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How did you get started in advertising? I started out as a strategist at TBWA Los Angeles, but something about it didn’t feel enough for me. So, I lied to my boss and started moonlighting as a secret creative within the agency, for other brands we worked on. In the end, my boss figured it out and was super supportive, saying, “You belong in strategy or creative. Definitely not account.”

How has being a drag performer fed your advertising work, and vice versa? Work taught me how to create differentness in my drag. Drag taught me how to create differentness in my work. I started experimenting with drag around the same time I started getting into the industry, and the two careers have dovetailed ever since. Along the way, certain lessons stuck with me. Disruption is an overused word that most agencies can’t actually deliver, but I love the idea of disruption. There are books and books about it, but it’s pretty simple: Be different. Be distinctive. Be memorable.

I started applying this lesson to my fledgling drag career. At my first amateur drag competition, I did a Bollywood number because the other queens would never do it. That approach, of simply pushing in opposite directions, helped me evolve my drag aesthetic over the years, across the cities I’ve lived in and the drastically diverse drag scenes I’ve been a part of. Now I’m this “cute monster” drag creature, and nobody else does what I do. It’s all about style. It’s all about taste. I own mine.

Drag has paid me back too. Being that character has enabled me to carry that spirit forward in my day-to-day work. It’s sharpened my personality, my taste, my way of dealing with obstacles and my way of dealing with people. Sometimes, I suspect we creatives hold ourselves back from putting forward our bravest ideas because we’re afraid. But, I go onstage and make a fool of myself all the time. I even did it on multiple episodes of the TV show Drag Race Thailand, in front of millions of my fellow Judge Judy gays. After that, was it really so hard to present a weird idea to the people I worked with? Nah.

What creative insights have you taken away from your participation in Drag Race Thailand? I learned to think of the audience above all else. The people who are watching are the other half of any performance or piece of communication. When I was competing on the show, I knew I had to get a reaction out of the judges and the people watching in Thailand and across the world. Whatever I was showing on that runway had to move them to laughter, tears, chills or a state of wonder. Why expect less from the work we do for brands? I also learned to follow my instincts a lot more. There will always be questions and opinions about what you put out as a creative person. Fuck ’em all. You do you.

Not every idea needs to save the goddamn world. Some ideas can just save the pizza.”

How has living and working in Asia affected your work? I love Hong Kong. I love Jakarta. I love Tokyo. I love Seoul. I love Bangkok. I love Taipei. I love Mumbai. I love the cities of Asia, and I feel like I live in all of them because of how much I travel for work—for my day job and my night job.

In terms of the work itself, there are some unique obstacles to producing great creative here. I think there’s an authenticity gap in Asia. There’s a lot of work that brands want to put out into the world that reflects someone’s reality, but it’s not actual reality.

Being at VICE means I can fight that. We can draw VICE’s journalistic background and show the truth of culture in this moment, no matter how dark, unexpected or gritty it is. That’s realness, and that’s what the young, creative, influential audiences in Asia want to see. They don’t want their world scrubbed clean and reflected back to them in polished chrome. They want to see the world through telescopes and binoculars and magnifying glasses.

How do you push your work to evolve? It’s not about my ideas anymore. It’s about what my creatives come up with. Seeing their ideas, which are sometimes brilliant, sometimes weird, sometimes clever and sometimes way off—that’s what pushes me to evolve. Every strange and surprising concept, whether wonderful or terrible, makes me think about ideas a little differently. And every creative decision I make tweaks my taste by a degree.

What’s the best brand campaign you’ve seen recently? Domino’s Pizza filled potholes in the US and branded them. Because potholes make the road bumpy and cause delicious pizza to get stuck to the inside of the box. Not every idea needs to save the goddamn world. Some ideas can just save the pizza.

What skills do creatives need to succeed in advertising today? Shamelessness. It is a skill, trust me. Creatives need to have absolutely no shame in being insanely loud advocates for the work they believe in. They need to be shameless in how hard they try, and shameless in being seen as people who are trying. They need to be so, so, so free of shame when asking for help. Asking for resources. Asking for time. Asking for money. Asking for a decent insight. Asking for what they need to make it work.

What is one challenge that ad agencies need to address in order to remain relevant? Dear agencies, stop crushing the souls of the people who work for you. The creative industry isn’t just an industry; a lot of us consider it a home. It’s a place to make and do and express and be. If you’re not going to nurture creativity in the people to whom you are a home, don’t call yourself a creative agency. Better yet, call yourself a creative agency and live up to it.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career? “You shouldn’t have your drag stuff at the top of your portfolio.” Oops, I ignored that one.

By day, Genie Gurnani is the head of creative at VICE APAC and its creative agency VIRTUE. At night and on weekends, Gurnani is a nightlife entertainer and host who recently starred on the reality TV competition Drag Race Thailand. They’ve spent time at agencies in Singapore, Hong Kong and the United States, including stints at David&Goliath, TBWA, Publicis, Leo Burnett and JWT. Gurnani completed their bachelor’s at University of California, Berkeley before going on to earn an MS in creative strategy at VCU Brandcenter.


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