Going Straight To The Heart

A man opens the door of a capsule on the edge of space and sees Earth, a big, blue marble a harrowing 128,000 feet below. His ascent in a helium-filled balloon had taken two hours, followed by millions on the internet and on TV.

As he gets ready to jump back to earth, he says: “Sometimes you have to be really high to understand how small you are. I’m going home now.” This was no paid advertisement, but a record-breaking skydive by Austrian extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner. It was also an advertising coup by energy drink company Red Bull, says Singaporean advertising guru Tham Khai Meng.

The mission cost an estimated US$30 million, but Red Bull had told the adrenaline-pumping story of its brand in a single, breathtaking stunt – generating immense publicity in the process.

Mr. Tham, who is Worldwide Chief Creative Officer of the world’s third largest advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, says: “It was big news everywhere. People talked about it. Papers all covered it. Did Red Bull spend US$30 million on advertising? No. They spent it on a controlled mission.”

This year’s Outstanding Chief/Senior Executive (Overseas) award winner at the Singapore Business Awards was not on the team behind that project, but he has, in his 32-year career, helped build some of the biggest brands in the world. Singapore Airlines, American Express, Coca-Cola, Heinz, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Unilever are some of the names in his portfolio.

He is the first worldwide Asian Chief Creative Officer of any Western international holding company or global agency network. Speaking by phone from New York, where he is now based, he tells The Business Times that the most effective advertisements tug at the heartstrings.

Brands are built by consistently telling stories that touch people, he says, giving examples from SIA’s Singapore Girl to the campaigns in which he was involved for Unilever and IBM.

Recent research reports show that creative, emotional advertisements are outperforming fact-based ones, and this effect is getting more pronounced. “It’s all about emotion. If something makes you laugh, you remember it. If something tickles your toes, you will remember it,” he says.

Singapore Girl

Mr. Tham, the third of four children of an engineer and a housewife, displayed an aptitude for artistic expression at an early age. His parents encouraged him to record how he saw the world. “My mates in school were given sheets of paper to write and paint on. I was given large white walls at home to make my marks,” he says.

He studied at the Anglo-Chinese School and ran the school magazine. Later, he studied graphic design at London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where he graduated with a first-class degree. He then got a UK scholarship to study film and the history of art at the Royal College of Art in London.

Soon after, he was working at communications firm Leo Burnett in London and Chicago, and then came back to its Singapore office in 1985.

Two years later, he joined advertising firm McCann-Erickson, and then Ogilvy & Mather Singapore in 1988.

He was part of the team that won the Singapore Airlines Cargo account, but in the following year, he was invited to join homegrown ad agency Batey Ads to work on the Singapore Airlines account itself. By 1996, he was the Executive Creative Director there. “Some of my fondest memories in advertising are connected to the Singapore Girl. My journey in advertising started with her,” he recalls.

His office was in a Chinatown side street, where a touch of chaos rules. The office had a resident chicken, the pet of a copywriter.

Outside it was Chinatown, busy like a Chinese restaurant kitchen. It smelled like one too. “Every morning, I had to step over an ocean of sea cucumbers drying on the pavement, squeaking past a Chinese barber cleaning some person’s ear. At that time, we worked on gut feel, instinct, we took chances, we took risks, didn’t ponder too deeply about things. And the client trusted us”.

At Batey, he worked on many campaigns, including the launches of SIA’s Sydney, New York, Toronto routes, its First Class and its Krisworld in-flight entertainment system. “We would scour the world for creative stars and the greatest film directors to shoot the commercials. It was one of the toughest agencies to work at. You’re as good as your last ad…If you’re not doing your best work, you’re fired. Simple as that,” he says.

‘People say prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. I think they are wrong. Storytelling is. Our forefathers used to sit around campfires and caves, telling stories. Till today they’re still doing it.’

– Tham Khai Meng

To read the rest of The Business Times article, click here.

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