Chris Kyme (pictured) continues his ‘Postcard from Hong Kong’ series and again he remembers the memory of a lost friend. RIP Mike Fromowitz.
In memory of lost friends (again)
This is getting to be a not very pleasant habit. Last month I wrote of the passing of a good friend and past creative colleague, and here I am now called upon to do the same.
This week sad news has been top of mind within the Asian advertising community, as we heard about the loss in the Philippines of much respected award-winning creative leader Eugene Demata, CCO of Grey Manila.
I did not know Eugene personally, I knew of his work. I am sure he will be greatly missed and my condolences to his friends and family.
I was however a long time friend of Mike Fromowitz, a past Asian creative leader from the ‘glory’ days of Hong Kong advertising, who also died this week. Mike (pictured below) was well known to a few generations of Asia’s finest over the years, and the news has sent ripples of mourning across social media, with tributes coming in from many who knew or knew of him.
Mike was one of the leading figures behind the creative rise and dominance of The Ball Partnership in Hong Kong in the 80s, and one half of the legendary duo of ‘the two Mikes’, along with the late, great Mike Chu and management team of people such as Bennett Chiu, Ronald Yu and Richard White-Smith.
Pictured above Mike Fromowitz (left) with Michael Ball and Mike Chu
Ball Partnership was formed in Hong Kong with the merger of what was then Meridian Advertising, a breakaway agency formed by Michael Ball to counter conflicting account opportunities. When the outgoing creative directors John Doig and Ross Sutherland left for New York, Mike Fromowitz, a Canadian, was brought in to replace them.
As he explained to me once in his own words. “I came out to Hong Kong in 1983 as Creative Director of Meridian. Back in North America, we had a tradition of advertising. We grew up with it – TV, radio, billboards, magazine and newspaper ads – It was always there. It was part of our lives. In the blood so-to-speak. This was not the case for locals practicing advertising in Hong Kong at the time. They knew the names David Ogilvy and Leo Burnett because their names were on the door. But they had no idea about who Bill Bernbach was nor the brilliant campaigns his agency produced. The early eighties was an exciting time as many locals in the ad business started to come into their own; they learned fast and smart, and soaked stuff in like sponges. I’m proud to say that many of them today are running their own agencies or are key figures in them.”
Mike set about making a name for himself and his new agency in Hong Kong. He devised a plan of attack, and decided to focus his attention on the local awards. The Hong Kong Kam Fan awards was still in its infancy at that stage, and he brought with him a new air of confidence that was to wake the local scene up a bit.
“I decided in mid 1984, that Meridian would become Hong Kong’s best print advertising shop with what little budgets and opportunities for good work that we did have from our short list of clients.”
It started to work and in his first year, the agency came 7th overall in the local show. But bigger plans were afoot. With Meridian becoming a bit of a thorn in the side for O&M, Michael Ball bought a 60% share of the agency, and renamed it The Ball Partnership, eyeing up a deal with WCRS from London, who were keen to expand their footprint to Asia. Ball persuaded the London agency to include Mike Chu’s local hotshop Synergy as part of the deal and so a marriage was on the cards.
The coming together of two local creative agencies and their respective partners worked a treat. Ball Partnership became the go to agency in town for cutting edge creative work, operating under the two Mikes two halves of one. Mike Chu delivering his own style of simple, art direction-driven ideas, and Mike Fromowitz now getting into overdrive with his new found freedom and power as Chairman and Creative Director (a real one, these days everyone is a creative director).
Charles Brian-Boys, who worked closely as part of the management team with Mike at Ball, and then later at Batey, was one who’s career was greatly influenced by him.
“I remember Mike most of all as a gentle man. Not in the English sense – he was very much Canadian – but in his manner and kind spirit. He always had plenty of good things to say about other people, especially those he worked with in the ad business. And he knew many. In all the time that I worked with Mike at The Ball Partnership, and later Batey Ads, I don’t recall a single time he said a negative thing to anyone, or about anyone. Sure, he had an ego, but it came from his pride in the agencies and people he led.”
Creatives and account people all came under Mike’s spell. Tommy Cheng was also an account man at the agency. “Mike was a visionary. With the calibre to work with all talents of various personalities.”
Under him talented creatives flourished. One of his star teams combined Singaporean art director Tan Khiang (TK) with British copywriter Simon Hayward. Year after year the team turned out some exceptional and globally recognised work for clients such as Sheraton Hotel, Suzuki, and Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre. TK looks back on those as very happy days.
Suzuki & HK Convention Centre – Ball Partnership ads under Mike (Team: Suzuki: Jimmy Lam, Kasey Lin, Helen Lai HKCEC: Tan Khiang, Simon Hayward)
“Mike brought Simon Hayward and myself up from Singapore to Hong Kong. He believed in giving people opportunities. He was a delight to work with, never saying no to those ideas, pushing us in the right directions. And always with a joke to top it off. Mike is loved and liked by many. He will be greatly missed.”
Charles Brian-Boys agrees. “That was how Mike worked. He was a decent creative himself, but he nurtured the greatest from others work. By challenging them to do better and by giving them tremendous self belief. He combined that sensitivity with a fairly wicked, if at times corny, sense of humour and an unflagging enthusiasm. He was a mentor, a friend and a great companion throughout. Whether we were in the shit or picking up (yet another) gong we were in it together. He was Mike.”
Doug Brown was a young copywriter at Ball under Mike: “I cried when I heard the news about Mike’s death. He was my friend. He took a leap of faith hiring me to the hottest agency in town when I only had a year of writing ads under my belt, and not a single decent ad to show for it. “You’ll get better”, he said. And over the next 3 years he made sure I did. I learned an awful lot from Mike Fromowitz and owe him a great deal. We crossed paths at the start of my career, he put me in the right direction, and we stayed in touch until his passing. As an Ad Man, he was legendary.”
Around the same time, The Ball Partnership Singapore was also cultivating an equally formidable creative reputation under the creative stewardship of one Neil French, and the effect at the Media & Marketing Awards (now Spikes and then the only regional show in Asia) was notable. Mike F and Neil naturally got on and were both enjoying the somewhat notoriety which came with the agency’s reputation and was enhanced in the pages of the neat, simple agency booklets they were producing.
By the late 80s, The Ball Partnership was about to evolve, with the Euro network buying a bigger share in what became Ball Partnership Euro RSCG. Mike Chu left to start his own media business and Mike F took up a new role at Bates in Hong Kong, then a not exactly creatively respected agency. He was about to change all that.
Mike was wooed to Bates, which was then to be renamed BSB (Backer Spielvogel Bates) by Carl Spielvogel. At first he was not sure whether he should take up the role, as he once told me. “My point of view on BSB was one of a very lackluster ad agency group in Asia. I was not very impressed by their work at all and the agency was very much run by account management – the creative department and creativity was really seen as a commodity. My first impression after talks with some of the management was that this was not a shop for me – too much bureaucracy to overcome. If I was to leave Ball I thought, I’d want to go to an agency group that had more creativity in their blood.”
But Speilvogel was a persuasive man and convinced Fromowitz he wanted BSB in Asia to be seen as a “creative shop, win awards, and become as respected for it as The Ball Partnership. Mike joined up with a great management team of Jeffrey Yu, Laurie Kwong and Chris Jacques.
Under Mike’s creative stewardship, the teams at BSB began producing award-winning work. Creatives such as Phil Marchington & Steve Elrick, Andy Lish, Tony Yeung, were all to benefit from his knack for nurturing client relationships and getting good work out of them.
It was around one and a half years before the collective vision began to pay dividends. At the local Kam Fan awards work on clients such as Mandarin Oriental hotel, SPCA, Shell, Rover cars and the Hong Kong government ( the Legco “Feather” TV commercial was politically very sensitive at the time and went on to win a Cannes award). By 1992, the agency won 20% of all the awards handed out at the Hong Kong 4A’s awards.
Award winning Preparation H campaign under Mike at Bates (Steve Elrick & Phil Marchington)
Chris Jacques has great memories of working with him. “Mike was magic. I loved the guy. One of the world’s great art directors, he could make anything look breath-taking and make everyone take notice: clients, customers, media and awards juries. Deeply ambitious, he drove great work through every barrier. Filled with energy and enthusiasm, he inspired everyone to lift their game. As a partner and a friend, he was a crazy, passionate joy to work with. My god, advertising was wonderful back then – and Mike was at the heart of it all.”
In just three years at BSB (eventually called Bates again) Mike had once again made his mark, and the agency was named Asia’s Agency of the Year in 1992. In 1995, Mike joined another renowned Asian agency network, Batey Ads, as Chairman and Executive Creative Director where he remained for two years, helping the agency win the Best of the Best award at the local Kam Fans (The Kam Fan) for a beautifully emotional campaign for Ericsson phones shot by legendary Chinese film director Zhang Yimou.
Mike’s next move was to the fairly newly established Asia network of TBWA, where, based in Singapore, he was the first Regional Creative Director in Asia, and helped them establish their presence into 13 countries across Asia. After which it was back to North America as V.P and ECD of BBDO New York.
I remained in good contact with Mike over the years. He returned to Canada and, having established his own creative agency to keep himself interested, he eventually retired. He came to Hong Kong once or twice to catch up and we looked back on those years with great fondness and pride.
I almost worked for him once. Having been interviewed, I was completely seduced by his calm professional confidence, his passion (showing me how carefully he printed out proofs of every agency ad they were proud of at Ball Partnership) and most of all, because I knew that my own career would blossom under his magic wand the way it had for others. Alas, with me actually clutching my letter of appointment, he announced he was leaving the agency, and I tore up the letter. Although Ball continued to do good work after his departure, the agency itself wasn’t why I wanted to leave an already good job. He was.
When I took up the challenge of writing a book about those fun days of Hong Kong advertising called Made in Hong Kong, with my friend and another ex colleague of Mike’s, Tommy Cheng, Mike was a huge source of help. We had so many stories from him and he helped getting so much information right. He had so much to tell I joked at the time we should have called it ‘The Mike Fromowitz story’.
Perhaps now, finally, I get to write it.
Not long before he passed away, he was asking me on email for the contact details of an old colleague, which I duly looked up and passed to him. His last ever words to me were. “Thanks Chris, you’re a true friend.”
I hope I was. Because he was a true inspiration.
I want to leave you with a couple of great stories about how Mike worked and inspired people.
Charles Brian-Boys: “One Christmas I found an envelope addressed to me on my desk on a Friday night. Inside was a lovely handwritten note from Mike saying in effect, that I was one of the most important contributors to the year’s result and that Ball couldn’t have done it without me.
In addition to a generous bonus he emphasised that the amount and the note shouldn’t be shared with anyone, as it was likely to cause upset. There was only one problem – the letter inside the envelope was addressed to Simon Hayward, our CD. Guessing what might have happened I rolled over to his office and, sure enough, Simon had the identical handwritten letter using the same words and the same bonus. Sure he made a mistake but the point was, he took the time to write both (and no doubt others) by hand.”
Doug Brown: “After a year or so with Ball, my art director and I were put in charge of the production of a commercial we’d written. We didn’t know what we were doing and totally messed it up. The shoot went all day and all night. When Mike saw the footage, which was unusable, he was livid. He called us into his office separately, me first. He wanted to know which of us was responsible for this disaster. I said it was my fault, my inexperience. I knew I was going to get sacked. But as it turned out, my art director backed me up. “I blame Doug for this, he didn’t know what he was doing”, he told Mike. Mike fired my art director on the spot. Then he called me back into his office and said to me, in a very Mike-way: “The thing is, is this: you never rat on your partner.”
Chris Kyme is Co-founder and Creative Director at Kymechow, Hong Kong.