Ogilvy's Tham Khai Meng lays bare his alternative Cannes Lions themes

Elliott Haworth
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Tham Khai Meng (Source: O&M)

Over the phone to New York, I caught up with Tham Khai Meng, co-chairman and worldwide chief creative officer at Ogilvy and Mather, to get an industry snapshot before we all head off to Cannes Lions in a few weeks time.

What is the biggest issue presently facing the creative and advertising industry? (and why?)

I think it’s easy to say that the landscape is changing so fast with all the new channels and technological possibilities. We have to reinvent ourselves, basically. And there’s the increasing fragmentation of brands, in this new multi-channel world, it just adds to the confusion. It’s exciting – but confusing. But we have to remember this is a great business, if it wasn’t, then there wouldn’t be so many people trying to get into it, and grow in it. Look, the private equity firms: Deloitte, PwC, Mckinsey’s, or Google, Facebook, Amazon. So many are trying to get in. So yes, we have to face challenges, and everyone does, but that’s no reason for despair, quite the opposite, so, I’m confident we will overcome this confusion.

So yes, we have to face challenges, and everyone does, but that’s no reason for despair, quite the opposite, so, I’m confident we will overcome this confusion.

Much of the focus this year will revolve on the future of advertising – AI, AR, VR, and various other acronyms. But is technology always an enabler, or will it eventually impede creativity?

I think it really comes down to the ambition of the creative person. Because if you allow yourself to become dazzled by the tech – to think that the shiny new stuff is a replacement for creativity – then creativity is dead. But I think we will regard the new digital frontiers as a springboard for creative brilliance. The new world being opened up could yield endless possibilities – if we are up for the challenge.

Part of the script from the film Sunspring, written by AI (Source: Sunspring)

With robots and AI already dominating the conversation, how is its increasing prevalence going to change award winning work in 2025?

Well it’s not looking good I tell you. Already this year there’s a new category being announced, did you know that? Award for best work by artificial intelligence. It is part of a five year plan to replace everyone with robots, even the judges. Just kidding. I recently watched the movie Sunspring, the one where the screenplay was written by AI. It was an experiment, it was a bit of fun, but I wouldn’t want to see it again. So I think our jobs are safe for the time being, thank god.

Let’s be hypothetical: If you were in charge of organising Cannes, what is the one thing you would change?

I think I would like to see some sort of forum, or hot-house, or session where clients and creatives could get together. I mean like a hackathon, to discuss briefs and problems. And get an insight to the challenges each side faces. I would love to see the two sides coming together to get some answers before we leave Cannes. It would be mutually beneficial, and a lot more constructive than guest appearances by celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow.

The Glass Lion puts the spotlight on gender issues in advertising, but do you think advertising has a responsibility to use its voice as a force for good?

I feel in fact, quite strongly, that it should, where possible. The amazing thing is, the work we produce gets seen by billions of people – a lot more people see our work then see our glamorous cousins at the Cannes Film Festival! This gives us great power and potential influence. So we have moral responsibility to use it wisely, because of that great influence. And where we can, we should use it for the public good. And there have been quite a few cases of highly-ethical work in recent years at Cannes. I’m particularly proud of our work done for Dove beauty, for example. The client has the courage to buy these ideas, and they also have the balance right between the business and the cause.

Dove's 'Real Beauty Bottles' – Ogilvy (Source: O&M)

Let’s not forget there are also sound business reasons to do this sort of thing. Consumers care about brands that care. So if you can serve your clients business interests, but also make the world a better place – why wouldn’t you? In the past year, we have been working on just such a project, a really exciting one that will be a positive force for good in the world – it’s not pie in the sky, but something that will have a genuine and palpable impact – but it’s not something I can reveal to you just yet, sorry, you’ll have to wait for Cannes!

Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.

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