Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ties-Ties-Ties and what they mean.

Advertising in some form or other has been part of the family ever since I could remember. My immediate family has been involved in the business at some stage or another. Lee, my mother's second husband was once the leading creative director in Lintas (now called Lowe in most parts of the world), and my father was the premium advertising film director in South East Asia for many years. Not to be outdone, my mother worked as copywriter at Batey Ads for a while, and her sister's huband was considered one of the most talented copy writers in town. In the tradition of how everyone in the same industry ends up related to each other, I have the distinction of calling some of the most prominent names in the South East Asian Advertising Scene "Uncle" or "Aunty."

So what can you do if you're family is this embeded in the industry? At one stage, I thought I'd avoid it. But then, I realised there were things about the industry that I liked and so tried to join it. I didn't make it, so I just skirt around it. I was admitedly a lousy accounts servicing person and never developed a "respectable book" to make it as a copywriter. I have, however, writen enough respectable commentaries for the trade press and been interviewed to call myself intelligent enough to talk about the topic of advertising. So, where does this trumpet blowing leave me. I get to talk about an family friend, my Dad's pal and my mum's childhood friend - Mr Tham Khai Meng, currently Ogilvy & Mather's regional creative director (Asia-Pacific) and Co-Chairman of Ogilvy in Asia-Pacific. 

Mr Tham, is undoubtedly a success as far as Singapore's advertising industry is concerned. Advertising, particularly in Asia, is considered, for the most part to be a "White Man's" game. This has been particularly true when it comes to the creative department - one only has to think of the Ba Kua tycoon in Jack Neo's movie,"I not Stupid," telling his employee's, "Ang Moh's idea is always special, I will always pay more for it." Perhaps there was something in our local education system that desparaged "artisitic" subjects in favour of more "serious" topics - but for the most part, this was true. 

One can accuse Western multinationals of being intrinsically biased against the "Asian" idea. There have been certain examples of failed White Men landing jobs in local agencies at creative directors because, well it looked good to have a white man in the creative department. However, there was a darn good reason for this. In the multinationals, only the white men had the vision for global brands. I take, Lee, my stepfather as the prime example of this. The man could make a dull product like a detergent interesting to housewives in Hamburg (Germany), New York (USA) and Karachi (Pakistan). My early childhood years were spent in various countries because his job required him to travel every two years, to make sure that the creative departments at Lintas did what they were supposed to do. 

I think, for the most part, Western culture proved to be able to dominate the industry because, it allowed for a certain flexability in thinking that is so necessary in being good at advertising. The Americans and Brits in particular have dominated the industry because they've valued "life's experiences" rather than just academic records or technical expertise, the tangibles that Asian's are most comfortable with. Lee did goto art school, but had a wide variation of experiences like selling vegitables, digging ditches and working as a janitor before that. Neil French, perhaps one of the most famous creative directors of his generation, was a bull fighter and a pornographer. It sounds undisciplined or unpolished to the Asian mind. But as Frank Young, Managing Director (a creative guy) of Crush Singapore said, "That's what makes them so good." Both my stepfather and Mr French had lived life and they could apply what they had known into something useful - selling of basic products to people accross culture. 

Asians have caught up in terms of their artistic creativity. Today, in Singapore's market, there are several prominent Asian Creative Directors. My ex-boss, Lim Sau Hong, the CEO and Executive Creative Director of 10AM Communications comes to mind. Her understanding of the Chinese language and Chinese culture allowed her to develop a Singapore based agency that made an impact on the China market. 

There are others. David Tang is a Singaporean who has become CEO of DDB in Singapore. Then there is Pillany Pillay and Kelvin Periera who built made Crush Advertising and the TNBT Group into a regional presence. 

However, Singaporeans and Asians in advertising have generally stayed within the Asia-Pacific Region. Why is that so? Perhaps it's cultural. I hear of many Singaporeans who turn down promotions in multinationals because it means "travelling to an extent you don't know when you'll come home." The only time Singapore became known as a centre for global advertising was when Neil French, former WPP Creative Head (Previously Ogilvy Global Creative Head), planted his feet in Singapore. 

But now, this has changed. Mr Tham Khai Meng has assumed the appointment as Ogilvy's Global Creative Head and Chairman of it's Global Creative Council. How significant is Mr Tham's role?  Managing Directors run the business in advertising agencies. However, businesses need a product to sell, and in the case of the advertising agency, this is the creative work, created by the creative department, run by a creative director. So there you have it, we now have a Singaporean in ultimate charge of the creative work produced by the world's third largest advertising agency. It's quite an achievement when you think that Mr Tham comes from a country that is allergic to anything out of the ordinary.  

Allot of Mr Tham's success will depend on the people that he hires. Most of his personal creativity will be devoted to hiring the right people and making sure they perform. Mr Tham's work in the Asia-Pacific has proven that he's such a man. 

But what does Mr Tham's appointment mean beyond the fact that it is possible for Asians and Singaporeans in particular to develop the qualities of running a global creative department in a global ad agency? 

I think what's significant is that Mr Tham's appointment to the global creative position at Ogilvy co-incides with his Asia-Pacific Co-Chairman, Miles Young's appointment to be the CEO of Ogilvy's Global Opperation. 

This is significant because its a statement of where the agency believes most of the world's economic focus will be in. Traditionally, New York and London were always the main headquarters for advertising agencies. Most agency-client relationships are forged at the global level, with the regions and country's executing policies. The focus of advertising has always been where the consumers are - which has for the most part been in the West. 

Politically speaking, the appointment of Messers Young and Tham doesn't change a thing. Mr Tham will relocate to New York to take up his appointment. But the focus of the global advertising industry is shifting and the appointment of Messers Young and Tham shows it. 

Back in the old days, the consumers were in the West. So, it was only logical for people who developed careers in the West to run the global agencies. This is changing and most of it is due to the rise of China and the rest of Asia. Why else would one of the world's largest advertising agencies as well as one of the most visionary make two of its most significant appointees from the Asia-Pacific region. 

As the economic crisis in the West bites, one may find more "protectionist" calls from the public against competition. This is something to expected. However, rational heads should prevail and Messers Young and Tham have a tremendous opportunity to persuade the West that Asia's rise is something that will benefit them and that they should - rejoice!  

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