great minds on music : an interview with tham khai meng

In this edition of our “Great Minds on Music” series, Uli Reese, President of iV2, catches up with Tham Khai Meng, Worldwide Chief Creative Officer & Chairman, WW Creative Council Ogilvy & Mather. “Great Minds on Music” is a collection of interviews with some of the top names in the advertising industry, engaging them in conversations about music, audio and advertising.  If you’d like to read more from these innovative thinkers, selecting this link will aggregate all the interviews for easy viewing. 


Reese: You were talking about the “messy process” of creativity. Let’s talk about how music fits into that. How do you use music in brand communication? How important is it in your work?

“…music is as much as 60 or 70 percent of a film. It’s visceral, it’s emotional, it communicates to us. It cuts across generations, across diversity. It connects.” – Tham Khai Meng

Khai: Boy…you know, if I could put a percentage to it, I might say music is as much as 60 or 70 percent of a film. It’s visceral, it’s emotional, it communicates to us. It cuts across generations, across diversity. It connects. So music is an enormous part of what we do – which is connection.

Reese: Talk to us about your process. How do you approach the subject when you’re going into a campaign? What’s your secret?

Khai: Well, there’s no secret – it’s just hard work, really. First and foremost, you have to get to the idea. It’s a long process: messy, chaotic, lots of white paper, lots of fear. There’s always that pressure in the back of your mind: you want to do something great, every time. Every brief is an opportunity. What I like to do is draw boxes and put ideas in them – it could be words, or visual ideas. Because, you know, we have a lot of clutter in our head. We need to empty it sometimes.

Reese: What inspires you in terms of music? Do you have an iTunes library that you listen to when you work?

Khai: Yeah, sometimes. I’m always listening to music at home. Or you might have heard something in the car that morning, and you can’t get it out of your head. So you think about that genre and how it might work. You ask other people for their opinion, of course. They may be right, they may be wrong – it doesn’t matter. You need new thinking.

Reese: You’re like a sponge…

Khai: All the time. Or more like a vulture.

Reese: So you’re waiting for the thing that gives you goose-bumps, that triggers something.

Khai: One hopes so, anyway. Sometimes you think: “Oh, that sounds really brilliant.” So you mark it, give it the overnight test. Then you come back to it. Chances are it sucks. But you never know, it might be good.

Reese: You’re one of the most decorated creatives in advertising. Do you have a sort of internal compass, to evaluate when something is good?

Khai: I think we all do. It’s about finding that true north – something fresh and original you’ve never heard before. It gets you; it almost makes you choke on your coffee. You hear something and you want to hear it again and again…If you have a great idea, beautifully executed, the right piece of music gels the whole thing together. Finding it is part of the craft. If the brand requires honesty, for example, you might want to go down the route of country…something raw, not too manufactured, not too pop.

Reese: Not slick: a bit rough, like Johnny Cash

Khai: Yeah, gritty, lo-fi – I love Johnny Cash, by the way. Or someone like Bob Dylan. I think you need that kind of authenticity. Because often the music drives the whole experience. Like Willie Nelson for the Chipotle film (“Back to the Start”). It had honesty. Or maybe you decide to use something operatic. I love opera – there’s so much emotion in it.

Reese: Do you have a way of communicating music? I know that can be an area of frustration when creatives are talking to music houses or composers. Do you have a method that has worked for you?

Khai: Not really…we just kind of muddle along. But creatives do struggle with music. They also struggle with pictures, they struggle with editing. Everything is a struggle. The flawless thirty seconds you see at the end of it all, if the magic really happens, is the result of a long and chaotic process. But if there’s any secret at all, it’s about who you work with. You have to find great partners every time.

Reese: How do you know when something is right? Without testing: how do you get to the point where you say: “OK, this goes on air.”

Khai: I think it’s just the moment when your toes curl. It has to be original. You can’t keep going back to Ray Charles. So you have to keep digging into this goldmine of music. I think that’s important – to work harder, to dig deeper. But how do you know? You just know. Because you’ve dug deeply enough to find that emotion you’re after.

Reese: Do you know the work is great at that point in time – or does that come later, when something connects to millions of people?

Khai: You kind of know it, and you kind of hope that it will get you there. But you also have to be willing to fail – and listen to others. If you’re working with great people, you have less chance of failing.

Reese: But not many people are as successful as you. People want to know how you get it right so often.

Khai: I’ve failed many times – but it’s through failure that you learn. And of course you borrow a lot of other people’s talents. But at the end of the day it’s intuitive. A lot of music is like that. It’s about gut feeling. I think we’re all a bit like that in our business. You have to be sensitive – but also something of a tough nut. Because you’re going to fall off the horse a lot, and you need to get back on. Tenacity really helps.

Reese: So you have to be willing to dig away, to make the mistakes that might lead to something great.

Khai: And you’ve just got to chase it right down to the line. Just before it goes on air, you’re still not satisfied. You want keep changing it. There’s a beat, there’s a tone, there’s something else in the picture you want to change. And thank god for deadlines, otherwise you’d be playing with it, messing with it, all the time. It’s a toy – you’re playing with a machine that can do amazing things. So if there weren’t deadlines, we’d still be playing around with it!

Reese: You’re certainly passionate about your work. You’ve accomplished so much and you’re still going. What gets you up in the morning? By the way – I’ve heard you live in an old firehouse.

Khai: Actually that’s a good story. Last Thanksgiving I invited a friend around and he said, “It’s amazing that you’re living in this historic building.” I said: “I know, it’s the old Chelsea Firehouse.” And he said: “No, no, it’s more than that – Andy Warhol used to live here!” I looked it up and he was absolutely right: Andy Warhol lived at 323 West 21st Street, with Philip Pearlstein. My bedroom would have been his flat, actually. So maybe it’s the ghost of Andy Warhol that gets me up in the morning!

Reese: Let’s put it another way – what excites you? What turns you on?

Khai: Oh, great stuff, great music, great pictures, great ideas – which are all around us. As Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys said, when talking about music: “Don’t lick the lollipop of mediocrity. Lick it once and you’ll suck forever.” I think we’re all looking for the same thing. Put it this way, maybe we’re looking for a new color. Once in art college I did this comic strip about a character who was looking for a new color. The concept is quite bizarre, isn’t it? Because all the colors already exist. But that’s what he’s looking for. The impossible. The Holy Grail.

Reese: So it’s the search for the Holy Grail that gets you up in the morning…

Khai: You just need to keep looking for new things, amazing things.

Reese: Maybe it’s something you learn as a child. Or it exists in all children and some people just hang on to it.

Khai: I think it’s in your make-up, yes. When I was a child and my parents went out for the evening, I used to move the furniture around…

Reese: You did what?!

Khai: Move all the furniture. To get a new perspective. When they came home they’d go apeshit. “What – you did this again?” But I still think that’s important: to change your point of view. Space is also important. Even in music.

Reese: Sure – it’s the space between the notes that makes the music.

Khai: That’s it. That’s why creativity is so difficult to define. We’re just riffing.

Tham Khai Meng is Worldwide Chief Creative Officer & Chairman, WW Creative Council Ogilvy & Mather  He made history by leading the agency to win Network of the Year at Cannes for two years running in 2012 and 2013. AdAge has called Khai ‘One of the world’s most influential people in the communication business.’ He is a member of the Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Board and Executive Committee, and is Chairman of its Worldwide Creative Council. Khai also serves on the board of directors at Miami Ad School, Berlin School of Creative Leadership and Future of Storytelling New York. He recently became involved in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through the Cannes Chimera program. 

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