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Hans Ebert of Open Space: 5 Non-Intuitive Ways To Grow Your Marketing Career

Kage Spatz

Ensure there’s an emotional attachment in whatever content you’re creating.

As a part of my Marketing Strategy Series, I’m talking with fellow marketing pros at the top of their game to give entrepreneurs and marketers an inside look at proven strategies you might also be able to leverage to grow your business or career. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Hans Ebert.

Hans Ebert is the founder of creatives’ platform Open Space, and a well-known marketer in Hong Kong. Sri Lankan born, he started out as a music journalist, before a storied career in advertising, popularizing McDonald’s in Hong Kong, launching STAR TV, the first satellite station in Asia, and then moving on to the music industry.

After stints at Universal Music and EMI Asia, he was headhunted by the CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, where he re-energized Hong Kong’s famous but staid world of horse racing by devising a fusion of entertainment, live music, artisan food, and drinks, then marketing it to a younger, hipster audience.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path? My father was in the hotel business. One day he asked me what I wanted to do. I told him that I wanted to follow in his footsteps. OK, he said, you realize you’ll have to cut your hair? I said, Dad, I can’t do that (still haven’t).

He knew people so he helped me get a job as a teenage cub reporter at the Standard newspaper in Hong Kong. One day the news editor needed someone to cover a Sammy Davis Jnr press conference, so I was sent out to the Hong Kong Hilton. I asked him a few questions; he seemed to like them. The road manager told me Sammy wanted me to join them for dinner so I did. Then I partied with Sammy and his four dancers. It was a hell of an introduction to working life.

I found out quite early that I was good with words so I got a job as a copywriter in a small agency working with Hyatt hotels. But eventually, you get a little tired writing about “luxuriously appointed rooms” and I fortunately got a great break when we won the McDonald’s business in Hong Kong.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting and what lesson you learned from that? Definitely. The first Ronald McDonald commercial produced in Hong Kong. We were promoting the Ronald McDonald calendar. And this is the mistake: I had no idea how key makeup and casting was to a Ronald McDonald commercial.

Everyone knows how Ronald McDonald looks, or Uncle Ronald, as he was known in Chinese. But here’s the thing, I didn’t know that to be a good Ronald you really need a big strong jawline. A proper stereotypical American jawline. Back then we didn’t know much about Ronald McDonald, or McDonald’s in general.

So I cast someone who was a clown because we thought that was the most important thing. He was a good clown. But we just couldn’t make him look like Ronald McDonald.

But we did the commercial anyway and showed it to a group of children to get some feedback. This is when I knew it had all gone wrong. The children all started crying. They weren’t used to seeing anyone look like that, with that makeup on.

The Chinese clown had a different look. He was just not Ronald McDonald, there was no strong chin. The huge mouth was just huge and scary. The lips just blended with the jawline. It was the most horrible look. The most horrible commercial.

From then onwards, we used American commercials and dubbed them — with me often doing all the voices as we didn’t have the rights to use the original voices.

And this lesson? Not everything translates: you really have to know your market. And trust your instinct.

Thank you for sharing that story! Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that? Yes. As I said above, I’d been copywriting for Hyatt hotels, but when I couldn’t think of another way of writing “luxuriously appointed room” anymore I began working on the McDonald’s account in Hong Kong. Fast food wasn’t expected to do well in Hong Kong as Burger King had been a flop but a brilliant and eccentric man called Daniel Ng thought differently.

Meeting and working with Daniel Ng was the tipping point. I learned a lot about intuitive marketing from him. He was highly intellectual and also very street smart.

I’ll tell you a story that happened to me early on and another great lesson in how important it is to know your market.

Daniel was a weird guy, but weird in a smart way. At a conference in McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago, all the big executives were trying to tell Daniel that he needed to sell more Quarter Pounders in Hong Kong.

Daniel just told me, whatever I say, just agree with me. And Daniel told them that the reason Burger King failed in China was that their Whopper burger had raw onions. But that was really unpopular with Chinese consumers. It makes your breath smell, it makes you pass gas. McDonald’s Quarter Pounders had chopped onions in them… but they were also expensive to produce!

So he took it off the menu and put more marketing effort into the less expensive Filet O Fish. He’d got the Hong Kong and later the China franchise for a steal and ended up the most successful McDonald’s owner in the world.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Open Space is a digital platform connecting creatives around the globe. What makes it stand out? It is constantly evolving to fit the times. For example, when the pandemic hit, and lockdowns started to bite, Open Space pushed a message of kindness and positivity, starting out by getting Hong Kong megastar Aaron Kwok and linking this with his hit movie at the time (about a high flier in the financial world who had fallen on hard times and was forced to sleep at a McDonald’s). Other than this, I have written songs about how we are all global citizens, how kindness matters and introducing fun new ideas like Jockeyoga featuring Hong Kong jockeys. Open Space is also continuing to provide musicians, and the creative community at large, a way to showcase their work and interact with fans when the world shut down.

It’s so important to remind people that lockdowns can’t imprison creativity.

Over the last few months, Open Space has created an online community with emerging talents from here in Hong Kong and China, and everywhere else; it’s working to help artists be heard. I set up a songwriters’ competition this summer, with a $10,000 prize. We’ve had entries from all over — America, France, South Africa, Zambia — even an entry from The King Of Hits, Jonathan King.

And still we are moving on — the current idea that Open Space is developing is a multimedia project that could just be a game-changer.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? Multi-Media. Keywords. A less is more way of working and producing multimedia content that challenges online platforms to change and be a partner to what we’re producing, as opposed to us creating content to fit what’s already out there and so being part of clutter — and more tails wagging the dog.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Keith Reinhard. Keith ran Needham Harper and Steers — McDonald’s US agency. It became DDB — the worldwide creative agency network. My HK agency was part of it. Keith came up with the McDonald’s slogan “You deserve a break today”.

Keith knew I was writing for Billboard and he mentored me. He told me I had a way with words, brought me to Chicago… he was such a big deal in my life. I was recently married to an American then. He taught me how to understand words and strategy… but even more how to use music in marketing and advertising.

McDonald’s was very popular for the menu chant — you had to be able to say the chant in 7 seconds… it took on a life of its own.. I came up with hand signs to go with it as a follow-up. McDonald’s — you really understand marketing working with them. This is the best school there is for marketers. I don’t know any better marketeer than McDonald's. I like Nike for their creative but McDonald’s for marketing to a mainstream audience just can’t be beaten. They’ve long had different agencies and campaigns for different customer segments — teens, tweens, parents, youths… Latinos, African-American.

They got everyone from Ray Charles to Richie Havens singing McDonald’s jingles. Richie Havens (Woodstock hero) did a fabulous breakfast spot for us.

I say Keith Reinhard is a genius.

Wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout? My hope is to see more honest and, yes, creative communications. As always, the best will shine through whereas the rest will lose out due to a lack of substance. It’s not unlike how in the music industry there will always be the novelty hits, but these will never have any lasting power other than being curiosity pieces.

If you could break down a very successful campaign into a “blueprint”, what would that blueprint look like? Know who you are trying to market to, and find something that will attract them. That’s most of the blueprint you need.

I’ll give you an example. I had just left the music industry — EMI had just had a famously disastrous buy-out by a private equity firm — Terra Firma, run by Guy Hands. So I left EMI Asia and was looking for something to do.

Horse racing in Hong Kong is hugely popular, but a few years back it had been stuck with an aging audience. The CEO knew I liked horse racing as well as music and had been trying to get me involved. So one day he persuaded me to come along to the iconic Happy Valley Racecourse.. He told me that people didn’t know that horse racing is supposed to be entertainment and he wanted to make it entertaining.

So I told him: music is the answer.

But that’s not an easy fit with horse racing. How do you mix the kind of fun live music that would attract a young audience to Happy Valley on a Wednesday night with horses, who get spooked by loud noises?

We worked out just how to timetable it so the music only came on when the horses were not. It worked — a younger, international audience came along. A few months later we opened a music bar/nightclub at the track where you could watch the races and listen to a live band all the way through the night. The Happy Wednesday brand revolutionized racing and not only in Hong Kong. We kept the music focus strong; came up with jingles and songs for the top jockeys, like Joao Moreira and Zac Purton, and different themes every couple of months to keep things fresh. When people came we knew it was a hit; 15,000 people partying and watching the races every week.

You have to target exactly who you want. For example, there were around 400,000 French expats in an area of Hong Kong and we thought if a load of these people came along, it would make the event seem cool. We booked French DJs and marketed this to them — they started to be Happy Wednesday regulars. And we repeated this strategy for other groups.

Then word of mouth will do your marketing for you. The night was so successful we got hotels telling tourists looking for what to do in Hong Kong about Happy Wednesday. And they told people back home after the holiday… making it even more successful.

Consumers have become more jaded and resistant to anything “salesy”. In your industry, where do you see the future of marketing going? It’s a bit like the man-eating plant in “The Little Shop Of Horrors” who bellowed, “FEED ME”, and we did so with content and without thinking.

These days, I think that we’re mining for nuggets and not accepting everything thrown our way. Perhaps this is why we’re seeing a renewed interest in podcasts being given more “time and space” to question ourselves and keep things more exclusive?

Many have also wised up to the various numbers games being played online and realize that these give us a warped sense of reality.

Personally, I believe that we’re entering a time where we’re more discerning about what we accept and what we put out there as part of our respective brands. In many ways, we just might be seeing a return to a more creative and real/honest mainstream media. The tail no longer wagging the dog.

What 5 things do you wish someone told you before you started? 1) Don’t bring people into your team as a favor or because you feel sorry for them. They’ll end up slowing you down. 2) Know when to shut up and listen and also when to leave the table. 3) Marketing is heart sell and not hard yell. 4) Ensure there’s an emotional attachment in whatever content you’re creating. 5) Break the pattern.

I think everyone reading this will have their own story of when they’ve worked with the wrong person, when they wish they’d walked away from a project, or when a team just hasn’t worked. The best marketing — the ones that make a difference — aim at the heart. From Just Do It to You deserve a break today — it’s about engaging the emotions. And break the pattern?

I’ll give you an example. When I joined the regional office of EMI Music after leaving Universal, our roster of talent didn’t exactly scream out Hitsville. Norah Jones, Robbie Williams, Coldplay were still to break. We desperately needed a big hit and the band to deliver this…was a pretty obscure Danish outfit called Michael Learns To Rock. Even my Danish girlfriend at the time thought the group had disappeared into oblivion.

I had received their new album and couldn’t hear a single hit. It was all pretty much cheese whiz. But as cheese whiz was selling in the region, I told the band that we would release their new record on one condition — that they cover a huge hit in Mandarin by Chinese megastar Jacky Cheung — in English.

I was absolutely sure this cheesy ballad with the big cheesy chorus would be a massive cheesy hit. The guys initially balked at the idea, but finally agreed to record it.

Known in English as “Take Me To Your Heart”, the track had over 6 million downloads in a couple of weeks, which opened the doors to the band successfully touring Asia. And EMI had got themselves a hit.

Can you share a few examples of marketing tools or marketing technology that you think can dramatically empower small business owners to become more effective marketers? I learned an easy set of rules from Keith Reinhard, and I stick to them. The technique is not the idea. And now I have adapted it to — technology is not the idea. Which is why when people say to me their marketing campaign is to put it on Instagram / Twitter etc, I say that’s the technology but what’s the idea? The execution is not the idea. That’s ingrained in me. Simple is best. And maybe the best tool — remember to “cut through the clutter”. So important now in social media marketing. One more before we go: What books, podcasts, documentaries or other resources do you use to sharpen your marketing skills? I try not to read too much on this subject. But inspiration can come from anywhere. If I want to feel inspired I go back to watching old Fred Astaire movies. Or old Orson Wells movies. How did they shoot this in one shot? How did they film what you saw? They didn’t have the technology but they had all the creativity and talent. Now I fear we have all the technology but I don’t think the talent is being well used. Thank you for sharing your story and so many valuable insights with us today!

Author: Kage Spatz is a Forbes-ft. Strategist for Good — leveling the playing field for the other 99.9%. Kage’s team of Fortune 500 Marketers have joined forces to give your business access to done-for-you Content & SEO used by the top .1% (at a fraction of the cost). Increase relevant traffic & trust for you (or your clients) with Spacetwin.

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