David Lian | The Innovator 25 Asia-Pacific 2021

David Lian

Managing Director, Asia, Growth & Innovation 



"We should take the time to understand root causes of problems so that our solutions become that much more meaningful"

As Zeno's head of growth and innovation, David Lian has turned the firm's data and storytelling capabilities into a distinctive competitive edge in the region. That much was illustrated by Lian's role in helping Zeno win UPS’ business earlier this year — and continues to be instrumental in transforming the logistic giant’s Asia-Pacific communications. An astute leader and communicator, Lian has guided and aligned Zeno teams from 11 markets in building UPS’ new strategy of putting storytelling at the center of its communications. Lian is a big believer in using innovation to solve clients’ problems; Zeno’s regional data team will be working with other UPS partners to measure the success of its strategy. 

How do you define innovation?
The process of developing or introducing new, effective, solutions to evolving problems. The idea of innovation is anchored on the problems it aims to solve. Finding better ways to solve old problems, or discovering the first solution to an emerging issue, are both innovation.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen in the last 12 months?
Not strictly PR, but absolutely clever. Burger King's Stevenage Challenge campaign rings all kinds of bells simply by being an idea no one else thought of, but everyone could have done. In an era where we're stuck at home, rewarding players of FIFA 2021 for picking the underdog team and sharing videos, and then sponsoring said team IRL (in real life) so your logo would appear in the game, is absolute genius and communicates a fair bit about the brand and its character.

In your opinion, what brands and/or agencies are most innovative around PR and marketing?
Because of the Stevenage Challenge, I've got to give this one to Burger King.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider 'innovative.'
I've always felt that the defining moment of my career was convincing my biggest client in 2006 to start a "blogger engagement programme" back when the world was asking "what's a blogger?" It was a really hard sell-in because we needed to come up with metrics that were new and difficult to quantify to secure the budget, as well as convince the client that ROI was a sure thing. I guess looking back at that moment now 15 years on, I can say that what I learnt at that point was that innovation requires bravery, and having a brave client is really a big advantage.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation?
Hartmut Esslinger. His seminal book 'A Fine Line' really influenced my thinking about design, and actually sparked my own journey of applying industrial design principles into communication work. Today, 'design thinking' might be passe, but if you really think about the core of innovation — it always start from good design, which in turn, always starts by setting out to solve a problem.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
I take a shower. Every time. A good, long, drench in warm running water, seems to unclog more than a few gears and makes new connections for new ideas. And there's science to back this up too!

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
"You have two ears and one mouth, use them proportionately" — this is an amazing quote attributed to either Zeno of Citium (my agency's namesake) or Epictetus, depending on how you Google. But I love this quote as it sums up my approach to innovation — that it's worth twice as much to really understand the problem and really be aware of the full context a solution entails before jumping to a solution. This doesn't mean we get stuck in analysis paralysis, but that we should take the time to understand root causes of problems so that our solutions become that much more meaningful.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
I love solving problems, and when asked this question over the years, my answers have varied from: teacher, to naturalist, to video game developer.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has helped you get through this year or provided inspiration?
There's a great series called "The Toys that Made Us" on Netflix, that's equal parts fun, inspirational and nostalgic for me. It's about how He-Man became the franchise it was, or Barbie instilling a sense of purpose for little girls, and yet, fascinatingly behind each of these toy lines, was an innovator who believed in bringing something to the market that everyone would benefit from.

What's your favourite time of day and why?
Peeking into my children's room before I head to bed to watch them as they sleep. I make sure to do this every night so I get to enjoy the moments of their childhood, so they don't slip by, and appreciate the time I've spent with them that day. Children are the promise of our future, and why we do what we do, and I'm sure almost all parents will agree nothing beats the satisfaction of watching your growing children sleep peacefully at the end of the day (no matter how crazy that day was).