Advertising Interviews

Tham Khai Meng

Worldwide Chief Creative Officer & Chairman, Worldwide Creative Council | 21 Feb 2014

The 'Create or Else' philosophy comes from David Ogilvy's 'Sell or Else'. The creative process is messy, frightening and filled with insecurity. And that's the fun part. We are in the business of creativity that is changing in many ways, and this is the age of the story-teller so 'Create or Else' would tell stories everywhere. It is interesting to note that the business has changed, but the only thing that hasn't changed is story-telling. I strongly believe that the cardinal sin is to be boring.

As Worldwide Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy & Mather, Tham Khai Meng made history by leading the agency to win Network of the Year at Cannes for the second year running, while O&M Sao Paulo was awarded Agency of the Year.

Upon completing his studies, Khai joined the advertising industry, where he revealed an early aptitude for big brand work, first at Leo Burnett London and then Chicago; and later in Singapore with stints at McCann Erickson and Bateys. In 2000, he took over from Neil French as Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy & Mather Asia Pacific and led them to win the Agency of the Year title for eight straight years. Following this, Khai took on the additional role of Co-Chairman Asia Pacific.

In 2009, Khai moved to New York to assume the role of Worldwide Chief Creative Officer. He now oversees the work of the entire Ogilvy & Mather worldwide network, including all of its global offices. One of his first moves was to inculcate ‘Pervasive Creativity’ throughout the company, a concept he originated where everyone in the organisation, regardless of title, has the responsibility to be creative.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Twishy, Khai shares his views on the state of creativity in India, agency-client relationships, role of digital and much more...

Q. How is India different from the other global markets?

The Indian market is diversified and there is an amalgamation of various cultures, traditions and languages. There needs to be an over-arching idea that appeals to everyone. It is important to dig in deeper into the needs of the consumers through powerful insights. The difference between India and other markets is probably the sentimentality. Ads from the other markets don’t dig into sentimentality, while Indian ads are sentimental as per the culture which is loved by all. Both Indian and global markets rely on great story-telling to engage with the consumers. There are many parameters where there are similarities, but deep down, being sentimental does not count in other countries. The presence of Bollywood and a certain degree of over-acting (in a positive way) works well in India. Overall, it is a wonderful place to do great work.

Q. What is the state of creativity in India?

India has been doing some of the better films. It is a great print and outdoor market as well, but there are not enough of digital ideas coming from India. We are very keen to see good digital campaigns from India. This has not happened yet, but we are very hopeful of the times to come.

Q. What are the ways to improve agency-client relationships?

Are you assuming that the agency-client relationship is not healthy? (Laughs) Then I think you are being presumptive.

There are many ways to improve the relationship. Sometimes there is a mismatch, but great work happens when there is a good relationship built on trust, and when great work happens, you can sell more products. So, how do you earn trust to seal the relationship? It is built over time and takes a lot of small acts along the way. A good relationship happens by building trust through delivering great work and adding value to the work. It takes a lot of courage, because there are ideas that we know and there are some methods that we don’t know yet, so how do we go there? In that case, we have to hold the client’s hand and tell the client to be brave, because it is just an idea. We got to go to the end of the cliff and then jump. As it is said that fortune favours the brave, and invariably when you jump off the cliff, you will definitely fly.

Q. What are some of the concepts that are yet to be executed in India?

I would love to see great content, digital ideas and more good films coming out of this market. Some of the most amazing Bollywood films have been done from here. They are long format films. So, how about condensing them into short story-telling? Sometimes, the budget can be a constraint, but that is not an excuse. It is commitment to great work, because every brief is an opportunity. I would love to see better work coming out from India in terms of films. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we haven’t seen any good films coming from India, but it can always be better.

Q. Do you think experiential market has started becoming the biggest weapon of brands to drive engagement?

I believe experiential marketing has immense potential. The Americans have utilised experiential marketing for brands such as Apple and Hershey. In China, we did an augmented reality with Yihaodian, one of China’s leading e-commerce websites, which was very successful. There are so many big brands in India which can use experiential marketing, and I believe it’s just waiting for its time here.

Q. How do you inculcate ‘Pervasive Creativity’ throughout the network?

I believe that everyone in the organisation, regardless of title, has the responsibility to be creative. Everyone has to challenge assumptions, take risks, and add ideas on top of ideas; and doing so, you should be moving an audience to tears, pathos, joy and laughter. The greatest metaphor for pervasive creativity is water. It is everywhere just like creativity. You cannot build walls to contain it because one day the dam will break, so you have to let it out slowly. We are seeing that paying huge dividends and there is great work coming from Tunisia, Amsterdam and Ho Chi Minh City. We have woken up the giants with pervasive creativity.

Q. How do you define the philosophy of ‘Create or Else’?

It comes from David Ogilvy’s ‘Sell or Else’. The creative process is messy, frightening and filled with insecurity. And that’s the fun part. We are in the business of creativity that is changing in many ways, and this is the age of the story-teller so ‘Create or Else’ would tell stories everywhere. It is interesting to note that the business has changed, but the only thing that hasn’t changed is story-telling. I strongly believe that the cardinal sin is to be boring.

Q. How is digital reshaping the advertising landscape? Do you see integration of ideas across platforms?

Everything around us is digital and it’s an open church. We don’t even have a department that is digital, because today almost everything is digital. Just like pervasive creativity, it’s pervasive digital today. The best partner for digital is story-telling and great ideas. You still need great insights to understand the brand. With the strengths of the product, you still got to add ideas to tell the stories for the brand so that it can connect with you and move you to tears, laughter, joy and pathos.

It is interesting to note that some of the print ads have a digital component or the digital idea has a print component in there. It is great to see the cross-fertilisation and pollination. I am very encouraged to see this happening across various markets.

Q. What is your greatest learning from the Indian market?

My greatest learning is that the Indian audience is very colourful, emotional and is deeply connected to Bollywood and cricket. Cricket is a popular part of the Indian culture. Most of the analogies of my Indian friends are full of cricket terms. Hence, I think cricket and Bollywood have been at the centre of Indian consumers.

Q. How often do we find Piyush Pandey and Tham Khai Meng working together?

Piyush and I work very closely together, and we have enormous fun doing it. From the days we met at Pataudi Palace in 1999 with Neil French till today, we’re still having a good laugh each time we meet. As a matter of fact, he and I co-wrote the Fevicol ‘Bus’ film together over a drink, which as you know, went on to build the brand and won a truck-load of awards. Yesterday, we were together with Eugene Cheong and some of our top Indian ECDs at our Delhi office, reviewing, writing and crafting ads. As he sits on the Worldwide Creative Council with me, we meet regularly, and we’ll be meeting again in Aspen Colorado next week. That’s another excuse for a good guffaw.

Q. What is your advice to the creative fraternity in India?

I advise them to take courage, be brave, challenge assumptions and take risks. We are undergoing huge transformation and developments like never before. I would encourage the creative fraternity not to give up. If they ever come to a brick wall, they either have to jump or blow up the wall. Your obligation as a creative person is to take risk. As my great friend Malcolm McLaren of Sex Pistols said, “In order to succeed, you have to fail spectacularly.”

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