Ask A Senior: From Fire Alarm Salesman To Creative Director
Tuan Le, Creative Director at The Lab Saigon, started with a business background but then settled to be an advertising practitioner. Having lived and worked from Vietnam, Japan to Dubai, and then finally back to Vietnam – his life is full of twists and turns. But with perseverance and “a stroke of luck,” as Tuan called it, he has found a home amongst the creative industry in Vietnam.
Tuan’s first job in the creative industry was copywriting, then he later self-taught himself design when he founded The Lab Saigon. Vietcetera meets with Tuan Le for a chat to find out how those complex layers have shaped himself into the Creative Director he is today.
How did you find what you wanted to do 10 years ago?
By doing something I didn’t like. I spent a year in the factory to sell fire alarms. I sucked at it. Then I took an online course in advertising and fell in love.
My career is full of highs and lows, of trials and errors. Only now do I reflect to see what went well and what didn’t. Unless you throw yourself into the experience, it’s very hard to know which career path you should take.
Did luck play a role in finding your own passion?
Yes and no. I tried everything until I found my passion. So yes, luck and my personal strength – fearlessness (or maybe recklessness). If I tried something and it didn’t work, I’d find another way. Once you overcome the fear of failure, it’s all good.
What career lessons have helped you get to where you are today?
Too many to recall. But one recent was Label – a concept store I started in 2018. I was overconfident and thought I could build this brand without understanding the business. But I didn’t know anything about production, distribution, or retail. I closed the physical location after nine months.
The second lesson is lack of focus. I was biased towards action because I didn’t care if I failed. But recently I realized that I should be focusing on what I’m good at, and my time needs to be spent more wisely.
What do successful people in your field have in common?
Successful people in my industry are balanced. They’re welcoming, casual, and fun, but can be intensely focused when working on a project. In this industry, it’s hectic and stressful. If you’re already wound up tight in your normal life, you’ll struggle in this industry. So you need that balance.
That’s why I try to go home on time. I try not to work at night or on the weekend, and don’t expect my team to either.
How do you stay relaxed when the work is stressful?
I go home, play with my dog, video games, books, or go drinking with friends. But I don’t do drugs. It’s good to have that balance in your life. Do things that help you regain balance from stressful work. If you love writing, then write; if you love coffee, pour me a cup.
How do you reinvent yourself after 10 years in the field?
My team. I like to surround myself with younger creatives. I can’t design better than these guys, so I focus on hiring talents and help guide them where I can. You stay relevant by educating yourself; I learn as much from my team as they learn from me.
What is challenging about your job? How do you deal with those challenges?
The most challenging aspect of my job is constantly dealing with people. Clients, partners, and especially my team.
Let’s say I have 20 employees – that’s 20 different personalities to deal with. Their personal lives affect their work, and their work affects me.
Fortunately, I’m good at compartmentalizing – another strength of mine. I have individual boxes in my brain for everything to prevent one thing from affecting another. It’s something that a Creative Director should have in his/her toolbox.
I can have a beloved staff quit and break my heart but I won’t let that affect my responsibilities to the rest of my team. I don’t let setbacks spoil everything else and, at the same time, neither do I let wins make me feel invincible.
Do you think trends come and go fast? How dependent are you on that?
We don’t intentionally take something super trendy and put it in our designs. Instead, we try to go in parallel with it. For example, take millennial pink, which was trendy years ago. We refrained from using that pink in any of our designs. Had we used it, our designs would’ve been dated. Instead, we might use more bright colors than we normally do since we understand people are more open to bright colors because of that.
Are young people these days different from young people back in your 20s?
90% same and 10% different. They want the same things that I wanted – opportunity, respect, and reward. However, I cared a lot more about career growth, partly because I think life is full of distractions now. Social media is a minefield. You absorb all this misrepresented fun, thoughtfulness, success, sadness — and you forget to focus on your real life and career.
I was an intern for only two weeks and then was hired, a junior for one year in Vietnam before moving to Dubai. And spent another year there before becoming a senior. I was intensely focused on advancing my career.
Some younger creatives nowadays seem to be okay with being a junior for three years, for instance.
What’s your advice for creatives?
Personality is important. People are trained in school to behave professionally, but it comes off robotic. My suggestion is that you should try to do you. Ugh, be yourself. This suggestion sucks. I have another one.
Self-worth is also important for creatives. Because sometimes we don’t know if we’re good enough for this industry (or world). At The Lab, I instill self-worth in my staff by inspiring them to be proud of their work, honing their confidence when presenting their ideas, holding them responsible for their promises and actions, and rewarding them when they grow.
If you were not a creative director, what would you do?
A chef, for sure. I love cooking. When I moved to Dubai, I only brought 2 things with me. My Xbox and the book “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain.