Mike Fromowitz
Sep 27, 2016

RIP Michael Ball: They don’t make 'em like they used to

Mike Fromowitz remembers mentor, friend and giant of Asian advertising, Michael Ball, who died Sunday.

Michael Ball
Michael Ball

I write this with great sadness over the unimaginable loss of my friend, mentor and boss Michael Ball on Sunday. He had recently celebrated his 80th birthday, and he had put up a brave and strong battle with multiple myeloma cancer for more than three years, when the doctors only gave him months to live.

The hardest thing in the advertising agency world is to sustain your reputation over decades. It takes commitment and people capable of wielding a mysterious kind of magic. Michael Ball of the Ball Partnership did just that. He helped to change the face of Asian advertising.

The Ball Partnership is now long gone, yet many of us will never forget the legacy of this ad-venturous and legendary ad man. He remained a lighthouse throughout an ever-changing marketplace and set a great example for future agency builders and entrepreneurs.

Michael and I kept in touch by email every month, and later, almost weekly. He took each day in stride, never really complaining about his illness, always looking forward to another day, another week, another month of life. This was my hope for Michael too.  (Article continues below)

Campaign received the following note from Miles Young, former worldwide chairman and CEO (and former Asia-Pacific chairman and CEO) of Ogilvy & Mather:

Just a few weeks ago I spent a weekend in Canberra with Michael Ball. I think both he and I knew it was the last time we would meet, though we talked about my return.... My time with him was long planned, and he was insistent that it took place sooner rather than later. Michael looked in rude health, organized a grueling program and was the heart and soul of each meal....

He clung to life with all the courage, chutzpah and comic sensibility that made him such a successful ad man. He was the ultimate client man. And when I asked him who was the best new-business person he had ever encountered he said, "me". His career in Ogilvy was stellar, and David Ogilvy loved his rebelliousness and his piraticism. He was an outsider. And he envisioned what others could not, which is the rise of the new world, especially of Asia. Ahead of his time, he then went and did his own thing, and did it incredibly well.

He kept his deep affection for Ogilvy. In Canberra, the conversation ranged over the past, but also the present and future. He belonged to the era of Francis Ogilvy as well as David Ogilvy, but was insatiably curious about the advertising world today. When I became chairman he reached out with friendship, and that friendship has been for me a precious gift I shall never forget, just as I shall never forget the last sight of him after we hugged and said goodbye after one of the jolliest dinners possible, and the elevator door closed.

Michael brought me out to Asia in 1983 as creative director of his agency group in Hong Kong and within three years he made me chairman. By 1989, our office was recognised as runner-up, International Agency of the Year by US publications Advertising Age. That was a first for Asia Pacific, and it made Michael proud.

Michael supported me for more than six years while I was with his agency. We had a falling out when I resigned from the agency—he took it very personally. But we overcame our differences and remained friends. We continued to keep in touch over the years, him in Australia and me in New York and Toronto.

One of Michael's beliefs in life was the importance of being authentic with people, saying what needs to be said because it’s good for the relationship and for the soul. I always admired how he never judged or forced his opinions on anyone, but offered valuable advice. And I will surely miss that.

The author (left) with Ball (center) and Mike Chu

Michael joined 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 Asia Pacific’s most creative agency brands, The Ball Partnership.

Michael 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 rebranded the group as The Ball Partnership in 1986. Two years later, the company was winning awards around the globe and adding major new business, with its peers declaring Ball “one of the world’s most creative agency brands”.

The Ball network of seven agencies was 60 percent owned by Michael 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.

Michael's single-mindedness, and his highly effective and charismatic personality were 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-Pacific’s Hall of Fame in 2014.

Michael was always 100 percent behind creativity. He 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 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.''

His long time friend and Meridian colleague Ken Brady wrote to me after hearing of Michael's death and said “I will surely miss him. He had an amazing life and lived it to the full with illness only at the very end”.

Michael was indeed very brave to the end. In the midst of his battle with cancer he kept reasonably active. He wrote to me telling about his lunch at the Australian Club in Sydney with John Howard, the 25th Prime Minister of Australia, and Michael Kirby, a former Justice of the High Court of Australia. The lunch, hosted by Howard, was in celebration of Michael's investiture as an officer of the Order of Australia.

"I take each day as it comes," he told me. "Some are better than others. As Forrest Gump said: 'Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get.'"

When he wrote to me in his final weeks, his words were still positive: "I have been fortunate in life to have known and worked with many wonderful people, including you, and I am grateful you have stayed in touch.”

Rest in peace Michael.

Mike Fromowitz., a longtime Asia-Pacific ad man, is now partner and chief creative officer of Ethnicity Multicultural Marketing + Advertising in Toronto. He is also the author of the one of the most consistently popular articles on this website, a 2013 post entitled, "Cultural blunders: Brands gone wrong".

 

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