The World: Ogilvy's tough new taskmaster has star quality

Tham Khai Meng cannot abide mediocrity and in his new global creative role will weed it out of Ogilvy, he tells Robin Hicks.

On the table beside Tham Khai Meng's coffee cup lie a packet of sugar, a sachet of Coffee-Mate and a spoon. They have been placed in an evenly spaced row, like the Adidas stripes, or like the perfectly straightened bathroom towels in the Julia Roberts film Sleeping With The Enemy.

The immaculately groomed Singaporean, who this month replaces Robyn Putter as the global creative director of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, has earned a reputation for his ruthless pursuit of perfection in the seven years that he has been responsible for Ogilvy Asia-Pacific's creative product.

Neil French famously said "I have created a monster" soon after he appointed Tham to succeed him as Ogilvy's regional creative director in 2001. But you would wonder why when you meet him. Tham is breezily charming, courteous and rather funny. Traits echoed, pretty much, in Shelly Lazarus' description of "an Ogilvy 'gentleman with brains' to his bones" in the press release on his promotion.

Tough but, at times, silkily diplomatic, Tham is the original yin and yang contradiction, according to Edmond Cheong, Ogilvy Asia-Pacific's regional head of copy, who is tipped to succeed Tham as regional creative head next year. "Khai is like a Mafia boss. If you've got talent, he gives you protection. Some people hate working for him. But I don't. When I take stuff to him, I know it will get better. Khai is the pain process."

Despite a reputation for being awards-obsessed, which goes with the territory in Asia these days (especially in Singapore, where "initiative work" is as much part of agency culture as a pool table), few can argue with what Tham has achieved. Nor can they say that he wasn't the obvious choice to succeed Putter. "Has everything Khai's touched turned to gold? Yes, it most certainly has," French says.

Without Asia, Ogilvy Worldwide would be half the creative force it is now, contributing 47 per cent of the network's awards tally, according to The Gunn Report. Its often embarrassing dominance at awards shows has seen Tham named Creative Director of the Year every year since 2001 by Campaign Brief Asia, and has helped Ogilvy in Asia become a $500 million business.

Ogilvy was pipped by BBDO to Creative Agency of the Year by Campaign's sister title Media earlier this month. But BBDO is said to have won the accolade more for building a credible challenge to Ogilvy than for beating Ogilvy outright. Ogilvy picked up Network of the Year (as it did last year).

This sort of success, achieved consistently over such a long period, earned Tham global recognition long before he was rewarded with a global role at Ogilvy. He was the first Asian to chair a Clios judging panel in 2005, and has just been appointed the jury chairman for the television/cinema, outdoor, print, radio and integrated categories at Cannes next year.

Tham's detractors like to say he takes too much credit for Ogilvy's creative successes in Asia, which owe more to the talents of the people under him. It's a snipe French is quick to dismiss: "There are an awful lot of jealous and silly people who say that Khai doesn't do the work, and gets other people to do it for him. But that's his job - to make other people's work better."

French hastens to add that Tham provides inspiration to a lot of Asian agency staff who resigned themselves to never rise above a certain level. "Khai has done away with the bamboo curtain in one fell swoop," he says.

Tham is unlikely to meet much resistance when he moves to New York. Crucially, he has the support of Miles Young, until recently the co-chairman of Ogilvy Asia-Pacific with Tham, who was promoted to global chief executive, replacing Lazarus, in July. This relationship, Mark Tutssel, Tham's opposite number at Leo Burnett Worldwide, says, will be critical.

"The Miles-Khai double-act needs to reproduce what it's delivered in Asia at a global level. Ogilvy is nowhere in New York and needs a new lease of life. The acid test for Khai will be to produce great work on big, iconic brands. In that sense, he's moving from a boat to an aircraft carrier," Tutssel says.

Alas, the "aircraft carrier" is not as bulky as it was. Ogilvy North America has just cut 150 staff, or almost 10 per cent of its workforce, because of client spending cuts.

As for Tham, he seems at ease with his new brief. After all, he knows the network inside out, having sat on the Ogilvy Worldwide board since 2005. He admits that Ogilvy's flagship offices, such as New York and London, could use some "outside intervention", and says that he is the man to bring some much-needed optimism Westwards.

An art director in the traditional mould by trade, the 52-year-old brushes aside the idea that he is too old school for a global role in the digital age. As his peers point out, Tham is the master at appointing good people around him, as he has done in Asia, and will need to do in the months ahead.

Few doubt, either, that Tham has the character to impose himself on his new role. "In the global job, you need people to go 'Oh my God!' when you enter the room. You need to be an inspirer. Khai has that star quality," French says. But will he take the same meticulous approach to the global role that he has applied to Asia?

Probably, and he takes as a compliment the notion that he is a tough taskmaster. "I can be brutal, but that's the way I'm made. You walk along the streets and you see mediocrity all around you. It's accepted," he says. "We have got to weed out that mentality. As David Ogilvy himself said, good is the enemy of the great."

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