Global creativity from Singapore with Uber marketing head Eshan Ponnadurai

Global creativity from Singapore with Uber marketing head Eshan Ponnadurai

Born in Sri Lanka, Eshan Ponnadurai grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and has worked across Asia and the USA for 14 years. His career has taken him to New York as the Global Head of Youtube Music, and to Asia Pacific as Head of Brand for Google and now Marketing Director for Uber across the region. Currently based in Singapore for the second time, we spoke to Eshan on his view of creativity in Asia, global ideas and inside tips for travel, food and culture from modern Singapore.

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ON WHERE YOU’RE FROM 

I was born in Sri Lanka back in the 80’s which was a period of civil unrest and violence, where minority ethnic groups (us) were attacked by government backed mobs. We were really fortunate to have the opportunity  to leave that situation; the Australian government granted us residency. I was 3 years old when it all happened.

ON WHERE YOU GREW UP

I grew up in the eastern Suburbs of Melbourne in Glen Waverley/Vermont South. My family arrived in Australia with pretty much nothing, my parents had to work multiple jobs for a number of years to be able to afford a deposit for a home…I remember back then, being able to live in a middle class suburb with a house and a yard was a big achievement for our family. My brother and I often refer to it as our ‘Fresh Prince’ moment similar to the time Will walks into his Uncle’s house for the first time in Beverley Hills (only our house was a normal house).

ON CITIES YOU’VE LIVED ABROAD 

I left Australia soon after graduating University, since then I’ve had two stints in Singapore and lived in New York for a few years and recently returned to Singapore…having had regional roles throughout my time in Singapore, it’s allowed me to spend time in a number of cities across Asia.

ON WHERE YOU’RE LIVING IN SINGAPORE

I moved to Singapore straight out of school with a junior marketing role, at the time I couldn’t afford an apartment on my own, thankfully I made some good mates who I shared a number of different apartments with.

As things changed I finally could afford a place on my own, I previously lived in a shop house (think colonial style heritage listed homes) in a cool part of town very close to the downtown in an area called Tanjong Pagar.  Right now we live in Sentosa which is a little island off the main island of Singapore, we have a place right on the water. Singapore is a busy non-stop city, we chose Sentosa as it’s a little quieter and you get to live close to the water.

ON WINDOW SEAT OR AISLE 

Generally the aisle, this way I never feel like I’m bothering anyone when I get up…I hate being one of those passengers that annoys others.

 

Flight path over the Port of Singapore (above) and the view of Marina Bay from the iconic Marina Bay Sands Resort. (below).

ON YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH SINGAPORE 

I originally moved to Singapore thinking I would try it out for a year (it was my first time moving away from Melbourne) and see what happens, that was almost 14 years ago.

At times I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the place and itched to move elswhere but there have always been really interesting opportunities that have continued to come up that have either kept here me or brought me back here.

I met my wife here (who also relocated to Singapore from Korea) and some of my best friends…in many ways Singapore will always be ‘home’ irrespective of where the road might take me and I will always be thankful for my times here.

ON HOW WORKING IN ASIA HAS INFLUENCED YOUR WORK 

It has allowed me to become much more understanding and empathetic to different cultural nuances and how they can manifest themselves. In the past I’ve perhaps gravitated to the personalities and ideas that are more overt, working in a region where communication can often be very subtle and non-verbal so now I often ‘listen’ for the softer voices and personalities, which can often be the most powerful.

After a number of years in Asia working at technology companies, it’s allowed me to appreciate how Asia in many ways is leading the world when it comes to innovation and creativity. Particularly in emerging parts of Asia where difficult and unique problems are resulting in powerful ideas and technology. Even in roles where I’ve worked in a global capacity, I’ve often found myself looking to Asian brands, companies and creators for inspiration and ideas. Before I arrived in Asia, I assumed western trends influenced Asia, now in many ways I see it the other way around.

Asia in many ways is leading the world when it comes to innovation and creativity.. Before I arrived in Asia, I assumed western trends influenced Asia, now in many ways I see it the other way around.

ON THE BEST NEW WORD YOU’VE LEARNED IN SINGAPORE 

The Singaporeans have learned to utilize the English language in interesting and efficient ways creating what they call ‘Singlish’ I’ve learned that the word ‘Can’ is able to be used in a much broader sense here

e.g. “shall we go out for dinner tonight?”  You can reply with ”can”

e.g. “shall we watch this movie instead of the other one?…You can reply with “also can”

e.g. you ready for lunch” …You can reply with “can can” (double affirmative)

….as a result it’s become part of my vocabulary.

ON HOW WORKING IN NEW YORK INFLUENCED YOU 

I grew up with a love for Hip-Hop/R&B and American sports, so in many ways American culture had influenced me well before I ended up living over there. Having the opportunity and work very closely with the music community, world class creatives and creators/artists was a dream come true. It also allowed me to truly understand how an unwavering purpose and hustle is a key ingredient for success. Which is synonymous with NYC. I had always believed this notionally (and rapped along to numerous lyrics that suggested it) but this was my opportunity to see up close and in action. It’s something I took with me out of the experience.

 

The ‘Year With Uber’ experience visualized Uber riders trip data in personalised music videos, featuring local characters and culture in over 5000 possible story combinations. Created by Uber Asia Pacific and R/GA.

ON LAUNCHING UBER IN ASIA PACIFIC

It’s definitely had its challenges…We’ve often been seen as the big US company in this part of the world, with a global developed technology vs something created here in the region. We’ve had a lot of success by truly understanding our consumers and customers to spark new innovations and creative ideas that resonate with folks in this part of the world. Our first effort on this was our campaign of ‘unlocking cities’ which tapped into the troubles of congested cities and car ownership across Asia. Now that sounds pretty serious, but we tapped into what consumers find interesting and took a complete comedic take on it.

ON WHETHER CREATIVITY IS GROWING MORE GLOBAL

Definitely, in times past creativity was restricted to your physical space – in terms of your creative inspiration and potential partners and collaborators. Today that’s much different, you draw inspiration from any part of the world and can find ways to collaborate with people across the world, creativity is truly globalized. As a result, ideas by default are global now – we are rarely restricted by geographic limitation, powerful ideas now transcend boundaries.

You draw inspiration from any part of the world and can find ways to collaborate with people across the world, creativity is truly globalized.

ON CREATIVE INSPIRATION  

My wife’s a talented marketer so I bounce a lot of ideas off of her…she generally gives me better one’s

Having generally worked across the region, if I’m working on a project for a specific country I find travelling to that country or city can bring you new ideas – Singapore is quite different to its neighboring countries, I find travelling to a specific country, walking the streets and meeting new people inspires new ideas. Outside this, music has always been an inspiration – my go to songs are ‘Juicy’ by Biggie Smalls and a relatively unknown song called ‘you will know’. While it might feel a bit old school I also watch a lot of content from the past helps – I watch a lot of award reels and go back to iconic pieces of advertising to get new inspiration.

ON A CULTURAL DIFFERENCE TO EXPECT IN SINGAPORE 

The interesting thing about Singapore is that due to the size of the island and relatively large expat population, it’s quite easy to live here and never actually have a cultural exchange or understand the local culture, many people often describe it as “Asia Lite”.  I have been guilty of this in the past but have since made a conscious effort to step out of my little bubble to truly understand the culture here. I would encourage those that move here to venture out and expose themselves to the culture.

 

US platform to promote Youtube Music featuring the playlists of diverse music fans around the world.  Created by Youtube, Anomaly New York and Director Lance Acord.

ON SOMETHING PEOPLE SHOULD DO WHEN THEY MOVE TO SINGAPORE 

For me, playing sports was a great way to build a new community. My sport of choice is cricket, but every sport on the planet is basically played here in Singapore at an amateur or social level. It’s a great way to make new friends fast. On the creative end, there are a ton of great upcoming creative communities and places here in Singapore that are worth getting to know…one such place is the The Projector at the Golden Mile and old cinema that was taken over by a creative group here in Singapore, they’ve restored the entire venue which include an amazing bar called the The Great Escape which is a converted car park with amazing views and greet beer.

ON GOOD FOOD

For more traditional cuisine try – Por Kee eating house in Tiong Bahru, after eating there you can wonder over a bunch of nice bars and coffee shops.

For burgers (my favorite) – try ‘3 Buns’ in Keong Saik Street, a cool little burger joint situated near China Town.

ON GOOD COFFEE 

I’ll be honest I’m a sucker for instant coffee! But if you’re not there are tons of good places around Singapore. As a Sri Lankan I have huge affection for tea – very strong (two tea bags) sugar and milk…my wife usually makes it the best. For coffee worth travelling for try Jimmy Monkey’s in the One North/Buona Vista area.

ON ENTERTAINMENT  

Watching the premier league live on Saturday nights – the games air during primetime so you can always watch it with a lively crowd. Football is incredibly popular here.

ON A GOOD DRIVE

I’m biased but Sentosa is a great place to drive to….otherwise checkout The Seletar airbase – a little bit out of the way but worth a visit, a boardwalk runs parallel to the airport perfect for watching planes take off and land (a favorite pastime of my two year old) situated next to it is cool little café called Wheelers Yard.

ON BEATING THE SINGAPORE HUMIDITY 

Lots of showers and get used to a running the aircon all night!

ON SOMETHING FROM AUSTRALIA YOU NEED A FIX OF

Vegemite was a little more difficult to find when I first moved here years ago…thankfully much easier to find now! I literally carry a travel tube of Vegemite so I can always get my fix!

ON SINGAPORE IN ONE WORD 

Suprising (in the best way possible). 

 

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Nuggets in this interview

neighborhoods

Sentosa, Singapore

"Right now we live in Sentosa which is a little island off the main island of Singapore".

–Eshan Ponnadurai

events

The Projector, Singapore

"There are a ton of great upcoming creative communities... The Projector at the Golden Mile and old cinema".

–Eshan Ponnadurai

food and drink

Three Buns, Singapore

"For burgers (my favorite) – try ‘3 Buns’ in Keong Saik Street, a cool little burger joint situated near China Town".

–Eshan Ponnadurai

food and drink

Por Kee Eating House, Singapore

"For more traditional cuisine try – Por Kee eating house in Tiong Bahru after eating there you can wonder over a bunch of nice bars and coffee shops".

–Eshan Ponnadurai

events

Seletar Air Base, Singapore

"Checkout The Seletar airbase – perfect for watching planes take off and land (a favorite pastime of my two year old)".

–Eshan Ponnadurai

food and drink

Jimmy Monkey, Singapore

"For coffee worth travelling for try Jimmy Monkey’s in the One North/Buona Vista area".

–Eshan Ponnadurai

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