Worldwide Chief Creative Officer and Co-Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather on the category for iconoclasts, rule breakers and crazy prophets
Of all the categories at Cannes Lions, Titanium is the one that represents creativity in its purest sense. It’s the award for work that’s so unimaginably original that it defies categorisation and expectation. This year, a stellar jury will be led by a stellar jury president as Tham Khai Meng takes the lead. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Khai while he was knee-deep in prejudging to get his thoughts on the most transcendent of categories.
LBB> Titanium is an interesting one because it’s a category which you, as the jury chair, can really mould…
Khai> You can, up to a point I think. With all great work, first of all you think, ‘how could anyone come up with this idea?’ and secondly you feel, ‘wow, this is so amazing and so out there!’ that you want it to succeed, because it has really connected with you, not as a judge but as a person. You’ve got to take your judge’s hat off constantly.
LBB> I guess that with other categories, you can look at something with your experts eye – identifying some smart insight or clever copy or beautiful direction – but the really powerful stuff is that which really breaks through on an emotional level?
Khai> That’s right. I’ve judged Titanium before but this is the first time as president. From my experience judging the Titanium, we struggled to define the category. But this struggle I regard as a strength, not a weakness. Titanium celebrates work that transcends the ordinary. It is the home of the game changers, the mould breakers, the work that defies categorisation and it should be like that. You are looking into a working crystal ball and for someone to show you the future and when they do we are presented with the following paradox: the work seems strangely obvious and yet you could never have seen it coming.
So, I think Titanium, for me, celebrates the greatest human faculty of all: imagination. That magical ability to create pictures in our mind of things that don’t exist. It is magical. To create something truly original is hard. And then you have to defend it.
Throughout history creators with new ideas have often been mocked. New ideas are fragile and so many get strangled at birth. For every idea that makes it, there are 100 others that died. It takes guts to stand up for an idea that seems crazy. Therefore, when we award Titanium – and this will be my suggestion to the jury members – is to not only look for the originality of the idea but the courage of those crazy prophets that fought for it.
LBB> It’s another interesting paradox that in our industry and in the wider business environment, people seem to increasingly claim that they want creativity but, actually, it also makes them nervous and they fear it. That’s something we don’t talk about so much. People want to want creative, but there’s something quite scary about it because if something is truly original you can’t predict it.
Khai> Exactly. If you look at the giants of today – Mark Zuckerberg, Steve jobs, Bill Gates – and you look at the qualities that they had in common, they all had that flash of inspiration and started their own shops… and they were all irreverent. They were rebels and renegades. They saw the world differently and upset the status quo. Highly creative people have a gift for disruption and a spirit of irreverence.
All children are born creative and you can see it when you watch them play, they are totally unselfconscious. And then what happens? They go to school and they are not taught to be irreverent at all. They are taught reverence for hallowed institutions and respect for authority. Not stepping on the grass, no breaking the rules. Wearing the uniform.
Outside of school, we admire the iconoclast, the artist, the renegade. But when you grow up and want to be Picasso it’s too late. We have to conform and this conformity is the old model of mass production – but today we live in a knowledge economy where the currency is ideas. All of us have to throw away the shackles of habit and conventional thinking and fear.
LBB> Speaking of people who are highly creative, you’ve got a really fantastic jury to work with; people like Jean-Lin Baden, Nils Leonard, Kate Stanners, John Mescall. They’re all experienced judges in their own right and also hold strong opinions. How are you going to wrangle them?
Khai> Well, I don’t think it’s about wrangling the! It’s really not. It’s about working with them, debating with them, learning with them, and looking for the same thing.
Hopefully we are all on the same page, but we all look at the world differently and it’s impossible to have the same pair of eyes or the same pair of ears or the same brain. So, I think the diversified thinking that is brought to the table will be highly charged and highly interesting. It’s more about learning because you’re surrounded by a blizzard of new technologies and platforms and talent. There will be arguments, of course, but at the heart of it will be to look for work that is so fresh, so powerful, so unexpected that it isn’t even clear what category it belongs in. But it has to feel right and demand recognition.
This category is for the uncategorisable! And it’s really about great ideas.
LBB> So last year Ogilvy – INGO - had one of those great ideas with the Swedish number…
Khai> The Swedish number is one of those ideas that wasn’t even high tech. Think about it. It used a phone number. At the heart of it it’s really about the confidence and the bravery of the client saying ‘yes, I will put my bottom dollar on this idea’ to the point that it’s so authentic.
Another client said that to me the other day: ‘what I love about it is that it’s so authentic’. And she went on to say, you could pick up the phone and speak to someone who could be half drunk and you’re interrupting their life, because there’s an algorithm that directs the call, they could politely tell you to piss off. Or they could ask, ‘why do you want to come to my country, it’s so boring here!’ To have a Swedish person telling you about Sweden in a light that’s not always the most positive, that’s real authenticity. They can say anything they want. That’s the bravery of the buy. And don’t forget, when it came out it was to celebrate 250 years of free speech in Sweden so it was also highly relevant to the brand.
LBB> So how has the prejudging been going?
Khai> I’ve started prejudging already. It’s called Titanium and Integrated and this year we have split the judging up into two so Titanium is titanium and Integrated is Integrated. Let’s not get confused! I’ve started pre-judging the Integrated category.
It’s not easy because you have to go through a lot of work that is either in the wrong category or not totally integrated… but there are some nuggets! Some gems in there. I can’t tell you what they are yet! But it’s going to be exciting. If you look at some of the past winners of this category, some of that stuff is crazily good.
LBB> I know you will be eyeball-deep in judging but is there anything outside of the jury room that you’re looking forward to at Cannes this year, if they let you out?
Khai> I wish I could tell you that! You are going to one of the most beautiful parts of France, even Europe – blue skies, blue sea, great weather – and yet, for me, at least, it’s a week of hard work. It will be relentless but I’m very much looking forward to it. When you look at great work it is so inspiring, for me it is even more inspiring than looking at blue skies and blue waters.
I’m very much looking forward to working with the talented crew of the jury members and Cannes Lions themselves. They have been incredible in their prep for this jury. Lisa Berlin, Philip Thomas, Terry Savage, they have been exemplary. It makes my job easy!