As Ogilvy & Mather’s worldwide chief creative officer, Tham Khai Meng is among the advertising world’s most influential figures. Though his journey into that world wasn’t straightforward, the New York-based ad man was always drawn to storytelling. To him great work means something that moves the heart, and his advice to get there is to look for the renegades. In his view, today is the age of narrative and the worst thing a company can do is bore its audience.
What got you into advertising?
I muddled into advertising. I’ve always been a writer and visual guy. My father was a civil engineer and I was quite good at math. It was only natural that my parents thought I’d do architecture. Film has always fascinated me and I was drawn to storytelling. I did my education in Singapore and London. My story probably started when I was 12 or 13. I wrote for my school magazine and became its editor. I was the photographer, writer, editor and designer. I suppose I started doing it and doing more of it every year, often to the neglect of my studies.
I applied to do architecture in London and got in. I secretly also applied to art school and when I got in I was over the moon. The problem was telling my father. Eventually, when I told him, he told me to follow my heart. I’m so glad I heard that from him. So I suppose that led on to art school. I did three years in Saint Martins and another three at the Royal College of Arts and joined Leo Burnett as a trainee in London.
What is great work to you?
Work that moves my heart and takes me to another place.That is the kind of work we should be championing. I deplore anything that’s in the middle. It’s easy to do that kind of work. That’s cruising. That’s why it’s so important for us to fight for great work.
What is your greatest work?
I enjoy working on Unilever, Coca Cola, IBM and more recently SingTel. I worked on Singapore Airlines, building the brand for eight years. It was one of the most fun periods of my life actually. Where would you find a client that gives you a million dollars and tells you to go out and do it without a script? There was trust.
We were working on a campaign for the launch of its direct flight to London. We took a couple of SQ girls to London and brought in one of the best director’s in the world. The idea was from a stewardess’s point of view.
But the airline is now trying to move away from the Singapore Girl.
You can’t change the girl. She is key, much like the Marlboro man.
What is your advice to young creatives?
I would ask them to be brave, have the courage and stand up for ideas. I would advise them to never ever give up. You can fall off a horse—and they will fall off many times—but just get back up and ride it. There are easier careers outside advertising. If you choose the communication world you have got to give it everything. You have to have more than passion. It’s not enough to like it, you have to love it.
You also have to be grounded in the product and what you’re selling. We’re salesmen, don’t forget. We deploy creativity in the service of our brand, but we’re not a poetic society or a club. Whatever you do has to move products, and young people have to understand that.
What are your predictions for the industry in 2014?
So much is happening right now in social media. People have more power in the thumbs of their hands. If they love your work, you live on forever and prosper. If they don’t, you die a brutal death. It means we have to tell better stories. The spots need to be rewatchable, because if you want to watch it again, you want to share it with your family and friends.
Our work for British Airways with the ‘Visit Mum’ campaign is an example of this. Google India and Dove Sketches also achieved this.
The cardinal sin today is [being] boring. It is the age of the storyteller. It means a kind of urgent pervasive creativity. You have to be on 24/7. You have to take more risk and be courageous. You have to challenge assumptions. If anything new comes in the market, you have to be ready to be mocked and laughed at.
Another big trend is experiential marketing. The Americans do that so well. Just look at the Apple stores and Hershey stores. Store activation is really exciting. Content marketing is also exciting. That’s the way brands are going, they are turning into media channels. Red Bull and GoPro were incredible.
The industry I went into has changed a lot. What hasn’t changed is storytelling—it has become more single-minded and emotional.
What is the state of creativity in Asia?
I challenge the creativity here to rise further in the digital and storytelling space. You’ve got great storytellers in India and China. I see India coming to the fore now. China has thousands of great film directors. Why aren’t they doing great films?
Thailand still makes great films, but not in the way it used to.
In Singapore there’s so much room for improvement. Everyone says it is because things have gone retail, but you can do great retail work. Hong Kong is the same. That’s nonsense because one can do a lot of great retail advertising. Look at Apple. I’d like to see Asia take on the mantle and be the path-finders, as it once was.
What needs to be done to encourage that kind of creativity?
I wish there was a turbo-charger. It boils down to what constitutes creativity. I think it’s about not settling for second best. I think you got to hire the renegades and the rebels that let the light into this world. There’s so many ways of looking at the world, you need the oddballs to show us the way. I’m not saying the oddballs are the only people, but they are able to see things from a different point of view and are able to challenge the assumptions and take risk.