“A picture is worth a thousand words,” so says an old idiom. So when in 2000, Norman Tan, today J. Walter Thompson's North Asia Chief Creative Officer and China Chairman, was asked to write a 1000-word article monthly for a Chinese language Taiwanese publication just as he was leaving a career in Taipei to move back into his hometown of Singapore, Tan—a busy multi-awarded ad executive educated in Singapore's simplified Chinese—thought of a creative solution to both save time and speak eloquently to the regional readership of a magazine overseas: send aptly illustrated postcards with handwritten insights at the back.
In an exclusive interview with adobo magazine, he recalled, “When I left Taipei to go back to Singapore, Advertising Magazine asked me to write an article every month. The magazine was very well read by students and industry people and at that time I had two articles to write every two months, both in Chinese: one about fashion for Singapore and another one about marketing for China. I also had to get back for my two daughters' kindergarten and primary school education. I was a afraid I couldn't meet the deadline for a thousand words. So I said, 'let me think about it.' I wanted to be connected to the industry though I left three years ago. I came back with a proposal. 'Let me write you postcards. I'll send them and you can print them fill color front and back.' My intention was so I could just write only a few words. At that time, no one wrote postcards anymore.”
In his book's foreword, he explains, “In using postcards, I hoped I could remind people about the power of physical writing in a digital age. Moreover, postcards advertising shared a few similarities: pictures, a message, an audience, a concept.”
He narrated to adobo, “I sent postcards every month of 10 years. That's 120 postcards. By years 10, they asked me if I wanted to continue and I said, 'No, maybe I should stop. Ten years is good enough for one article in a magazine.' Four years later, I collected all of them together and made a book.”
Titled 10 Years: 100 Postcards to Creatives, the book is figuratively worth over a million words with each picture, as the saying goes, “worth a thousand words.” Both sides of each postcard is printed in full color with Tan's articles handwritten at the back of each one to complete the coffee table book that prints out his handwritten messages as well as in text both in Mandarin and in English.
“The first print of 6,000 copies was sold out in three months. I was very happy. I never expected it. It is so un-advertising. The best thing is that I got a lot of readers from non-advertising people. A lot of people buy it as a gift. Now we have second print of 3,000 copies,” the author notes.
It's easy to see the appeal of Tan's book. The images are arresting and the words are insightful.
On page 12 is a postcard addressed to “People Who Don't Listen” that features an illustration of human heads as bodies of water connected by canals being traversed by a ship. It reads: “In advertising, usually after a debriefing, dialogue or some form of communication, some people will need work to be done, which is why some avoid communicating as a way to avoid doing more. Some 'choose' their spokesperson. Others talk too much and mistake 'talking' with communication. What's interesting is—the image advertising presents to the world is that they are experts in communication, when in reality—there's always miscommunication issues internally.”
On page 260 is a postcard addressed to “My Boss” that features a photo of a gorgeous cafe with vintage furnishings and distressed walls. It reads: “My boss opened a cafe that he is really fond of. He hopes more people would visit. However, having fulfilled his cafe-owning dreams, he's discovered less freedom. There are some dreams that don't need to be realized. Because to what lengths do you have to go to truly 'have it?' Most of the time, freedom is more precious. For instance, you have more freedom when you visit a good cafe owned by another person everyday!”