Mike Fromowitz
Jan 12, 2015

Legendary ad men: They don’t make them like they used to

Jim Aitchison, author of Cutting Edge Advertising once wrote that “there is nothing permanent in advertising. A few great men with vision and guts build a great agency with some great clients, but eventually they sell their group or retire from the business. Nothing is permanent. The hardest thing in the advertising agency world is to sustain your creative reputation over decades. It takes commitment and people capable of wielding a mysterious kind of magic.”

Legendary ad men: They don’t make them like they used to

Two of Asia’s legendary ad men, Michael Ball of The Ball Partnership and Ian Batey of Batey Ads did just that. They changed the face of Asian advertising. The Ball Partnership and Batey Ads are long gone, yet it is in our best interest not to forget these ad-venturous and legendary ad men. They remain lighthouses in an ever changing and turbulent time and great examples for future agency builders and entrepreneurs.

Michael Ball, Founder, The Ball Partnership

Michael Ball joined the fledgling Ogilvy & Mather New York in 1960, when there were fewer than 100 on the staff. Twenty-five years later in Asia he founded one of the world's most creative agency brands, The Ball Partnership.

Michael Ball saw the potential in Asia early on. As David Ogilvy’s heir apparent, he decided to forge his own path and went on to buy out Meridian, Ogilvy’s second network in the Asia-Pacific region. Michael later re-branded the group as The Ball Partnership in 1986. Two years later, the company was winning awards around the globe, adding major new business with its peers declaring Ball “one of the world’s most creative agency brands”.

An enviable blend of creative excellence, bubbling staff morale and new business gains has converted into bumper performances at Ball’s Hong Kong office. Mike Fromowitz and the late Mike Chu, joint chairmen and creative directors, juggle things nicely for the boss (Michael Ball) pictured at centre.

In 1989, the Hong Kong office was named Advertising Age’s International Agency of the Year (runner up)—a first for Asia. It brought the agency more recognition worldwide. That, along with great creative work being done in Singapore and several other regional offices under the leadership of Neil French, made The Ball Partnership one of Asia’s legendary ad agencies.

The Ball network of seven agencies was 60 percent owned by Michael Ball and 40 percent owned by the Ogilvy Group. At the time of his purchasing Meridian from Ogilvy,  the agency held offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Hong Kong and billed about US$40 million. Six years later, in 1989, The Ball Partnership was arguably much bigger and one of the world's most creative agency brands. It’s Hong Kong office went on to win Advertising Age’s coveted Agency of the Year Award (runner-up), a first in Asia.

Michael Ball’s single-mindedness, highly effective and charismatic personality was key to the establishment of the Asian ad industry. He went on to pick and cultivate some of the best creative and account service talent. Those who worked for him went on to do great things in their own right—that much alone is testament to his stature. He was inducted into Campaign Asia’s Hall of Fame in 2013.

Michael Ball was always 100 per cent behind creativity. Michael once said, “Ideas are our livelihood. Our lifeblood. Big ideas inspire and shine a light on things that most of us are unable to see. We need to invest in the best creative talents we can find, from anywhere in the world. Having the best ideas for our clients and their brands is what will make us successful. if our clients are successful, we will be successful. The Ball Partnership needs to continue to set the standard for creativity. Culture is also so important to us. It's often talked about, yet often overlooked. Culture is what sets us apart.”

Michael Ball made an interesting admission in one of the agency’s in-house newsletters, The Ball Report. “The first time I considered starting my own agency was over 30 years ago when I was working at J. Walter Thompson in Melbourne,'' he said. ''At that time my boss was Bob Alcock. Bob and I talked about starting an agency together, but decided that an agency called Alcock and Ball wouldn't go far.''

The British publicly held WCRS Group acquired The Ball Partnership for $11 million. In 1990, EUROCOM took over the WCRS Group which owned The Ball Partnership. By 1991 EUROCOM announced its merger with RSCG and created a new group named EURO RSCG Worldwide. The name The Ball Partnership was lost forever.

Today, Michael Ball is at home on his cattle ranch and remains one of the heroes of Asian advertising. Michael had instilled in his agencies something that no other agency had - a culture - which was written down and taught to every member of the agency group. I am grateful to have spent 7 years leading one of The Ball Partnership offices in Hong Kong, another 25 years as his friend. We sure did have our ups and downs, but those days bring back some fond memories

Ian Batey, Founder, Batey Ads

Ian Batey was the founder of Batey Ads and author of “Asian Branding”, one of the best books on Asian marketing and branding. Batey is recognized as “Singapore’s grandfather of advertising”. His agency was launched in Singapore in 1972.

Batey Ads was one of those legendary advertising agencies that most everybody dreamed of working for.  It was, in its heyday, one of the hottest and most creatively awarded shops in all of Asia. Some of the very best creatives in the world worked at Batey Ads, the agency that put Singapore on the advertising map — that was until it became a shadow of its former self when WPP merged it into Grey Advertising.

Ian Batey was also the branding legend behind Raffles Hotel, Tiger Beer and Tiger Balm, and most importantly, the advertising guru credited with helping come up with Singapore Airlines’ winning marketing formula.  When the governments of Malaysia and Singapore terminated their joint operating agreement for Malaysia Singapore Airlines and the Singapore government moved to establish Singapore Airlines, Mr. Batey pitched the account, won it and opened shop to handle SIA's advertising.

Batey is credited with creating the “Singapore Girl” ad campaign which is arguably the most successful airline advertising campaign ever.  It’s successful because it is more than just an ad campaign. Batey came up with the airline’s whole market positioning. The Singapore Girl campaign clearly positioned SIA as a premium airline that offers superior inflight customer service. The Singapore Girl encapsulated and helped to define that positioning.

Batey's Singapore Airlines campaigns, featuring the Singapore Girl (represented by sarong-clad SIA flight attendants) and the slogan, "Singapore Girl, you're a great way to fly," helped establish the airline as the No. 6 international carrier by 1987.

Batey Ads had the Singapore Airlines account for more than 30 years until 2007 when it lost the account to TBWA. While Singapore advertising professionals talk a lot about creativity and spend significant amounts of time and money chasing awards, they seem to have forgotten what Ian Batey knew in spades: that advertising is one of the pillars of brand building and a force in culture building.

Ian Batey was a huge success because of the way he pushed everyone in the agency to raise the bar higher, go places that no one has gone before and learn to take some risks with their advertising or branding ideas to bring out unique ideas that could potentially bring a brand to greater heights.

Jim Aitchison, Executive Creative Director of Batey Ads at the time, said, “Ian Batey inculcated the importance of branding among suits and creatives alike. Everything came back to serving the brand. And that's why clients trusted him. That's why his judgment prevailed. Ian loved the creative side of the business, the art, the craft, and no matter how many other problems he had to deal with, he always made time to share his knowledge and passion with us.”

In the 1990s, the Batey Group sought to expand its reach in Asia, striving in particular to strengthen its three strongest branches: Singapore, Hong Kong and Sydney. In Singapore, Batey expanded into public relations and brand management.

Batey went from servicing Singapore Tourism Board, StarHub, OCBC, DaimlerChrysler and Singapore Airlines. Ian held several other accounts for record lengths of time. UOB and the Tourist Board were others. His relationships always began with the people at the top: shared marketing visions and mutual respect. Ian would act as Brand Guardian, a role he relished and excelled at.

In 1996, Ian Batey hired me to his now legendary Asian-grown agency. His Hong Kong office was in trouble. The following year, the year of the handover to China, the agency had cleaned up in the 4As awards and was now the top creative shop in the territory. Batey Singapore was also on fire under Executive CD Jim Aitchison, and the world was taking notice.

In 1997, the WPP Group took 30 per cent equity in Batey Group. Batey's management retained a majority on the board and control of operations of Batey Ads. Batey Ads will never come again. But Ian's achievements, and those of his staff, will hopefully inspire other agencies to keep fighting the good fight. In 1999, Ian Batey was awarded the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award by the Singapore Advertising Hall of Fame.

As was said earlier, there is nothing permanent in advertising. Things change. People come, make their mark, touch the lives of others, and then move on. What hasn’t changed is that our business is still all about people, talented people. And ideas. Ideas don’t come from technology and data, they come from creative minds. We need more inspired visionaries like Ball and Batey. Our industry is driven by entrepreneurship, and the very product we call creativity.

Mike Fromowitz, Partner, Chief Creative Officer, Ethnicity Multicultural Marketing + Advertising

See also: A look back at Hong Kong's creative heyday

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