Creative Space

Toan Nguyen: Playing to Win

Toan Nguyen has been called the “wunderkind of the advertising industry” for his pioneering and professional approach to subcultures that combines gaming, science fiction and fantasy with big-name brands, one example being the collaboration between Haribo and Super Mario. You could also say that his inspirations have playfully transformed the world of marketing. In our interview with the thirty-seven-year-old entrepreneur, we talked about niches, his road to success and why the CUPRA brand had already caught his eye some time ago. (Hint: It has something to do with gaming.)

  • Interview
    Wiebke Brauer
  • Fotos
    Tim Adler
How do you explain what you do for a living to someone who doesn’t know you?

This may come as a surprise to you, but despite plenty of opportunities to practice, I still don’t have a perfect answer to this question. 

And the imperfect answer?

I’m Toan, I’m a full-time partner at Jung von Matt Group and founder and CEO of a company called Jung von Matt NERD. We deal with gaming, fantasy, science fiction, Japanese pop culture like anime and manga, Web3, blockchain and the metaverse on a daily basis. For us, this is the new pop culture of a new generation. In the past, people’s idols might have been musicians or movie stars or athletes; today, it’s just as likely to be a fictional character from the world of gaming, for example. 

How did you become who you are?  

That’s a good question. And I can think of two ways to answer it. The first is: Maybe I’ve always been this way. To this day, my parents – and especially my father – laugh themselves silly about my job, because my office still looks pretty much like my bedroom at home when I was a teenager – even if the things standing around here are a bit more expensive and everything is a bit tidier. On the other hand, as is so often the case in a career, it’s a mix of coin-cidences, extremely good luck, and perhaps a bit of courage. I’ve been with Jung von Matt for thirteen or fourteen years now, and to be honest, I don’t really care what exactly the answer is. 

And how did you come up with the idea of nerds and subcultures?

While working in sports marketing, I came across the field of e-sports – gaming as a profession, so to speak. I found that something was emerging here, in a niche, something that perhaps not everyone could understand and explain but that is on its way to becoming in-credibly huge. That’s how I went from e-sports to the topic of gaming. I then tried to understand how these quote--unquote “subcultures” relate to each other, how gaming relates to fantasy, to science fiction, to superheroes, to manga/anime culture. The funny thing is that I commissioned Nerd to do a statistical regression analysis, a study, and spent €48,000 on it.

“To this day, my ­parents laugh themselves silly about my job, ­because my office still looks pretty much like my ­bedroom at home when I was a ­teenager.”
Toan Nguyen
And what was the result?

The initial answer is that there is indeed a connection. These aren’t separate niche cultures; in a way, what we’re dealing with here is one large, super-ordinate superculture. Biologists would speak of semipermeable membranes: these aren’t self-contained cultures that stand on their own; they’re cultures that merge into one another. That’s what makes it so exciting. And it’s a huge market. In Germany alone, more money is spent on in-game purchases than the total revenues of the country’s first and second divisions of pro soccer. But there weren’t any marketing agencies in the field, at least not in Germany or in Europe. So I thought: I’ll do that!

In-game purchases are . . .

. . . when you’re playing a game on your phone, in an app or via console and you buy a new outfit or a new weapon for your character. 

If we may be so direct: Why are you so successful? 

Can I have a moment to think about it? 

Sure!

Okay . . . I’ll give an unscientific answer, if that’s alright. I think I’m the kind of person who is constantly looking for success and who, fortunately for me, has relatively clear goals. I’ve got this inner clarity about my priorities and how I’m going to get to where I want to go. That may sound somewhat mundane at first, but in my age group it really isn’t, because we’re basically overwhelmed by opportunities and thanks to the digital revolution can more easily become start-up millionaires or best-selling authors in no time. The thing that sets me apart is that I’m very focused. I’m also extremely driven and always willing to accept a challenge. When I lose at something, that spurs me on. But I’m also fortunate to have a job that is mainly fun and that nobody’s life depends on. I’m not a heart surgeon. The worst thing that would happen if I didn’t come to work would be that people would just buy another product. That creates a certain inner freedom. If anything goes wrong, it’s like a video game where you die and start over again, earning experience points and leveling up. This playful way of doing things also helps me deal with pressure in my job. 

When you say you’re not a heart surgeon and you don’t have any serious responsibilities, do you still feel that your job is meaningful? 

I definitely see some kind of meaning in what I do. This may sound a bit corny, but when we took on nerd culture and nerd communities, we had this clear idea of elevating nerds to a new level and destigmatizing them. It was about finding a narrative that nerds aren’t losers living in their parents’ basement, but that they’ve become part of the mainstream and are helping to shape the new avant-garde. I infuse my work with courage, a sense of direction and a new way of looking at things. 

How would you define the term “nerd” anyway?

There are basically three types of nerds. The first are the so-called enthusiasts or superfans. These are people who have read everything, know every franchise and collect all the Star Wars or Star Trek figures. That’s where the cliché comes from. Then there are the nostalgic types. These are people who loved Spider-Man, for example, when they were kids but at some point grew up and became doctors or lawyers; the comics stayed in their bedrooms at home and they pretended the subject didn’t exist anymore. But one day they see an old Super Nintendo or a Sega Mega Drive that reminds them of their childhood, and all of a sudden, they’re spending money on it. They don’t have to play World of Warcraft ten hours at a go, but if they’ve played it before, it triggers something emotionally, and it’s still commercially interesting. Finally, there’s the group of nerds called the avant-gardists. These are people who basically take all these clichés, reframe them, and turn being a nerd into something cool. 

Can you give us an example?

One of the biggest hypes in the fashion industry right now are the big red Astro Boy boots. These are shoes inspired by a Japanese manga/anime character. All super-influencers wear them. And any self-respecting pop star or rapper will sooner or later become a gaming or anime character, whether it’s Billie Eilish or Ariana Grande.

And which of the three types of nerd are you?

I’m a bit of the nostalgic type, though I am hoping to step into the avant-garde role as well.

Will there eventually be no more subcultures because they will all have become commercialized? 

I don’t think that every subculture necessarily has to meet the same fate. Take skating, for example. Skating has become extremely mainstream and mass-culture, on some levels, but on other levels it’s only for those who really understand it and want to do it. In reality, it boils down to this, and this is what our board of directors always says: What Toan and his people are doing will probably become mainstream in five years. Maybe we’re the niche agency now, but later we’ll be the mainstream agency for youth culture. That’s a pretty realistic scenario. 

What will you do then? 

I think that a lot of what I do works because I’m still in a certain age range. I’m thirty-seven years old and by far the youngest person here at Jung von Matt NERD. And of course, I’m thinking about what the future will look like, which means I need to hire and establish people here now who will figure out what the new hot stuff is later. I’ll probably slip into a different role then, become a coach or a mentor.

Speaking of age: Do people over fifty still play a role in nerd culture? What about women? 

That depends on the genre. In fantasy or science fiction, especially with Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, people tend to be around forty or so. When it comes to Star Trek or Star Wars, it’s more likely going to be people approaching fifty. I always call them artsy-fartsy nerds, because they’re extremely intellectual and hypercritical of everything, but still go to the movies. People in anime and manga culture are significantly younger, around twenty-eight or thirty. There are also a lot of women there. Though all in all, the distribution is about sixty-five percent men and thirty-five percent women.

“The CUPRA brand already caught my eye a while ago, primarily because of the design ­language. The shapes, colors, the whole package ­reminds me of the old video games.”
Toan Nguyen
What role does playfulness have in your job?

It’s the most important thing. On the one hand, because as a company we want to remind ourselves over and over again to have a childlike curiosity and to approach things from a playful perspective. On the other hand, because we want our communication and our products like Super Mario Haribos or the Pikachu car to speak to the inner child in people.

How does CUPRA fit into your universe?

The brand already caught my eye a while ago, primarily because of the design language. This may be the nerd in me talking, but for me, a CUPRA is a bit like a car from the world of gaming. It doesn’t look as turbocharged as so many other cars these days. The shapes, colors, the whole package reminds me of the old video games. And that copper tone appeals to me aesthetically. 

What do you associate with driving?

Emotion, beautiful experiences, relaxation. When I was a kid, I would get in the car and immediately fell asleep. I can still do that today, in the passenger seat. In my childhood, as a young Asian family, we didn’t take the train, but went everywhere by car, so to this day I associate a trip by car with visits to relatives, something I always looked forward to back then.

They say that young people today no longer see cars as a status symbol.

I think that’s total nonsense. I don’t know anyone who has a nice car and isn’t happy when they’re asked about it. And all the people I know my age who have children or are building their own home are always talking about what kind of roof box they have, how much space they have in the trunk, what model they drive. The car is extremely meaningful to us.

How do you see the future of the automobile?

My vision of the automobile’s future is that you basically buy a sort of kit. That will probably be an electric car or it will be in some other way sustainable. And you only replace certain parts when you need or want, so you can continually upgrade your car. Like a computer where you replace a graphics card. But you don’t do that at the workshop, which would be too complicated, it’s just going to be like click and drop. The way I see it is that if you drive downtown and feel like having new rearview mirrors, you just click on the new ones – like a Lego set. That would be my vision. 

One last question: You said at the beginning of our interview that you have an inner clarity. Where does that come from? 

I’m really good at saying no and just stopping when it’s time to stop. My wife, for example, is thrilled every time that I just stop eating when I’m full. 

A good way to wind things up. Thank you so much for the interview!
Wiebke Brauer

Wiebke Brauer

Head of text ramp & Freelance author
After graduating from high school, Wiebke Brauer studied English and German as her first major with a focus on media culture. Interested in topics of all kinds and bird-free since 2016, as she says herself. With work for Spiegel Online, auto, motor und sport, Motor Klassik, Fuel and Stern, long a blog for the young and classic car site carsablanca.de - and more than fond of ramp magazine.

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