nude photographer! – then fashion and still life. But I studied architecture because of my family; they didn't want me to be poor and work as a freelance! Initially I didn't like architecture at all because I hated physics and maths. In the end I liked it because it taught me how to think conceptually, which I've been using to live my life until today.
LBB> What lured you from architecture to advertising?
LBB> I hungout with friends who studied mass communication. During those days they made beautiful ads, nice jingles and events. I worked as a freelance photographer and it was highly visual. I applied for a job at Dentsu Thailand 30 years ago as a photographer but unfortunately they already had two. The ECD asked me to do the creative and visual test... and they liked my ideas. That was a starting point.
LBB> What kind of child were you? Did creativity play a big part in your life growing up?
SS> I was a very naughty and curious boy as far as I can remember. My idol was Leonardo DaVinci. I did many experiments from trying to turn water into gasoline, to making cat poop bombs!
LBB> You’ve been CCO at BBDO Bangkok since 1999! How has the agency evolved in that time?
SS> I was lucky. I was hired to turn around the agency from a very local ad agency to a world-class ad agency. It was the right timing for me because I wanted to prove myself with another success after I did it at Ogilvy & Mather's Results Advertising between 1996 to 1998. At Results Advertising Thailand, we were the best inThailand and one of the best agencies in Asia. So when my ex-partner and I started working at BBDO Bangkok, our goal was to be one of the best agencies in the world (which I'm still trying harder and harder to do). BBDO is the greatest because we can meet and learn from great and talented people.
LBB> What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned in your career?
SS> I almost died once after I worked like a crazy man. Almost 100 per cent of my brain was thinking ads... just ads! It was so stressful that I got seriously sick – I was attacked by a virus in my spinal cords. God saved me. I've changed my attitude. I care more about my family, friends, colleagues and, most importantly, I care more about people who are suffering and underprivileged.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
SS> NeilFrench was my first mentor. He taught me what's good, great and crap. I learnt a lot from Neil during my days at Ogilvy. Barry Owen was another mentor... He taught me what great ads should be.
When I first joined BBDO I met legends like Allen Rosenshine and Phil Dusenberry. My big bosses and mentors, they gave me lots of freedom, they inspired me and encouraged me to do great work... I was lucky.
LBB> This past year has been great for the agency in terms of innovative, product-led ideas such as Moto-repellent, the oil-draining plate, the ink made from smokers’ lungs… is this something you’ve deliberately pushed forward or has it happened more organically?
SS> I've been working in the ad industry for 30 years. I want to step out of the comfort zone, I want to do new things I've never done – something that can create action and tangible solutions, rather than just TV spots which mostly create awareness and likability.
LBB> Do you think these sorts of projects show the way that creative agencies will have to evolve (creative solutions, innovation etc.) or will there still be a role for ‘straight’ advertising agencies?
SS> These days we live in a digital and tech era. Things have rapidly changed! There are big shifts in media targeting, data utilisation, platforms and also devices. For me, I enjoy blending myself into these changes, learning new things, tools and technology.
LBB> And how do these projects work in the agency? Does the idea for the product happen first or the client brief?
SS> We have both. Mostly clients brief us like they brief other agencies, but we always challenge their briefs and do something non-traditional.
LBB> Moto Repellent really inspired people when it first launched. I know you mentioned that there were challenges with scaling it up, namely that it’s tricky to adapt for different kinds of scooters, but what plans have you got for taking it wider? What sorts of conversations are you having with people/brands to take it wider? I can imagine with the spread of Zika virus that it’s generating lots of interest!
SS> We initially built this device to help underprivileged people who live in the slums through the Duang Prateep Foundation. They can't afford other ways to get rid of mosquitoes, but they have motorbikes. So we hadn't thought to commercialise the Moto Repellent until you asked me! No, no, we don't have any plans right now.
LBB> One personal project that you’ve been working on is a birdcage contraption that you designed to help people living in slums to grow vegetables. What was it about the problem that the Duang Prateep Foundation came to you with that made you determined to try and find a solution? What are the next steps?
SS> On the day we test drove our Moto Repellent at Klong Toey slum, Duang Prateep Foundation’s manager asked me if I could find an idea to help people there grow their own vegetables, even though they lack money and planting land. It's challenging for me, so I accepted it and worked on it on my own as a personal pro bono project. Luckily I came up with the bird cage vegetables idea, inspired by the zebra dove cages which they put up in the air during the day. So I planted some vegetables in the cage and put it up to get the sunlight during the day and brought it down in the evening for cooking. Now the foundation uses my prototype to encourage people to do their own.
LBB> Outside of work, what inspires you? What do you do to help keep your creativity fresh and sharp?
SS> I have my beloved family, colleagues and friends to hang out and talk with. I like talking to people, I learn a lot from new people I meet. I tweet a lot too, mostly my thoughts and quotes.