Tham Khai Meng, worldwide chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather, takes an almost ethereal tone when discussing his creative mission for his clients and agency. But that tone underlies the real-world fact that Tham has led Ogilvy to win Network of the Year at the Clio Awards three years running (2012-14) and at Cannes Lions four years in a row (2012-15).
A member of the Ogilvy & Mather worldwide board and executive committee and chairman of Ogilvy & Mather’s worldwide creative council, Tham this year chaired the Clio film jury, which, while selecting gold, silver and bronze winners, did not name an overall Grand Clio winner in the very hot category.
Adweek checked in with Tham about his thoughts on the evolving role of creativity in a transforming business landscape, and about the decision to not award that top film prize.
Adweek: What are the creative highlights of 2015?
Tham Khai Meng: Personally, winning Network of the Year for the fourth year running at Cannes. For the industry, seeing work like “Holograms for Freedom” and “Ice Bucket Challenge“ do so well at Cannes. Work like this is a real game-changer. It means we can stop lying about what we do for a living at parties. You know what I mean. For most of my life, the public has been pretty hostile to advertising; we were up there with bankers and used-car salesmen. It was like the old joke, “Don’t tell my mum I work in advertising; she thinks I’m the piano player in a brothel.” That perception is changing, and work like this is partly the reason.
Any epiphanies or lightning bolts of clarity?
I think it was midway through this year when it suddenly hit me that reality is past its sell-by date. Reality is just so “last century,” it belongs in a museum. But now, like everything else, they found a way to improve it. This was the year when virtual reality finally came of age. The harbinger was Facebook buying Oculus Rift last year. We all knew then the game had got serious. There have been numerous forays into VR in the past, but the technology wasn’t mature enough. Now it is, and suddenly we have a new world to put our messages in. The possibilities are breathtaking.
What is igniting passion, and the resolve to express it, in Ogilvy’s youngest creatives?
There is definitely something big in the air, a palpable sense that we are standing on the threshold of epoch-making change. There have been so-called golden ages before, quite a few, but this feels different. Both the emergence of the digital technologies and the game-changing rise of social media are potent enough, but combined with the undreamed of possibilities of VR and AI, 3-D printing, robotics … it seems anything is now possible. If you can dream it, you can make it. Creatives have been given the keys to Harry Potter’s spell box.
You recently served as the film jury chair for the Clio Awards. What was that experience like?
As usual, it was a strange mixture of stimulation and exhaustion, watching so many brilliant pieces of creativity on an endless loop. The judges were a fun bunch—smart, savvy and quite argumentative. We certainly all had different points of view, but two things seemed to unite us. We were constantly looking for the nugget of the big idea in the work, and we were looking for rewatchabilty. That is, work that you want to watch over and over again, which makes it shareable. In the past, rewatchability was a bonus, but in the social media age it is essential.
But ultimately, you didn’t name a Grand Clio winner in what one would think is a very hot and important category. Why?
There are so many awards these days, and an ever-widening repertoire of new categories. Against that background, I think it is important not to allow the kudos to get diluted. If the Grand is to mean something, it has to refer to work that towers above all the merely great stuff. It needs to have that special quality, that hugeness that you can’t define but you just feel. Like Sony “Balls” or Cadbury “Gorilla.” We were close, but at the end of the day, you could say we heard plenty of roars but there was no 800-pound gorilla in the room.
Is the notion of craft holding up against the tide of automation flowing over the ad business?
Yes. I think we craftsmen are safe for the time being. Because really, we are just storytellers. When you tell a child a bedtime story, a look of wonder spreads across her face. That same look of wonder was seen in the crowd of the Paris marathon when the African woman [Siabatou Sanneh of Gambia, who carried a jerry can of water on her head and a sign that read “In Africa, women travel this distance every day to get potable water” to bring awareness to the charity Water for Africa] walked by. In all history, there has only been one piece of equipment capable of producing that look: the human heart. So I would say, “Move over, AI. You don’t have feelings. At least not yet.”
Have you been genuinely surprised by anything in the past year?
Lexus Hoverboard. Pure magic! Such clever use of technology. OK, I agree it’s expensive building the skateboard park, and it’s impractical having to cool the hoverboard with liquid nitrogen.…People criticized these things, but they missed the point. The whole thing is about something bigger than practicalities.
If you could snap your fingers and fix one thing about advertising that is getting in the way of progress, what would it be?
Really? I could go on all day. OK, just one: procurement officers. I mean, they are killing creativity; quality of the work is just not something that figures on their radar. They are creative passion killers. It’s like inviting a beautiful girl round for a candlelit dinner and when the bell rings you open the door to find she’s brought along a chaperone.
What’s the best digital creative you’ve seen recently?
The work that has really impressed me in the past year has been the work that changed hearts and minds in the way I described in the first question. In the Burger King “Proud Whopper” ad, for example, one of the girls in the restaurant is heard to say, “A burger has never made me cry before.” I love that line; it really encapsulates what our industry is capable of if we aim high and reach for the stars. Yes, in the past our work may have made people cry for the wrong reasons, but if you can do it for the right reasons, that’s amazing. The same goes for that image of the African woman walking through the Paris marathon with the 20 kg of water on her head. It’s unforgettable. We can’t always work on such lofty briefs, of course, but it’s great when you can. It’s a joy to be associated with an industry that produces such wonders.
How do you keep your focus in such a transforming environment?
Thinking about zombies helps. That’s something I learned long ago, when I first started writing ads and began a lifelong quest for something called the idea. It’s all about the idea, and always will be. When the ad doesn’t have an idea, it’s got no soul—like a zombie. The job always is to find it. Get down the mine shaft and look for the nugget of gold, and don’t come back without it.
What do your most valued creative people at Ogilvy have in common?
The ability to astonish, consistently. Everyone can have a flash in a pan, but it takes genius to do it on a daily basis.
What will be your most daunting creative task in 2016?
The No. 1 problem that faces us every day is growth. Not growth at any cost, but growth through great work. Then, there is the daily struggle to solve our clients’ problems and help build their business against the background of a volatile world with constant disruption and transformation. We have to not only be courageous, but also be eternal optimists. And finally, we have to try and not fall off the high wire. We’ve won much, and done well in the past few years; the need to maintain momentum becomes a source of intense pressure. It’s like walking a high wire with the crowd down below wondering when you’ll fall. All we can do is plow on and remember not to look down. Although occasionally we come down for a while and dance with the clients. That’s something I’ve done at quite a few award shows.
This story first appeared in the issue of Adweek magazine.