Atifa Silk
Jun 6, 2017

Keith Smith announces retirement: exclusive in-depth interview

On the day he announces his retirement, the longtime Asia adman looks back on his career and discusses the future of the industry in this exclusive interview with Atifa Silk.

Keith Smith
Keith Smith

Keith Smith, TBWA\Worldwide’s president international, today announced his official retirement after 46 years in the advertising business. He will step down from his duties later this year.

Smith, who moved to Hong Kong in the late '90s to establish the network’s business in Asia-Pacific, began his career in the UK at DDB, McCann Erickson and Grey, where he ran the global Proctor & Gamble business. In 1983, he took on a leadership role at Holmes Knight Ritchie/WRG and later became a partner at TBWA Holmes Knight Ritchie in 1989.

In Asia, Smith, who is stepping down at the age of 68, led major acquisitions in Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand that established TBWA’s creative footprint in the region. He was also instrumental to setting up Omnicom’s relationship with Hakuhodo, which includes joint ventures in Japan and China.

In this interview with Campaign, Smith, who is retiring at the age of 68, discusses his passion for advertising, the highs and lows of his career and why he lives for the creative buzz from a good idea.

How did you get into advertising?

I wanted to be a professional footballer, but I wasn’t quite good enough. I grew up in an era in the UK when everybody was fascinated by TV commercials. As a kid, I learned jingles. I still know them perfectly now. When I graduated from university in 1971, advertising was just about the sexiest business that you could be in. Everything about it was glamorous. In the UK, the directors that were shooting commercials were people like Ridley Scott, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne, Tony Scott - all those people that went on to become big Hollywood film directors were shooting food commercials in the UK. We shot Stork Margarine commercials with Tony Scott.

It has been said, ‘advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on’. That’s probably true, although there were occasions when people got their clothes off! It was, after all, right at the end of the era of Mad Men. I was around big brands, developing big ideas. While it wasn’t officially the era of globalisation, brands were starting to think and act in a more global fashion, and develop positionings that were consistent, market-by-market. Britain was about to join the European Union, and with that came a kind of brand consistency. Strategic planning was growing. It was a business based on commission and agencies earnings on commission were comparatively higher than they are these days.  

It has been said, ‘advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on’. That’s probably true, although there were occasions when people got their clothes off!

How’s the health of the industry 46 years on?

The industry as a whole is in a state of flux. It’s very difficult to define who your competition is because you have consultancies buying into agencies, and an environment where clients are looking at ways of having their own in-house content providers. All of that starts to squeeze what an agency is able to provide. That can potentially diminish the role of an agency. At the same time, there is more pressure on client budgets than ever before and as a result there are some situations where clients are - how can I put this in a tactful way - trying to screw agencies. Agencies are not necessarily accorded the credit for brand building in a way that they should be, which is a shame. Good agencies are all reorganising and restructuring themselves, because they have to. We don’t need 100 offices around the world anymore. But we do have to fight to get more than our fair share of digital talent, which is still scarce.

Has the glamour gone?

There are fewer characters and a bit of the glamour has gone from the business. Has it gone because some of the big names in the best agencies have gone? Or are some of the names not there because it’s less glamorous? I’m not sure. Obviously, it’s a much bigger business than it ever was before. Agencies are listed companies and, therefore, have a commitment and a responsibility to shareholders. The fact that it’s become a serious business is a good thing. It’s just a shame that some of the characters have gone out of it.

What does it take to run Asia?

You have to be a good listener because Asia is so diverse. The big issues are the same. The microcosm of it is that you have to be a good listener because they’re always slightly different market by market. You have to choose your management teams well and build a rapport and relationship with them that is beyond a business relationship. Often, they become close friendships. That enables you to have, surprisingly, very honest conversations. You can have conversations in a less confrontational way, perhaps, than when you’re in Europe. Most of the APAC agency leaders are Westerners, and that’s a fact. Partly because they can be broadly neutral, not necessarily because they have any particular expertise that other people don’t. From time to time Asia can be a bit parochial and you hear, ‘you don’t get it, because you don’t come from here’. The good thing about bringing people in is that they are broadly neutral. However, I don’t think that’s going to be the case for much longer as the talent is come through.

Despite the creative talent that comes out of this region, Asia hasn’t delivered to the level it should be, particularly China.

How far has Asian creativity come?

Asia still feels more entrepreneurial than any other market in the world with the exception of South Africa, which is both disorganised and entrepreneurial! When I first got here, there was that whole issue with scam ads, which hasn't completely gone away. It's improved but we don't see the big global campaigns coming out of Asia. Despite the creative talent that comes out of this region, Asia hasn’t delivered to the level it should be, particularly China. Developing markets go through a stage of having expats lead before they localise. The localisation of China is still going on. There is good talent but it isn’t punching its weight on the global stage. Japan, however, has become much more engaged with what's going on outside of its domestic market and in the rest of the region. 

What will you miss most?

The creative buzz. Somebody showing me a creative idea and me thinking, ‘wow, how on earth can I sell it?’ That’s exactly how I felt when I first saw the Wonderbra ads. It’s that feeling you get when somebody says, ‘I’ve got this really good idea’ on a bit of paper and you see what happens as it develops. And I love that you can be a bit controversial. Advertising should entertain and brands need to make people love them.

Remember to enjoy it, however tough things get. Enjoy it, because it’s still about the best job I can think of. Don’t feel constrained. I would tell everyone, don't get sucked into hierarchy; it should not exist in advertising agencies. 

Advice to your younger self?

Remember to enjoy it, however tough things get. Enjoy it, because it’s still about the best job I can think of. Don’t feel constrained. I would tell everyone, don't get sucked into hierarchy; it should not exist in advertising agencies. I’ve been doing this for 46 years and it's just gone so fast. The great thing about the advertising business is that every day, every year, there’s a new challenge. It’s never the same.  

Smith circa 2005

 

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