State of the industry: A view from the founder, Chris Kyme – ‘We’ve become too obsessed with digital’

In Mumbrella's ongoing series of interviews with CEOs and founders from the agency business, Kyme Chow founder and chief creative officer Chris Kyme speaks about the abiding power of creativity and big ideas, scam work and creating work for an audience larger than an awards jury

Chris Kyme

Many people suggest the media and marketing industry is in transition at best and managed decline at worst – but what’s your view on the trajectory and how fast the industry is changing? 

“It’s a fascinating time in the industry, almost hard to keep up as technology reinvents what we do and how we do it. But let’s not get too carried away. Ideas that build brands are still important. Years ago, everyone predicted the demise of traditional advertising as online emerged as a media channel. 

“Yet here we still are. Outdoor is still everywhere (and underused). Obviously terrestrial TV has been a major casualty as well as the demise of print media, which is natural considering how we all consume entertainment and information online nowadays (or through smart TVs) but even that varies market by market. A lot of brands also misunderstand the role that social media should be playing as part of an overall brand strategy. 

“You can’t just plonk your traditional marketing efforts into the social media space and expect people to get excited. Social media needs creative thinking as much as any channel. And it should be part of a bigger picture. However, it doesn’t help when you look at the absence of creativity in traditional media. TV, cinema, outdoor, print. We are surrounded by dross everywhere. It’s an exciting time to be in the industry and the possibilities are mind-boggling, but let’s not forget – it’s creativity that matters. Always has, always will.”

What is the next big thing coming down the line for the industry whether it’s a technology, market trend or something else entirely? 

“When we get over the obsession with how technology is eliminating the need for creativity, we will see a resurgence of more creative brand campaigns. AR, VR, data, programmatic, all great stuff. But still every year, when we celebrate  great work, it’s always the idea that counts.

“Not how well it was delivered technically. We’ve become too obsessed with digital as the be all and end all of our industry. I appreciate how all of the new developments are enabling what we do to reach people in more powerful ways, and do my best to keep up to speed, but it’s ideas that count. I’m old school. I love a great film, online or off. I think the average consumer responds to that the same way we do”

Can you explain the obstacles, as you see them, that need to be overcome in order for the industry to move to a better place? 

“Don’t let the obsession with technology undermine the importance of ideas. Look at the global success of the Nike’s ‘Believe In Something’ campaign. It was a simple, classic, powerful poster.

“And it was technology that made sure the world got to know about it. Technology enables creativity to work better. It doesn’t replace it.” 

What work or innovation during your tenure are you most proud of and why?

“I’m always proud of work that does its job. In my first few years as a copywriter, I wrote a TV ad for Cadbury’s Chocolate Fingers in the UK that became a national sensation.

“Everyone was talking about it, including being featured in newspaper stories. I remember my sister was dating a rather well known pop star at the time, and when I called her one day, he answered and said ‘hey, nice ad’, because he’d seen it on TV. Hah. That felt great.

“I know how much work I put into it, and I saw the results. I learned then the power of doing what we do well, and how good it feels to know that ordinary everyday people appreciate it.” 

What was the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career, and what did you learn? 

“Going into partnership with people I thought I knew but did not know well enough. It’s like marrying someone after just a couple of dates. It’s very different when you’re working in a large network and new colleagues come and go all the time. 

“Some you get on with better than others. If you’re going to partner with anyone, make sure you’ve worked together a lot and know each other, warts and all.”

What is the landmark piece of work by others that was a game-changer for the industry, in your view? 

“Subservient Chicken for Burger King. Because even to this day, it remains a brilliant, entertaining example of how all channels, online and offline, should connect and work together. From using print to drive people to the website, to its amplification effect across news media.” 

Given that marketing is an industry designed to create more consumption, can it be considered a force for good in a world of diminishing natural resources?

How about if marketing was used, not to create more consumption of the wrong things, but of what will help the planet? I’ve yet to see any major campaigns promoting plant-based meats except in social media, but isn’t that a great movement to get behind? 

“Another good example is Allbrands shoes, which are made from materials derived from plants and recycled plastic bottles and are 100% carbon neutral. Let’s get behind the good stuff, and less so the not so good.” 

Is brand purpose a worthwhile goal?

“‘Believe In Something. Even If It Means Sacrificing Everything’. What does a brand stand for and how far is it prepared to go to live by it, especially when it’s a stand that could compromise revenue? 

“I think a lot of brands pay lip service to a purpose which might look good on Facebook. I really like the way that Simon Sinek describes it with his ‘How, why, what’ demonstration and Apple example. So, yes, but brands have to be prepared to walk the talk (like Allbrands shoes).”

If you had to pick one thing that has damaged the industry as a whole, what would it be? 

“Scam work. It creates an illusionary world. Agencies can be seen as highly creative in the creative community, yet are producing the same banal rubbish as everyone else on their major client campaigns.

“The problem is, it’s created a generation of young creative people who can deliver some brilliant work when the client isn’t involved (I call it scoring goals by removing the goalkeeper), but cannot produce work to the same level when it’s a real brief, where you have to actually sell work in to clients, which is hard. The image of the industry has suffered because of this. 

“Clients suffer too because they’re not benefitting from an agency’s creativity. The agency is happy to sell them any average work that makes them feel comfortable, just to keep the money rolling in. When I wanted to get into the industry, it was because I was so excited by the advertising I was exposed to growing up. I wanted to seek out the agencies who were doing it. I aspired to be a part of that world. Great work should be seen by more people than just an awards jury. For the best creative agencies in the world, what they win awards for is what they produce every day.

“To this day I still get fired up when I see good work out there which answers real briefs. It makes me love what I do. I don’t get that feeling when I see work which is obviously scam. There is no better feeling in the world than going up on the stage to get a slap on the back for something you did, which everyone saw, which answered a real brief.

“Even better when you bring the client with you. We did this a few years ago – why not? They were as much a part of this as we were.” 

Do you think scammers should be banned from awards shows when they are caught, just like doping athletes face sporting bans? 

“I don’t blame the individuals doing it, you have to blame the agencies they work for. For financing it and turning a blind eye (patronising the creatives), for creating an environment where it needs to happen. You can’t blame talented creative people for wanting show how good they can be. It’s what we get up for every day.

“So if you’re working in a place where it’s impossible to sell good work to clients, it’s natural you’ll want to find another way to get your name out there. Blame the agency management. I remember when I was a regional creative director, I would approach the country heads and ask ‘How can we help you to produce better work?’ And I would get excuses like clients not wanting good work (yawn), not allowing enough time, bad briefs etc. And I would think – so who’s running the agency, you or the client?

“A big question is, why is it so hard for agencies to convert the obvious talent they have within their ranks into proper good work on real briefs for clients? Maybe it’s just not that important to them, which raises even more worrying questions. 

“So it wouldn’t work unless you banned the agencies doing the entering. But then the award shows would probably die. I think the industry only pays lip service to clamping down on scam. Everyone condemns it but we still see the same blatantly obvious campaigns getting lauded around the world every year.” 

What makes for a great client?

“One who treats you like a partner, and demands something better. We don’t expect all clients to be nice and friendly. Firm and fair and demanding for the right reasons is good. But mutual respect is important. It works both ways.” 

What makes for a bad client?

“One who knows what they want and instructs you to do it with no interest in your opinion. Add to that a lack of respect and it’s probably someone you wouldn’t want to work with. Personally I can’t tolerate rude people, they have no place at the business table. When you have your own agency, you can avoid that.” 

Can you outline the opportunities ahead, as you see them, for the industry? 

“I don’t want to contradict myself, but it’s very interesting to me how technology has opened up so many possibilities in the way brands can connect with consumers. We see new examples every year – ideas that make us rethink what’s possible.

“Whether it’s embracing VR or simple ideas that can change the way we look after ourselves, like the recent Pre Check app for Breast Cancer Foundation of New Zealand. Or the Heineken AR Cheers campaign in China.

“That said, call me old fashioned but I still think outdoor is a very potent and underused (or used in the wrong way) medium. Brands could do a lot worse than focusing on doing noticeable, simple work in the outdoor space. It’s almost become a forgotten channel, which has to be included on the media plan just for the sake of it. If you’re looking for opportunities, I think we could do with a bit of back to the basics. Building brands the old fashioned way. Forget AR, outdoor is the future.” 

And, conversely, what are the big threats to the industry – whether its consultancies, in-housing, technology or something else entirely? 

“One of the biggest threats is how cheap we’ve become, thanks in no small part to how technology has made everything quicker and easier. A good example of this is with film production costs. Now everyone is a director and editor and can execute your film for $25. 

“Of course clients are happy, why not? Cheaper is good. But the quality suffers and there needs to be a perspective on the balance between quality and price. Especially from the perspective of a major brand with an image to uphold.” 

Are you paid well, or not enough, by your employer for what you bring to the table? 

“I have my own agency and our clients pay us well enough. We try not to compete on cost, and would rather give up an opportunity just to pull a client through the door if it means compromising our fees. I know that undercutting is not unusual and it’s bad for the industry.” 

Looking to industry talent – is it more difficult now to find the right people now than say 10 years ago  – given the pace of technological change – and how do you see this playing out over the next decade? 

“Yes I think the industry suffers from an image problem, it’s not seen as sexy anymore. Helped in no small part because of the digital industry becoming a more exciting option, and bright young ambitious people would rather be planning their future at somewhere like Facebook or Google. There are more exciting options now. But everything is related. 

“If more great work was seen in the public eye, maybe young people would aspire to want to be a part of that world (like the young me, once).” 

Mental health is a taboo topic for the industry, but given the long hours, short deadlines and sometimes unreasonable demands on staff – are you as a leader doing enough to combat the effects of stress within your organisation?

“When we started this agency, we wanted to create a healthy environment where young people could pursue their careers, work hard, but enjoy a normal life, having seen the outrageous hours some people have to work in this industry in my past lives. 

“And you know what? It’s completely within your control as a business manager. First of all, nurture good relationships with clients, based on mutual respect. If you get this right you can manage deadlines and expectations on work turnaround. We do not have a single client who expects us to be on call at 8pm or on weekends. Yet if they did contact us at such a time, we would come running to help. 

“I would gladly help any of our clients on a Sunday if they had an urgent need. Mutual respect. Also, we set very fixed hours. Come in by 9.30am (our clients start early, so should we). None of this drifting in by 11.30am bullshit. Working more decent hours means that most of our staff leave by 6.30 -7pm latest on average. They have a life. Sure sometimes we burn the midnight oil a bit, but that’s not normal.”

If your children wanted to enter this industry, would you say it was a good idea or a bad idea? 

“I would not discourage, but, I would give good advice about where to pursue a good career. I would not want a child of mine drifting through a meaningless career.” 

I’ve heard industry leaders state that ‘everything will be programmatic soon’. Is that a good or a bad thing – and why? 

“I think it’s a very good thing when it comes to effectiveness. However, I don’t think it’s entirely true that everything will be programmatic. Because it doesn’t factor in that there is still a need for creativity. 

“Programmatic placement can only be as effective as the creative content being used. Also, we’ve seen the wonders of great creative ideas in ambient media, usually driven by awards-hungry creatives. There is no way that sort of thing can be automated.” 

With internet peer reviews now driving the last mile to purchase for consumers, is the traditional marketing funnel dead? 

“No. Are we talking about KOLs? For a start, they can only offer an opinion, people still have to make up their own minds, and there are other factors which influence that. On top of that, there is a lot of scepticism about the validity of what KOLs write, especially when it’s known they are paid. 

“It’s similar to using celebrities in ads. Consumers are not stupid: they can see when someone has been paid to say or represent something, especially with the blind use of celebrities we see in advertising today. Having said that, some KOLs have real power for sure, and now in China they’re talking about KOCs (Key Opinion Consumers). But even the most influential KOL can’t flog a brand that has a poor image in the first place. Everything has to work hand in hand.”

How valuable is creativity in the modern industry landscape so dominated by technology and automation? 

“More important than ever. Technology and automation only represent tools in the toolkit. There is too much emphasis on just target reach. However, as I’ve said, that’s nothing without the power of a great idea. Let’s not forget or underestimate the need for brand building. 

“When consumers have a brand relationship, it means the selling process, embracing technology and automation, is made easier.” 

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the rise of artificial intelligence and its effect upon your industry? 

“Optimistic, I guess. AI is improving the whole digital advertising experience, especially when it comes to identifying more focused consumer groups and improving the effectiveness of messages. It’s not something I worry about, until they introduce the first robot creative director (I think they have right?).” 

Virtual personal assistants and artificial intelligence – should marketers be scared or view the technology as an opportunity? 

“The technology can only do so much. It’s great if it means offloading previously time-consuming and meaningless tasks from someone who’s time could be better spent. But you still need people to think for certain roles. 

“Having said that, I remember years ago having a secretary. To help me plan my day, book my trips, and generally organise me. Thanks to technology, the idea of that today would be a complete waste of time and money. I can do it all myself with ease. Of course, I still have to make my own coffee.”

How long will it be before ‘voice’ becomes a force in marketing?

“It will be interesting to see where this goes, I guess it would work a bit like SEO. Imagine Alexa reading out brand messages like those old sponsored TV shows in the 50s – ‘Here is today’s weather and this message is brought to you by blah blah.’”

Esports – is it an opportunity or waste of energy for marketers?

“Sure it’s an opportunity, especially for brands targeting the gaming generation. If that’s their world, you need to be a part of it. It’s not going to go away, and is producing its own superstars. But it still requires brands to create a well-integrated and relevant, long-term business approach.”

New millennial platforms are emerging like Twitch, TikTok and Snapchat – which of them, if any, will own the future? 

“None. There are other things people need to do with their lives than just have a bit of online fun. Of course the growth is impressive (especially TikTok and Twitch which I believe is owned by Amazon), but they just represent more options for specific targeting. 

“I’m very interested in branded podcasts and I think that’s a channel which is completely underestimated with so much potential for delivering intelligent content.” 

The Google and Facebook duopoly – do you love or hate it? 

“I don’t love or hate it. Of course I can see why some people are concerned about it swallowing up the entire advertising universe, but we live in a world which is constantly evolving. Facebook is already seen as irrelevant to younger audiences and who knows what will emerge next? Maybe right now the power of their domination helps keep people on their toes.” 

Finally, which international market will lead the way for your industry over the next 50 years and why? 

“China. Creatively it’s still evolving and although the economy may have its ups and downs, you can’t ignore the potential. If you look at the creativity of its arts, movie and music industries, the talent is always there.

“Where China is really leading the charge is in its completely interconnected digital ecosystems; everything you need to do every day is in the palm of your hand. Still very early days.”


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