Tim Isaac
Sep 7, 2011

25 Years' Creativity: Tim Isaac reflects on 25 years in Asia

In the time that has passed since Ogilvy & Mather's Tim Isaac left the UK for Singapore in 1986, advertising in the region has come a long way.

Tim Isaac
Tim Isaac

I arrived in Asia at what was then known as The Ball Partnership on October 15th 1986, which just happened to be the same day that Neil French joined the agency after his spells at Ogilvy and Batey Ads. So what has changed and what, if anything, has stayed the same over the 25 years since? Well for starters, the Spikes are still as sharp. One of my first memories of 1986 was carrying an armful of the things through a hotel lobby and dropping one — spike down — on to my foot. I still have the mark to show for it. That Spikes show was a repeat performance of the real thing held in Hong Kong a few days earlier. And in those days both the real thing and the pale imitation were scurrilous events — mainly an excuse for a lot of fun and a damn good piss up. Twenty-fiveyears later and the real thing is held in Singapore, much bigger, and much more serious and worthy.

Back in 1986 an advertising agency was an advertising agency. There was TV, print, radio and outdoor. Simples. Now, most people in our business are determined that life is super complicated just because we’ve all gone digital. Nonsense. The only complication is the challenge of getting anyone to actually exploit the exponentially increased opportunities to be ‘creative’ in new, interactive and more engaging ways. The basics haven’t changed — just the ways in which we can communicate and sell.

On a whimsical techy note, in those days you couldn’t touch screens. They would die on you if you did. Now, you have to touch and stroke everything to get them to work at all. And on a more nostalgic note, it is a great shame that the daily avalanche of SMS-speak emails has killed the art of the fax. I am just re-reading a volume of lyrical prose from a collection of faxes on a particular project that was put together as a leaving present for Michael Ball in 1987. Would you like a sampler of the juicier stuff? Just email me at [email protected]

I came to Asia because of a lunch with Ted Heath,  the former Prime Minister of Great Britain. He gave a talk to a group of senior clients at the London agency I was working for at the time. His theme was that he and Helmut Schmidt were the only two Western leaders of the day who had any understanding of the great challenge and opportunity that was ‘the rising East’. He was utterly convincing so I got on a plane to Singapore and never went back. Through most of the 25 years I have been in Asia it was received wisdom that the Asian economic miracle was completely dependent on the health and demand of Western economies. Economists poured scorn on any suggestion that Asia might be capable of de-linking one day and certainly on the notion that the dependence might ever be the other way round. Today, Asia seems to largely own the West. Or certainly a big percentage of Western debt.

When I left the UK, all my friends and peers thought I was mad and that I was leaving the centre of the known advertising universe. Now, Graham Fink comes East and most of the poor souls languishing in the West envy anyone who can get a job out here. And some other poor souls — like Miles Young and Tham Khai Meng — are obliged to go the other way and leave Asia to provide world leadership. I recall any number of Asian talent adorning the agencies of the region back in those days. Is it just a trick of memory that suggests that there was actually more big Asian talent in the business back then than now? I don’t think so. Back in those days, even trained lawyers sometimes gave up law to join our ranks. I think the problem is that with the growth, success and sophistication of Asian markets, all the bright young things want a proper job now. Advertising just doesn’t cut it. As an industry we have a big challenge to reverse that mindset. And convincing the businessmen, entrepreneurs, bankers and accountants that ‘creativity is the catalyst of growth’ may just be the way to do it. In 1986, the young flocked to the West for their university education. With so many Chinese universities now in the top 20 worldwide, the flow, if allowed, will soon be the other way, with ambitious Western youth seeking education in the East. I suppose the writing was on the wall even back in 1986. I soon realised that the applicants from Singapore universities were of a far higher calibre than the Singaporeans who had gone to Canada or the USA to pick up a degree.

So, all in all, I feel privileged and blessed to have been able to spend the majority of my working life here in Asia. They have been 25 glorious years and I love the places I have lived and the people I have come to know. And I can even watch every Arsenal match live, home or away, which I could never do if I was living in the UK, (although come to think of it…)

Tim Isaac is chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, Asia-Pacific

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