Matthew Zeng is the Managing Director of DSTNCT, which he describes as not just a creative agency, but one that’s in the business of understanding the human psyche: what people are into, their pain-points and motivations, and what makes them tick. The charismatic co-founder recently made it to “Forbes 30 under 30” 2022 list, and shares with us why he enjoys dancing, Nas Daily and doing creative work for the government.
1. What are your hobbies?
I read a lot, mostly a mix of local reads about our politicians and books on business and psychology from people I look up to. My most recent reads include The Last Fools: The Eight Immortals of Lee Kuan Yew and Bold Vision: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Reserves and Its Sovereign Wealth Fund. I’ve always likened running a company to running a country.
Of course, the scale of things is drastically different but there are countless relevant and timeless lessons to learn from our pioneer leaders (all mavericks in their own right) who brought Singapore from a start-up nation to what it is today.
Beyond reading, I’m a huge NBA and WWE fan. As you can tell, I’m a sucker for sports entertainment.
2. Last good movie/ Netflix show you watched?
Last great memorable movie I’ve watched is King Richard. Notwithstanding the whole Will Smith fiasco at the Oscars, this movie is an inspiring tale of going against the grain and finding success on your own terms. It being a biopic is just icing on the cake.
Dream travel destination and why:
I don’t have a dream travel destination per se, but I have a travel dream: to visit every city and province in China. I’ve always been enamoured by China – its magnitude, historical significance and diverse culture. I first stepped foot in China in 2010 for the Shanghai World Expo and I’ve never looked back since. Worked there for over a year in the early 2010s and even then, you could start seeing the early signs of a nation regaining its past glory.
Fun fact: There are 155 cities in total, and I’ve only been to 12. So, as you can tell, I’m still rather far from my goal.
Three words people use to describe you, and three you’d use to describe yourself:
The common ones I’ve heard so far are discerning, reflective and obsessed. I would like to shamelessly think that these are accurate! As for me, I’ll say “Make it count”. That’s my mindset towards everything I do.
- How do you define ‘success’ in life?
Success in life is having the conviction that you’re right where you’re meant to be.
What are your thoughts on getting recognised in Forbes ‘30 under 30’ list?
I felt extremely liberated yet exposed at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an honour and I’m thankful to receive such a prestigious recognition. At the same time, why I say that is because most people who knew me before did not know my age (most think that I was in my 30s back when I was in my early twenties). My age has always been a fiercely protected secret, just because of the stereotypes and stigmas that come from the industry and our nature of work.
Forbes 30 Under 30, Class of 2022.
Image credit: Forbes
DSTNCT was already an underdog in many regards when you compare us to the huge network agencies or even some of the reputable local ones founded by people who spent years in the advertising industry – a smaller team, lesser known reputation, fewer credentials.
There was no way I was going to let our age be yet another factor that could work against us. But when the Forbes Under 30 list came out, I felt like we could finally let that go. It’s still something that I have to get used to (having people know my age), but I think I’ll do just fine.
What do you hope to achieve by 40?
By 40, I hope that DSTNCT can evolve to become a creative company/ecosystem that owns multiple consumer-facing verticals and brands (known as DSTNCT Ad-Ventures), each solving a particular gap. These brands would be conceptualised and driven by the agency function.
Any content creators or channels you love?
Nas Daily. Nuseir is the embodiment of bite-sized learning and positive influence. You’re learning something new every day, in a minute! We got to know each other when he first came to Singapore and I even helped him settle into his first office space here. Great guy – he never lets his age stand in his way (he’s my age!) and is on a mission to inspire and change the world.
Hanging out with YouTuber Nas Daily.
Image credit: DSTNCT
Who are the people in the industry who inspire and influence you?
Karl from SGAG. Insightful, humble and always ready to help. Just a huge inspiration every time we meet to catch up.
You mentioned “comms is policy, policy is comms” as a mantra, could you elaborate on what that means?
We do a lot of government work and we love it. There’s a very big misconception about government work – mundane, too much red tape, no appetite for creativity. But we beg to differ.
We love work that has purpose and societal impact. Government agencies do just that. Whatever they roll out directly impacts Singaporeans and their everyday life. Yes, most times, the brief may not seem much. But a test of a true creative is not whether they can continue to create things that are already sexy/glamorized, but whether they can turn something seemingly bland into something insightful and interesting. All our past government projects are testament to that.
With Jessica Jung at the SHINE festival, a collaboration with the National Youth Council.
Image credit: DSTNCT.
The only problem is sometimes, government agencies may not know how to go about communicating what they do in the most relevant way. That’s why agencies like ours are brought in. So in that context, Comms is Policy, Policy is Comms.
People are going to perceive your policies by the way you manage your communications. If not communicated well – in the way people intuitively consume information – then they are not going to understand or may even misunderstand your policies, implementations and intentions.
Campaign done by others that most inspired you?
An enrolment campaign done by Monash University: “If You Don’t Like It, Change It”.
Political views aside, this enrolment campaign has so many boxes checked in one video. Shedding light on real-world problems and what’s truly important. Offering a global perspective. Harnessing the negativity that’s going on in this world into positive influence. Empowering the next generation to be the change that they want to see.
And ending off with a banger of a message that it starts right here at the university level, at Monash. A really powerful campaign – not many schools can be as progressive as this.
Campaign done by you that you’re most proud of?
Dear COVID-19 was a national memory project that DSTNCT co-created with NYC during Singapore’s circuit breaker. It aimed to collect our personal stories, experiences, thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears and aspirations to preserve that historic moment in time, which we never experienced as a nation before.
Back then, there were many campaigns paying homage to our healthcare workers but no campaigns that shed light on the lives of the majority of us who were stuck at home. Many were experiencing cabin fever and took to social media to voice their frustrations with the lockdown. We thought: why not give them a platform to do so?
Image credit: Dear COVID-19 website
So, 100 Singaporeans were invited to pen letters to the “Dear Covid-19” site. Their stories were displayed alongside photos taken within their homes. This encouraged the wider public to take part, with thousands of stories collected in the form of songs, letters, videos and photo-journals.
We were then able to see what goes behind closed doors for Singaporeans going through this collective experience, but yet have their own unique challenges. Like overseas Singaporeans who were uprooted from their homes and had to fly back, COVID-19 survivors, locals fasting during the lockdown, getting married, giving birth etc.
This kind of documentation was not yet seen back then and we are proud to say that we did it first. Many mainstream publications reached out for content syndication. It even caught the attention of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and he posted on his social media platforms.
PM Lee’s Dear COVID-19 shout-out, urging Singaporeans to contribute.
Image credit: @leehsienloong
This national memory project can still be accessed at dearcovid19sg.com.
Tell us a fun fact (or secret talent) that most of your employees don’t know about you.
I can dance really well. They just don’t know it yet LOL.
What is your greatest learning since becoming a co-founder/MD?
Today I’ll do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can do what others can’t.
Not sure if that’s as a learning but it’s what I’ve come to realise and remind myself. We have to always embrace change. You have to constantly put yourself in positions or situations where you can grow and learn. It can be uncomfortable but that’s the only way progress can happen.
Advice for students thinking of starting a career in a digital agency?
Creative is not a title, it’s a quality. If you’re starting a career in this line, then you are already making that conscientious choice to want to do creative work.
At DSTNCT, we believe that everyone is made to be creative. Creativity lies in everything that we do – in the way we solve problems, how we visualize, how we write, how we dress, how we lead our lives, how we envision our own homes to be. There’s no such thing as “I’m not a creative person.”. More often than not, it’s your environment that wants you to believe you are not.
What do you look for in employees when hiring?
We look for soft skills. The resume is usually the last thing we look at, because people can upsell themselves in every imaginable way. But something that you can’t upsell is whether you have the right attitude and mindset, whether there’s critical/deep thinking (by asking the right questions), whether you know how to read the room.
Image credit: DSTNCT
Tips for people to be more creative?
To be interesting, you’ve got to be interested. Interesting work doesn’t just come from nowhere. To create interesting work, you’ve got to be interested. Expose yourself to things beyond work. Go to a museum. Cultivate a reading habit. Listen to a podcast. Be in the know.
You’ll find that by consistently reading, watching, learning – you’re building an arsenal
of ideas, inspirations and applications inside of you waiting to be tapped upon.
Annual Halloween Party.
Image credit: DSTNCT
What do you hope to accomplish at DSTNCT within the next year or so?
There are many milestones that we have set out to accomplish within the next year. Now that we are on the Whole-of-Government framework, we’ve identified a wish list of brands and organizations that we want to work with – so that’s a start. We are also taking our very first step into realizing DSTNCT Ad-Ventures, with our first consumer venture.
What do you think is crucial to advertising or marketing successfully to the next Gen? How is it different from an older target audience?
Every generation is defined by the youths of that era as they are always at the forefront of change. Even our parents were young once and they defined their era.
Youths express themselves differently from the generation before, are the first to try everything and set the trends of that period. They dictate cultural relevance and indicate what the future might look like. That’s why we always look at the next generation.
Today, the younger ones grew up with social media and global exposure at their fingertips. Behavioral habits are changing faster with each new technological entrant. So, it’s important not to be caught in an echo chamber. To stay relevant, you gotta expose yourself to what they’re thinking.
How we do that at DSNTCT is to work with an educational institution yearly – to be in the know about what youths are like at school level before they turn into consumers or prospective target audiences.
How do you think you are breaking the status quo?
Every industry is more often than not, plagued by legacy issues and norms. By not conforming to what is deemed as the norm but rather rethinking everything and what makes sense for today’s context – that’s how we like to think that we are breaking the status quo.
This post is part of our Media Industry Leaders series. If you’d like to be featured, or have a nominee in mind, please drop us a note at [email protected]