McCann Beauty Group Creative Director James Li about perception of beauty, visual inspiration and more


We had a great talk with James Li, a Group Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi Shanghai, who will also be judging our Spotlight Awards Beauty category. During his career, James has worked in several renowned ad agencies in some of the major cities in Asia, focusing mostly on beauty and food brands. Read his insight on beauty photography, its trends and more. 

Production Paradise: To begin our interview, please tell us more about your background and how your professional career started and evolved.

James Li: My parents come from Hong Kong but I was born in the UK. I’ve always had a great passion for art. When I was looking for my professional opportunities, I discovered that advertising can combine both art and business which lead to me applying and getting into one of the first programs in the UK dedicated to advertising at Bournemouth. After my studies, I moved to London, where I began my career in advertising.

After less than a year in London, I went to visit Hong Kong for holidays and never came back! I was immediately enthralled by that amazing cosmopolitan city. During my 10 years there I was working for Ogilvy and worked on campaigns for all the biggest names; like Dove (we launched the brand in Asia), Ponds and Olay.

After this period, I moved to Singapore where I had a lot of freedom in terms of decision-making – I could really make things happen. Everything was bolder and spontaneous. My next step was moving to Shanghai, where I started to work for McCann Beauty. In this city everything mashed into one, I feel like I am living in tomorrow.

Production Paradise: You will be judging the Beauty category in our Spotlight Awards. What is it that makes a beauty image stand out for you?

James Li: You need to show me something I have not seen before. Beauty varies so much and there are so many things happening around it. To show something new in a beauty photography is a real challenge. For example, if we talk about hair – it is really difficult to show something fresh there. How to show hair in a new way? It is easy to say but challenging when it comes to practice. Recently there has been some work in a graphic way on how to portray hair in a new way. Another trick is technique – posture, framing, cropping. The way you crop an image can change it completely.

Production Paradise: How is beauty imagery evolving?

James Li: Now we are moving away from what is perceived as ‘classical’ beauty. Who or what is considered beautiful is changing. You see that people in the industry are really playing with the idea of beauty. These days, in general, we are looking for more authenticity and a ‘human’ kind of beauty.

Production Paradise: How does our access to images all over the world change how beauty is represented?

James Li: Now it is ‘accelerated’ beauty. The Internet makes trends pop out for 72h and after that, they die very quickly. This trend is especially noticeable in the beauty sector. China is a very digitalized country. Once a new trend is released, half of the nation can see it immediately, also because everyone is using platforms, e.g. WeChat or Weibo they have all access at the same time.

Production Paradise: What are you looking for in a photographer?

James Li: What sticks in my mind is basically the idea behind the shots. If there is an original theme or idea behind an image, then it hits me stronger. A photographer’s personality is the key here. We work with celebrities so that is very important. We need to see the passion, humor, etc., to know if they can pull out a good shot from talent.

Production Paradise: How do you find a photographer or visual inspiration?

James Li: There are a lot of ways of doing it. Of course, I do it online, doing research on different websites and platforms. Another way is being up-to-date with the most important magazines and their editorials, where you can always find work of great quality. Word-of-mouth is very useful as well, as we tend to share internally among creative directors on who potentially could be a good choice for a specific campaign.

Production Paradise: How can the Spotlight Awards be beneficial for a photographer?

James Li: Participating in this kind of award competition absolutely boosts your profile. We, as creative directors and judges, can see things we might not have any chance to see otherwise, take notes and save images. The work of a photographer can be introduced to new contacts and important people in the industry, i.e their potential clients. Overall, I think this is great for all parties!

We thank James for sparing some time to speak to us. Now that you know what kind of images have better chance to catch the judge’s attention – pick your best beauty shots and enter our Spotlight Awards!

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