The minute you think you know, you are dead in the water.
Graham Fink is a worldwide advertising legend. After graduating from John Gillard’s School of Communication Arts in London, he joined creative powerhouse CDP, winning numerous awards with the agency. He later became Creative Director of Saatchi & Saatchi, where he shot mind-blowing commercials for British Airways together with Academy Award winning director Hugh Hudson. He subsequently went on to pursue a directing career of his own. After his commercials and music videos were awarded at all major festivals, Maurice Saatchi persuaded him to become Executive Creative Director of M+C Saatchi, where he oversaw the agency’s output for a period of more than five years. Last year, Graham Fink took on a new challenge by heading off to China. Hermann Vaske talked to the Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy China in Cannes after he had picked up the Outdoor Grand Prix for Coke.
L.A.: How does it feel to win the second-ever Chinese Grand Prix?
Graham Fink: I’ve been there just eleven months. And big credits to Jonathan Mak, the young student who did the brilliant Steve Jobs tribute (Jobs’ profile in Apple logo) the day he died. I tracked him down in Hong Kong. Loved his work and said we’d keep in touch. Two months later, I sent him a regional brief we were working on for Coke. A week later, he sent me this amazing design. Two days later, I presented it to client, and the rest is history. Youngest-ever winner of Grand Prix. Ogilvy’s first-ever Grand Prix in Asia. Credits also go to Francis Wee ECD.
L.A.: After you had accomplished everything in London, what made you go to China?
Graham Fink: Actually, I was very happy at M&C Saatchi, but I got a call from a headhunter on eday who told me about this job in China. And I thought, WOW! It would be a total change, something that would get me out of my comfort zone; after all, I’m always telling others to do that. I don’t think I could have picked anything so totally different to London. A new language (possibly the hardest in the world), a new culture, one that dates back thousands of years full of great art and literature, and a place where the advertising is way down in the world league, so a great challenge to help them move up the table.
L.A.: What is the current state of creativity in China?
Graham Fink: You have to remember that advertising here is very new. So in terms of creativity they are still learning some of the basic things. Having said that, they are learning fast and I do see some very interesting thoughts emerging. Occasionally, they will do something brilliant, like the award-winning Samsonite poster that is sweeping the boards at all award shows.
L.A.: What accounts are you working on?
Graham Fink: I actually oversee 17 offices but mainly concentrate on Shanghai and Beijing. I like getting my hands dirty so am involved in a number of accounts. I recently ran the Philips pitch from China’s side and we won it on a global level, so I was obviously pleased (and relieved) with that. In Shanghai, I’m very closely involved with Lee Jeans, Coke, and Unilever.
L.A.: What is your favorite among the work you have done in China?
Graham Fink: It’s too early to say. But I hope we keep on doing good work for Coke.
L.A.: Could you describe your role on the successful Phillips pitch?
Graham Fink: As I said, I ran the pitch from the China side, and we collaborated with London enormously. And it was the biggest pitch I’ve ever been involved with. It was a real challenge getting good work on our side, but we just dug deep and I hardly slept until we got there.
L.A.: What do you do to raise the bar of creativity?
Graham Fink: I have just organized a massive training session both in Shanghai and Beijing. I flew Patrick Collister over (the big won and directory magazine). Patrick also used to be ECD of Ogilvy London. We must have trained around 200 creatives, as well as account handlers and planners. I don’t think anything like this has been done in China before. It was an intense 8 days.
L.A.: What can you learn from China? What can China learn from you?
Graham Fink: I learn stuff every day. Sometimes, just by watching the crazy things that happen here. If you want to live longer, you must look left and right when crossing the road, even if it’s a one-way street. Quite often, bikes – and sometimes cars – drive against the traffic. I’ve even seen it on motorways! China is such a visually interesting place, a lot of color and activity. Even the molecules move faster here. And from me, I think I can help teach the creative department a lot of things, give talks about how we do things in the west that will help them to ground their creative ideas into proper strategies – and also help them craft their ideas better. I’m hoping we can just get a few great pieces of work out that will show everyone what I mean. The best way to teach is by example.
L.A.: Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is making headlines. Does oppression often lead to great results in art?
Graham Fink: It’s funny, but I think there may be some truth in this. When the rules on cigarette advertising came in thick and fast, CDP came up with the great Benson & Hedges campaign, then Saatchis with Silk Cut. The Russian director Eisenstein made some amazing films with “short ends,” as I believe he had restrictions on the amount of film that was available to him, so he devised a very arresting way of cutting his films, one that has since been much copied. Artists and creative people are always trying to break out of the norm. That’s why we always talk about thinking outside of the box. So history is full of artists who worked underground to produce provocative pieces of work that made people think – and changed the course of their history as a result.
L.A.: Is Ai Weiwei a topic in your creative department?
Graham Fink: I can’t recall anyone mentioning him.
L.A.: Do you experience censorship in advertising over there?
Graham Fink: Of course. Just like in London with the BACC, all work has to be ok’d before the public can see it. I shot in Beijing in the same studios with the same crew that Tarantino had used for Kill Bill and was impressed with the level of craftsmanship.
L.A.: How do you evaluate the level of production regarding shooting in China?
Graham Fink: I haven’t been on a shoot yet so can’t judge. But I have seen some very impressive productions values in commercials and films made in China. So I’m sure that’s true.
L.A.: Are you shooting there a lot or do you go abroad?
Graham Fink: A lot of stuff is made abroad, especially in Thailand. Good local talent is hard to find, for both film and stills.
L.A.: Are Chinese clients more difficult than their European counterparts?
Graham Fink: I’ve met a few real bastard clients in the UK, some who are very arrogant and not interested in great creative work at all – although they often say this is exactly what they want. They don’t listen to their agency and often have no real background in advertising save for a degree in media studies! I’m sure these clients are everywhere. You only need to watch TV in any country in the world to see that most clients are not that brave and cannot spot a good ad if their life depended on it. Fortunately, there are some great clients too. You can always spot their ads as people talk about them and they add to the culture rather than damaging it. I’ve only met a few of our clients so far and have been pleasantly surprised. They are often willing to listen and want to do work that stands out. It’s now up to us to deliver.
L.A.: How important was Tham Khai Mengh as a visionary creative for you in the work you do?
Graham Fink: Khai and I have known each other for years. He is a brilliant art director and has a huge vision. He wants the best work for the Ogilvy network. He is relentless in his pursuit. You can’t really ask for more. Top man.
L.A.: What drives digital advertising? Creativity, Media Planning, Strategy, or Data?
Graham Fink: The ideas.
L.A.: Creativity vs. Performance / Efficiency: only the clicks count?
Graham Fink: I don’t believe it. People can window-shop but don’t always buy.
L.A.: Digital media and marketing creativity: what’s the difference and how should they be used?
Graham Fink: One is a space and the other is how it’s used. People who know how to use digital spaces correctly I call digital fishermen. They know where the fish are at any time of the day or night. They are always changing with the way the wind blows. Advertising now has never been so uncertain. The minute you think you know, you are dead in the water. I quite like the fact that no one really knows. Experts worry me. I used to have a quote on my wall that said: “In beginners’ minds are many possibilities, in experts’ minds there are few.”
L.A.: What is your favorite digital advertising campaign and why?
Graham Fink: Ogilvy Paris’s work for Perrier: “The longer you watch, the hotter it gets.“ Funny, sexy, inspired, sexy, clickable, sexy ... Oh, and did I mention sexy?
L.A.: Who is the most inspiring digital advertiser and why?
Graham Fink: Anyone who can give me a reason why I should spend more than seven nanoseconds investigating their brand.
L.A.: Does the financial crisis provide the ground for digital to win against the other media on all fronts?
Graham Fink: Of course, but I would be very wary of building a big brand entirely reliant on digital. Like in great Chinese cooking, you need a mixture of spices to bring out the best taste in the food, but you still need some food.
L.A.: After over a year of research, what is your favorite Chinese dish and restaurant?
Graham Fink: To be really honest, I’m not a massive fan of Chinese food. Some of it is just a bit too weird for me. I struggled with a braised tree frog the other night and I put my foot down at salamander. We get those glass spinning tables here with all sorts of “interesting” things on them. Unfortunately, I’ve found out that if you keep spinning the table, those duck hearts come back round again. Luckily, Shanghai is full of great restaurants and you can find good Italian places too.
L.A.: How have China and the Asian markets been affected by the financial crisis?
Graham Fink: What I find interesting about China is that, while the rest of the world borrows money from each other, China borrows money from itself.
L.A.: Many ideas originated out of technical developments on the web. When does the medium inspire the idea?
Graham Fink: Well, Marshall McLuhan was aware of this first. Creative media buying is part and parcel of a great idea. YouTube has, since its birth, been a treasure trove of ideas collected in one place. The modern creative just has to sit and watch collectively 25,000 years’ worth of videos on there to find something valuable. In China, we can’t get it so we have to try a bit harder. But I think it’s a creative team’s job to suggest media as well as coming up with the idea. And if the right media doesn’t exist, then invent it!
L.A.: How important do you consider the internet to be when compared with other media, such as newspapers or TV?
Graham Fink: Who reads papers and watches TV? … Seriously, though, no media can compare with digital for being up to date. I love getting sports texts on my mobile. Especially football scores. However, the weather forecasts are still wrong.
L.A.: China is known for its strict censorship of the net. Do you see a change towards more freedom?
Graham Fink: There is a feeling of China opening up more creatively. What is definitely true is the use of Weibo (Chinese Twitter). It’s almost a platform for freedom of speech. Here, it’s more a way of everyday life than in the west. It’s the first place to go to keep up to date with anything and everything.
L.A.: What are the opportunities like in China?
Graham Fink: I think there are more opportunities here than in London. But you have to dig around a bit to find them. There is a tremendous willingness to learn from the west, but also to beat them. Attitudes to advertising are changing fast. Although it’s a very young medium here, I think within the next 5 years China will be doing world-class work consistently. At least I hope so. It’s very tough but it’s also very exciting. If you want to be a pioneer in creativity, come to China. I think we sometimes forget how powerful the messages are that we send out into our culture. We are handling explosive stuff. Handle it with care.