News & Views

Interview / Tham Khai Meng

by Contagious Team

Ogilvy & Mather's worldwide chief creative officer speaks to Contagious about retaining the Network of the Year title at Cannes Lions 2013

Implementing change 

I've been in this job for four years, since January 2009, but it takes time to move the tanker around. I like to think that we are 10% through the turning circle, at least. The first thing you have to think about is the culture. Not that I'm new to Ogilvy, I was working in the Singapore office, looking after 45 offices in Asia. 

The five year plan 
Peter Drucker said: 'Culture eats strategy for lunch.' I love that. So when I first came in I did a five year plan for the agency. Like all plans, they have to be audacious. So I thought, let's try and see if we can be number one. I charted our growth with all the other offices around the world and we were lying in sixth position at every show. I turned the graph upside down, so we became number one, and I've used this upside down chart in presentations and said, we will get there in five years time, at Cannes. And we did, last year, so we're two years ahead of the five year plan. So when you're two years ahead of the plan, what do you do? You panic, don't you? Oh shit, what are you going to do now? It's like a blank piece of paper, you've got to start all over again. But here's the thing - it's not like Formula One, it's like you're an athlete, back on the starting block with everyone else, every single year. But what we have is momentum and the people. So you attract more talent. 

Pervasive Creativity

I coined the term 'pervasive creativity'. It means that everyone in the organisation is creative - the planners, the account servicing, the executive assistants, and the administrators. Everyone is creative. As my friend [Sir] Ken Robinson once said, 'creativity is educated out of you'. It's so true. You go to school and get hammered on the head by the teacher for doing something wrong. So you conform in school and pass tests. Then you go to high school and university. Then you go to work and listen to your boss. Creativity is killed all the way throughout the organisation. How do you unleash that again? That is the million dollar question. So we're trying to do that, we're grappling with that. Allowing people to absolutely fail, but fail quickly, because you don't have much time. You've got to fail on the first or second day, you can't fail on the last day. You've got to think like those think like those men and women in Silicon Valley: fail, then the success stories come after that. It's a lot of hard work really, there's no silver bullet. 

So many briefs come into the agency - I want them to be creative. The client should be creative, every discipline in our organisation should be creative. Ogilvy One, Media, PR, Red Works, Digital. We have so many disciplines and so many silos. But forget about that for a minute because I liken creativity to water. It's everywhere. But you cannot keep and contain water because one day the dam will break, or the bank will burst. It will flood the land, it's out of your control. That's the danger. You see that a bit in Tunisia and the Arab Spring. That's part of the creativity, that's how I see it. You've got to let it out slowly.

I'm a big believer in creativity measurements. I started in 2006 and my colleagues dubbed it Kai's Creative Metrics, and we shortened it to KCM. We've just launched it. It's the first from any agency, it's bigger than the Gunn Report. We measure our work verses the competition, as well as our work verses other work we do. KCM contains 27,000 pieces of work. While our people are here in Cannes, they could be doing the same thing, looking at the work through KCM. This is something game changing. These kind of things help, but there's no formula. It's not as straightforward as I make it out to be. It's about emotion. How do you measure that? Storytelling will be with us forever, but the industry that I went into 25 or 26 years ago has changed drastically. 

Emotion and changing culture

Emotion plays such a big role. How do you change culture in an emotional way that will make you remember something? What really wins here and at other award shows? Single-minded emotion. If you want to be funny, be very, very, very, funny. Be hilarious. Rip roaringly, fall down on the floor funny. It's got to be that. You want to be shocking? Shock me then. I've been shocked many times. I'm jaded. I'm cynical. Shock me. You want to make me sad? You've got to make me cry. So we've got to have the courage to stick to that. Hold the client's hand and say 'it's alright, it's only an idea, don't be frightened of it.' We have our Philips, Unilever, UPS, Coca-Cola, Mondelez, IBM and SC Johnson clients here [at Cannes]. I love it when clients come here. They're part of pervasive creativity. They should be here looking at work, asking 'what's innovation', how do you drive this industry further? How do you change the game? How do you change culture? I think together we are so powerful, we don't realise it. 

With Dove Sketches, we're trying to change culture. That strategy has been with us since 2007, when we picked up two Grand Prix for Evolution and now we've come back in a big way. Clients are part of the same tribe as us. Why shouldn't they be here learning with us? There's something about the air, the water, the lack of sleep, the competition. When Coke wins marketer of the year, everyone wants to be Coke. We helped Coke win that, if I may say so. I don't meant to gloat, but we picked up 16 Lions for them last year; W+K won five, and Mother won one. But that's the end of the process. Until someone comes up with a better way to measure creativity, I think Cannes is one of the best ways. So are the effectiveness awards too, which we picked up for Coke. 


We're big fans of effectiveness awards, because we believe that's what we are here for: ultimately it's sales. It's a business. You can't convince yourself that you're a poet or an artist. You're not Damien Hirst. Our office in Brazil is doing well, Paris is doing well, London is coming along, as is Amsterdam. Don't forget, it's all very well to have a network, but how do you use it? It's like having a Ferrari: are you driving it? 

When I came to Sao Paulo nothing was happening - it didn't win any Lions 2008 [this year Ogilvy's Sao Paulo office won 34 Lions]. I visited and said: 'Let's make it happen, shall we?' You've got to roll up your sleeves and work with the people, get them fired up, drive it. Then I got in the Latino boys from Bogota, Panama City, and Guatamala. We went from office to office looking at the work, commenting on it, just rubbing the work up. And you've got to be very careful. Someone said to me once: how do porcupines make love? I said: carefully. Because you don't want to upset anybody's ego, so you've got to say it's not about you it's about the work. Don't worry, let's talk about the work. You have to separate that. Some people still get hurt, but you can't help that. It can be quite tough, some of the time. So by 2010, Sao Paulo had won ten Lions, in 2011 it was 11, 2012 it was 16 and this year we have already beaten that. [Ogilvy Brasil went on to win agency of the year at Cannes 2013]. 

The Ogilvy Cadre 

The Cadre was a military term from China. The Ogilvy Cadre is our top offices, started by Neil French, who hired me. Our top 10 offices were in the Cadre. The usual suspects are there: London, Paris, Singapore. I expanded it to 15 offices, then the next fifteen, then the C league, then the no-hopers. But the no-hopers, because of one campaign, can move up the chart, but then they want to stay there. We've got Sydney and Bogata, and they want to keep their seats. I set a target. I think that's my job. You've got to be setting goals. For our clients: great work. It's always about the work. But then help. There's no point setting goals without help, so we send in doctors and nurses and polish up the work, change the strategy sometimes. And the work that we see winning here has its start early on. It didn't get here by itself, this polished, this emotional. It's bringing everyone along. The higher achievers should be leading the way and helping the lower achievers, and that way we will all be better at whatever we're doing. The strong must help the weaker. And the weaker ones are all ears, they're eager. They want to learn. It's fun, actually. Don't tell anybody that, but it's fun. There's no point in navel gazing - you can't do that. I suppose it's about the fame. People talk about the social aspect, the talkability. In the end it's about the fame. 

Young Lions 

I'm speaking to the Young Lions this week and telling them that it's actually a very tough business. You've got to put in the hours and earn your keep. Don't expect to rock up to Cannes and win a gold after just a year. There are easier things than advertising. They may be less rewarding or less fulfilling, but there are easier things to do. It's ironic because the best ideas are the most simple ideas. Like our IBM posters - straight up strategy: A smarter planet. Posters that double as a ramp or a seat or a shelter. We saw that in Kenya at a Cadre meeting. We brought the team in and hot-housed it, garage-style.