Cannes 2012

Five Pre-Cannes Questions With Ogilvy CCO Tham Khai Meng

The Film and Press Jury President Dishes on Great Ideas and Developing Markets

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Tham Khai Meng jokes that he agreed to the job in a "moment of weakness."

He's not talking about his current post as the New York-based worldwide chief creative officer for Ogilvy & Mather, but the notoriously time-consuming job as jury president for both the film and print categories at the Cannes Lion International Festival of Creativity in June.

Tham Khai Meng
Tham Khai Meng

The Singapore native has been with Ogilvy since 2000 and speaks passionately about the role of creativity in not only advertising, but in changing cultures.

He points to a campaign last year in Tunisia, the north African country where the Arab Spring originated. The country came to an economic standstill after its government was overthrown in January. To motivate Tunisians to go back to work, Memac Ogilvy Label collaborated with six clients and five media outlets. They pretended it was June 16, 2014, and presented a country that was prosperous and thriving. The campaign won a Gold Media Lion at Cannes.

"We should do more than sell soap powders. This is the type of thing ad agencies should have a role in ... and that 's the challenge," Mr. Tham said. "You made the profit, so now what. Right? It's give-back time."

Ad Age : How do you define a great idea?
Mr. Tham: I liken it to a Trojan horse, where you get into the audience's defenses and, wow, before you know it they've overtaken your entire town. Don't forget in advertising you're always an interruption in peoples' lives. In press, in magazines, digital, it's never quite welcomed and people have very busy lives really. You've got to sugar coat the pill with what I call a Trojan horse, to get into the audience's defenses and when the penny drops -- you look at the ad, you love it, you are entertained, you laugh -- which is all emotional reaction -- that 's where you build the connectivity.

Ad Age : What's the biggest threat to creativity in advertising?
Mr. Tham: Fear of trying new approaches and also the short lives of CMOs in our clients. They last three years at most. A new CMO comes in, they want to change the strategy, that 's the first thing they change. Then they change the agency. Constantly battling, pitching, starting over again when you should have long-term goals, stick to the brand image and get the research to measure effectiveness and creativity. It's what we call twin peaks -- effectiveness on one side and great work on one side. How do you measure that ? You can measure effectiveness through sales. How do you measure great work? Through awards. If you go to Cannes, clients are going there by the droves.

Ad Age : As president of the film and print categories, what do you want Cannes hopefuls to know about the work you'd like to see?
Mr. Tham: I'd love to see big brands' work being awarded, so there's a degree of difficulty. When you talk about big brands, it's the Unilevers of this world, the Coca-Colas of this world. I love to celebrate the brave ones out there who are deploying great craftsmanship, great ideas, great relevancy to the brand, originality of thinking, to build brands. That's our job. We have to deploy those skill sets. What else? I'd love to see work transcending many categories, new new work.

Ad Age : Marketers are looking to developing countries like China and India for growth. Do you think the center of advertising is also shifting East?
Mr. Tham: It's still too early to say that . The big brands are still residing in America. The big expensive production -- TV, film -- are still dominated by America. ... So yes, people are talking about Asia, China as the new world and the next market for the world.

Ad Age :What's the challenge facing agencies when it comes to building creativity in developing markets?
Mr. Tham: The middle class has money to spend in big countries like India and China. It's a consumerist society and because of that , whatever you put out that 's price-driven seems to sell. Because it's selling and people have money to buy, in the short term you're not building the brand. It's price-driven. So to truly build the brand you've got to get back to the insights, what the brand stands for. That's the long term. Short-term-driven price points, that doesn't build the brand. The price is not the idea. A celebrity is not the idea either.