Updated: Oct 6
Plans to be a professional Rock Star didn’t quite work out. Way too much competition. Failing an audition to be a part time radio disc jockey and not being good enough to be a junior illustrator in an advertising agency, left me with no career options.
This was until my dad asked his best friend- Brian J Bryce- if he could help.
BJB as he was known was the Worldwide Chairman of Hyatt Hotels and based in Hong Kong. It had been a whirlwind meteoric career ride for him including marrying a stunning model named Suzanne Taylor. When this didn’t last, he continued playing the field.
New fields of dreams and vistas opened for him and other members of Hong Kong’s powerful new young entrepreneurs club. None were ever without some of the most stunning women in town.
Being good friends with future global movie moguls like Run Run Shaw and Raymond Chow helped.
Strangely, when trying to write a tribute about his passing some years ago, there's not one word nor photograph of Brian on Google.
My dad had been the person who helped change his world around. This was when he persuaded Brian, who was selling encyclopaedias at the time after arriving in Hong Kong from Australia, to join him in applying for a position at the Hong Kong Hotel. This soon became the city’s first international hotel- the Hong Kong Hilton.
So began the rise and rise of the charismatic Brian J Bryce. It didn’t take long for his executive position with the Hilton to not be big enough. He was on the move. My father came along for the ride.
I had an appointment with Brian at his office at the Hyatt Regency in Kowloon to talk about my future career plans. I didn’t have any. He looked me up and down sitting across from him with my shoulder length hair, skin tight suit and, er, snakeskin platform boots bought in LA. He calmly made a phone call to someone named Philip Tse, below.
The smooth operator that was Philip had a small advertising agency called Tse Needham- Needham being Chicago-based Needham, Harper and Steers. He was also married to a beautiful actress named Ginny Ching-li. The marriage didn’t last the distance. Pity. She was a lovely person.
With Hyatt being their main client, Philip really didn’t have much of a choice but to hire me. I was given the title of Senior English Copywriter. There was no other copywriter. I was offered HK$600 a month and didn’t have to be asked twice. This was double to what I was making at my last job as the entertainment reporter for the Star tabloid.
Being a copywriter wasn’t exactly my strong suit. I didn’t even know what made someone a copywriter or that one could start a sentence with “And” and “But” etc. I was writing hotel brochure copy for the Hyatt hotels like a record critic for Rolling Stone which was what I really wanted to do.
Writing ad copy is when I got my first taste of client rejection. Did I care? Rejection always hurts, but you end up with a thick skin.
You also learn that, no, you don’t know everything.
Despite producing my first television commercial for Wrangler Jeans, and which gave me a chance to get to know the model in it and with whom I fell in love and married, I was wondering how much longer I was going to be in the advertising game.
This was until we won the McDonald’s business. It wasn’t a win per se as Needham, Harper and Steers was McDonald’s ad agency in the States. It was more of a strategic alignment with the China market in mind.
Suddenly, Tse Needham looked international. More importantly, working on the McDonald’s business opened up a world of possibilities for me that I didn’t know existed before. It was being paid to go to business school.
Being very much a jingle driven account, I started spending more and more time in the recording studios overseeing the production of McDonald’s jingles.
I was learning all the time without even knowing it.
Factored in to my full time work was setting up a small startup jingles business with a couple of friends- guitarist Wallace Chau, Commercial Radio disc jockey Mike Souza and Norman Cheng, the former guitarist with Teddy Robin and the Playboys, and then engineer and producer at PolyGram. Norman’s career as a music executive was on the rise. It was always on the cards.
We wrote and produced music for other clients along with recording originals, something that I had always wanted to do. It was a time when Hong Kong wasn’t exactly overflowing with original tunesmiths.
Apart from writing originals- and getting better at songwriting, something that had started as a hobby with best friend Steve Tebbutt who was then performing professionally in Honolulu with a band called Renaissance, I was slowly understanding the basics of the music business.
Recording jingles meant making a few extra dollars, which came in handy to get me more active in the dating game.
The dating was short-lived as it didn’t take long for Trina, the Wrangler Jeans girl who had me at “Jeans?” and I to get together. We spent most of our time at my “pad” in Arts Mansion with my cat Kitty for company. We moved in together and six months later got married. The plan was to live happily ever after.
Meanwhile, I had received a small increase in salary and had also started writing a couple of entertainment columns for the Sunday Morning Post. This gave me the opportunities to interview everyone from Billy Joel, Quincy Jones, below, Martin Scorsese and others to reviewing records and shows taking place at the Hilton and the Mandarin.
All this plus being the Hong Kong correspondent for Billboard, the world’s leading music trade publication, made my byline and name card pretty priceless. It played a significant role in creating and promoting the Norman Cheng brand.
Coming up with the terms “Canto Rock” and later “Canto Pop” when writing about the emergence of Sam Hui and a new form of Cantonese music might not have seemed like a big deal at the time, but I guess it was.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantopop It was at this time that the term Cantopop was first coined. The Billboard correspondent Hans Ebert, who had earlier coined the term Cantorock in 1974, noted a change in its style to something similar to British-American soft rock, therefore started to use the term Cantopop instead in 1978.
Though having the next advertising campaign for Wrangler directed by one-time official Beatles photographer Bob Freeman, below, who had somehow found himself working in commercials in Hong Kong and regaled us with stories about the Swinging London, advertising was interesting without being exciting or glamorous. I couldn’t see an ROI.
McDonald’s, however, offered up something new and a huge opportunity. It was the best thing to happen to me during my time in advertising: I was being paid to go to one of the best schools of marketing and creative thinking where I learned from one of the best- Keith Reinhard.
Keith was the leading force behind McDonald’s advertising. He was also the legendary head of creative with Needham, Harper and Steers. and one of those original “Mad Men” of advertising who inspired the brilliant television series of the same name.
I used the knowledge gained working on the McDonald’s account in my careers that were to follow. This includes everything I am working on today.
It was Keith’s mentoring that made me take an interest in all aspects of filmmaking and which led me to the music industry.
By now, I had worked on dozens of McDonald’s jingles, written the first three hit recordings in English for Sam Hui before he took the Canto Pop route, and had represented Hong Kong in the Golden Kite songwriting competition in Malaysia. It wasn’t exactly the Grammys, but still...
Also extremely key in attending this very special McUniversity was Daniel Ng, a one-time aeronautical engineer with NASA. Daniel bought the McDonald’s franchise for Hong Kong and China and became a good friend and one of my staunchest supporters.
Whereas Keith saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself, Daniel gave me the confidence to question everything being asked and how it was okay to make mistakes.
Other learning experiences offered up by advertising was showing more than a glimpse into everything that was wrong with it, especially the corporate politics.
After all, even Don Draper from “Mad Men” was hardly perfect. He was a ruthless, ambitious womaniser with a way with words.
He was also carrying a lifetime of personal secrets with him. He was successful, but unhappy. He was married, but a philanderer. He loved his wife and also loved women. He couldn’t help himself.
The advertising world changed radically for me when a lightweight McDonald’s account servicing guy from Chicago was sent to Hong Kong to run the agency.
Being on one of those expat packages, he tripped out on having a domestic helper, living in the penthouse and having membership to the city’s exclusive private clubs.
It was a stark realisation that none of this would be mine. Wrong colour in colonial Hong Kong.
His “lasting legacy” to the Hong Kong advertising world was hiring a chauffeur- a young British female chauffeur who barely knew the roads of Hong Kong. She didn’t last long. Neither did he.
He was replaced by an Australian from Sydney who had dabbled in various businesses and resembled a Thunderbird puppet. Let’s call him “Digger Brownie”.
Philip Tse was more and more involved in his art business and was seen less and less in the office. He and “Digger” had formed some unholy alliance and it wasn’t difficult to see what was going on.
It was also creating an inner rage in me, especially after we somehow won the dysfunctional STARTV business.
With this account in the bag, we set sail with the ship of fools, rorts, enablers and crooks surrounding Chairman Richard Li along with those who were part and parcel of the superficiality of the MTV Asia channel that was part of STARTV.
They were weird times where nothing was real and there was so much to get hung up about. It was what it was and deserves its own book with the whole truth and nothing but the truth including the cleverly orchestrated sale of the wok in the sky to Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp mothership. Wendy Deng, ding, dong and all that.
I was seeing so many wrongs in so many things and letting this take over my being.
Trina was travelling more and more in her new job and I was feeling neglected and alone. Taryn was with her friends, some of whose parents were going through their own problems.
As for “Digger”, he was more slick in a greasy kinda way and always seemed to have swum in cheap aftershave.
He was also sharp enough to know how someone in his position could make Hong Kong work for them. Superficiality always trumped substance.
This was there for everyone to see at the Manhattan discotheque whenever the cliquey people met for that annual birthday bash for someone who did much for many in advertising.
When his boat sunk, he was left high and dry.
“Digger”, his wife and their social circle of “beautiful people” inhaled the Bolivian marching powder good life in Hong Kong through relentless networking, and backdoor deals with like-minded wannabe Gordon Gekko types.
It was how Hong Kong operated at that time by those who saw whatever they were doing- like being executives in advertising- as a stepping stone to much bigger things.
Nothing wrong with this, I guess. It’s called being ambitious.
As long as it’s not blind ambition, you’re not going to make long lasting enemies along the way to gaining power and control. Right?
“Digger’s” biggest mistake was bringing in the Chinese “Keyser Soze” as the key man in his new A Team.
He was taken in by the cheesy grin, gelled hair and strange Americanised accent. “Keyser” was also a very sharp presenter, especially when selling himself. He always did his homework. He knew with whom he should play tennis.
His hiring proved fatal. “Digger” didn’t see it coming at him like a fast moving neutron bomb. He was busy strengthening his sycophantic friendship with a key member at DDB in New York and whose family name had got him far.
My mentor Keith Reinhard was looking at retirement by then and had become something of a goodwill ambassador for DDB.
His power base had come and gone and what the advertising business had become was probably something he no longer recognised nor liked.
Karma being the strange animal that it is, “Digger” was finally ousted after a very successful run. The truth caught up with him. The one who orchestrated his downfall in 1997 was “Keyser”, who eventually took over the running of the agency in Asia. Quelle supris.
Before this and with me being so closely linked with the success of McDonald’s in Hong Kong, it was something that gnawed at “Digger Brownie”.
He knew that if I left, McDonald’s would walk. When the split finally happened, McDonald’s changed advertising agencies.
It’s no secret that I didn’t give a damn about the other accounts the agency had. I simply wasn’t cut out to be an “ad guy” though I had won my fair share of international awards.
This included winning the very prestigious London Advertising Award for a Right Of Abode print campaign that helped 8700 stateless people caught up in Hong Kong
returning to Chinese rule, being given a British passport. I was one of these people.
Music, meanwhile, is where I knew my future was and where I would be happy.
Under “Digger Brownie” and “Mr Superficiality” before him, the advertising I was associated with had more to do with politics and backdoor deals, power ties and gelled hair.
At this new DDB, no one trusted anyone. Those I liked, I advised to get out and find new jobs.
I was only hanging in there to get a decent payout for the years put into DDB. This was finally settled over a drink with Philip Tse. It was disappointing closure not only to my time with a small time advertising agency that became a big player. It was also the end of my friendship with Philip.
That night I saw someone I no longer wanted to be around.
Though we have met in passing a couple of times, we’ve gone our separate ways. Simple as that.
I certainly had my faults. Many of us involved in advertising in those days were no saints. It was often about greed being good and nothing wrong with being a sinner.
Working with alcoholic writers, ambitious account servicing people with their plans to become powerful clients, and losing one’s self in long lunches and side trips to Macau for the horse racing that had started in the Portuguese enclave was a recipe for disaster. The smart ones got out in time.
Many in an industry- women certainly not excluded, who, these days would be slapped with sexual harassment suits in a nanu second- affected me and led me down some very dark trips. I have to admit that I was happy to be led.
I forgot I was married or, at least, thought that maybe this was the way to be “accepted”. But accepted by who?
Maybe I was using Trina’s travelling to stray without feeling any guilt.
There were some very good, decent people in advertising. There were also many who were duped and ended up with their lives and finances in tatters.
There were the foreigners and their local sycophants who had no love for Hong Kong. It was all about how much they could get out of this city before 1997.
Mercifully, very good local talent started to call the shots and their award winning work proved their worth.
Then, the China market opened up and those pukka days of the papadum Raj well and truly bit the dust.
Years later when working with the Hong Kong Jockey Club after leaving EMI Music and creating the game-changing Happy Wednesday brand, I promised to meet up with a few ad guys from long ago and far away.
We met at our old stomping grounds at the Dickens Bar in the Excelsior Hotel.
After half an hour around them, I was bored senseless. Times had changed. I had changed. The reminiscing about this and that person I couldn’t recall and the chest pounding about awards won two decades earlier had me ask for the bill and leave to meet a friend.
This “reunion” was suffocating me. It was bringing back some memories I had managed to outrun.
There was mention about how it was going to be their “shout” the next time.
Five years later and the only “shout” there’s been is a roaring silence.
Thank goodness for that.