Mad Men go global

Why the next big idea in advertising is going to come from the Brics rather than Madison Avenue
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The Independent Online

The advertising business isn't what it was. The Mad Men no longer reign supreme on Madison Avenue, they say. But Tham Khai Meng, the top creative at the world's biggest ad agency group Ogilvy & Mather, with blue-chip clients such as Coca-Cola, IBM, Unilever and Louis Vuitton, is keen to show ad men can still be unpredictable. The photo Ogilvy suggests The Independent could use is a snap of him in a sharp suit with a lion. It's a surprise because Khai, as he is universally known in the ad industry, is so laid-back and softly spoken in person.

But then the worldwide chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather, which employs around 18,000 in 450 offices, believes if his clients want their advertising to have an impact, it must provoke a reaction. "By making someone laugh or cry, someone will remember that brand by virtue of the fact it has connected with that person," says Khai. "There's a fundamental belief in all creatives that it has worked if it connects with you. It's cutting across the clutter because it's memorable."

However, relying on creative instinct is becoming harder when clients are demanding measurement and data. Money is tight, and the global landscape is changing fast. Advertisers are struggling to get "cut-through" as all of us are bombarded with images and ideas in the internet age.

What's more, the old bastions such as London and New York no longer have a monopoly on great creativity. The Brics — Brazil, Russia, India and China — and other emerging markets are bursting with talent and confidence, says Khai.

He is well qualified to judge given his globe-trotting job and background. Born to Chinese parents and raised in Singapore, he trained at Central St Martin's in London and lives in New York, the global HQ for Ogilvy, founded by legendary British ad man David Ogilvy in 1948 and bought by Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP in 1989.

Khai is president of the jury for the most prestigious awards at the Cannes Lions, the annual week-long festival of advertising work, which kicks off this weekend in France. That means he has been looking at the best film, TV and press advertising from agencies around the world.

"Just as you think everything's been done before, it never ceases to amaze what comes out, especially with new technology," enthuses the 50-year-old father of two, on a flying visit to London.

There are 6500 entries for the press category at the Lions, an increase of a fifth on last year. "I think print is certainly not dead," says Khai, who believes the surge in entries demonstrates that the past 12 months, before the eurozone turmoil of the last month, were a good year for business. "You see the lag," he says, explaining that when the economy recovered in 2010, it gave clients the confidence to invest in 2011, with the fruits of that work being submitted for this year's Lions.

Many of the smartest ideas are coming from unexpected places: Peru, Tunisia, Frankfurt and Vienna. He singles out an Ogilvy campaign from Tunisia, called The Return of Ben Ali, which ran on the first anniversary of the ousting of the country's autocratic ruler, Ben Ali, in the Arab Spring.

"They had a huge poster like you'd see on a building in Soho in New York City, hanging five storeys high. It was a picture of Ben Ali and it's flapping slightly in the wind, it's not plastered down. And you wondered, 'Will the people tear that down?' Well, the crowd seized it and pulled it down and behind that poster was another poster and it says: 'If you're not careful, Ben Ali will return. Vote now.' People saw the ad, they started texting and putting it on Facebook. It activated the country before the election and there was 88 per cent turnout."

Khai makes the point that it went beyond advertising. "Is it a poster? Is it press? Is it digital? Great ideas go across all boundaries. At its best, it can change culture, it can change governments."

Another campaign he rates was for Coca-Cola in Argentina. The drinks brand wanted to celebrate a local festival, Friendship Day, and combine it with Coke's global theme of "open happiness". Ogilvy created a dispensing machine with a slot 10 feet off the ground. This meant you needed to stand on the shoulders of a friend to get a drink. Once again, the point was that consumers would take photos with their phones, post it on social media and share it with friends.

The Lions used to be called an advertising festival but it is now a festival of creativity, a nod to the fact that paid-for ads are no longer so important in the era of Facebook and Twitter.

Yet Khai maintains press and film matter because they are "an emotional medium" and that is "something you can't get with digital". He loves print. "In a sense it's one of the hardest to do, because it's just a white piece of paper and you can put amazing ideas into it." Film has "got narrative, it's got music, it's palpable. It moves people from A to B in 30 seconds or 60 seconds."

The ad industry gets criticised for doling out awards like confetti but Khai maintains they matter. "It's been proven that awarded work sells 11 times more than non-awarded work. We have reams of data that show that when something wins a Gold Lion, it is also gold for clients. It's something that creatives have known all along, but finally we've got proof."

Khai's time in London was transformative. Growing up in Singapore was "constrictive" but his engineer father encouraged him to study in England. Central St Martin's was a revelation as he learnt about art, film and design. "Finally, I thought I'm with my own people, creative people. Everyone is as crazy as you are," he laughs.

Being in London in the 1980s, a heyday for British advertising, also prompted him to be an ad man. He joined Ogilvy in 2000 and rose to the top creative role in 2009.

Khai acknowledges it's a challenge to ensure an organisation as vast as Ogilvy stays edgy. The most senior creatives meet several times a year, when they pore over the work. The latest pow-wow was at a remote 17th-century monastery in Peru.

He also has what Ogilvy calls the "cadre" of top 15 creative directors. Membership is based on how many awards their team has won in the past year. "Some offices do drop out of the cadre," he says, noting Bangkok was recently axed. "It sends a message to all our people that the work matters."