Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

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Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

Chris Kyme continues his “Postcard from Hong Kong” series and this month his topic is are we living in the 1950s again?? …..


There was a scene in the TV series Mad Men which was a brilliant bit of a nod to those watching who have made their careers in the advertising world, where Don Draper and his esteemed colleagues first encounter the original DDB Volkswagen ‘Think small’ ad as it ran in the newspapers for the first time.

The reactions to seeing it ranged from shock, confusion and utter disbelief to feelings of fear, that perhaps something significant had just happened that would change the world they lived in forever. “I don’t know what I hate about it the most” muttered Don as he poured his first scotch of the day at 10am.

Because car ads didn’t look like that. They had big show-off photos of shiny new Chevrolet Impalas with the whole happy family going for a ride and headlines like “Chevy puts the purr into performance”. Car ads followed a formula for success. So did shampoo ads. Washing machine ads, and so on.

With one brilliant, simple and brave zig when everyone was zagging, DDB broke that mould. It was the start of a revolution. That’s not to say that other pioneering individuals were not quietly in on the revolution, and we who have grown up in the industry and attended our history lessons are well versed in some of the groundbreaking work that came from that period across print, outdoor and TV advertising. It was a truly inspirational time, and creativity continued to evolve over the decades.

Which makes me wonder, looking around what I see every day, have we all gone through some sort of time warp and are now living back in the 50s?

Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

Now I know that every year we continue to see wonderfully inventive work popping up in award shows (we see, I didn’t say the general public sees), but call me old fashioned, I always use what I see in the public eye every day as a barometer for what’s going on.

Real ads. Ads designed to flog stuff, with budgets behind them. And if you base your observations on that criteria, well, it’s pretty depressing.

I live in Hong Kong, so I can only comment on what I see around me every day, although I’m sure this is not unique to just this market, but we are living in a new age of crass formula. Think about it.

– Beauty ads must show healthy, heavily retouched celebrities
– Baby formula ads must show happy healthy toddlers looking like the next Einstein
– Food ads must show happy families eating together
– Car ads must show exciting, heavily retouched photos of super models in action
– Property ads (at least in this part of the world) must show rich, glamorous couples about to embark on a new chapter of successful living in a place with a French sounding name
– Business ads must show two business people shaking hands after doing a deal
– Fast food ads must show great exciting food shots with heavily weighted messages about the latest promotional deals
– Watch ads all have the exact same photo of a watch and a celebrity

I have a presentation I sometimes give where I created a ‘wall of happiness’. It was a general collection of outdoor ads which illustrated the point that the standard creative solution to every single creative brief in every single category was to show happy, smiling customers. Job done.

Copy? Great headlines? What are they?

There is no thinking outside the box because the box has been sealed and locked and the key is somewhere at the bottom of the ocean.

Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

Years ago, I recall an internal review at one of my past agencies where a very senior client service person was listening to TV ideas for a brand of jeans. We were sharing something which I thought was, a bit different. Something fresh. Which was immediately rejected by my all-knowing colleague. “Oh no, that’s not a jeans ad, Jeans ads are meant to have sexy girls and cool music.” I’d heard similar comments about beer. “Beer ads are supposed to show gorgeous sunlit ingredients falling and talk about the taste.”

Needless to say I was wondering if I was in the right place. Because I wasn’t raised that way. I was raised to try and think the opposite of what everyone else was doing. Do not show ideas that are even remotely like what someone else is doing or your job is on the line.

Compare my experience with that of the great Dave Trott (I have never been even in the same league) who told an audience once that when he was setting up Gold Greenlees Trott, Mike Greenless told him he wanted to start an agency with him because he was “Scared shitless every time I have to go and present your ideas”.

In today’s world it’s actually really hard to stick to this philosophy, even if your creative aspirations have not been battered to death by a million rejections by formula-minded clients who know what they want and won’t sign off until they see it. And if you don’t watch yourself, you end up being brainwashed into falling in line with that. It’s really hard to sell in something different.

I feel for young creative people working in agencies today. I know that the world we live in is not just about print ads, posters and TV. I get that. I get that we’re thinking social media, ambient media, online films, event ideas and customer experience. But even then, how much of it is fresh and different? Of course, when we do see another Burger King ‘Net Neutrality’ or Nike ‘Believe in something’ all over the world stage, it fires people up.

It’s easy to observe and comment and criticize I know, and I’m the first to admit that my own agency has turned out its fair share of ‘bread and butter’ that I’d maybe rather not hold up for comment but we do because we need to pay the rent. We all have to face the reality of daily life. But every now and then, we get a little victory. One that sneaks through. That makes you feel good and want to get up every day. You have to not give up, to keep trying it on whenever you sniff an opportunity.

Back to the outdoor world. It’s such a brilliant medium. In everyone’s faces every day. You can’t miss it. Shouldn’t it represent the best of what we can do? Shouldn’t it make people want to work in our industry and aspire to doing great work? Yet, for the most part, it’s embarrassing.

Our industry should aspire to do better. I’d rather be living in the future, not the past.

Chris Kyme is Co-founder and Creative Director at Kymechow, Hong Kong.