Q&A with Chris Catchpole: It’s silly to trash ideas just because they’ve been done before

Chris CatchpoleChris Catchpole has worked in three different markets in Asia as a creative director since arriving from the UK, at agencies including Ogilvy, Lowe and Phibious, where he was regional executive creative director.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Catchpole talks about where the best advertising in the region is coming from now, why going local doesn’t always work, the impact of shrinking budgets on creativity, and the “slap in the face’ that so many Western creatives receive when they come to Asia.

Chris, having start out in the business in the UK, you’ve since worked in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. What’s one thing that stands out about advertising in this part of the world?

In comparison to Europe, I would say there is a lot more emotion in the work in many parts of Asia. Family is so big, so important, and that plays out a lot in the most effective advertising in many parts of Asia. If you do anything with children or grandparents, it always strikes a chord. The love of youth and respect for elders are perennial themes.

Where’s the best advertising coming from in Asia right now?

Thailand is one market that always produces great work. Thai advertising found its voice 10-15 years ago. There’s a genuine self-deprecating humour about Thai work that is really wonderful, and real. What is the Thai style? Well, it’s nuts, zany, over-the-top and funny. It’s world class work that’s noticed everywhere. If you know it’s a Thai ad, then you know that they’ve defined their style. Where else in Asia could you say about that?

You could say that the Thai style is a hindrance. It’s a bit like saying you’re an idiot. But the thing is, Thai ads never make the viewer feel small. They make you feel like you’re on the way up.

Look at the Smooth-e commercials. The lady who created them, Jureeporn [Thaidumrong, ‎owner/creative chairwoman at JEH United and nudeJEH], helped define this style of advertising. And it was all based on a product benefit, not something that was made up.

Where advertising has had to move away from the product benefit is because in some categories, there really isn’t one. Or if there is, it’s the same as everyone else’s. Or, to be honest, someone else’s might be better, so you can’t talk about it any more.

Now, it’s all about showing people their lives. Some of the best advertising is simply a mirror, a part of your life you didn’t really think about. The brand is trying to understand your life and the challenges you face, and trying to resolve them for you.

That’s why we have planners. The best ones speak to real people to understand what they’re going through. The role of the brand is then to put its arm around you and say this bit of your life can get better.

Lots of the Thai films make your eyes water. I’ve also seen this from Japan and China. They drag emotion out of you. But there’s a hopeful resolution at the end. I’ve seen tears falling down the face of a Vietnamese woman as she watched one of my Coke films, saying at the end ‘You just showed me my life’.

That’s when you know you’ve struck a chord because you’ve done something for the people on the streets, not just the ones on a jury.

You can win the hearts of a nation, but that doesn’t mean you’ll win an award. A recruitment consultant told me recently that her clients are putting more emphasis on innovation and content now, valuing results above creativity for the sake of juries. This gives me hope that our industry may finally be moving away from doing insular, naval-gazing award work at any cost to producing campaigns that make our clients’ brands famous, ourselves secondary. Let us be judged by our mettle, not just by our metal.

If there is a common theme that runs through the best advertising, what is it?

I think it’s humour. Henry [Adams, founder of content marketing agency Contented, former Ogilvy creative and friend of Catchpole] and I talked about the best of the last 60 years of British TV advertising, being it was the anniversary of our industry in September. We could name hundreds of ads and nine times out of 10 they were funny.

In 2011, the most popular TV commercial in Vietnam was the Heineken’s ‘Closet’. It was a 30-second spot that begins with a woman showing off her new apartment to her girlfriends. She opens her walk-in closet to reveal rows of beautiful clothes, jewelry and shoes. Her friends scream with delight. Then they hear the guys going crazy in another room – his walk-in beer fridge.

Beautifully done, it was made by TBWA in Amsterdam (2008), spoken in Dutch, in a super high-end apartment and everyone is middle-class, obviously wealthy. So approximately 0.01% of the Vietnamese population could relate to it. But it was still loved.

So going local doesn’t always work?

I was often told my work was not Vietnamese enough. In my first few weeks at Lowe Vietnam, I wrote what I thought was an award-winning script for a big, local client that produces moon cakes. I assumed they’d love it. The marketing director said ‘it’s a great script, Chris – now come back to us when you’ve written a Vietnamese script.’ It was a slap in the face.

I’ve subsequently realised that it’s the same slap many Western creatives get. You can get away with it in some markets, like Singapore. You’d get slaughtered in others. I’ve seen creatives come and go from Asia trying to push through Western work. I was told it just doesn’t work in a market like Vietnam. Clients get pissed off because you haven’t cared about where you’ve living, you’ve just trying to put out award work.

I’ve sometimes used the Heineken example as a way of fighting back. But the preference has almost always been to write locally-relevant campaigns that appreciate what is happening outside your door rather than your previous London office.

You say you can get away with Western style advertising in Singapore?

To me, Singapore has a Western voice, less of a distinctive local voice. It’s hard to work there, clients are extremely demanding. Good creative is very hard to get through. You’re forced to do things for smaller clients, or get speculative work through to get yourself noticed. And in China, the push for award-winning work has become so intense, in some agencies it comes at the expense of doing real campaigns for paying clients. Surely we must try to get a balance.

Are we too obsessed with the pursuit of originality in Asia?

When you take a brief, you shouldn’t think you must always have an original idea. That’s not where you start. You’d never get anywhere.

What is a bit dirty is when an agency is very proud of the work, sticks it on Ads of the World, then it gets shot down by commenters who will show a link to the idea being done before for a brand you’ve never heard of in a country on the other side of the world. It might have been done, but maybe not very well. Maybe not even seen other than by a few armchair critics. It’s silly to trash ideas because they’ve been ‘done before’.

Take Dumb Ways to Die. People have done songs and animation before. They’ve done catchy tunes before. It must have been a dog of a brief – to stop people misbehaving at train stations. But what they came up with was funny, witty and risqué. Memorable and shareable, the light-hearted approach told a serious message. And it worked.

Talk us through some of your favourite work of recent times.

Here are some recent gems that I’d have loved to been involved with. Lovely stuff.

Great Chinese names for Great Britain, by Ogilvy Beijing for Visit Britain.

A message from the lungs, by BBDO/Proximity Thailand.

Mistakes,  by Clemenger BBDO New Zealand for Transport Accident Commission.

Second Lives for Coke, by O&M Beijing.

Key Auntie, by Lowe Shanghai for Alipay.com. A real story, great endline: ‘We know trust’.

There are smaller budgets around Asia these days. Does this mean the work will suffer?

Not really, you just have to work harder. It means we should be allowed to do more creative things to get stand out. If you have a small voice, you need to shout louder. It should mean that we get more chance to do things that are more creative. A huge budget doesn’t guarantee brilliant work. Less money often forces you to be more creative in how you spend what you have. But it always will be clients who determine how far they want their brands to stand out.

Creatives never choose to do me-too advertising. After all, it takes just as long to produce a crap ad as it does to make a great one. Getting the green light on a great idea is the hardest part though. But I think Asia is catching up with the rest of the world, albeit slowly.


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