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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Graham Kelly
Graham Kelly
grahamkellysml Graham KellyExecutive Creative Director
Creative Integrator, Asia

Graham Kelly isn’t your everyday, run of the mill ECD. He gets to add fancy titles like Creative Integrator to his signature. That means that when he’s not busy building the world’s biggest ad, he gets to make sure the cross media work of TBWA’s Asian offices goes out as one coherent voice. His last three mandates at BBH Tokyo, Saatchi & Saatchi Singapore and now TBWA\TEQUILA Singapore were to integrate the creative departments over different media.

Coming from a somewhat untraditional grooming field for Creative Directors he graduated in Chemistry from the University of Edinburgh in 1986 Graham has the honour of being the first Asian market Creative Leader featured on ihaveanidea since Neil French. His print and TV work’s been recognised at Cannes, The One Show, D&AD, The Clios and many other major shows. He’s received major Direct Marketing accolades, including Caples, Echos and the Asian Direct Marketing Awards (where he has won Best of Show twice) and his Interactive work has been awarded at the One Show Interactive, Cannes Cyber Lions, Clio Interactive and Communication Arts. This effectively makes him one of the few creatives who can boast they’ve achieved International recognition over all media. He takes time from his busy day to share a few thoughts and to tell ihaveanidea about all the cool things they do over there.

ihaveanidea: How on earth does one get into advertising with a chemistry degree? Where is the bridge between your scientific schooling and your ad making career?

Graham: Well my sister was a journalist, and I thought that writing looked like fun, so I used to write while I was doing my Chemistry degree. I was mainly contributing articles to various magazines, including Pravda International, the English language version of Pravda. This led me to think that if there was any way to combine writing with science, it could be the job for me. My first job was in a business-to-business ad agency in Holland. They had clients in the chemical and pharma industries, so I started doing quite hard core technical ads and brochures for these companies. However I quickly realised that doing ads for chemical engineers wasn’t a huge amount of fun. I also reckoned I could do better that the mainstream ads I saw in magazines and on TV. That’s when I decided to get a job in a mainstream agency, which led me to Singapore.

ihaveanidea: So you ended up in Singapore with little to no traditional advertising experience? How did that work out for you?

Graham: I did get some traditional experience at my second agency in Holland which wasn’t very good, I have to say but I was also accepted onto a D&AD workshop that was conducted by GGT, which was probably the hottest agency in London at the time. This meant I had some reasonably strong traditional concepts in my book, but nothing that had actually been produced.

Once I got to Asia, I got an offer right away from Ogilvy Direct in Singapore. I had already done some direct marketing in Holland and loved the medium, so I saw joining Ogilvy as a way to really learn more about it. The agency had a strong creative reputation. And during my time, we won all the major direct marketing awards. By this point, I felt I had a good grounding in direct marketing, and I decided it was time to do the same in traditional print and TV advertising. I moved over to Ogilvy Advertising, the same building as Ogilvy Direct, just a different floor. At that time the regional creative director was Neil French and the Singapore ECD was Steve Elrick. i learned a lot from them both, and was fortunate enough to win lots of awards there.

After Ogilvy, I felt it was time to move up to a CD’s job, and I did that at Leo Burnett. Leo Burnett was another agency where I learned a lot, especially from the ECD Linda Locke.

While at Leo, I got the interactive bug when we did what was possibly Asia’s first significant viral campaign it was also the first Asian work to win digital awards at Cannes and the One Show interactive). After that I was hooked. I had a short spell at TBWA\Singapore, but left to be regional ECD for OgilvyInteractive Asia. This was a great time I gained a huge amount of experience, as each office in Asia is so different. For example, Japan is the most advanced mobile market on earth, so we did some groundbreaking projects there.

After three years of focusing on interactive, I decided that my next move should be one where I could put my experience of the various media I knew direct marketing, traditional and interactive to good use. I took on an ECD role that would allow me to work across all the media, and help the agency become integrated. That’s what I have been doing ever since, first at Saatchi Singapore, then BBH Japan, and now at TBWA\Tequila.

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ihaveanidea: They say advertising isn’t an exact science, but you have a background in chemistry, which is an exact science. Has anything from the latter helped you in the former?

Graham: It has been surprisingly helpful. If you think about creating an ad, it starts with a lot of background reading. In other words, you do your research. In science you do tons of background reading all the time to find the data you want. Then you assemble your findings into something more coherent. This would be your rough ad, which would contain the Big Idea but in a rough form. In chemistry, this is the equivalent of creating a rough outline for your findings after you’ve done research in the lab. Finally, you then have to present your argument in its simplest, most compelling way. In chemistry, this would be a paper. In advertising, it’s the finished ad.

“Chemistry and indeed all science relies on lateral thinking for the truly breakthrough ideas, just like advertising does.”

Finally, chemistry and indeed all science relies on lateral thinking for the truly breakthrough ideas, just like advertising does. It’s not only logical, step-by-step procedures that lead to the exceptional discoveries. The famous example of Kekul and the discovery of the shape of benzene is one example, here’s an excerpt from the Wiki entry:

Here Kekul spoke of the creation of the theory. He said that he had discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after having a reverie or day-dream of a snake seizing its own tail (this is a common symbol in many ancient cultures known as the Ouroboros). This vision, he said, came to him after years of studying the nature of carbon-carbon bonds.

ihaveanidea: Who ever would’ve thought that we’d be getting a chemistry lesson in an ihaveanidea interview!
We often hear people saying Asia is a booming market for advertising industry. This seems to have been the case for such a long time now. Could it still be considered as such?

Graham: Yes and no. In the more mature markets like Japan, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, the industry is still healthy, but growth is similar to the developed markets in the West. On the other hand, you have China and India, both of which really are booming.

ihaveanidea: In that regard, what Asian markets would you say we should watch out for in years to come?

Graham: Japan is way out ahead in terms of interactive. The recent Titanium Grand Prix for Uniqlo shows the quality coming out of there. Korea has done some interesting interactive work, and has huge potential worth keeping an eye on. China is probably the main one to watch, not just for interactive but traditional media too. For example, our agency in Shanghai just got the country’s first Gold Lion for Adidas. Thailand will always come up with great TV. Likewise, Singapore is known for print and interactive. One market that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves is Malaysia. They do some outstanding traditional work and excellent ambient work. Look out for more.

ihaveanidea: since you’ve been all around the Asian market, have you ever had a situation where cross culture differences came into play? Something that was great somewhere, but a total faux pas some place else?

“The Westerners felt it would offend delicate Asian sensitivities, whereas in fact the audience loved it.”

Graham: It wasn’t exactly a faux pas, but i do remember one instance where the Westerners in the agency got very worried over a piece of work we did for Asia. It was a game that promoted a painkiller designed to relieve menstrual pain. The Westerners felt it would offend delicate Asian sensitivities, whereas in fact the audience loved it. They didn’t realize that Asian women are generally a lot more down to earth when it comes to these products, so they weren’t offended at all.

ihaveanidea: You seem to have been playing the media neutral’ game long before it became a buzz word. Your last mandate was to integrate the creative department across all media. Is there anything in particular that made you aware of the imminent change at the time?

Graham: I guess it was because I got involved in the internet much earlier than most people. We used it when I was studying at university as part of a course on information systems. This was way back in 83 when the net was embryonic and very much in the academic/military realm. From that time on I watched it grow slowly but steadily and then explode in the 90′s, so I felt that this was not just a techie fad, but in fact something revolutionary. Even after the dotcom crash it was clear that the net was still growing. It was funny, because a lot of people said that I was throwing away a promising advertising career to do this web stuff, especially after the crash. But the dotcom crash didn’t stop people from flocking to the net. It was clear that as more and more people were spending more and more time online, it would naturally evolve into a very important new medium.

ihaveanidea: You have been doing great work for mobile for a while now, however, very few people in North America have adopted this medium. What makes the Asian market so much more mobile friendly than its North American counterpart in your eyes?

Graham: I think there are a few reasons. Let’s start with Japan. At first, PC based internet access was very expensive there. People weren’t adopting it enthusiastically so mobile access was seen as an affordable, more convenient alternative and it took off. Plus DoCoMo’s i-mode, one of Japan’s key players, was smart enough to wait until there was lots of great content available before launching their service. Contrast this to the WAP fiasco that happened in Europe, where people were promised the web in your pocket but the results were nothing like it. There was very little content and what was there wasn’t much good.

“If you add all of these obstacles up, you don’t end up with a very compelling medium for clients or agencies. Then again, you can get creative with plain old SMS.”

As for the USA, the unregulated telco market has actually held things back. Without one common standard nobody wanted to invest a lot in developing mobile content, or new apps. Plus the US has always been slower to get the latest handsets. If you add all of these obstacles up, you don’t end up with a very compelling medium for clients or agencies. Then again, you can get creative with plain old SMS it’s a great medium for copywriters!

There are also cultural differences. This is a huge generalisation, but I do think that in Asia especially in countries like Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore the average person tends to embrace new technologies like mobile a bit more readily than the States.

ihaveanidea: Have you ever contemplated bringing your knowledge and expertise to the US or Europe?

Graham: I have thought about a move to the US, particularly to New York City. The scale is what interests me. Budgets tend to be much bigger in the US, especially for interactive, so I’ve always thought it would be interesting to see what kind of integrated campaigns I could do with a bigger war chest. I haven’t really thought about a switch to Europe, though after starting my career in Holland and having a great time there, this would be the place I’d most likely move to.

ihaveanidea: What about going back to work in chemistry? Does that ever cross your mind?

Graham: (laughs) No. I realised early on at university that I was never going to be in the top 10%, who do the brilliant, creative, ground-breaking work. It was a rude awakening, after being top of the class at high school! So I figured I should find another career where I could do well in, one that would allow me to be creative. However, I still have a soft spot for chemistry and try and keep up with things.

Interview by:
Rafik Belmesk
Operations, AKOS

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