Nicolas Chan | The Innovator 25 Asia-Pacific 2021

Nicolas Chan

Head of Digital 

Hoffman Agency


"Maybe “making things up as we go along” should be my definition of innovation."

Since joining the Hoffman Agency three years ago, Nicolas Chan has played a significant role in the firm being named Technology Agency of the Year in two of the three years after his arrival. In particular, Chan has helped the tech firm connect its clients' B2B activities to the full range of integrated marketing capabilities, driving strong business results for such names as Invisalign, Twitter and iChef. Chan joined Hoffman after seven years with Golin, where he held senior planning and analytics roles in China.

How do you define innovation?
I see innovation as letting new blood or younger generations have a go at challenges you “already solved”. My mentor Shouvik Mukherjee, ECD at Golin, told me: “You have to have faith that younger people know more than you — and they can always do it faster and better if you let them.” This doesn’t mean that older people can’t be innovative. But I believe we can’t be innovative without a young mind. I also personally believe in the “ask a lazy person to do it” trope. Innovation happens most often when there is a personal stake and no challenge is insurmountable when the reward is more naps.

What is the most innovative comms/marketing initiative you've seen in the last 12 months?
I like how presentations (we see this most in tech product launches) have become full-on entertainment segments. We’re now in the era where every marcomms initiative has the potential to be reimagined as a TV or variety show. I think it opens up our industry to looking at marrying how we are doing things with how the TV industry has been doing things. I feel as an industry we may not have as much to learn from each other as from people like producers and TV writers. On-air, every second has to be a moment and every scene has to have a purpose.

In your opinion, what brands and/or agencies are most innovative around PR and marketing?
I really like how Conde Nast has transformed their business from print to digital, and now to edutainment. I would go to any of their titles' YouTube channels and use that as a great example.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider 'innovative.'
I consider my current role as the most innovative years in my career so far. We’re all products of our past and my great mentors and past agencies taught me a lot. But past knowledge also translates to baggage at your next job. How do we unpack and apply what we’ve learned, while not wholesale copying. I’m not afraid to admit that we’re making things up as we go along. Maybe “making things up as we go along” should be my definition of innovation.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation?
Tim Cook at Apple. Jobs’ era had revolutionary products — but that’s an anomaly. Tim Cook’s era has been about products that iterate into greatness. The Apple watch was utter rubbish during its debut. They’ve iterated it into a product I swear by (a product that’s not even necessary). I’ve seen other companies completely abandon products or initiatives just because it didn’t work at launch. Most of us will never be Jobs but I believe many of us can be Cooks.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
I call it a day — keep the brief in my mind and sleep on it. Literally. Our brains hold a lot of information and I define creativity as connecting the dots between what’s already there. When we sleep, our brain doesn’t stop, it does a Marie Kondo. I’ve often come back to the same challenge with ideas that I admit came to me in my sleep. I also get a lot of ideas from absorbing information that has no direct connection to work. My personal favourite is this subreddit called /r/ShowerThoughts.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
We have to admit to ourselves that it is not in every client’s and business’ interest to be innovative. Your better plan is to do what is necessary and move on so you create more chances to innovate when you tackle it again. To use the Apple watch analogy, they didn’t give up when at launch it was dumpster fire but continued going at it.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
I would be involved in some kind of tradecraft that involves actual hands. I admire craftsmanship and the years it takes to condition different parts of the body to do one thing to perfection.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has helped you get through this year or provided inspiration?
I watch YouTube a lot. Watching media companies reinvent themselves from paper to screen has been a great source of inspiration. I would cite any Conde Nast title on YouTube as a great example. Everything is a gameshow, and everyone is a presenter. I also like this channel called Jubilee. The way they approach radical empathy, presented through games and challenges is a refreshing take on helping people understand other people. I also watch a lot of standup comedy because I feel that comedians are the philosophers of modern society. Dave Chappelle in particular.

What's your favourite time of day and why?
I like the earlier part of the day. I am most productive because I want to be lazier in the later part of the day (lunch, zzz monster — the works). I function very well in the morning even when I don’t get enough sleep. I also enjoy anytime where I get into a collaborative killzone with partners that can just riff off each other. It’s like improv — but at work.