My toast to the Media Ghosts

Just moments ago, I read a tweet from a friend who’s currently working as a copywriter. She felt sad that nobody really reads what she writes and that she felt like people were just passing her by.

Yesterday, my friend told me that a group of  people have set up a group to bash people working in the industry. He used to work as a journalist, and felt enraged by the actions of these stuck-ups who think they know better.

Back when I was still working in a well established advertising agency, I’ve got to witness first hand the kind of abuse the workers had to go through everyday. They were all overworked and exhausted. Clients would call screaming over the phone, expecting and demanding so many things to be done within a short frame of time. To them, it’s just a few sentences made in an e-mail, most likely in the late afternoon just before they end their work: “Make these copy changes, move the logo to the right by 1cm, change the colour of the borders, move the globe slightly higher, I don’t like the colour of the rocks, can we do something about that and oh, I don’t know, maybe reduce the opacity of the background just to see how it looks. I expect the revised visuals when I open my mailbox tomorrow morning.” All it takes is probably an e-mail to do the job, but for the creatives working on this, it meant hours of staring in the computer until the wee hours of the night to make sure that visual is in their mailboxes the next morning. And clients never thank us: because we pay you to jolly well do what we say and do your job right.

I mean, I have known all along that there is no perfect job and that you’ve got to make sure that your passion is enough to sustain you. But at that time, it was like harsh reality had smack me extremely hard on my face. You never really know how bad it could be until you’ve experienced it for yourself. It shot through my body and weighed me down like a ball and chain. Almost towards the end of that period, I remembered I survived the week laughing and crying. One moment, I’d still be smiling at one of the creatives as she vented her frustrations on me, then breaking down in tears the next in the last cubicle of the female’s toilet. At that time, I felt like some part of me changed and I was, quite frankly, never quite the same again.

For a while, I’ve thought hard about what I most would like to do next in my life, I mean, besides doing media and communications. Questions like: Will I be able to adapt well  if I continued on with media? What else can I do besides this? Do I love anything more than media and communications? popped in my head.

I weighed my options. And for a while, I tried them out. But ultimately, I made the decision to go back to studying media and communications. People around me scoffed and belittled me whenever I tell them I’m studying the course, throwing all sorts of discouraging comments like they know any better.

Oh, it’s easy to score. That’s why you chose it right? It’s super easy to study for it.

What can you do with that kind of a degree? You can’t make it big.

Why do you want to study in that course for? Anyone can do it.

I’m not going to lie. There are certain degrees of truth to all of it. But I am even more saddened at the fact that this is exactly the kind of attitudes people hold towards people within the industry. Let’s face it. Nobody will really understand the blood, tears and sweat that goes behind every word in an article, every pixels or second of an advertisement, or every detail of a PR event. Nobody. Not unless you’re immersed in it yourself. Nobody appreciates what we do, and certainly nobody outside the industry will thank us for doing our jobs well.

From the PR side, we’re seen as propaganda. We’re like the ghouls whispering the devil’s words to the gatekeepers, who are no better as they would then translate and distribute these words to the masses. Or the devil itself that gives people the illusion of free choice. From the advertising side, we’re seen as annoying salespeople who leverage on people’s psychological weaknesses to sell products and services that people might not even need. From the journalistic side, we’re seen as puppets to make the people think what the puppetmasters want them to think. On top of that, most people would think the people working within the industry have no moral ethics or have poor characters.

So why?

Why do we do the job anyway, knowing people aren’t going to thank us for it?

For money? You’d be surprised to know how little the people in the industry are paid for the amount of work they do.

For prestige? Heck, no. Probably only within the industry itself.

For recognition? I never knew that one of my ex-colleagues won a Clio award for an advertising campaign until I was searching on the Clio website for academic research. That’s just about the amount of recognition you’d get. And it was only because he was an ex-colleague of mine that I recognised his name. Not even a picture to remember him by.

… then for what?

We have no other choice but to do it? Maybe it’s one of the reasons.

But as cliche as it may sound, i think for most of us, we actually like what we do, and this passion is what sustains us more than the money. It was something I could tell whenever I ask them what they like about their job. Simply put, they love what they do even though they probably will never gain any recognition or appreciation for a good job well done. Will I be able to keep holding on?

“… So,” I asked one of the creatives over lunch, “…why are you still sticking around?” I asked.

“… it’s damn annoying for the most part. But… I don’t know, everyday, there’s always something new. I get to work with other creatives, one of the bosses is a brilliant guy full of ideas, brainstorming and coming up with ideas that clients approve of is like hitting the jackpot, and oh, bitching about our clients together…”

At that time, I thought I saw a sparkle lit up in the corner of his tired eyes.

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p.s: I’ve renamed the title, courtesy of Sufian, a title very appropriate for this post. Let us celebrate. All of us. You know who you are out there. (:

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The Need for Art

Art. Perhaps in Singapore’s culture, art don’t seem like much. Parents spend money nurturing their children through tuition, only encouraging them to develop creative skills using art only when it is practical to do so. Once they’re all grown up, it seems like the need for it is somewhat lost.

Although I believe people still dabble a bit here and there, I don’t think enough is being done to encourage innovativeness and creativity, which is why the majority of us have become such rigid-minded people. When I look at the creative industry here, everything seems like a template. That’s normal, isn’t it? When we’ve grown up with blueprints, formats and guidelines, we can’t expect people to be able to think out of the box for fear of getting blocked out by higher authorities, running into a deadend or get shot down by inflexible clients. As a result, there’s no room to grow and experiment.

As a side note: When I went for a trip in Korea, I noticed a stark difference in the way everything is packaged. My friends and I were impressed and spent a longer time checking out each and every item. They had incorporated unique and creative designs into their product packaging, whereas in Singapore, it was clear. It’s all about practical, practical, practical. They’re content with just sticking their brand name on the packaging, dabble a bit of brand colours here and there and be done with it. Because why? Why spend so much on a design for packaging? What for? How do we measure ROI and ensure it helps to sell the product?! Of course they’d have to scrap it. After all, why risk spending extra money on something when its returns cannot be measured? For one, such intangibles can go a long way in attracting new customers to your brand. When I was unfamiliar with all the brands in Korea, first impressions made a significant difference in my buying habits.

Also, take a look at our TV advertisements. If I compared them to other countries like Japan, Korea and Thailand (especially), we still have a long way to go. I agree that budget may be one constraint, but why is it that Thailand could produce ads that are able to capture the audience’s hearts (and most of them don’t even seem like they’re on high budgets: just good camera angles, editing and one heck of an idea)? It brings me back to the idea that we don’t seem to take art seriously enough. Creative talents in the industry aren’t honing their skills enough to present a variety of options to their clients while clients always want to “play it safe”.

On the part of the creative industry, it’s nice to see that there’s more upgrading, training and opportunities available. But unless every actor in the field (clients, gatekeepers etc) opens up and allows for change, the industry has little room to grow.

:/ Just my two cents.

The System

Just today, I was having a conversation with a friend, S. She said, “G, don’t you think we’ve become a pretty rigid society? It’s like everywhere we go, we have some kind of procedure that we have to follow because we think we’re going to fail and be left behind by the others if we don’t.”

That got me thinking. I remember my friend saying to me once, “G, how do I go about doing this? I’m really at a loss of what to do, you know. I mean, I’m the kind of person who needs some kind of protocol to follow. Give me a format and I can follow it 100% and do very well at it. But… Haiyer! This is so frustrating!”

I agreed with S and added, “Yeah, we seem to be content just following and doing what is necessary; We never try to go beyond that boundary and ask what more can be done. What more can we learn? We don’t question or challenge ideas here. When we’re so used to be given a ‘template’, somehow I feel like there’s this limit to how much we can actually grow. We become afraid to move out of our comfort zones or make mistakes. And sometimes, it’s really stifling,” I said. It was what we noticed since coming to the university.

Rules. Agenda. Protocol. Procedures.

We all need it to a certain extent. It is necessary. It keeps us focused at the task at hand and lets us know that we’re on the right track. There’s a comfort in knowing that as long as we follow this set path, we’re more or less safe.

Yet as a result, we have become so risk-adverse that sometimes, I feel like it’s gotten to a point where if we’re left to our own devices, we wouldn’t have a clue what to do. We wouldn’t know how to start blazing our own path ahead. If we are met with a crisis, how many of us would be able to think on our feet and improvise? How many of us are willing to turn 180 degrees and change our course if we find no treasures ahead of the path we are on after walking a considerable distance?

Indeed, it’s like what people say – We are a nanny nation. The System has set everything in order for us. It brings across a subtle message that if you stray from the ‘safe’ path, you’re bringing a lot of unnecessary trouble for yourself and you’re just going to be left behind.

Take myself, for example.

After receiving my ‘O’ levels, I had to make the decision whether to go JC (the safe route) or a polytechnic. I thought about it for a night and decided to pursue a Media and Communication course at a polytechnic.

Relatives and acquaintances have furrowed their brows at me and wondered out loud: Why didn’t I choose a JC instead? It was the most obvious, almost guaranteed path to university, and as you know, landing yourself a spot in the local university is like the ultimate end goal here. Going to JC was, well, safe. But I figured: Why spend two years of my life going through a rigid academic curriculum when I could venture into something more practical and hands-on? Furthermore, I already knew what I wanted to pursue. I didn’t want to waste my time. I wanted experience and progress. I wanted to actually learn something I could apply to my life.

For 3 years, I’ve immersed myself with work that was enriching and fulfilling to me. I challenged myself, discovered a lot of new things about myself, realised my strengths and weaknesses. Those were tough times but I was addicted to that feeling of satisfaction of a job well done, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Essentially, I grew. And with tremendous hard work, effort and luck; I also landed a spot in a local university. And I thought things wouldn’t be any different.

Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.

Before my admission, I had my first brush with the System. I wanted to try out a program which would allow me access to an exclusive set of interesting modules set aside only for people admitted into this program.

“Just to let you know. Many polytechnic students who have entered the program have found it difficult to keep up with the JC students because they lack the writing skills. As you know, JC students usually write better so I was wondering how you could catch up with the JC students,” one of the interviewers asked in a belittling tone of voice.

I blinked. I should have expected this from the very beginning, right? I told myself. I have heard of polytechnic students being discriminated by the System but I never thought I would get it literally in my face.

So I gritted teeth and tried my best to convince him but each answer I gave was shot down with another one of those belittling snide remarks which clearly implied that “JC students are better.” It seemed to me like he already made his decision. It was clear that he was not interested in letting me through. Maybe I gave stupid replies but I was eager to learn. Well, it seems enthusiasm and passion to learn wasn’t all important. They weren’t giving me the time of day simply because I didn’t have a JC background. They were looking for just one particular set of skills and clearly, the skill sets gained from a polytechnic is not what they were looking for. So I swallowed my bitterness and smiled, then said goodbye to those two puppets from the System.

Later, my other polytechnic friend who had an illustrious academic track record, scoring 3.95 for his GPA and a distinction for his CCA, went for a scholarship interview and (oh why am I not surprised?) was asked the same question, “JC students are better in maths. What can you do to catch up to them?

My second big obstacle I had to overcome was after I officially became an undergraduate. As a polytechnic student, I could get a semester off from my module exemptions. Apparently, it’s to make up for that one extra year which you spend in polytechnic compared to the JC batch.

… Well, that’s what they said.

I would be so happy about these exemptions if not for the fact that these “module exemptions” don’t matter if you intend to take an Honours track. The geniuses in the System have made it in such a way that in order to graduate half a semester earlier like they said you would, you have to overload at least 3 semesters in order to meet the criteria to qualify you for the Honours track.

Note that this only applies for an Honours track; If I were to simply complete a BA, then I could graduate a semester earlier than my peers without having to overload any of my semesters. Well shucks, I guess I should have read the fine print.

And so what’s this underlying message I’m getting here?

Well. We could always choose the safe route and settle for a BA. But if we really want to take the Honours track, it seems they either regard us polytechnic students so highly that we could push and overwork ourselves to meet that criteria or hope that we die trying.

What’s that?

I think I just heard the System here say, “Hey you, look here, all you polytechnic students. A BA is good enough for you. A BA is safe, no hassles. Why go through so much trouble anyway for an Honours, right? Just settle for a BA.

My parents ask me time and time again: “Why do you have to study so hard for? You’re just a girl. You don’t have to go through all these trouble.” But easy, safe routes bore the hell out of me. It’s unstimulating and unsatisfying. I like a more dynamic experience.

Yeah, what’s wrong with that, right?

Yet, I find myself getting labeled. Even though we’ve all reached the end goal, I find myself getting all these belittling stares; The System is staring at my torn and dirty shoes just because I did not choose to walk on that pristine pavement that everybody else is walking on. It’s frustrating, really.

The rigid procedural system. The step-by-step spoonfeeding lessons. They’ve created soldiers out of us, moulded us into tiny cogs in a large machine. We follow protocol. We do as we’re told. We avoid taking risks. We avoid making mistakes; and in the process, stopped learning. We become memorizers, and not thinkers. Sure. Some of us might make plans to fulfil some of our not so ordinary dreams, but how many of them are actually brought to fruition?

Bloody elites. Do they even know what dreams and passion look like? Or must everything be counted in cents and dollars?