At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Edward: I’m here today with a friend of mine Elaine Li. We’re going to talk about a bunch of things today including social media, obviously, advertising, and a little bit about where she’s from, where she’s going. Do you want to just talk me through your background?
Elaine: So I was born and raised in Hong Kong in a pretty typical Asian family. I went to a local school. Everything is about getting good results and getting good grades. Then I spent some time in Melbourne, I went to boarding school there for two years and went to college in Chicago. After college I worked in the States for a little bit, for about a year or two and then came back to Hong Kong.
Edward: Where did you work in the States?
Elaine: I worked in Chicago and San Francisco. I was also in advertising when I was there. Then after that I came back to Hong Kong and continued working in advertising.
Edward: Was your degree something to do with advertising?
Elaine: My degree was bachelor of fine arts. I actually went to a really artsy art school called School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They really promote conceptual thinking and fine art and I actually went to the school knowing I enjoy advertising and I enjoy graphic design. But I feel like being in that art school, it kind of helped develop my conceptual skills which you kind of need in advertising. Mixing that with the more traditional Asian, more logical thinking, it really helped me get into the field.
Edward: So you knew you went into advertising at age 18. What was it that interested you about advertising at such a young age?
Elaine: I think it was quite subconscious actually. When people ask me: when did you know you wanted to get into the industry? I think back and I remember in grade 8 or grade 9 in Hong Kong, the art teacher was like: “where can you see reflections of art around town?” Like billboards, paintings, galleries, TV shows. And I remember really clearly that I was the only one who said advertising because advertising is actually a form of art as well. So thinking back to when I watched TV with my mom at home, she would be watching the TV shows and then go to the bathroom when the ads were on but I would actually stay and watch the ads. So, subconsciously it’s something that I guess interests me which I never realized. Then after graduation I was like: oh, it’s actually quite an interesting field. It’s like a mix of the art of persuasion and visual art.
Edward: Pretty sure I can attribute it to Banksy, there’s a quote that says something like: All the best writers are actually in advertising.
Elaine: They’re the best persuaders.
Edward: But also advertising makes more money than the actual content that sits around it. Would you agree with that?
Elaine: I would. I would yeah. I think that’s true to a certain extent.
Edward: While you were doing the advertising, you were also building an alter-ego, another life, Lie-laine! You have huge social media presence.
Elaine: Like you.
Edward: A little bit like me, yeah. So how did that get started?
Elaine: It started last year in college in Chicago. Instagram was a relatively new platform back then. I think it was 2012. Just giving you a backstory, photography has always been a hobby of mine. I was shooting since I was in middle school. And so Instagram came along and my friend was like: since you like photography why don’t you sign up for it? So I did. I just shared really artsy geometry kind of pictures, like photos of staircases and buildings taken with my iPhone onto Instagram and I remember, that was in Chicago, and this random guy who I didn’t know started following me and he started commenting: “These are great pictures” and I’m just like: “who the hell are you? Why are you looking at my pictures? How did you find me?”
Edward: But it was always a public account?
Elaine: It was always a public account, yeah. So I clicked onto his feed and it was actually also a lot of really nice geometric photos. So I followed him as well, and one day he left a comment and he said: “Hey do you want to go out and shoot sometime?” I was like: “Erm…” In my mind I just think that’s kind of weird, it’s like I’m meeting internet friends. What if he’s a creepy person? But his photos were nice and he seems like a nice guy so I just went out to meet up with him and his wife and we walked around to shoot. It was really cold. We went to like it like an area where there’s not a lot of people so I was just really nervous. But he was really nice and he was just telling me about all these apps that you can use, I was like: “What? I just use Instagram filters!” And then he was like: “Do you follow this person?” I was like: “No, what is this world?”
Edward: So this guy opens you up to a world of Instagram?
Elaine: And he was like: “Oh you should post this many times a day.” Like what? What kind of rules are these and who are these people? It was Just mind blowing. So after meeting him it just opened a whole new world of this Instagram kind of thing where not even my friends or co-workers know and it’s really hard to explain to them, like: “Yeah we just meet up in real life and go take pictures.” And they’re like: “OK… Is it dangerous?” But yeah, it’s really because of him that made me really addicted to Instagram and made me take it more seriously. Back then it was just like taking cat pictures or whatever but then that’s when I realized I could actually use Instagram as a platform to build a portfolio. I was in college. I was also looking for jobs, so that helped. It’s also a way to get my photography work out there and also keep this hobby going. It was actually very much because of Instagram and mobile photography that really ignited this passion back.
Edward: Well, while you were building that portfolio. You took the opportunity to come back to Hong Kong, is that the short way of putting it?
Elaine: Yes, the long way is my VISA got denied.
Edward: I didn’t know if you wanted to say that.
Elaine: It’s okay! Yeah, it was quite funny.
Edward: So you left the US. You’d already made some friends on Instagram in Hong Kong. And you obviously we’re coming back to the city you’re from, so you knew a lot of people and then you decided to continue this passion as well as get a job at Ogilvy, right? And then you were appointed art director straight away or were you promoted to art director?
Elaine: I started as content designer at Ogilvy, Hong Kong. I was doing that for a year and a half and then switched to art direction.
Edward: Can you explain a little bit about the difference and what your job is?
Elaine: Ogilvy & Mather is a really really big global company. Back then they hired me as content designer because they wanted to build a content team. A few years ago, the word content does not even make sense. Like what does content even mean?
Edward: Right. And this is 2013?
Elaine: This was 2013. Yes.
Edward: Yes. Wow. Sorry to interrupt but just to say, how many times a day you hear the word content now?
Elaine: Content creation, it’s like a thing now.
Edward: So you were told you were going to be a content designer.
Elaine: I just wanted to get into advertising. I’ll just take it, it doesn’t matter. So yeah I was content designer and honestly even at the office not a lot of people know what that means, what’s the content team? Back then Facebook was already quite mature but still not a lot of clients got it. I think that also continues now. Not a lot of clients really understand what exactly they need to do on Facebook. Yeah I was hired as content designer basically doing a lot of social media posts for Huawei, for Standard Chartered, Toblerone and just some other random brands. I did that for like a year and a half and I actually got a little bored of it. So I was debating whether to continue doing this or do something else.
Edward: I think I remember that time.
Elaine: So I talked to another team, another department who did bigger ad campaigns. One of the creative doctors there saw my work and he really liked it. So I had the chance to join his team and so I switched from being a content designer just doing social content to doing bigger stuff as an art director. So before we worked a lot on Nike and now a lot on KFC, so say for example for KFC in Hong Kong, they have a new flavor chicken every month. So we come up with the bigger idea, the whole campaign. What the name of the chicken will be, what the key visuals will look like, the TVC, the storyline, the mood board, everything. So it’s a lot more diverse. It’s a lot more 360 than just making social posts. It’s a lot more interesting.
Edward: How do you feel like that has changed? I mean so I know you’ve been an art director since 2014, 2015, something like that? So how do you feel the social media, if at all, has changed what you do in the last three years?