Worldwide CD of O&M and this year’s Film and Press Jury president, Tham Khai Meng, boasts an extraordinary, 26-year career, winning awards for work on huge brands such as IBM, Unilever and Amex. Yet he will, initially, be judging Cannes entries as ‘an ordinary person in the street’. In this excerpt from issue 136, Khai reveals why he's relishing the week's role.
If you’re choosing a president of Film and Press at Cannes, you might as well plump for someone who really does have a global reach, whose work has won awards and built brands worldwide. No surprise, then, that one of the busiest men in the business – who must have clocked up more air miles than Air Force One – has been appointed this year’s president of two of the biggest categories in the festival. As worldwide creative director at Ogilvy & Mather (can that all fit onto one business card?) Tham is rarely in one place for long. One thing you can rely on, though, is that what he says and does lingers. And he’s relishing the challenge that being president entails.
“It’s a huge job, and I’m excited and thrilled,” he says, talking from his offices in New York. “I’ve been on the jury three times, and this is the first time I’m presiding over it. I’m certainly looking forward to it, and it’s going to be a great show. I’ve seen some great work this year.” Connecting via a stuttering Skype link, he brandishes some proof prints of his shoot for shots, in which he truly does enter the lion’s den. “I want the picture to say, ‘I understand lions’, that I get lions,” he laughs, still excited by the experience. “We were there the whole day to get this shot.” Tham in formal eveningwear, the lion – well, more casual. “One side of the trousers we had sew up again, because the lion swiped it with his paw, just playing. A good thing I had my long johns on…”
Shot in Glen Falls in Upstate New York with an experienced animal trainer – should your blockbuster require both wolves and camels, he is your man – Tham confesses to some nervousness during the shoot. Who wouldn’t be, with the trainer’s wife standing by with a pitchfork? “Even the trainer’s afraid of the lion,” he exclaims. “So can you imagine, me?” The lion’s less than reassuring name, he adds, is Beast.
A beast in the advertising field
As one of the big beasts of advertising, Tham’s career is a masterclass in brand-building and the complex simplicity at the heart of great creativity. He was born in Singapore and educated in Britain, where he entered the world of communications. “I started my career in print, at 13,” he says. “It was through the school magazine. I would stay back late to write the articles that went into it, the essays, the snaps from cover to cover, and I shot and edited some films. I mucked about with it, basically. I had just turned 13, with not a care in the world. I had found my sandbox.”
He studied at St Martins, and took an MA in film and art history at the Royal College, where his tutors included David Hockney and Derek Boshier. “I was taught ‘idea is king.’ That still holds true today and will never change.” And what the industry has taught him is that “if it doesn’t embody a business proposition, then it’s not an idea”.
His first placement was with Leo Burnett in London, before leaving for Singapore to direct Singapore Airlines’ account for Batey. When he returned to Ogilvy in 2000, he was one of the key power players in the rise of its Asia arm, ensuring that more than 50 per cent of the company’s gold, silver and bronze hardware came from his offices. Now, as its worldwide CD, he is tasked with overseeing more than 18,000 people across 450 offices. He’s also in command of the Worldwide Creative Council, a cadre of the company’s most successful and powerful, a kind of SMERSH of creativity.
And for their annual general meeting, this year that cadre moved to Machu Picchu in Peru, staying at the 16th-century Hotel Monasterio in Cuzco before taking a 6am train to the ruins. Not a bad spot for an office meeting. “We connected at a very high level; to be precise, at 3,000 metres,” he laughs. “When you get 50 of our elite creatives together in one place and each one is firing on all six cylinders, it can be pretty unforgettable. The power of imagination and the power of transformation is multiplied a hundredfold.
He’s only just got back. “It is astoundingly beautiful,” he says. “You arrive into a clearing in the rainforest, and beyond that, you see Machu Picchu, below. I’ve taken some amazing pictures. And the Incas were there for just a hundred years. No one knows why they left. It is a mystery – and probably a lesson for us, actually. It’s like the art of creation; it’s still a mystery to many of us. To me it is, anyway.”
Subscribers to shots.net can access the full interview here, alternatively you can pick up a free copy of the new shots magazine, the Cannes special, in the Palais.