Calvin Soh on innovation, control and risk in advertising

Calvin SohCalvin Soh is one of Asia’s most prolific creative figures. He’s worked at Ogilvy & Mather, Y&R, Saatchi & Saatchi, Fallon and Publicis Asia as chief creative officer and vice chairman. A year ago, he founded the consultancy Ninety Nine Percent.

In this interview, he talks to Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks about innovation, control and risk in the advertising world.

You’ve been out of the industry for some time now. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned since leaving the business?

The industry is too busy trying to hit targets to safeguard its own future. Seventy-five per cent of the media GroupM buys in Asia is TV. Why? Because clients want it? Or because GroupM won’t make money from mobile advertising or other forms of new media? If Sir Martin Sorrell is asking for five per cent growth every year, there’s a risk that you won’t hit your margins if you try new stuff.

These are the things that hinder us in the real world. Singapore could embrace electric cars overnight. Why won’t we? Could it be because we are one of the world’s largest oil refiners? You have to make money to feed the beast. If you give up your main source of business, you have to find a new revenue stream very quickly, and that is not easy to do.

What’s the best job offer you’ve had since leaving Publicis?

To be creative director of an incubator firm. The role would be to create brands for start-ups, and I would get a five per cent stake in these ventures, although I wouldn’t be paid a salary.

Have you noticed any innovation in the marketing industry?

The only innovation I see in the agency world is in cost efficiency and finding new ways to share services. If anything, the awards shows like Cannes Lions are the most innovative in the industry, because they keep coming up with new categories.

Droga5 were smart when they sold 49% of their business to talent agency William Morris Endeavor, because they recognised that the business – now and in the future – is about content. If they had sold to a large network, it would have been about efficiency.

What would the advertising world look like if it was run by entrepreneurs? Would they fit in with the culture of advertising agencies?

The question would be, would agencies allow entrepreneurs to be entrepreneurial? It’s a structural issue. How much risk would the agency world allow that person to take?

Tell us the principle behind your venture, Ninety Nine Percent.

Most brands come from an era of control; they told consumers what and how to buy their products. But in this social era, consumers are rejecting that philosophy. Brands need to stop telling consumers what to do, and be guided by what the consumer is telling them. In the old control world, companies thought they could pull the wool over people’s eyes. But people aren’t stupid and are increasingly holding companies to account.

An article I wrote for The Independent [which also ran on Mumbrella] about Singapore Airlines was their best-read piece since they launched. The piece was about how I have fallen out of love with SIA, because the company has turned from a brand that cares about its customers into a corporate machine. Most of the comments were in support of what I was saying. Interestingly, when I flew to Vietnam on Saturday, I got upgraded to business class. Had Singapore Airlines read my article, I wonder? Perhaps if I write another one they’ll upgrade me to business class next time…

In the ‘60s and 70s in Singapore, all the big corporates were government controlled. They were trailblazers, ahead of their time. But somewhere along the line, they became big and comfortable. The new people coming in to run these businesses were performing a maintenance role, they were not innovating. They same is true of the ad world, which has become run by accountants, not innovators.

The Straits Times has been losing circulation and ad revenue for a long time, but it’s happening quicker now. Sometimes companies will innovate only when they’re desperate, as Singapore did during the ‘60s, when it had to.

What sort of appetite does the agency world have for risk?

Most holding companies will allow you to try new things – once you’ve hit your targets. If you don’t, you will be asked to do more to cover the losses the business has made elsewhere. In the end, there is not a lot of leeway for risk in the agency world.

Watch Soh’s presentation, ‘How to make good contagious – the beautiful compromise’ at SXSW in Las Vegas.


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