Cj De Silva-Ong: from Wunderkind to Wonder Woman

In the midst of today’s questionable advertising, Cj De Silva-Ong from TBWA\SMP reminds us that the best ads are the ones born from sincerity.

Hailed with the monikers, “Promil Kid” and “Gifted Child,” through a series of television commercials that aired in the 90s featuring several gifted children that parents romanced of having, Christiana Jade “CJ” de Silva-Ong was one of the chosen few. With a brush in hand and buckets of paint, she created the ever famous “Mother and Child” masterpiece that she was known back in the day. Fast forward to the present, as the Associate Creative Director of TBWA\Santiago Mangada Puno, receiving awards from AdFest, Spikes Asia, Clio, One Show, and D&AD, there is no doubt that she is now a force to be reckoned with in the advertising world.

Where did your love for everything creative start? What is the main source of inspiration for you?

I was older when I understood the concept of “creativity,” perhaps around college when I studied fine arts. Since I was a small child, when I would paint and draw, it felt formal to me. I grew up in a family that’s inclined with the arts, like how [growing up] I would see my grandfather painting. My play time consisted mostly of Do-It-Yourself toys such as home-made jigsaw puzzles—which my father was very much invested in—and paper dolls that I drew myself. Looking back, I could say that I was exposed pretty early in the creative world.

My main source of inspiration would be the problems and issues around me. I believe that creativity thrives in an environment with limitations and challenges. If I find something that challenges me, I try my best to come up with helpful—and hopefully, great—ideas and solutions.

What professional achievements are you proudest of? What personal achievements are you proudest of?

When I think of professional achievements, what pops in my mind is whatever I have already achieved; it was not solely to my own accord. Maybe I had a role, but there are many people who have worked with me and believed in me. For example, the Hana Water Billboard and the KFC Unlimited Gravy—yes, both won many awards, but to me, what matters most is how those two changed me as a creative. With those two works, I have learned and matured a lot such as: how to not be complacent and how to exhaust all possible ways to make the work beautiful and effective. I learned how to take constructive criticism and to not take them personally. You will realize that every comment and revision is for the betterment of your work. I’ve also learned the importance of strong ideas and strong craft, and seeing the project through. The D&AD awards that those two received were the cherry on top, especially as an art director.

Also, I must say, I’m really proud of my published work that I have personally illustrated and designed. The “Stupid is Forever” series was something close to my heart. It became a part of pop-culture and many still remember its cover design. Another book I am immensely proud of is “Ikaklit sa Aming Hardin,” a children’s story about two young girls and two mothers and how there are different kinds of families: the nuclear setting, solo parents, LGBT parents, and many more. There weren’t any mainstream publishing house that wanted to publish the book, so I offered Dat Neri, the author, that I wanted to illustrate the book, no monetary exchange whatsoever, and published it was.

How did you prepare yourself in becoming a creative director at TBWA? What were the challenges you faced entering TBWA\SMP?

My mentors/bosses always made me see that being a creative director is first and foremost a responsibility. Yes, there is indeed glamour and power in the title, but at the end of the day, it is a responsibility one should keep. Being a creative director means being a leader; leading your teammates when things are not clear, guiding the younger people, the accountability of both the growth of the business and the career growth of your younger teammates, and so on. Thanks to my mentors/bosses, especially Melvin Mangada and Joey Tiempo, I must say that they had to do a lot with who I am today. The number one challenge in TBWA\SMP is to be consistent—CONSISTENT CREATIVE WORK. Creative Work builds both the business and the company’s reputation.

I remember your talk from the adobo Design Series about the importance of sincerity in our ads—when did this realization start?

Perhaps two years into the business was when I realized I was getting more and more immersed in the industry. You start to realize that the most important thing in your work is sincerity. Be sincere with your creative briefs, with your ideas, and with your execution. People will then start to feel it and because of it, they will start to appreciate the work and the brand. Contrary to popular belief that advertising is all about “inventing needs” or selling things people don’t need; advertising is actually about always finding the truth, finding insight, and something genuine. The brand or the product should always come in as a genuine solution.

You start to realize that the most important thing in your work is sincerity.

I’d rather have an imperfect, sincere, and interesting work over a piece of work perfect and correct, but manicured and boring.

Why is it important for brands to go to simpler ways of expressing themselves? Do you think brands have the social obligation to spread awareness in social issues or at least be in the know of them?

We are on borrowed time. People would rather continue whatever it is they’re doing than see ads. If your message is simple yet thought-provoking, you will be remembered. Simplicity doesn’t mean boring or plain; simplicity can be eloquent, elaborate, easy to remember, and most of all, simple can be iconic.

Brands don’t necessarily have the obligation to spread awareness, but I think brands should be attuned and sensitive to social issues. When brand are aware of issues, it would also work for them. They can see opportunities where they can contribute or build solutions for. That way, they can genuinely be seen as significant with everyone.

If you could give any advice to brands or other ad agencies, what would you tell them?

I don’t think I’m in the position to give any advice, but I truly have to, it would be this: strive to be helpful. I personally think it works for me. When my main question is: “How can I be helpful?” I am able to find the relevance to whatever I put out there.

When my main question is: “How can I be helpful?” I am able to find the relevance to whatever I put out there.

It can be shallow, deep, and socially responsible—just be helpful. Also, be self-aware, be genuine, always have a point of view. Being reactive works some of the time, but what if the other side leaves you clueless or confused? It’s always better to have a point of view.

How is the design landscape in the Philippines for you right now? Do you see growth or is it stagnant? How can Filipinos contribute to branding the Filipino identity?

Of course there is growth! I think Filipinos are more design-savvy now. I’m ecstatic to see design students starting their own little online business selling patches, stickers, shirts, etc. that they themselves designed—it’s so funny, quirky, and original! It’s also obvious in our stores and restaurants, more and more cafes and restaurants have good branding and store designs. Komikon is getting more popular. More people are confident creating, producing, and sharing content. We have attempts to be aesthetically pleasing, especially with the sense of aesthetics of kids today, it is all very advanced. Creative influences are also available online, although, hopefully, it doesn’t stop there. I hope we push ourselves beyond what’s online by reading books, visiting museums, teaching each other, and finding ways to learn more.

It’s great to look at the works of other artists and designers from abroad. You can draw inspiration from them, but you should never copy. It’s okay to immerse yourself in inspiration, but we should make it our own. Combine the inspiration you get with local culture, pop culture, social issues, or our history. I make it a point to see that I am updated with what’s happening with the country and not to be completely uprooted. It’s easy to be culturally uprooted and be obsessed with western culture, though I do think it helps to interchange your perspective on culture from time to time, that way, we can reflect on who we truly are.

What is next for you professionally or personally?

Professionally, I want to become a more inspiring and effective leader, and of course, be consistent in creating great work. I have a long way to go though.
Personally, I’m working on a new children’s book. It’s almost done. I would also like to travel more to get more inspiration.

What advice would you give for aspiring young creatives that are starting in the business?
When you’re a young creative, when you look at your work, it’s easy to be trapped in a toxic state where you ask yourself, “Is this still me? It doesn’t feel like my work.” However, if you are trying to find yourself in your work, always remember that it’s not limited to the output or the visual style. As a young creative, your identity is in the way you work. Are you dedicated? Tenacious? Or do you give up on the first revision or through the suggestions of others? To make sure your identity is still intact, you should always have a point of view, and your point of view should not be about yourself. Your point of view should be about what needs to be done.

However, if you are trying to find yourself in your work, always remember that it’s not limited to the output or the visual style. As a young creative, your identity is in the way you work.

Also, have a hobby. Have a different life during the weekend. Try to make art outside work. Go out of your way to meet other people, and maybe even go to gigs.

But never miss your deadlines.