The Asia's Most Influential honouree and Ogilvy's creative director talks selling instant noodles at supermarkets, Mad Men, and why people should 'just really be stupid'

"It's useless to be creative unless you can sell what you create," said Don Draper, the fictional creative director of Sterling Cooper in an episode of Mad Men. Brilliant, fearless, and very much a product of his time (1960s America, when sexism and misogyny were rampant), the Jon Hamm character was key to making Mad Men a drama that challenged its viewers.

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Despite his flaws, the enigmatic Draper was hailed as a creative marketing genius and the model adman. Advertising executives looked up to him and boys wanted to be him. One such boy is Jaz Lee.

"I watched one episode of Mad Men and said, 'That's the greatest job in the world!' All Don Draper does is drink whiskey, sleep, and not doing much work, right? And also wearing nice suits. That's a really great job!" the 27-year-old says with a grin.

The Asia's Most Influential honouree admits it was these shallow reasons (not to mention the Mad Men glamour and the possibility of fame and money) that motivated him to get into the advertising industry. However, advertising wasn't always his first choice or passion.

Lee grew up in Australia chasing his football goals but a sudden life change forced him to uproot and return to Malaysia and drop out of high school altogether. "My parents separated and almost overnight, I was broke. My mom and I moved out, and going back to Australia wasn't an option. It’s like you’re stuck. And I don’t even have a high school degree," Lee reveals.

To survive, he had to work a lot of odd jobs as a teenager.

"I once sold Maggi mee at supermarkets. I was an admin at a law firm. I was a retail guy at TopShop. Then one day, I stumbled upon advertising through Mad Men," Lee says. "After watching that episode, I sent a cover letter to Eric Cruz (then Leo Burnett & Arc Malaysia executive creative director), telling him what advertising was, what it should be, and what's wrong with advertising today. I told him that advertising shouldn't look like advertising and that it should mean something. I said, 'Right now, all I see are ads. Ads that sound like ads, smell like ads, and feel like ads.' That was probably the dumbest move I've ever made, telling an executive creative director that."

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It was a very ballsy move that Cruz appreciated. Lee landed his first big break and arguably his luckiest shot at life–a copywriting gig at Leo Burnett Malaysia. It's safe to say that he went into advertising with nothing but bright eyes and his dream of becoming Draper. And, boy, was he in for a surprise.

"It's the complete opposite of Mad Men! Everything, from the way you dress to the work itself. My first year in advertising was the hardest time of my life–ever," he laments. "I came from a background of playing football almost professionally my whole life. That was hard work and a lot of training but advertising is a whole different level of stress.

"In my first year, everyone thought I was an intern because I was 19. The interns who were 22 and 23 knew a lot more about advertising than I did because they went to school for it. I was so behind. I didn't know anything. I didn't come from a creative background and I've done zero creative work in my life. So people looked down on me and they obviously believed that I didn't deserve to be there. That was a struggle, trying to compete and at the same time, studying as much advertising as I could," Lee shares.

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Lee recalls being put on the Petronas account, one of Leo Burnett Malaysia's biggest.

Everyone was always like: “Why are you putting an intern on a big account like Petronas?” “He’s not an intern. He's an actual copywriter.” “Has he done any advertising?” “Never.” Automatically, the impression was: “We’re screwed."
Jaz Lee

As he settled in and picked up his pace, and spent many a late night in the office, so did the recognitions. Year in, year out, Lee would bag awards, from the local Kancil Awards to the regional AdFest, to even the prestigious Cannes Lions and The One Show. He became one to watch. But in a country where workplaces are still very hierarchical, based on age and position, and with 80 per cent of employees preferring to work with an older manager, he has his work cut out for him.

When it comes to getting people to take him seriously, he says: "I became a creative group head when I was 22 with two or three years of experience in advertising. Suddenly I had to lead a team and they're not young people. They are 35 or 45, people who have done advertising for a decade or more. So, of course, everyone is going to look down on the younger, less experienced person."

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Still, he soldiered on. "The easiest thing you can do is throw your title at them and just boss people around but I think the best way to convince someone is through the work. As long as you're there for them and you show them what you can do, at some point you'll earn their respect. You can’t demand respect, you have to earn it. That’s what I did for about a year or two.

"As creative director, I review work and ideas that people have spent a lot of late nights thinking about. That’s their idea and they nurture that idea. If you kill an idea (and my job is to kill ideas until we get the best) of a person who already doesn’t respect you, you better have a damn good reason or an alternative that's much better. Over time, sticking with them through the late nights and when clients rejected the work, that’s when respect was built," he reminisces. "I'm still really good friends with the first batch of teams that I led so it all worked out in the end."

With such sheer determination, unwavering perseverance, and zest for the advertising industry, truly, the sky's the limit for Lee. To date, he has spearheaded some of Malaysia's most notable campaigns including Petronas' Rubber Boy and Monochrome, Coca-Cola's The Galactic Bottles, Voice of the Children's The Anti-Bullying Bullying Videos, and Samsung Galaxy’s S10: Space Launch, Malaysia's first launch of a phone to space.

Then, at only 23 years old, he was made creative director at Ogilvy Malaysia–the youngest ever to helm the role. That said, having accomplished most of what people would have taken a decade or more to achieve, it begs the question: "What's next?"

"I do want to leave advertising eventually. I want to transcend from advertising to do other forms of creativity and just experiment. If I stop experimenting, I think I'll plateau in my career and life. Fashion design—that's the next thing I want to do. When I realised that I was a creative and I could be creative, while advertising is a medium that I want to do, the itch is really to just create. I want to create products and I want to create change. I just want to keep creating for the rest of my life. Hopefully, one day, also create some social change."

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Given the opportunity, would he have changed how his life panned out? Lee says no.

"Not a single thing in both my career and life. Going broke was the best thing to ever happen to me and it taught me the value of hard work. It gave me a whole new perspective on life. When you don’t know when your next meal is or how to afford it, that’s when you're driven to succeed," he says.

Tatler Asia's Asia’s Most Influential is the definitive list of people shaping Asia. Asia’s Most Influential brings together the region’s most innovative changemakers, industry titans and powerful individuals who are shaping the region through positive impact. View the full list here.

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