Art Director & Photographer, Elaine Li
Elaine Li takes global perspective to a new level. The former Cannes Young Lions contestant and Instagram influencer hails from Hong Kong and has worked around the world including Chicago, San Francisco and has now planted her feet in Sydney where she is an art director for BBDO. We caught up with Li about her biggest challenges, her creative process and why you shouldn't doubt yourself.
What makes a powerful image for you?
A powerful image has to touch people, or it has to have some sort of emotional connection. There’s a lot of great landscape photos, but the truly powerful ones are ones that have some sort of human element that people can relate to or just want to keep looking at. A powerful image is one that can really touch your heart.
How would you describe the creative process?
The creative process is really hard to describe. Sometimes you get a brief and you’re in the shower and you randomly come up with an idea that’s amazing. Sometimes, it takes a lot of time where you do research online and you look at all the trends on social media. Or sometimes, you just look at a photo and that triggers a thought in your mind. There’s really no right or wrong way to go about creativity; everyone thinks differently.
Where do you go for inspiration?
I use a combination of tech websites and imagery websites. I try to incorporate AI or VR or some new tech into many of my ideas. I also use Getty Images a lot - there’s such a huge image bank to get inspired from.
How long have you been in the industry and what’s your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge right now is understanding the Australian market because it’s really different and unique from the rest of the world, both culturally and in terms of the language people use. Another major challenge is the fact that there’s just so much content out there so you have to constantly think about how to make something that really sticks out.
What was your experience competing in the Young Lions competition last year?
Last year my partner and I won the Hong Kong competition and the award was to compete at Cannes Lions. The experience was scary and we felt like we were under a lot of pressure, but it was a really rewarding experience because you got to compete with people all over the world and talk with people with similar mindsets. The biggest takeaway was that good ideas aren’t bound by the language or country you’re in; if it’s a good idea everyone will understand it.
What advice would you give someone who is just starting out?
The one piece of advice I’d give is don’t be afraid to speak up. I feel like as creatives we tend to doubt ourselves and question whether our ideas are good enough. If we feel like it’s not good enough, we just put it in our back pockets and it never sees the light of day. I feel like it’s really important to share your ideas with your peers or even your creative directors because a small idea can sometimes spark a much bigger idea. I’ve been lucky to have had really great bosses that see potential in really small ideas and are able to really expand upon them.
"A powerful image is one that can really touch your heart."
What has been the biggest change in the advertising industry since you first started?
Client expectations were very print driven even just one or two years ago and social media was an afterthought, whereas now, social comes first and print is the tag-on. Everyone is on social these days so it doesn’t make sense if you’re doing a campaign that doesn’t involve it.
Does the format of social media drive your concepts and visual approach very differently?
Yes it does. There’s so much content out there. Everyone’s swiping up their Facebook or Instagram feeds so quickly, that your piece of content has to stand out or catch the audience’s eye to even be seen, so we have to come up with visuals and content that draws the eye the second you look at it.
Do you like having a fixed set of parameters from a client as a creative challenge or do you respond best when the sky’s the limit?
I actually work best when there are some sort of parameters, but within those parameters, I try to push the boundaries. I find that having a certain direction is easier for me to come up with ideas.
Everybody loves to hear about other creatives failures, what’s one of yours and what did you learn from it?
When I was in school, I got a E in Art because I can’t draw. I still can’t. I never would’ve thought I would be doing anything related to creativity because traditionally, at least where I’m from, art and creativity is usually associated with being able to draw really well. But that’s not the case. Creativity is also about the thinking—how you see things and come up with ideas.