Reflections by Mike Fromowitz: The rise and fall of the creative bar

In which the author watches Asia become a destination for creative people with “fire in their bellies”, only to see some key markets lose their way in more recent times.

I was working in Toronto Canada for Scali McCabe Sloves, a hot American agency, when the phone call came from Ogilvy’s Michael Ball in New York. Within days I was being interviewed in their plush new offices. After an hour with Michael Ball, and 15 jaw-dropping minutes with David Ogilvy, I was seduced. I was now the new creative director of Meridian (Hong Kong)—Ogilvy’s second Pacific-area network, started by Michael Ball, who valued the Pacific Basin as the growth area of the future. The following month, my wife and I and our two kids got on a Cathay flight and landed in the territory—two days before the massive Typhoon Ellen hit, causing extensive damage.

The author (left) with Meridien (Hong Kong) colleagues Anna Lam (art director), and Graham Button.

The author (left) with Meridian colleagues Anna Lam and Graham Button.

Hong Kong ran on a potent mixture of high octane energy and adrenalin, day and night, and an unquenchable thirst for money, power and status. On the other hand, the ad industry seemed stuck. In 1983 there wasn’t much great work being done in the territory, nor Asia for that matter. The big agency names were there: Leo Burnett, Y&R, JWT, DDB, McCann, and Ogilvy. There were also hundreds of small, one or two man shops: Wonderous Advertising, Lucky Advertising, and Bountiful Advertising. TV and print were all about fancy production values—solid ideas were far and few. “Brand building” was unknown to most clients. Theirs was a trading-house mentality, perhaps built in to their DNA. They wanted immediate sales—pure and simple.

In 1986, the insightful and charismatic Michael Ball bought Meridian and its seven offices, renaming the group The Ball Partnership. Two years later, the company was winning awards around the globe, adding major new business and being declared by its peers as “one of the world’s most creative agency brands”. In 1989, the Hong Kong office was named Advertising Age’s International Agency of the Year (runner up)—a first for Asia. It brought the agency more recognition worldwide. That, along with great creative work being done in Singapore and several other regional offices under the leadership of Neil French, made The Ball Partnership one of Asia’s legendary ad agencies.

By the 1990s, it had become easier to do great work, and big agencies could see that a high creative standard among smaller agencies could pose a significant threat. I joined Bates (then BSB) as Regional CD with the mandate to turn the agency into a creative shop and make the necessary changes for growth throughout all departments. By 1992, Media magazine selected Bates as Asia’s Advertising Agency of the Year. Creatives like Steve Elrick, Phil Marchington, Andy Lish, Rowen Chanen and Ben Hunt as well as management like Chris Jaques and Jeffrey Yue, helped make it all happen. Asia had become a destination for creative people with fire in their bellies.

The author today

                                                           The author today

In 1996, Ian Batey hired me to his now legendary Asian-grown agency Batey Ads. His Hong Kong office was in trouble. The following year, the year of the handover to China, the agency had cleaned up in the 4As awards and was now the top creative shop in the territory. Batey Singapore was also on fire under CD Jim Aitchison, and the world was taking notice. By the time I joined TBWA Asia Pacific as its first regional creative director in 2000, there was not an international awards show that did not feature a wide selection of great Asian work.

Fast forward 10 years. I believe some key ad markets have lost their way. Talented people are leaving centres like Hong Kong, or leaving the industry altogether. Others are starting their own agencies in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. Now we are looking to places like China and India for breakout creative. I believe the creative bar has slipped. Ideas are far and few. Everyone is more focused on data and technology, and fancy (computer generated) production ideas.

Is it possible to turn these fortunes around? I believe so. What hasn’t changed is that our business is still all about people, talented people. And ideas. Ideas don’t come from technology and data, they come from creative minds. We need more inspired creative people to play a bigger role in their agencies. Our industry is driven by entrepreneurship, and the very product we call creativity.

Mike Fromowitz is President and Chief Brand Officer of Mantra Partners, and a blogger for Campaign Asia-Pacific.


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