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Students Build Their Advertising Degrees With Lessons From the Pros

Academy of Art University students earning their advertising degrees enjoy a huge advantage when it comes to having firsthand knowledge straight from top and active industry players. Through events such as Small Talk, Big Ideas, a student-led speaker series hosted by the School of Advertising, ad world stars come to the university to share their stories and insights.

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Portrait of Derek Man Lui from his website

He’s The Man

In October’s Small Talk, Big Ideas event, advertising professional Derek Man Lui focused on the importance of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to flourish creatively.

A copywriter and creative director for top agencies like Proximity BBDO, AKQA and now Wieden+Kennedy, Lui takes the greatest pride in being an inventive collaborator and pushing creative ideas beyond his personal skill set.

Anyone hoping to identify a single, stylistic approach to Derek Man Lui’s various global ad campaigns is going to have to look really hard to find it. And that’s by design.

“A big part of being a creative in advertising is that you just don’t have the skills for a lot of things,” Lui said in his presentation. “You’re kind of the generalist.”

Curiosity Propels a Career

Throughout the talk, it was clear that Lui’s inquisitive nature about the world is what carried him from the beginnings of his career and eventually led him to Shanghai.

Lui didn’t know a drop of Mandarin at first, but by immersing himself in the culture, he soon understood the language of the city and its people. With agency Proximity BBDO, Lui created a Volkswagen campaign hoping to bridge the gap between the Chinese population and the brand that manufactures the country’s cabs.

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From a short film about Derek Man Lui’s Volkswagen campaign for agency Proximity BBDO,

At AKQA, he applied that same sensitivity to Nike, by creative directing a data-driven interactive film for Nike Marathon and a virtual reality film centered on actress Zhou Dongyu for Nike’s “Believe in Women” campaign.

Eventually, six months in China turned into seven years. Eventually, Lui realized he had gotten comfortable and missed the uncertainty he felt when he first arrived there.

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From a TEDx Shanhai presentation, Derek Man Lui creative director

The Value of Uncertainty

“I was missing the discomfort, missing a gap in my life to do side projects, relax and clear my mind before going back into working,” Lui said in his talk. “I feel like these periods are parts of my life where you can just take in the culture, take in the city, meet people.”

He recalled instances of how his unfamiliarity led to inspiration. His curiosity pushed him to Paris for a summer, then later to London after being hired at Wieden+Kennedy. There, Lui’s outside-the-box thinking continued to flourish. His latest project involved scanning employee heads and projecting them onto masks or busts to figure out a creative way to display portraits in the agency reception area. The project wound up becoming part of an in-office arcade video game.

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From a project for the reception area of Wieden+Kennedy’s London offices. The project used faces from the agency’s staff, which were incorporated in a video game.

The project has started as a photography portrait effort. “We’re supposed to push the comforts of creativity,” Lui said to the room. “We aim to push everything to the limits so that the agencies see value in doing something like this. Clients come into the reception [area] and play with the game, and they think this is a forward-thinking company.”

School of Advertising Associate Director Mark Edwards recalls that Lui sent out his resumé to industry creative directors on CD-ROM in red envelopes akin to Netflix’s old style. Edwards says, “He figured out how to get past that wall of resistance. [His observation was] that if someone got one of those in the mail they’d open it up because they wanted to see the movie they got.”

Opening Opportunities for Academy Students with Q&A Session

Students’ questions at the end of Lui’s talk weren’t so much about execution but how to constantly remain in a state of creativity and innovation.

“By putting myself back in the unknown,” Lui explained. “For us to come up with ideas and have to craft them, you have to put yourself in a situation like that. Yes, it can be exhausting, but I also find it wakes me up, actually.”

Sharing the Personal in Advertising

Small Talk’s organizer and moderator, recent BFA Advertising alumna Sofia Wiklander, couldn’t have been more thrilled to have Lui on board as the series’ first guest. She wanted Small Talk to be something the advertising students could “have ownership over.”

“It is a chance to take control over our learning and who we want to talk to and who we get to meet,” says Wiklander, formerly a copywriting student. Expecting to graduate soon, she hopes students found inspiration in Lui’s story of persistence and constant learning. She says this kind of access and insight isn’t something that can be gleaned from email or studied in textbooks.

Sometimes it takes a leap into the unknown.

“You hope that a little bit of that take will be contagious. And what I really want people to get from this is to feel that the business is just one person away. It’s really close,” Wiklander says. “There are so many different ways to do this. Derek’s story is just one way.”

Images courtesy of Derek Man Lui,

Original article by Nina Tabios of AcademyArtUNews,

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