AdAsia 05 kicked off on Monday minus one star speaker – Neil French, WPP’s celebrated Global Creative Director, who has now put in his papers and is serving his notice period. Sexism may not have been on his mind when he spoke to an audience in Toronto last month, but his outspoken remarks about women appears to have made WPP bosses see red and ask him not to speak at the ongoing event.
According to accounts of French’s speech at the Toronto event – ‘A Night with Neil French’ – he is supposed to have made remarks about women like “babe”, “bitch” and “crap”. The godfather of creativity is also supposed to have remarked: “Women don’t make it to the top they don’t deserve to”. Shaken by the public furore and online discussions, WPP Group told him to pull out AdAsia 05 as a key speaker.
With French gagged at the last moment, it was left to Tham Khai Meng, Co-chairman, O&M Asia-Pacific, to hold forth single-handed on the session on “Irreverence in Advertising”. And Tham did so with aplomb and a fair deal of irreverence, too, when he put on show some 25 television spots, which tested social thinking and standards on religion, sickness, sex and racism.
“What pushes an idea to the realm of greatness is challenging the norm. All the ads I have shown you are irreverent. Irreverant of themselves. Irreverent of the genre. Irreverent of the public. Irreverent of the hand that feeds them – the brand!” Tham said.
Tham’s selection of spots included one a “singing thingy, ok, the male organ singing to music” for an FM station, Benetton’s shocking ad showing a family with an AIDS victim, which shocked the world in the early 90s, a nun gluing on the broken penis on a statue, and many more. Explained Tham about the rationale of such irreverence: “The key to great ideas is irreverence. Creative people have to be irreverent. Irreverence and creativity have to go hand in glove.”
In a tribute to French, Tham said, “As you know by now, my friend Neil, who was supposed to be here today on the same stage, has this to say: Irreverence is everything – the end justifies the means – irreverence is all. If an idea is not irreverent, it’s probably not that great.”
Tham ended his presentation on a typically irreverent note, the last slide saying in bold letters: FCUK YOU ALL. One got the feeling that he made up for his missing friend.
The day ended with a delightful rundown on the emerging digital world that is confronting both agencies and their clients by Christopher Graves, President, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, Asia Pacific. This was a peep into the world of blogs, flogs, wikis, podcasts that it increasingly turning marketing communications on its head and posing unforeseen challenges.
“Much as blogs are a fantastic tool to reach out to consumers at a very low cost, they can sometimes destroy a brand in next to no time, like it happened in the case of the ‘Kryponite’ bike lock in the US,” cautioned Graves. He also cautioned agencies and clients to resist the temptation of putting out false blogs or flogs, as that can backfire as it “happened in the case of Mazda’s Halloween3 blog”.
Co-panelist Deborah Malone, Publisher, inter national ist, USA, mentioned the need for “tracking blogs to stop malpractices”.