(This article was first published in the Jan-Feb 2009 edition of Aurora)
MARIAM ALI BAIG: Talking about the agency of the future, one encounters the view that creative departments are irrelevant because everybody in the agency should be part and parcel of the ‘creative’. Do you think the role of the creative director is under attack?
TAY GUAN HIN: Not in my experience, because what comes out of the agency is the creative product. I mean creativity is everything, but how you perceive creativity is up to you. It could be bad creative, good creative, inspiring creative or client-written creative. In the context of a creative department, maybe what is not well-defined are people’s roles; those are merging together.
MAB: Does this pose a problem?
TGH: It is less of a problem in a big company than in a small company, where the same people are handling different things. The point is that if there are no clear job descriptions then who is the person who is going to be thinking about creative ideas? If I am supposed to be a strategic thinker, a creative person and I also have to do the client servicing, what you get is someone who is good at nothing.
MAB: The role of the strategic planner seems to be in the ascendant. How does this function coexist with that of the creative?
TGH: It is a team effort. The best way is for everyone to have their own role. However, for things to work cohesively, everyone has to meet regularly as a team, make the client part of that team. But this kind of relationship has to be cultivated.
MAB: In practical terms how does one make the client a part of the team?
TGH: In a normal situation, the client will give the agency the brief and then the agency will go and do its own thing and after three weeks the agency goes back to the client who will look at what the agency has done and say “this is not what we want”. The result is that we have wasted a lot of time. Under our system, the creative and strategy people enter into a discussion with the client before the brief is written, so that we can hear for ourselves what the client really needs to achieve, because sometimes what they write is not what they mean. For some people working with the client means giving in. It means, “they are going to tell us exactly what to do”. What people don’t realise is that if you are working with the client, you have more control, because the client begins to see the idea come together with you. The client then understands what works and what doesn’t. And slowly as the client comes round to your way of thinking, you can start to sell an idea, because it’s not the agency’s idea, it becomes ‘our’ idea.
MAB: How does one ensure a successful ‘presentation’ to the client?
TGH: Normally what happens during a traditional presentation is that you sit across the table from the client. What I do, is to get up and walk round to the client’s side to show him my ideas, and just this act of coming round can sometimes make or break a presentation. Of course if you are dealing with a room full of people, the presenter has to either work the room or focus on the guy who will make the decision; it’s quite strategic. To make the sale you need to remove the impression that there are two different camps. I don’t think people realise how crucial the way you present the work can be, and how a human touch helps.
MAB: Getting to that ‘big’ idea is what agencies strive to achieve. Is there are formula that can help creative people get to that?
TGH: Firstly, the idea needs to be universally understood from an emotional point of view. If I am selling a car, the proposition is that ‘the car is fast’. But fast by itself doesn’t engage you from an emotional point of view. There was an ad for Volkswagen, where a pregnant lady is waiting inside the car, while her husband had gone to buy a hotdog. The message is that the lady, who is about to have her baby, can afford to wait patiently in the car because the Volkswagen is fast. The trick is to turn the product benefit into a human benefit. The second thing is simplicity; the client may want to talk about three benefits, and one way of simplifying this is to find a commonality between the three.
MAB: For example?
TGH: Take a television set. The benefits are good quality picture, good sound and it connects to a new technology. So I combine these three properties and write a simple proposition that goes… “technology so great, you enjoy coming home early”. The third thing is that it has be unexpected in the category. If you are selling a car, what do you normally show? Cars, of course. But if you show a pregnant woman sitting in the car, it takes on a different dimension.
MAB: There’s a debate going on almost everywhere about the need to return to the full-service agency model where media is also integrated. Are you in favour of this?
TGH: I am. The problem from the creative agency perspective is that we are told exactly how many seconds we have, and what has been bought; we have no communication with the media department. Again, it is about cooperation. When people are all under one roof they have to talk to each other. For example, we were working on an account where Mindshare was doing the media placement, the digital was being done by O&M and JWT was doing the above-the-line. So we asked the client if we could contact these partners ourselves, meet them and give our recommendations. In this kind of scenario what happens is that the partners all have to take the ownership of the collaboration. If the other partners are cooperative, we get a good result, if not then we get a bad result. It depends on people working together.
MAB: Creative people are not necessarily digitally plugged in. Is this a problem given that digital will soon be the communication platform of the here and now?
TGH: In the digital world you get people who can put things together digitally but they cannot think creatively; then you get the other extreme, people who can think creatively but cannot put things together digitally. The solution will be the person who can do both. The younger generation are not learning about digital, they are living it and when you live it, all you need to do is understand the concept of creativity and once you grasp that, everything merges. But with this generation, it is still work in progress.
MAB: You are in Pakistan to conduct training in creativity. What are your initial impressions regarding what can be achieved in that area? TGH: I think there is an urge for this country to prove itself. I am also in charge of our Jakarta office and until two years ago, Jakarta had not won anything from a creative point of view, yet this year Jakarta won a Silver Cannes Lion.
MAB: What was the ingredient that turned it around?
TGH: It was the passion, not the talent. The executive creative director there wanted to prove to herself that she could do it, and she just kept at it. It took about two years to make the breakthrough.
MAB: Any other impressions?
TGH: From listening to what people are telling me, I think they are afraid to break out and take risks. I think they need to be more exposed to what is happening out there. This is what I was trying to teach today. Winning a big award or trying to convince the client about an idea is easier than you think. This is a perception I was trying to demystify.