David Blecken
Nov 23, 2015

Design thinking and tech a formidable combination for Japan: Tham Khai Meng

TOKYO - On a trip to Japan last week, Ogilvy’s global creative head Tham Khai Meng spoke to Campaign about what he sees as the market’s greatest strengths and weaknesses, and why he wants to see more experimentation with technology in the outdoor space.

Tham Khai Meng in Tokyo
Tham Khai Meng in Tokyo

The trip is Tham’s second visit to Japan this year and is centred on reviewing the agency’s work and developing its creative talent, which he describes as “quite a spunky lot”.

Ogilvy Japan is only really just starting to appear on the radar in terms of creative work. What’s changed?

This is just a work in progress. It’s a good start—in the space of two years, we’ve changed the work ethic to one that drives divine discontent; never being happy about the work, so really we just continue being miserable bastards. On a more serious note, the creative department has been the leading force in recent wins. To win six pitches in a row is quite a feat by any standards. We have a very diversified workforce with people from Brazil, Switzerland, Germany etc. as well as Japan. Cross-cultural diversification is always a good thing.

Some people would argue that Japan, or certain other markets in Asia, are too difficult for foreign creatives to make sense of.

You can’t hire the same type of people all the time, otherwise you just get beige and grey. You need outside influence to strengthen the DNA. It’s a bit like cross-breeding. You need people who can challenge the status quo. How do you know it’s the right way to go? You never know. But if you’re homogenous, you’re always pushing for the same thing, the same tastes. You need someone who can look at things from the outside. If a giraffe has talent, we’ll hire a giraffe, or a Martian. We don’t care who has talent—their creed or colour. We’ll just hire the right people. The investment that’s gone into this market is paying off, and we feel very encouraged and optimistic about Japan. We’re a minnow in a big pond, so we want to be the firebrand.

What is your perception of the current state of marketing creativity in Japan—what stands out for you and what do you see as its weak points?

We believe in storytelling and that won’t change. A great example is the recent ‘High school girls’ film for Shiseido. The director wrote it and sold it to Shiseido. It’s an anomaly that cuts across the grain. It has a story and you’re riveted to the screen. It’s about emotion, not celebrity. Enlightened brands get it but there’s a culture here that uses celebrity and that same celebrity is selling everything from water to cars. I think it’s fine to use a celebrity, but you still need an idea. One of my favourite works from Japan is 'Hungry?' for Nissin. We showed it to our young creatives who had never seen it, so there was a bit of a history lesson. What’s great about it is there’s an idea, great simplicity—so a seven-year-old kid to a grandmother of 95 will understand it. It’s memorable and there are no celebrities. If you ran that today it would still be very fresh.

I do admire the design thinking in Japan, and the craft of design in everything. Everything is so thoughtful and respectful of nature. That’s deeply rooted…so it affects everything you touch and see here but is subtle at the same time. Also the culture of quietude—not quietness, quietude—that’s beauty.

But the other thing I find is that people tend to trade in the land of milk and honey. [Ads are often] all smiling families. How do you differentiate one from the other? Having said that, what I love are things like the Lexus Hoverboard. It’s an incredible piece of marketing. Will millions of people start buying Lexus? I don’t know, but does it project a better future for Lexus? Yes. Does it project a dream? It certainly does. It’s in things like this, and the Sound of Honda, where Japan excels. The technology, and the irreverence to technology. We need to drive more of this here.

Do you see Japan as innovative?

Yes and no. Japan brought us the Walkman and I think it still has that very much in the culture. I was in Akihabara [Tokyo’s ‘Electronics Town’]—I love that place. But I expected to see more augmented reality. I wanted to see more use of spaces, physical space—what we call in a pedestrian way “activation”. I’d love to see more holograms. It’s still very conservative. We have the technology but aren’t using it enough in spaces to bring people together and entice buyers; we have the ability but it isn’t being deployed. I’d like to see more work like Merrell’s bridge. That’s the challenge: how are we going to use technology in this space? We need to work with architects, space designers.

How can you bring about a change in mindset?

I wish I had the answer. But then some quirky things come along and I think, how bizarre. I see constant surprises, things like a park bench that comes up from the wood paving. [Japan] is about design, spaces. How does that translate into brands—I think that’s the challenge. It’s ironic that Japanese brands are sometimes more adventurous in other markets.

At the same time, you recently suggested that VR might be over-hyped. What else do you think falls into this category?

I think the idea of engagement is over-hyped. Does social engagement mean I buy? I don’t know how we assumed at some point that millions of people engaging means buyers—it doesn’t. I think these questions need to be asked: after engagement, what happens? Marketers need to question more how engagement turns into sales. We still need to understand how we buy.

It was a subdued year for Asia at awards shows like Cannes Lions. What do you hope to see more of in 2016?

I’d love to see more great films and secondly more digital work that upsets the status quo. Juries aside, if I look at Asia with my lens, has it developed great film? Has it continued to improve? I would be brutally honest and say it hasn’t. Whereas I see other markets have progressively become braver. That begs the question, are clients lacking the courage to do great work? Maybe—I’m not sure. Do we have the talent here in Asia? I believe we do. Do we have great film talent? Yes, but is it translating into 30-second storytelling? No, it’s not. It’s a very different skill doing one hour of film and 30-second films. That’s one area that needs to be challenged.

In the digital space, I would love to see more work like BA’s digital billboard. Why isn’t anyone driving this? Outdoor 2.0. We’re still using the old model. Why isn’t [digital work] interacting more with the audience? I would love to see that happening here. If you look at the economy, markets are still booming. I would love to have seen great work coming from China. There have been pockets, but not enough for the size of China. Likewise for India. What happened? We have to get back to being brave. I think we’re being sucked into the minutiae of business, because of the transformation of business. A creative person has to be a business person too, like a samurai with two swords. But we’ve got to get back to the work.

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