Creative Lives — Shu Han Lee, strategist at 18 Feet & Rising, on the benefits of ‘random’ experience

Posted 17 March 2017 Interview by Indi Davies

Since moving to the UK from Singapore, Shu Han Lee has studied graphic design at Central Saint Martins, worked as a creative director for an organic food wholesaler, written for titles such as Cereal magazine and The New York Times Diner’s Journal, and more recently had a cookbook published on an imprint of Penguin Books. Now adding advertising to the mix, Shu’s newly chosen path has seen her return to school and become an intern for the second time round. Here she discusses the value of diverse experiences, as one of 18 Feet & Rising’s newest team members.

Shu Han Lee

Job Title

Strategist, 18 Feet & Rising (January 2017–present) 

Based

London

Previous Employment

Author of Chicken and Rice, published by Fig Tree – Penguin Books, (2015–2016) 
Creative Director, Wholegood (2014–2015)
Food Writer and Stylist (2013–2016)
Design Internships: Designers Anonymous, Interstate Creative Partners, Big Fish in London, Black Design in Singapore (2011–2013)

Education

MSc Innovation Entrepreneurship and Management, Imperial College Business School (2015–2016)
BA Graphic Design, Central Saint Martins (2010–2013)

Website

Inside London-based advertising agency 18 Feet & Rising

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job?
I support the creative and account teams by understanding the business needs and challenges facing each client, and then I research possible solutions. The senior strategist and strategy partner guide me in formulating a communication strategy from the research that then forms the creative brief. 

What does an average working day look like?
An average working day is split between research and planning for clients both old and new or potential, and keeping up-to-date on the latest trends and consumer reports. I’m a morning person so the alarm goes off at 6am or 7am – sometimes I go for a run or do yoga, then have breakfast, read news and do some admin. I cycle to work because Oxford Circus station is horrendous in the mornings. Typically my hours are 9am to 6pm, but it sometimes changes depending on the project I’m working on.

How did you land your current job?
My previous work as a creative and designer had always involved the earlier stages of thinking – researching trends, finding out what other people were doing, and discovering what consumers wanted to see. That stage always intrigued me the most. After I returned to school for my MSc, I left with a better understanding of business and strategy and I wanted to dive into that, while being challenged creatively. An alumni of the course who’s now a planner gave a talk about her work and I thought ‘I could do that’, so I applied for some internships and spent a month with Grey London. I loved it. I started looking into independent creative agencies and really liked what I saw with 18 Feet & Rising, so I came in for a chat and luckily the feeling was mutual. I think my very random background and diverse experience in design, food and writing helped – it showed my enthusiasm, energy and curiosity.

Where does the majority of your work take place?
I work in the studio mostly, though sometimes I’ll be out and about interviewing people or researching competitors. I’m very much glued to my computer and phone the whole day, no matter where I am.

How collaborative is your role?
I work very closely with the rest of the strategy team, but also with the account managers and creatives. One thing that’s great about 18 Feet & Rising is the flat structure. The execs are very much involved in every project, so you’re working alongside all levels of experience and skill. 

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Most enjoyable: I love the buzz and challenge of a new client brief or pitch. Least enjoyable: the mundane day-to-day tasks.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months
I’m still quite new to the job, but I’ve had the chance to work on a few new business pitches – and it’s exciting to be a part of that.

What skills are essential to your job?
Being curious, analytical but also creative. 

What tools do you use most for your work?
A Macbook pro, iPhone 6, Quartz for news, Google docs, a notebook, pens in different thicknesses, Post-it notes.

“I think my very random background and diverse experience in design, food and writing helped – it showed my enthusiasm, energy and curiosity.”

Shu’s work for Wholegood included design, product and recipe development, and marketing and communications

Shu’s work for Wholegood included design, product and recipe development, and marketing and communications

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
A zookeeper, then a writer.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
My graphic design education helped to shape my creative approach towards problem solving, while the Innovation Entrepreneurship and Management masters really helped to tie everything together – it gave me a better understanding of how design can be applied to brands and businesses.  

What were your first jobs?
I did summer internships as a student in branding and design studios, both in London and in my home country, Singapore. It was really useful in helping me understand what areas of design I enjoyed, and what kind of working environment I thrived in. My side passion for food also saw me contributing as a food stylist and writer for various brands and publications, and that led to landing my first job as creative director for a young organic food company. When I wanted to make the career shift into strategy, I went back to being an intern (at Grey London), and while it felt a little funny to be an intern again, it was extremely helpful because it gave me a better idea of the job and whether I could imagine myself working in it long-term.

Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career? 
Well I’m at the start of my career in strategy, so I would say the biggest step was taking that first leap outside of my comfort zone, daring to make the move away from what I was familiar with.

What skills have you learnt along the way?
Advertising is such a human-centered industry that it’s really important to keep up with the latest changes and trends in behaviours, cultures and technology. I don’t assume I know best – the most important skill I’ve learnt is to ask a lot of questions.

Is your job what you thought it would be? 
Back in my art school days I thought advertising was just about persuading people to frivolously consume, but I’ve learnt a great campaign has so much power – to educate, influence and affect people’s attitudes and behaviour, not just with material products but overlooked issues.

Shu’s book ‘Chicken and Rice’, published by Fig Tree, 2016

Pages from ‘Chicken and Rice’, published by Fig Tree, 2016

Pages from ‘Chicken and Rice’, published by Fig Tree, 2016

Pages from ‘Chicken and Rice’, published by Fig Tree, 2016

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Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
Get to the stage where I can have my own little studio helping brands develop, especially food and sustainability focused start-ups – two areas I’m especially passionate about. Then again, I’m enjoying my time here so much that I can see myself working long-term as a strategist in advertising too.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a strategist?
Be curious, passionate and proactive. The last bit is a very Asian mindset that my mum’s drilled into me as a child – “Nothing’s going to fall into your lap!”


This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on 18 Feet & Rising.

Posted 17 March 2017 Interview by Indi Davies
Photography: Jake Green
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Advertising
Mentions: 18 Feet & Rising
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