Tham Khai Meng on Cannes Lions 2017

Ahead of this year’s Cannes Lions, which begins on Saturday, we talk to two of this year’s awards jury presidents, and ask their views of the festival. First up is Ogilvy & Mather’s Worldwide Co-Chairman and CCO Tham Khai Meng, who is leading the Titanium jury this year.

Tham Khai Meng

CR: What are you hoping to see in the Titanium category this year? What do you think the Titanium category has brought to Cannes Lions?

TKM: I hope to see work that transcends the ordinary. Titanium is the home of game-changers and mould-breakers. It is for work that defies easy categorisation. Titanium celebrates perhaps the greatest human faculty of all. And that is imagination – we want to celebrate the magical ability to create ideas of things that don’t exist. It’s not all about shiny new tech.

When I judged this category in 2009, I remember without fail, every morning of judging there would be an argument about the definition of the category. At that time we were surrounded by a blizzard of new technologies and platforms but this, of course, is not what Titanium was set up to celebrate.

I believe at its heart it’s about work that is so fresh, powerful and unexpected that it isn’t clear what category it belongs in. But it feels so ‘right’, it demands recognition somewhere. It’s the category for the uncategorisable.

It also reminds us to honour and celebrate the winners in this category and the courage of those who fought for them. Let’s be clear, no Titanium winner exists without anyone fighting for them. It celebrates the cracked ones that let light into this world.

CR: Do you think Cannes Lions is consistent in reflecting the best of the ad industry?

TKM: Cannes Lions is the pre-eminent festival that consistently reflects and celebrates the best ideas from our industry. It’s a showcase that provokes, inspires and lights the way forward. It’s adrenaline charged and it’s highly competitive. Only the best minds from around the world are chosen to judge the work which means Cannes Lions will only be as good as the judges they select.

CR: Are there too many awards in Cannes Lions?

TKM: I understand that the number of categories has been capped because it affects the amount of awards given out. As for the awards themselves, it’s imperative that we continue to be judicious with the number of Lions awarded each year. It is essential that this credo is upheld by my fellow judges and the organisers themselves. It’s fundamental to the value of every single Lion. This fact cannot be over emphasised.

That’s why I think it’s a good thing to see less Lions and no Grand Prix awarded in the dry years in certain categories. And rightly so. Look, our job as judges is to not only uphold creative standards for the industry, but also to only award the rare and truly gifted creative prophets who show us the way.

CR: Cannes Lions has in the recent past been accused of being an echo chamber for the industry, reflecting obscure ideas rather than the ad work most of the public see – what do you think of this accusation? Do you think this matters?

TKM: Populist and global work like Unilever Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, Metro Trains’ Dumb Ways to Die, the ALS #IceBucketChallenge, Coca-Cola’s Share a Coke, and the consistently iconic Nike work that wins every year are perfect examples of work we all know and love. They don’t need any introduction because these ideas are bigger than award shows. They have transcended into pop culture.

Of course some obscure local and regional work wins, but so what? I don’t think that matters because we’re here to celebrate great ideas from around the world. The last time I looked, great ideas come from everywhere. They come from every corner of the world, which includes local work.

You gotta remember not every client brief is a global brief. A campaign that ran in Japan may not have been seen by someone living in Jakarta or Jersey City. It was made solely for a Japanese audience. Of course it was! So, if the idea is disruptively outstanding and highly effective for the Japanese, it’s only right that it’s championed in Cannes.

Sure it’s obscure to those who haven’t seen it but that’s all the more reason the work needs to be celebrated. Isn’t it the job of the juries to shine a light on these hidden gems?

CR: Diversity has been a hot topic for the last few years in advertising – do you see change happening in this area? If not, what more should be done?

TKM: I am ethnically Chinese, born in Singapore, studied in London and made New York my home. I’ve worked on every continent on earth, except Antarctica. I consider myself a global citizen. I have experienced and pondered the diversity question on every level, first hand.

We’ve been talking about diversity for too damn long. Today’s workforce does not tolerate the slightest lack of diversity, and rightly so. Businesses around the world are waking up to this fact. Because it has not jumped walls and cultures fast enough, it is essential that the industry accelerates this agenda fast forward. Enough talk already. Let’s walk the walk. Let’s walk together to make the change.

The Cannes Lions festival takes place from June 17-24; canneslions.com

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