Creativity comes first for ad industry’s icon Chris Thomas

Wednesday, 6 August 2014 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Chris Thomas is a global icon in the field of advertising and as the Chairman and CEO of BBDO Asia, Middle East and Africa and the Chairman of Proximity Worldwide, he has led many award-winning teams carrying out advertising campaigns for some of the world’s most well known brands. Under his guidance BBDO Asia has grown to more than 3000 employees in over 15 countries which in 2011, also included Sri Lanka. Their clients include Fonterra, Johnson and Johnson, Mercedes Benz, Visa, and HP among many other global industry giants. The global BBDO network was founded in 1891. With headquarters located in New York, BBDO carries out operations in over 80 countries. They are an industry leader with over a hundred years of experience in marketing and advertising. The worldwide BBDO network is also known as the most awarded agency network in the world with various accolades such as the prestigious Cannes Lion for ‘Network of the Year.’ Chris Thomas met with the Daily FT and shared some of his thoughts on the country’s development and of his future plans for BBDO Lanka during his visit to celebrate their third anniversary. Following are excerpts: By Senuri De Silva Q: What brings you to Sri Lanka? A: It’s a nice place to visit, isn’t it? I’m here to celebrate our third birthday. I’ve been here many times. I’ve been working in the Asia region for eight years and I’ve been here about 10 to 15 times overall. It’s always lovely to be here. In the eight years I’ve been coming here, the country has obviously been developing and growing very rapidly and investing very heavily on infrastructure. Hopefully that momentum will continue and I look forward to seeing it. Q: Why did BBDO decide to expand to Sri Lanka? A: Because of the reasons you would expand to any market. A, we thought that the market would have potential and B, because we have clients who would want our global services and global standards in that market. This is a market that has both those things. Q: What has been the success story of BBDO Lanka going into its fourth year? A: It’s made a very good start. It’s handling four or five big advertisers, Fonterra brand being the largest of those. It’s done some big, famous, talked-about campaigns in Sri Lanka which I think is a good achievement in the first few years. It’s built a scale that makes it credible on pictures and it’s attracted some strong talents who contribute to the office in Sri Lanka and also to the network as a whole. I think it’s done good work, but in three years it’s still the early days and we need to keep doing more. Q: Apart from creativity, what characteristics help create success in this advertising field? A: Nothing matters other than creativity. We never really think about it ‘apart from creativity’. We think about creativity as the driver of our culture, and we think it’s the thing that ultimately we do, that our clients value us for. Creativity is the thing that drives effectiveness. In the end effectiveness is the objective and creativity is our strategy for achieving that objective. The more creative our work is generally, there is a very clear link between that and market place success because it becomes talked about and discussed and it makes the brands famous. Assuming you’ve got the right message and the right audience, context is important but creativity is even more important. Q: In the post-conflict era how important is nation branding for an emerging nation such as Sri Lanka? A: I think it’s really important and I would like to see Sri Lanka doing more of it. One of the most famous campaigns we do in Asia is for the Philippines where two or three years ago we came up with the platform ‘it’s more fun in the Philippines’ which was not an advertising campaign but rather, an articulation of how the nation feels about itself and what people feel about visiting there. So it had a real truth in it which we expressed in a way that the people of the Philippines could contribute to it. It was a very immersive campaign, a digital campaign and a social campaign so that people can contribute their own ideas on how it was more fun in the Philippines but it also revealed the basic truth about the nation that people got engaged with. Sri Lanka is a great country and I would love it to be us, but frankly I’d love somebody to do a similar exercise here because I think it’s a nation that’s got a huge amount to say for itself and that it would be a benefit. Q: What has been the key to the success of BBDO? A: A relentless focus on the work has been the success of BBDO. When people ask us what it is that we do we say, we do the work, the work, the work. You have to be very good at one thing in order to be successful and we are relentlessly focused on being great at work on behalf of the clients all over the world. The nature of that work has dramatically changed. We’ve been in business for over a hundred years. The nature of the way that work is being expressed and the channels through which we express it to the audiences and the way we reach them has dramatically changed but fundamentally the primary purpose is unchanging. We will never change and that’s what we mean by the work the work the work. Q: What do you think of local advertising agencies and what the local talent has to offer globally recognised clients? A: I think the industry needs to work harder on that. When I first started coming here there was a strong local creative award show called the Chillies. I spoke at it in one year and we’ve sent international jury members to help run that. I think that’s very important for the industry and to set standards in the industry. So I think that the industry should make a concerted effort to put that back onto the industry agenda and quickly. I would like to encourage clients to spend more time looking at and thinking about some of the work from other markets. We’ve seen in the last five years, a dramatic increase in the number of clients attending creative award festivals like Cannes and like Spikes and I think that’s great for the industry so a little bit more focus on raising the industry standards would be a good thing. I’d like us to be the first Asian seed to win a gold lion at Cannes and I think that would a good goal for the next few years but I’d love to see Sri Lanka win a gold lion at Cannes and I think that’s an improvement and a part of the recognition for development of the market. Q: What plans do you have for Sri Lankan advertising in the future? A: I don’t have specific plans for the industry but I have specific plans for BBDO and that is really to concentrate very much on our creative product and to concentrate on creating campaigns that generate fame and talkability. Increasingly if you look at the history of the effectiveness of advertising, creative work was always the most effective and that’s become more so because we’re living in a world of content and we’re living in a world where people can access content in different ways. If you create a piece of work that’s engaging then people will want to share and talk about it online and with their friends and then it has a multiplier effect. Creating work that is discussed, famous, talked about and noticed on behalf of our clients is really what I want to focus on. Q: How does advertising contribute to the success of a product or an organisation? A: I would say it’s the single most significant source of value in a brand. A product is simply a service or something we consume. Brands are something that we value and obviously advertising is a contributor to creating that brand wealth and that brand fame. I think it was Revlon who said, and I hope I get that quote right, I think it was ‘we don’t sell lipstick, we sell hope’. I think that is what a brand is. It’s a set of images and associations around it and advertising is one contributing factor to that. It’s not the sole contributor, the packaging and the way the product is positioned in terms of pricing, all of those things make a bit contribution but advertising is very important for value and associations and they add to the repository of wealth and value around the brand. Pic by Upul Abayasekara