Tham Khai Meng, Worldwide Co-Chairman and Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy, was interviewed by Hermann Vaske.
How would you define an idea?
Ha ha, you start by asking the easy one, “define the indefinable.” There’s a famous story about an American judge who said he couldn’t define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. It is the same with ideas: We all sort of recognize them, but when we try to define them, the definition eludes us, like nailing jelly to the ceiling.
But in advertising, I think a good way to define an idea is to use the metaphor of a Trojan horse. We hide our sales message in the belly of the horse, and then use the horse to smuggle it through the gates of the citadel, bypassing the guard dogs of reason and logic.
Who and what is killing ideas?
I would say the inbuilt human propensity to resist the new, to prefer the comfortable and familiar world we recognize. Good ideas, by their very nature, are things we have never seen before, and it takes a strange form of courage to acknowledge their quality. Sadly, most people would rather think of reasons why a new idea can’t work instead of thinking of reasons why we can make it work. Even the people who come up with the ideas are afflicted with a deep insecurity in this respect. They present an idea, there’s a pause, and then they say, “It’s only an idea.” Only an idea! Ideas are what enabled the human race to rise from walking on all fours to the heights we have achieved. We should never say, “It’s only an idea.”
So how do you protect and nurture your ideas?
Well, in truth, in practical day-to-day existence it is very difficult, because we are dealing with a very deeply ingrained, conservative mindset which is resistant to new things. The wrong way, and the way most people do it, is just to fight. This only leads to resentment and more deeply entrenched belief systems. The best way is education. If people understand these things I have mentioned, understand the innate human conservatism, the almost automatic instinct to find fault with ideas, if they understand how ideas work, how fragile they are, and how the job of everybody involved is to nurture and protect ideas, then they will stand a better chance of surviving.
Many killers down the road.
Yes, of course, from the moment an idea is born it has a long way to go and the path is treacherous.
So it’s the negative people, somehow, isn’t it – you know, people who always say, “I’ve seen it, it’s been done before.” Is it their negativism that is fucking up ideas?
Oh yeah. The negativism is killing ideas. People who don’t believe, and who aren’t champions of anything. The opposite of optimists. The pessimists, the non-believers. Self-censorship kills ideas, governments, institutions, organizations, anyone who plays it safe.
But you alluded to a different type of negativity, the “I’ve seen it before” brigade. They are everywhere. What they mean is: “That’s a great idea, how can I knock it down whilst wearing a smile?”
Do you remember an incident, or do you know an anecdote, where an idea was killed? That you were once involved in?
Oh yes, every creative has one great campaign in his heart, the one that got away. The one you cherish most from across the years.
Mine happened when I was working on Motorola. It was for a ringtone and a film as part of the launch of the Razr phone. We had the idea of using the original track Foxy Lady by Jimi Hendrix. We called up Sony Records and his family estate, got approval from James
Sundquist, known as Hendrix Jr., Jimi’s son. We got the green light for production after battling for months to make it happen. I even found an all-girl band in China called “Wild Strawberries” to cover it. Having been partnering with the great and late Malcolm McLaren from the get-go, it felt too good to be true. Everything was locked and loaded to shoot.
So I sent Malcolm, of all people, to Beijing to produce the track with the girls. The only problem was none of them spoke English, a small detail. So they landed with the most unlikely, but coolest, most bad-ass, English teacher in the history of punk rock. After a couple of weeks of intensive English lessons, the band was good to go. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a new client was hired. And you can imagine what happened next … it was the most heartbreaking news in my career. The new client pulled the plug.
Malcolm and I were devastated. In despair, I’ll never forget what Malcolm said to me: “Well, let’s move on to the next project, Khai, it’s part of the gig. Never forget, cream will always rise to the top.” It may sound trite, but coming from Mal, it’s a piece of advice I’ve carried with me since. I use it to this day and still tell people this when rejection knocks them down. It’s the best way to carry Mal’s encouragement and play it forward.
So hopefully get back on the horse every time and be a rider in the storm.
You gotta keep on riding, as they say. Just keep riding into the sunset, hopefully.
What a nice ending. Like John Wayne in “The Shootist.”
Like John Wayne. Or like Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.”
That’s even better.
You cannot give up. Because that’s … that’s what we live for. That’s what we live for. Ideas.
We also live for originality. How would you describe originality?
In advertising, I would say it’s like this: We spend our days talking about ads, and quite a lot of time looking for ideas. Most of the time, after you have been in the business for a while, you look at the great ads and all the great stuff around you and, although you admire them, you feel pretty confident you know how they arrived at the idea, that you could have done something similar given the opportunity. But every so often you see an idea that stops you in your tracks – you just have to grin with delight and jealousy. Because you know you have no idea how they got to the idea. That, to me, is originality.
How important is courage?
You know I don’t want to big us up as being courageous. I mean, come on! We are not medics in the frontline with shells exploding around us as we treat wounded civilians, not firemen rushing into burning buildings. I think it is important we keep a sense of proportion.
To be different is the basic component of successful communication. What kind of advice would you give young creatives seeking to be different?
That’s a difficult one because the answer involves telling them to do something and then telling them not to do it. I think art is about breaking rules, but first you have to learn the rules. So, to the young creatives, I think I would say, learn from the giants who went before you, look at all the great ads, and then forget about what you have seen and do it your own way. It sounds glib, and I’m afraid it is. Some things can’t really be explained.
Let’s talk about your work. What are the key milestones?
Well, I had great fun working on Motorola. We adopted the name Moto – which was how we used to call Motorola back in Asia before adland had even heard of it. So we decided to use the word Moto in place of Motorola and we sold the “Hello Moto” brand idea at a global pitch in 2000. Working together with Steve Hayden, Chris Wall, Shelly Lazarus, we had enormous fun building the brand. I too worked on the Dove Self Esteem Fund, and Campaign for Real Beauty – in fact I still do. I really dig working with Paco Conde, Anselmo, Fernando Machado – now CMO at Burger King – and our client Steve Miles on Dove Beauty Sketches. I also had huge fun working on Coke’s Share a Coke in 2013, when we became the first brand ever to put people’s names on products. A whole tsunami of copycats ensued. It was as if we’d opened the floodgates of putting names on products. Today, Share a Coke is running in more than 70 countries and Coke will be the first to admit to you that it’s the most impactful communication idea they’ve done thus far. It’s dialed up Coke’s brand saliency big-time and brought them back to the black many times over. It’s fun to see when your idea makes a huge impact on business at scale.
Ogilvy does great work for big clients, especially for Coke and Dove. They are really hugely ambitious ideas. When you started your career in advertising, what kind of role did ambition play?
The same role that it plays today, and has always played in any business. It’s very hard to rise, to keep the flame burning when you have countless setbacks. You need a burning ambition to power you on your way. It’s the rocket fuel. I guess I was very fortunate to see the scale of those wins, the impact on sales, on the bottom line, and how it connected with people and moved hearts and minds, especially with the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, Dove Beauty Sketches, with Share a Coke, and with Burger King. The success of these becomes your rocket fuel. It spurs you on.
Could fear be a motivating force for your creativity?
I’m not sure. I think in a limited sense, yes, it helps you meet deadlines. But in the bigger picture, I don’t think any negative emotion is helpful to creativity. Fear, if it’s a general background to your work, will be inimical to your ability to create.
Did you always ask for approval?
I think we are brought up from a very early age to seek approval. It starts in the cradle when your parents encourage you to crawl, and carries on through school. We all seek praise from teacher. It’s probably not a good thing, but it is how we are all conditioned. Fear kills irreverence. The irony is, you need a massive dose of irreverence in order for you to create.
Is creativity a reaction against boredom?
You know, I don’t think so, because my feeling is creativity is a fundamental aspect of the human condition, and it has been with us since the dawn of time. Indeed, it is a very reason we have risen to the heights we have, as opposed to the rest of the animal world. And I think – though I may be completely wrong on this – boredom is very much a modern invention. I don’t think our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the savannah complained to each other about boredom. I don’t think they expected to be entertained, or have constant distraction, the way we do.
Some years ago, you invited your great friend Malcolm McLaren and me to give a talk at the Ogilvy creative director’s conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka. You also managed to invite Sir Arthur C. Clarke. How important is the exchange of knowledge and ideas at conferences for the creative output of an agency?
I would say it’s vital but almost no one ever does it. Perhaps I can use an analogy to demonstrate. Imagine you were in charge of a school sports team, a soccer team perhaps. You have the cream of the school playing for you and you are training them. Then you invite for a training session some top professionals, real superstars from the first division. In playing alongside those professionals the kids do not just learn things they didn’t know before, they will learn there is a level way beyond what they could have imagined. Once they have seen that level, they can aspire to it. Previously, they did not know it even existed. It’s about being forced out of your comfort zone.
Sir Martin Sorrell, who successfully built WPP, has left. What will change for Ogilvy after his departure?
We will miss Martin. I certainly will. Ogilvy is a strong enterprise, we have great people, and we have an incredibly robust culture. We will keep doing the great work. We will keep producing mold-breaking ideas to help our clients solve their business problems. We will want to impact sales and build their brands. So, steady as she goes!
Why are you creative?
Ha ha, have you asked a musician or a composer this question? They’ll say that’s because they like to make music.
In my case, I think it’s because I like to make cool stuff. I like to play, and I have a promiscuous curiosity with a chronic attraction to problems. That’s a blessing and a curse.