THANH LY, Art Director @ Saatchi Worldwide

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THANH LY

Hometown: Dallas, TX
Years lived in the city: 2
Age: 23
Occupation: Art Director
Company: Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide

If it wasn’t for Thanh, I probably wouldn’t have moved to New York City. The one thing holding me back from moving here (vs. San Francisco or Los Angeles) was that I wouldn’t know who to room with. But one day I decided to message Thanh on Facebook Messenger asking for NYC housing tips and he said the fated words, “Come live with me!” Right then and there I decided I’d be moving to New York. It was the last “go” I needed to make the jump.

So I knew from the very beginning of 52 Stories’s creation that I wanted to interview Thanh as one of the 52 people.

Born and raised in Garland, Texas (a suburb of Dallas), Thanh graduated from The University of Texas at Austin from the Creative Program (the renowned digital advertising program) and started as a Junior Art Director in the New York office of Saatchi & Saatchi, a global communications and advertising agency network.

While at Saatchi, he’s worked with clients such as OLAY and Tide. As an Art Director, he scripts the ads, helps cast the models, and edits the final video or digital product you see in the real world. He’s worked on campaigns that have made it into magazines, billboards, and the advertiser’s haven: Times Square.

In his free time Thanh wakes up every other morning at 6 am (without fail) to go to the gym, makes his bed every day, and enjoys cooking dinner (he makes one of the best $10 steaks I’ve ever tasted). His photography page is crazy and his Instagram makes me feel like I have a roommate who is entirely too cool for me.

I like to start off all my interviews with the following question: What was your first memory of New York City?
Ooh, my first memory. The first time I ever went to New York was in December of 2003 was when I was 9-years-old. I have family in the Bronx and my dad asked if I wanted to visit and I said yes because I had always wanted to go. So I went and as a little 9-year-old,  I was blown away, because it was so different from where I was living in Texas. At the time I really liked Nintendo and Pokemon and my family brought me to the Nintendo World store and I was f****** ecstatic.

At the time, I thought the city was incredible and I just remember it being so loud here. When we went to sleep we could hear all the noise still going on outside. I didn’t mind the noise at all and I realized in that moment that I liked the busy city life. All I’ve known pretty much my whole life were the suburbs and to hear sounds still going on at 3 in the morning...I was like, “oh sh**, this is awesome.”

I love it too. It makes you feel like you’re not alone.

Yeah! In a way it makes you feel like you’re not alone and there’s always something going on.

Did you know then that you wanted to move here?
I think so, actually. Maybe not particularly NYC, but I knew I was a city boy. And New York was always in my mind.

What's your favorite part of New York?
Gosh that’s so hard. What I really like about New York, and I can’t say this about all cities, is that it’s really eclectic and it’s very different wherever you go. You walk twenty steps north and you’re in Midtown. You take the subway down south twenty minutes and you’re in the Financial District. It’s just very different wherever you go and I like that. I like that we’re all meshed together here. You go on a subway and you're sitting next to someone that’s completely different from you and yet, everybody respects each other. Everybody seems to have each other’s backs. If someone were to get hurt or if someone said something mean or rude, someone would step up to defend that other person. It's a very big community of very different people who have different goals and I like that.

We’re all different yet we all accept each other.

And I like to say this: people who live in New York are masochists. Everyone struggles. No matter how much money you make, what ethnicity you are, we’re always going to struggle here. But people are willing to struggle.

And we kind of bond over the struggle. Of all the cities, we chose the one that’s cold, with sky-high rent prices, and a broken subway system. But that says something about our dedication and determination to be here.

There’s just a great sense of community here!

Can you explain why you came to the city and what led you here?
So in January of 2016, I had the opportunity to visit again. In advertising, everyone talks about New York City because it's the place to be for this industry. I already knew that I liked New York from my previous visit, but it had been so long since I’d visited so I wanted to visit again. In November of 2016, I browsed Southwest Airlines’s website and there was a $180 roundtrip ticket for six days in January, which I ended up buying. I had one friend here, Cat Vu, who housed me. She had already been in NYC for 8 months. I took the trip to see if I would even like it again, just to revisit as a 21 year old.

So I came and I hated it.

My first day I absolutely hated it. I thought, “this is too much. I’m so lost”, but I think I just hated the idea of being lost. After the first day I did end up loving it again. I attribute that to Cat who showed me around. She showed me what we could do during the day, nightlife, food places, etc. I learned to love the city in those next few days and thought “wow, this is exactly where I want to be” and it all came back to my 9-year-old self where I thought about the hustle and bustle and I learned to love it again in those six days.

By then had you already been applying to jobs or was it after that trip where you thought, “Ok, I now need to apply for jobs.”

I had already been looking before that trip, but it was that trip that solidified that I needed to get here somehow.

 

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How did you go about finding a job here?
I would say that I got pretty lucky. Networking helped. I was in the Texas Creative Sequence at UT Austin, which is this creative advertising program where you have to apply to get accepted into and once you’re in, they cut people every semester. It’s pretty intense. Through that program, I was lucky that UT had a pretty good network and that there were a lot of ad agencies coming in from NYC, Chicago, and other large cities. Whenever there were portfolio reviews or any opportunities to talk to these agencies, I would hop on it. Initially, I was really bad at interviewing, but it got better and I was lucky enough to get a job through one of the people I met at an information session. She told me about an internship for art direction and asked if I was interested. Even though it was an internship, I knew that it would lead to a full-time offer in New York City. And it was a big agency so I couldn’t say no.

And for those who don’t know, Thanh is very talented, so I’m sure your portfolio was really good. Did you know that you wanted to be an Art Director specifically?

 I think that everything I have done in my past eventually led me to being an Art Director. In high school, I was really dedicated to newspaper. I had a great advisor who gave me creative freedom, especially in design and photography. She made me the design editor and I ended up rebranding the entire newspaper. I was leading all photography and design for the newspaper so I had the opportunity to dabble into creativity, but also into the world of communication since it was journalism. The blend of creativity with communication is very interesting to me. But at the time I wasn’t sure if journalism was where I wanted to go.

I originally wanted to be in the undergraduate business school at UT (McCombs). I didn’t get in because I applied way too late. I applied the day the application was due so it filled up. UT accepted me into the communications school as an undeclared major and when it was orientation time, they told all of the undeclared majors to go to whichever information session they wanted. I didn’t know and I just picked to go to the advertising one by happenstance. I went and it sounded like exactly what i wanted to do. They explained how advertising was using creativity, using like Adobe Suite, which I already knew how to use, to create a message and having the storytelling element of it come out. I thought “that’s the communication that I want to do”. So I found out that day at orientation for college that I basically wanted to be an Art Director.

It’s interesting how a rejection from the business school led to you being successful in advertising later on. What failure or supposed “failure” actually paved the way for success later on? Do you think you would have even gone into advertising if you had gotten into McCombs?
I don’t think so. That’s the thing. I don’t believe in fate, but I would say that I was being guided there. But I mean, I had many, many rejections. I was rejected from UC Berkeley, UCLA - my dream schools. I was devastated. I didn’t even get into the business school at UT. And when I became an advertising major, I actually got rejected from the Texas Creative Sequence the first time I applied. So it was a lot of hardships, but what I learned from each of those rejections is that you have to keep going. And you always have to learn. You always have to learn from your mistakes and realize that it’s not over. Just because someone said no doesn't mean that it won’t happen if you put in the effort.

That’s what I believe and everytime I hit a roadblock I tell myself “you have to do something about it” and it will only get better once you do something about it and put in the effort.

That’s awesome. I think a lot of people think of success as a “yes” ladder because that’s the only part they see from people they aspire to be like with jobs that they want. When they get rejected, they feel sad and isolated in those rejections and think that no one else goes through that.

Right, and in this time and age with Instagram, everyone always posts the highlights, their best angles, the best moments of their life. No one ever shares what’s sad because no one thinks that people want to see it. So it's hard to find out if people are feeling the same way you’re feeling, but it’s very common. Gotta remind ourselves that. 

When did you first become interested or passionate about creative design? Was it when you were in newspaper?
No, it was actually before that. What really got me into it was back in sixth grade...2006…again with the dates…

You’re really good at remembering dates.

Yeah [laughs] in summer of 2006, I got a myspace and that was the new thing for 12-year-olds. I was really excited about it and a big part of myspace was creating your own identity, so people would find their own myspace layouts. If you were really into pink, your layout was pink. Or if you liked a certain font…there was a great deal of customization involved in myspace and you could really express yourself with it, unlike Facebook. Everybody tailored their myspace to themselves.

And so that summer I was looking for a myspace layout and nothing fit me so I wondered what if I just made one? I just googled how to make basic photoshop stuff and I torrented photoshop which is illegal, shh, but I was 12-years-old. I spent so much time playing with photoshop and I was so interested in the fact that you could do so much with one program and I wasn’t a very good drawer or anything so it became my program.

I messed around with photoshop and I learned how to do basic HTML and CSS coding. I was really into it and I made my own myspace layout which was pretty successful. And I learned from that process that I was really into creating. I didn’t discover communications until later in life, but I knew in that summer of 2006 as a 12-year-old that I liked creating. I was interested in it and willing to put in the time to learn how to do it.

Wow and those were the roots that led to now. For those who don't know what an art director is, which is what you do now, can you explain what you do?

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Yeah, so an art director is someone who comes up with the concepts in advertising. They come up with the big idea, the tagline, essentially the idea for the ad. When you have a brand, you have a particular message you want to say expressed through campaigns. For particular product launches you create the message or the unique idea. For example, if I was on the Snickers account, I would have created the “you’re not you when you’re hungry” campaign and the executions with it. As an art director particularly, I come up with the look and feel of the campaign. I also help approve the director’s casting (for models).

What do you like about your job and what do you find most challenging?
What I like is that your work gets out there and it’s way more exciting to see your work published and come to life. I also get really, really excited when you find that big idea, something that makes people tick. Something that makes people get the message across in such a unique, interesting way - I really like that moment. That’s what drew me into advertising - the fact that you can sit there discouraged because you can’t think of anything and then suddenly something comes up and you think, “oh my gosh! Genius!”  A lot of it isn’t just coming up with new ideas, but also product innovation as you create new products to solve problems. I’m a problem solver, so I think advertising is such a great creative way to solve problems. It’s so exciting.

What’s challenging is that you do get discouraged, because sometimes you can’t think of anything. Or sometimes you get a really exciting idea and you present it to your Creative Director and it gets killed. I can present ideas and when it doesn’t get picked, I can not feel personally attacked, but it’s just when you get heavily invested into it where it’s sad when it’s dead.

I feel that way about writing too. Anything you produce creatively you think is the best thing ever but when you show someone and they don’t react with as much enthusiasm, it can be heartbreaking.  

So you also freelance on the side. Can you explain what you do for that and how you got started?
So one of my coworkers at the time said, “Hey, I know that it’s really rough to live in New York and make, like, $2” and he noticed how I work and what I can do. Not all Art Directors are designers, but I am also a designer and interested in that. He connected me to someone and essentially I create little design things here and there. Sometimes it's bigger projects like presentation decks for presenting to investors.

I also work heavily in designing for this small cold-brew coffee startup. A lot of it is creating the label, sales sheets for investors and distributors, whatever they need. It’s a lot of little work here and there, but it definitely helps. I’m involved in a lot more now and have a bigger role too.

 Would you say it’s good for building up your portfolio?

Yeah, more so on the design side.

It’s funny because 12-year-old Thanh’s interest in photoshop paid off. Now it’s bringing in money.

Yeah, and now I pay for my Adobe Suite now [laughs]. I feel like I’ve done so much in Adobe and it’s done so much for me that I have to pay for it. I’m never torrenting again!

When you landed your first client in freelancing, were you nervous about doing your work?
I wasn’t, because I work with clients at Saatchi. But with this role, I act more like an account person [instead of being on the creative side]. I wouldn’t say that I was scared or intimidated. I think I handled it pretty well, because I had that experience coming in from my job.

Do you have any advice for people looking to get their foot in the door in advertising or who are considering declaring it as their major? Or are interested in being an Art Director but studied something else in college?
My advice would be to reach out to people in the industry, because those are the ones who are going to make you grow and push you. When they see that you’re passionate they’re going to do what it takes to help you. I think I was really lucky in that way, too. I had my creative director from my internship in Austin who saw something in me and connected me to her network of people in advertising. So definitely reach out to people who could end up mentoring you. I feel like a lot of people get lost, especially when they’re switching majors or don’t know what to do next. A lot of people want to go into advertising but get stuck not knowing what to do or not knowing how to start a portfolio. And people don't know because you don't really get taught that. I would say reach out to people who are in the industry and they will mentor you and make you a stronger whatever it is that you want to be. I think people essentially do want to help. You just have to ask for it.

I think the hardest part is that first step where you don't know anyone in the industry and might not have the right technical skills. Speaking of technical skills, though, what are the skills you think someone should have if they’re trying to break into advertising in general?
If you want to be a copywriter, definitely know how to write properly but be able to write in different voices. Put yourself into different perspectives and write from that angle because I think the strongest writers can write in different voices.

Art Directors should know Photoshop, Illustrator - those programs. For hands on skills, know how to talk to people. Networking skills is a huge one. It will take you very far. You can meet people who are brilliant and can get you to the next job you want or put your foot in through the door.

I want to talk about networking for a minute, too. I think a lot of people are scared of the term “networking”, because they imagine this formal, rigid environment where you’re in a suit and you have to say all the right things. But in reality you should just be yourself and express your genuine desire in learning more about a role or opportunity and people are really open to that, especially in New York.
I think people are scared because they do think its formal but I don't feel like that’s the case. If you want to know more about something, ask. It doesn’t hurt. It shows curiosity. And it’s not using people, you’re getting information and knowledge from them. It could lead you into a symbiotic relationship later on where both parties are learning from each other.

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I feel like people also love talking about their jobs and experiences in general and are willing to share that with you if you want to learn more. Have you experienced any chance encounters like that that have helped you in your life?
Yes. For sure. I was at an orientation with my cousin who also started at UT. It wasn’t even my own orientation so I got kind of bored and went to the organization fair, saw my friend, started chatting with him, and then got introduced to the President of that organization. We happened to both be in advertising. At that time, which was the summer of 2015, I was very, very discouraged because I applied for like 30, 40 internships and did not get a reply from anyone. I gave up, went back to Dallas for the summer, and the only reason I went back to Austin in August was for that summer orientation.

We talked a little bit and she mentioned that she had interned at a small advertising agency in Austin that I wanted to apply to but couldn’t at the time because I had lost my driver’s license and she said jokingly, “you know there's an art direction internship open and I’ll refer you.” I  just laughed and thought she was joking around and making fun conversation. I went back to Dallas and two weeks later she messaged me and said, “Hey, have you found any internships?” and I said, “No, no one’s really looking anymore because it’s so late into the summer.” She said, “Well, we just got a new Creative Director. We need more Art Director interns.”

She referred me and that creative director messaged me for an interview and I immediately drove down 200 miles to Austin in my dorky suit, totally overdressed. The interview was 30 minutes. She saw my book, loved it, and saw something in me. Eventually that was something that helped me later on because she told me about her experiences in the advertising industry. She had worked at really big agencies, some of which were my dream agencies. When I went to New York that January, I asked if she could connect me to a few friends and I talked to five of them and one of them actually tried to get me a job.

So that chance incident of me going to orientation and talking to someone eventually got me an internship, which led to me meeting someone who gave me New York connections, and a job here.

And this is the woman who was your first mentor?

Yes. Exactly.

Do you still talk to her now?

I do. She was actually just in the city the other day and we still keep in touch. She’s still in Austin and loves it there.

In juggling your full-time job, freelancing, and personal life - how do you manage your time?

Good question.

Oh and I know you wake up every other morning at 6 am to go to the gym and you cook dinner almost every night.

I would say I’m pretty good at managing my time. I do it all in my head. I’m not a planner person and I’ve never been able to use one. I’ll just wake up and mentally plan out my day. This doesn’t work for everyone, though. If it does, do it - that’s my advice. If it doesn’t, don’t force it. I don’t use Google Calendar or any calendar, only my work calendar. I have pretty crazy memory, though. I remember all of my class schedules from sixth grade to now. Teachers, times slots, class names.

I’ve tried journaling, bullet journals, planners and I can’t commit to it, because it slows me down.

Do you ever feel out of focus or off? And if you do, how do you get back on track?
My mentality is that there’s always a solution to everything. If I’m feeling off, I just think “Ok, if you’re late to this meeting, you need to make up for it somehow.” So I feel like I can compensate somehow. There’s always a solution, so no need to stress because stress is a waste of time.

How do you de-stress?
In the moment just don’t stress and stress later. Horrible advice. But keep going and think on your feet and you can always stress later. Not now.

Where do you get inspiration from?
People and listening to people’s stories. That’s what inspires me. Everybody has a story and it’s nice to be in New York City because everybody really has a story. The fact that we all have something to do or have gone through something is really inspiring to me and brings things back to earth for me. Sometimes you get really caught up on work and forget that we’re all human.

Creatively, I like traveling and going to museums. Seeing the world and seeing how people live is inspiring. The reason I like traveling is because it's a reminder that I am a speck. You go somewhere else and you see a completely different world. People live such different lives. You’re a speck and yet you feel like you can create an impact somehow.

What's the favorite place you've traveled to so far?
I haven’t traveled a lot. But my favorite place is probably my most recent trip to Paris. It was my first international trip that I paid for myself so that was really nice. It was a completely different world from New York, from Garland, Texas. It just blew my mind. I was born in Vietnam and I’ve been, but I know the language. Going to France was interesting, because I didn’t know how the French work culturally. I didn't know the language, the currency, the culture. It got me hooked on traveling. Now I’m going to Singapore in a few months.

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What is the first thing you do in the morning?
There’s something that I do every single day and that is making my bed. I make my bed every day because that is the first task you can do and accomplish. So if I wake up and made my bed, at least I did something already. I’m already productive. And that’s a great way to start the day.

You’ve actually inspired me to somewhat make my bed too. I try to lay the blanket out now.

Before, I was anti-bed making because you’re just going to ruin it anyways. But I started making my bed because I heard this speech where the advice was to make your bed to accomplish something every day. If your day is hectic and crazy, at least you can come home and your bed is still made.

True. Your room ends up looking like a hotel room. [Thanh and I also have the opposite of everything. He has the black version and I have the white version.]

You have a lot of energy and accomplish a lot throughout the day. But you don’t drink any caffeine. How do you get it done? What is your secret to staying awake?
I’m not a coffee or tea person. I’m very stubborn. I’ve always been the type that wants to prove myself so if everyone is drinking coffee to stay awake, I’m going to be like “well I don't want to drink coffee because I want to prove that I don't need it.” So then I just didn’t drink coffee.

I did drink it for a month and a half when I first started full-time. I noticed everyone else was dependent on it so I wanted to try it and at first I thought, “WOW this is amazing! I’m going to drink it every day. I’m so productive.” But then I got too dependent on it and felt anxious and just stopped. Also, it’s expensive. And it stresses me out because I’m too jittery.

Yeah, I’m just as productive at work with or without coffee, but I’m happier with the coffee.

Tea or coffee? Water.

Last question for real this time. Who is the most inspiring to you?

My parents. Hands down, my parents.

Why?

Because we are immigrants. We moved when I was two-years-old from Vietnam and for the longest time I thought, “Why the heck do you want to move to America? You guys don’t have a college education.” My mom doesn’t even have a high school education. She stopped school in the third grade. Why go to America? It’s not that glamorous and I just didn’t see it.

But when I grew up and asked my dad again, “Why did you move to America?” he said, “Well, it’s because we sacrificed everything for you and your brother to do whatever you want to do” and that really inspired me.

It made me think that you have to make sacrifices for what you want but it’s going to be worth it.

I see their perseverance; I see how hard they work, and people think success is money or going to some school and getting a certain job, but for them, they are very happy because their children are happy and got to achieve their dreams.

That inspires me and made me think it’s not always about the superficial things and status. It’s about happiness. So yes, I do have a great job and I live in a great city, but I wouldn't have been able to do that without my parents. I have to remind myself that at the end of the day, it's all about happiness and what family and friends can provide for you. So they inspire me.