Graham Kelly on being a ‘guest chef’, how to make digital and traditional work together, and why creatives will be creatives come award season

Graham Kelly Graham Kelly is about a month into his role as creative ‘guest chef’ at Bates CHI & Partners.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, the former TBWA, Leo Burnett, Ogilvy, BBH, Saatchi & Saatchi and Isobar creative director talks about what his role involves, the future of agencies, ad scam, and why digital awards shows should have tech categories.

So, Graham. You’re guest chef at Bates. What does that mean and how much of your time will the agency get?

You hear the same question from clients asking about the people who present to them in pitches. But I’m not a Gordon Ramsay – a fake Scotsman. I think the difference with this is that I’m not here to do everything. I’m not hear to oversee all the work. I’m here to work with the offices to see where the opportunities are, and expose them to new types of creativity, including digital. A lot of what I’m doing is internal, using some of the things I’ve learned from the startup world to look at ways to kickstart our digital offering and collaborate with new partners.

As a relatively small agency, we’re not planning to be biggest. Our intention is just to be great. To do that, you need to collaborate. Every office is in a different stage of development. My role as guest chef is to develop a menu that’s right for each market.

You’ve got a long and varied CV, with stints at Ogilvy, TBWA, BBH and others. How long will you stay at Bates?

If someone comes in as I’ve done, they come in for a finite time. But if it’s going well, we’ll extend the contract, which is initially for six months. You’ve got to be around long enough to make a difference. You don’t just breeze in for a month and expect to make an impact.

What about Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar, who moved to the Singapore office from India last year? Why the need for effectively two regional ECDs?

The difference with my role is that it is much broader, across all markets for the region. I complement what Sagar is doing, and support the other ECDs.

What stage is the work now at? Whenever journalists ask agencies how things are going creatively, we always seem to be told that great work is “in the pipeline”.

I met with the national ECDs of the creative council in April, and the signs are good. We haven’t got a huge pipeline, but we have quality rather than quantity – three pieces of work that will appear beyond free listings magazines! I like what I’ve seen because it’s moving beyond relying on traditional ideas, but not doing digital for the sake of it.

But then I think some people go too far in shooting down experimentation, particularly in digital. Look at the video made in Australia last year that lampooned the use of technology in advertising [It was titled The world’s first crowdsourced 3D-printed QR-coded live-streamed via a GoPro to smart phone delivery ticket system to promote Creative Fuel. “Who needs an idea these days when you’ve got a fucking awesome piece of tech?” says Steve Back, the former creative chief of Ogilvy Singapore, in the video]. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

I’d rather people tried. It’s a good thing that agencies are taking, say, a drone and trying something new out. We’re called creatives for a reason. Sometimes an idea might fall flat and be gimmicky, but that’s better than doing nothing at all. The Creative Fuel video missed the point.

In the past there weren’t any tech categories (in fact it was down to my suggestion that Adfest started to include them, and they were the first to do so), so it’s good to see other shows starting to include them. This is a positive change, because in the same way traditional has craft, we can award stuff for good use of technology. Because otherwise you’ll inevitably get a debate on whether using tech is a gimmick or a big idea.

You want creatives to try new stuff, experiment and, perhaps, fail. That’s ok. Failure has become almost a fetish in startup culture – and that’s no bad thing. You learn more from mistakes than from not trying anything at all.

What tech excites you most now?

Mobile. Creatively, the industry has only scratched the surface. And with Google’s recent changes to its search algorithm [known as “mobilegeddon”], it is now imperative that we get mobile right.

There’s been a lot of attention on apps and far less on mobile display ads, as they tend to get very low click-through. Most people click on a mobile ad by mistake. We have to rethink mobile, although it seems that media companies like to use it the old way – as an advertising medium. There needs to be a refocus for clients to look at how to take advantage of the growth in mobile, and that’s what everyone is trying to figure out now.

What sort of work do you enjoy most at the moment?

Digital installations. You can have a lot of fun and there’s a lot of scope for innovation. No client will want to do a thousand high-tech installations and only a few advertisers, such as Coke, have been using installations well. Its ‘hug machine’ idea in Singapore is a good example.

How do you see mobile taking off?

We need creatives to get excited by mobile and make them want to do it. The best mobile ideas won’t come from strategists or from engineers, they’ll from creative who understand consumers and brands.

Look at Cannes. Mobile is a big and growing category. I’d love it if more non-digital creatives got involved. I used to like teaming up digital and traditional creative teams, as they both come at problems from a different view. If you give a digital creative a brief for a print ad, you get interesting results. In the same way, if you give a traditional creative a tech brief the results are interesting, as traditional creatives don’t see the limitations of technology.

If you look at most of the big agencies, even if they say they’re taking a broad approach and reinventing things, nine out of 10 times they’ll give the brief to the top team, which is usually the traditional team. The digital team still tend to get the brief a few days before a pitch.

I remember you saying the same thing years ago during your time at TBWA\Singapore…

It’s still happening. In my Ogilvy Interactive days, Ogilvy did Nokia’s digital work and Bates did the above-the-line. It worked because I was good friends with the senior creatives at Bates, and there was no hierarchy; it was just about getting creatives in the same room and working together. That’s the only way I’ve seen it work well. Otherwise creatives get protective about their turf and their work. They don’t want someone to come in in the last minute and mess things up.

Bates has been talking a lot about how agencies need to be collaborative and flexible. Bates CEO David Mayo wrote an opinion piece on it. What’s your take on this?

We’ve got to have people thinking about what might happen in the future, and we’ve got to be flexible. People like to remember bigger budgets, lunches longer and nicer clients, but you can’t wallow in the past. Look at the Chipotle work that won the Grand Prix at Cannes a few years ago. That was made by Creative Artists Agency, a company that started off as a talent agency.

They’re good at pulling together good people. They don’t do a lot of stuff, but what they do is very good. Those guys are working differently, and the end result is what counts. There could there be another CAA in Asia. Agencies are talking about it, but not really doing it.

What’s your take on scam, and the flurry of creatives ideas that have come out in the last fews weeks just before Cannes? 

I think it’s a reflection of the pressure creatives are under, and how they cope with that. There is a sense that the way you win awards is down to you. That’s not to say whether it’s good or bad, it’s the reality.

Can you share a few pieces of work you’ve seen recently that you like and why?

GEICO “Unskippable”. According to researchers, 94 per cent of all pre-rolls on YouTube are skipped. Frankly, given the amount of dross there, I’m surprised the figure isn’t higher. Geico’s solution: deliver the message in five seconds, before you can Skip. And do it in such a clever way that you’ll want to keep watching. Very smart.

Elan “Taste the Translation”. I love a good demo. This one does a great job of demonstrating that the client’s product is better than the competition’s. Which in this case was always going to be a challenge – because the competition is Google. Like all good demos, this is highly persuasive. Nice use of humour, too.


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