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GXS’ pixel pusher Tim Lai drops lessons on how to think out of the box.

Life on the cutting edge

GXS’ pixel pusher Tim Lai drops lessons on how to think out of the box.

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Tim Lai is a man living on the edge. Pushing the envelope is a concept he has embraced fully - not just professionally but also personally. 

Tim is the head of creative at GXS and is part of the brains behind installations such as the Voice of Prosperity (where members of the public were encouraged to shout at a mustachioed cat to raise funds for charity) and the whole design aesthetic for the GXS app!

On the personal front, he has uprooted himself multiple times to chase the “unknown”. In 2022, he did that yet again but on a larger scale this time, uprooting his wife and daughter from Thailand to come to Singapore. 

So we decided to ask him:  

What drove you to literally pack up your bags and relocate for GXS?

I go to places where they are doing things that intrigue me because curiosity keeps me motivated and challenged. I am also a tech geek so places that have cutting edge technology or are on the cusp of trying out something new excite me. I essentially jumped around from place to place learning new craft and understanding the inner workings of bleeding edge technology. 

I was one of the first few adopters of Oculus 1 - even before Facebook bought Oculus VR! - just because I was curious. I bought the developers kit but I didn’t buy the computer to support it so I had to hack a lot of things to experience the kit. 

That is my journey in a nutshell: Always keeping myself curious and looking over the horizon for anything that’s tech driven. 

Before I married, I moved around a lot. I am like a chameleon - no, I am more like a cockroach because I can adapt to a lot of places and am hard to kill - but my family wasn’t used to that lifestyle. So there were a lot of conversations to be had. 

I think in the end, the decision to move to Singapore was the right move in terms of my career path as well as living standards and education for my daughter. 

When she first got here, she only knew how to speak Thai and she didn’t know any English so it was a steep learning curve for her. Thankfully, she’s been able to catch up really quickly because of the friends she hangs out with. But, she’s also catching Singlish really quickly too! The other day I caught her saying “No lah, Dad!”. 

What goes into the designing and building of a digital bank creative playbook? 

When we first started looking at branding for GXS, we were looking for something that was totally different from other financial institutions in Singapore and South-east Asia. We hired a world-renown branding agency, did a comparative analysis of all the banking brands in South-east Asia, and found that there is a specific niche we can own - making banking cool, trendy, fashionable and a bit of fun. That’s how we ended up with our current branding. 

To take this forward is the hard part because cool and trendy looks are great in the brand book but when we try to scale it across different marketing campaigns -  be it tactical or bigger ATL* campaigns - we found that the ability to translate across different platforms was sometimes the most difficult thing. 

*Curious what ATL is? Above the line marketing is aimed at everybody: Think of the advertisements you see on television, radio, newspapers, or even buses! On the flipside, there is BTL or below the line marketing. The latter is more targeted and direct and includes direct mail campaigns or targeted search engine marketing.  Ever looked something up on the world wide web and then been served with advertisements on what you searched for? That’s BTL marketing in action. Now you know!

Do you see yourself as someone who challenges conventions and how does this come to life for you? 

The first thing you need to figure out  are the rules and regulations. Once you understand this, you can think about how to be creative while keeping within the rules. For us, the golden rule is that we try to do things differently and in a way that is visually arresting. That doesn’t mean it has to be attractive. But it has to make people stop, think and critique. That helps us move our visuals through a saturated market like Singapore where banking ads are everywhere and people are desensitised. 

We do it because we want to see how far we can push the envelope before something pushes back.

One of the things that we’ve updated is our lifecycle marketing. Whenever you get an email or notification from any of the banks, you just delete it right? It’s usually just another marketing communication that wants you to do something - sign up for a card, take on a loan or something like that.  The industry standards for open rate and conversion rate is usually very low. 

What we do here is we package it so that people want to open the email or interact with us. We do this by making our content more interesting. Our emails don’t look like an advert but instead provide information that readers might be interested in. We have also hacked the user experience by hardcoding visual elements into our direct mailing systems so that we can achieve delightful consistencies no matter where the user is reading our emails from. Thanks to this series of hacks, we’ve been setting new records for industry benchmarks.

What advice do you have for people who want to think out of the box?

Be curious. One of the things I miss about Thailand - which always puzzles people and makes them frown - are the traffic jams. Because of the traffic jams, my commute to and from work was about four hours. 

But the good thing was I got to read or listen to a lot of audiobooks. It’s about self-learning that you would not otherwise get to do if you are stuck in a nine-to-five job right? Who doesn’t want to do something fun once they get off work? But if you are stuck in traffic and you cannot scroll through YouTube or Instagram, you might as well listen to music or in my case, audiobooks. Back in Thailand, I could do 12 books a month pretty easily because of the commute. That’s one of the things I miss.  

So a piece of advice I’d give others? Read things outside of your industry, be curious and try not to settle.

Do you have a favorite book that has informed the way you think and changed your life? 

Go Luck Yourself by Andy Nairn, a strategic planner and co-founder of Lucky Generals, an advertising agency in the United Kingdom. The book is about how you can take what you have in the industry and flip it around; just because someone says those are the way things are done, you don’t have to conform to it. 

He gave industry examples of different ads, different situations where business results were turned around because somebody went against the norm. The use cases and business studies in his book are great, even if just to see how others face their problems and how they overcome them.

Psst! Here's something else you should know:

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