Back Chat with Ogilvy & Mather's Tham Khai Meng: 'The practice of divine discontent is a very healthy one'

We chew the fat with Ogilvy & Mather worldwide chief creative officer Tham Khai Meng, who talks Cannes, divine discontent, 24-bit music and ending poverty.

How are you and what’s keeping you busy?

I am well, thank you. It feels like Groundhog Day. I’ve been coming here [Cannes] for 18 years now and I have seen it change big time, with more categories, clients and more people. I’ve been working with Monica Lewinsky, who we invited to come and talk for the Ogilvy Inspired series. She is such a brave, courageous and passionate woman who has become a social activist around cyber bullying – a cause we believe in very much.

Also keeping me busy is the work, the clients who are becoming all the more demanding, technology – there is not enough virtual reality work which is pushing the frontier. What I would love to see is video getting more exploratory.

What is your biggest gripe at the moment?

Bravery and courage from certain quarters – not that we are not brave, but we are trying to hold our clients’ hands and take them to explore further into new territories and they see that as the new frontier.

Also, work. We are limited by our imagination and David Ogilvy has always taught us divine discontent, so we are never happy with the work. You can’t ever be happy because we are all creative people at heart and how can you be happy with a piece of work that you have given birth to? The practice of divine discontent is a very healthy one. Or you can just say we are all miserable bastards.

What have you been enjoying in life?

I love music and I have discovered 24-bit music, that is studio quality in-ear monitors. Besides work it is also enjoyment; very much part of exploring your new senses. I say new because the in-ear monitors are built for the ear canal so it’s unlike anything you have ever heard before.

And what are you working on that is closest to your heart?

There are so many things that I have my hands on. Coca-Cola, for example, with its ‘Drinkable’ ad, and Unilever with the ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’, where we are working on the latest iteration. We are also working with a lot of clients such as Nascar and Kronenbourg on some great TV spots.

Just as you think it has all been done before, something comes along and you think ‘wow I never thought of that, let’s do it!’ You are in a constant state of discovery, which really keeps you alive. You have got to be very alive in this business.

When an idea comes to you and it makes you smile or gives you a laugh, connects with you on a very deep level and turns you, that is totally rewarding, you want that all the time. It’s so inspiring that it’s almost like someone breathes life into you... then you start connecting all kinds of ideas in your mind as well. All ideas are there waiting to be connected.

If you had unlimited power and resources what would you change?

I would love to change poverty. I would love to help that cause where you take the world’s richest resources and channel that into the poorest places and wipe out, perhaps, malaria, which is a big cause of poverty. That’s doable but it’s not being achieved. It would take a long time but with inhibited power you can set that right. This industry can help in a huge way because you have the influencers and the creative resources here. There is some amazing talent in the world and you can harness that energy to do good. Wouldn’t that be incredible?

What’s your last word on the industry?

This industry has everything in it – yes, we call it communication, because advertising is too small a word and you want to invent another word, but let’s not do that. It’s communication, it’s entertainment, it’s user experience. I would say this is about everything. You have storytelling on one hand and deep, immersive experience on the other. Then you have broadcasting right at the top and narrowcasting, and right in the middle you have the sweet spot where you try and nail it and try to connect and make a change for the better – for brands and for this world. So how do you sum that up? You can’t in a few words. That’s the best I can do.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 8 July issue.

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