David Lai is the CEO and creative director of Hello Design, a Los Angeles-based digital creative agency, which he co-founded in 1999. Hello’s clients include Herman Miller, Tillamook, Nike, Sesame Workshop, Sony and Speedo. A graduate of Cornell University, Lai has won numerous awards for his work including a Cannes Cyber Lion, the One Show Silver Pencil, ADC Merit and a Flash Film Festival award. His designs have also been featured in Communication Arts, HOW Design, I.D., Critique, eDesign and Print. Lai has taught and lectured on web design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and served on the advisory board of AIGA Los Angeles.
One Hour at a Time
What do you consider to be the greatest headline (or ad) of all time? The best ads are the ones that aren’t trying to sell you something directly. One of my favorite commercials is the Procter & Gamble “Thank You Mom” spot that ran during the Olympics. There is a story being told that makes you want to watch all the way to the end to see what happens. It’s human and reveals something authentic and relatable—that every mom wants the best for her kids, wherever they are in the world.
What was your riskiest professional decision? Many, many years ago we decided to part ways with our largest client. It was clear that our team no longer enjoyed working on this project and at one point I realized it just wasn’t worth it, no matter how much they were paying us. I think if we had stuck with that client for the money, people would have left out of frustration, and we would have forgotten why we started our agency in the first place—to do good work.
What do today’s advertising agencies need to address in order to remain relevant? Breaking away from doing things the way they’ve always been done. A large part of advertising today is still based on interrupting people and trying to get them to pay attention. Even with digital advertising—I don’t know anyone who doesn’t look forward to skipping pre-roll video ads on YouTube. It shouldn’t be about applying an old model to a new medium. Ad agencies need to focus on building experiences for people and, more importantly, focus on the quality of those experiences.
How is the rise of technology helping or hurting the brands you work for? Technology surrounds us, and digital has become a part of everyone’s daily life. Just go into a Starbucks and look at how many people in line are staring at their phones. I call this “gap” time: the small moments when we’re waiting for a latte or standing in the supermarket check-out line. Brands that can harness ways to be useful and relevant during these daily moments, and do it well, can widen the “gap” and build a longer term relationship with their customers.
What would you be doing if you weren’t in advertising? I would probably be an architect. I took an architecture class in high school and fell in love. There is something really amazing about creating a space for people that is functional and beautiful at the same time. Over the past fifteen years, Hello Design has moved into three different studios and I’ve been able to design every space from scratch. Every time we finish one, I’m already dreaming about our next space.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career? When I was growing up my father would always tell me, “We all only have 24 hours a day. It’s what we choose to do with that time that defines us.” Time is the one thing you can never get back, so I decided to start my own company when I was 23. I figured I’d just take it one hour at a time, as I would learn something regardless, and the worst thing that would happen was that I’d have to go find a job. Fifteen years later, I’m still doing what I love and trying to make the best of every 24 hours, in both business and life.
What skills do young creatives need to succeed in advertising today? They need to be willing to challenge the status quo. This is a really exciting time in advertising because of the intersection of storytelling and technology. Young creatives who can bring them together in an authentic way—and realize that maybe the best advertising isn’t advertising at all—will be able to truly engage with people.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Learn from somebody you admire–and then never stop learning.