Right Clients Right Way

“While every designer is pitching for the few clients, it is quite awkward for you to say, ‘Excuse me, I am not serving this client...’” Celebrated Hong Kong branding master Tommy Li revealed his key of success, which is his credential as a “picky” designer. In fact, this road less travelled took perseverance and determination to stride.

What lead to Tommy’s eminence, or this “fussiness”? It is a long story: after his graduation at design school of Hong Kong Polytechnic, Tommy worked for three different international firms in the following decade. This was when he realized that the success of a designer hinges on clients’ endowment.

Before founding his own design house, Tommy was already a workaholic. Still, his design was not successful despite his best efforts. It was possible for Tommy to ascribe this situation to his own incompetence. However, he also found his clients the most to blame. He said, “Let me put it this way, if a client is very crappy, a messy result or a disaster will be inevitable, no matter which designer is in charge.”

As a result of great deliberation, Tommy concluded that he was unable to decline his awful clients unless he set up his own design firm. Therefore, he launched his business in 1990, founding his own design house. Now his firm is hiring more than ten employees.

As Chinese idiom goes, “Dig the well before you are thirsty. Prepare everything well before you need.” As the head of the company, Tommy has to predict the trend of the market, initiating deployment before it is too late.

Tommy said, “Whenever there is a financial storm, only one kind of business prospers, which is the mass transit (since people can’t afford a car anymore). Retail is definitely hopeless (during the financial turmoil). This is why I had mass transit operators as my clients, including Mass Transit Railway, Kowloon Canton Railway and airport express then. In 2002 and 2003, the market began to recover that I foresaw that retail would make a return. Hence, we switched to focus on retail clients from 2002, and the plan has been good from 2003 until now.”

With hindsight, Tommy’s decision has cost him a lot of hardship and difficulties. “While every designer is pitching for the few clients, it is quite awkward for you to say, “Excuse me, I am not going to serve this client... “Even during the SARS period, when you can imagine how terrible the situation was, we still held that position.”

Apart from prudently selecting clients with taste, so as to generate synergy between creativity and (branding) effects, the industry or area to which the clients belong is also another major concern for Tommy. He said, “All right, I had a flock of clients five years ago, but I was still nobody... I even won awards without making any noise. It changed when I worked for a retail client. I worked on a “One 2 Free” (a mobile network) project, which didn’t snap any award at all, but since then many are convinced that our firm was specializing at serving retail clients and branding design.”

Established retail brands are of powerful influence. The accomplishment of One 2 Free campaign shot Tommy to stardom overnight, that many clients were attracted by his reputation: Queen’s Bakery, Maxim’s
Cake, Honeymoon Dessert(滿記甜品), Chow Sang Sang Jewellery... Currently almost all his clients are from retail sector.

Selecting good clients is only one of the prerequisites for triumph. Another crucial factor is quality of service. Recent years Hong Kong community discussed a lot about the foreign concept of “revitalization” as Chief Executive Donald Tsang initiated to revitalize over a thousand old industrial buildings, but before that Tommy had already revitalized many dusty, forgotten brand images.

One of the most acknowledged campaigns that Tommy has ever involved is “Shanghai”, a watch brand. Most of the brand’s watches are ten times more expensive after Tommy’s promotion. The price of some models even soars by 100 times. That dramatic coup is a vindication of Tommy and his team’s hard works and creativity, including an abundance of meticulous research. In the due process of brand revitalization, Tommy likened himself as a doctor who first made some diagnostic tests for patients before giving the right prescription for that particular illness.

Citing the Shanghai Brand as an example, Tommy recalled, “I looked into the watch industry history, especially psychology of customers in the recent fifty years to see if there was any useful information for my project. That kind of ground works are about reasoning instead of sensation... Our clients may not understand the emotion behind our creative works but they can understand (the data of) our initial ground works. Through these studies, they know where the problems are and they can rely on us to solve them.”

In addition to saving aging brands, Tommy has since 2005 broadened his scope to brand value adding, expanding brand influence, developing chain stores, as well promoting sales volume. The thriving of Honeymoon Dessert at Hong Kong and mainland is among one of the examples. Regardless the business nature of his clients, Tommy always insists that it is vital to know in essence his clients’ corporate culture and characteristics through research.

He said, “Selling a product is more than a logo or a package. People ask me, what do you sell then? I said that I am selling culture, corporate culture. That’s why One 2 Free (the mobile network) campaign was a hit. This is because the branding is about freedom of thinking, freedom of life, freedom of youth and we are the generation of freedom.”

Coping with the economic development, many Hong Kong designers are opening offices in mainland China. In mainland, they are facing the competition of multi- nationals design houses. Tommy believed that those foreign firms are having an edge since they have the benefit of economic of scale and customers in China trust foreign firms better. These are some things small and medium size firms from Hong Kong can hardly overcome. The multi-national firms have already developed a set of methods and rules regarding establishing branding, expanding market and overall marketing strategy.

Despite about 60 per cent of his business are from Mainland, Tommy, unlike his counterpart in the design industry, had no plan to launch a branch in Mainland. He is still sticking to the outsourcing model.

He explains, “Firstly, man power is a core factor. Once a good aide is stationing in Mainland, he or she is no longer available for (immediate) assistance; Secondly, if you set up a company in China, you will be identified as a China company and will no longer enjoy preferential treatments for foreign firms; Thirdly, Hong Kong clients are more mature and they are acute in pointing their concerns. Mainland clients are not all like this because of cultural standard or geographical barriers.”

Actually being picky is a two-way street. It must be admitted that clients are becoming choosy either. While many designers are now expanding business in Mainland so as to surf on the rising Chinese economy, Tommy still choose to work in Hong Kong and keeps his firm compact. He is confident that his brilliance and acclamation shall help him surviving tough challenges ahead. Top priority now is to boost efficiency while maintain standard with the current staff size, Tommy said.

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