The CMO Show:
The CMO Show: Graham Fink...

The age of global brand campaigns has promised to translate key messaging across culture borders, but has it been effective? Can creative really be centralised, or is flexibility in localised messaging the key to success? 

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In our opening episode for 2016, chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather in China Graham Fink joins Mark and JV to talk all things creativity, curiosity and culture.

Graham’s entrance into the advertising industry was almost as magnificent as his career has been. As a student he walked into a top advertising agency in London but was rejected for his lack of experience.

Not to be deterred he returned a few days later, this time dressed as an old man (white talcom-powered hair, painted wrinkles and all). He greeted the receptionist and said,”call the creative director up and tell him that the senior team is here.

And thus marks Graham’s first role in advertising, and some of the lateral thinking he would become renowned for throughout his career.

“You’ve got to look at the patterns, the semiotics, codings and you’ve got to work out what’s going to touch these people,” Graham says, of operating across cultures. “It’s no good putting stuff out there if it’s just highly creative. It’s got to touch people. It’s got to tap into the Zeitgeist and resonate with people.”

Of global brand campaigns, Graham’s motto is that it’s possible, but it’s difficult.

“In China you’ve got 34 difference provinces and Millward Brown will tell you that what works in one province only has a 52% chance of working in another,” Graham says.

“But I think that it does come back to those basic human truths that unite everyone… Those basic human truths where if you can tap into it, you’ll resonate, and it doesn’t matter whether an ad is running in Brazil or whether it’s running in China, London or the States – people just get it.”

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The CMO Show production team

Producer – Megan Wright

Audio Engineer – Jonny McNee

Design Manager – Daniel Marr

Graphic Designer – Chris Gresham-Britt

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Participants – Mark Jones (MJ)
Jeanne-Vida Douglas (JVD)
Graham Fink (GF) 

JVD: Now, I’m here with the fabulous Graham Fink who has a stellar history in advertising and some very inspiring stories no doubt over the years.  Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing here at the ANA conference and what some of the really exciting ideas are that you’re hoping to share?

GF: I’m very interested in culture having moved from London culture to Chinese culture, a lot of, a lot of big differences and I wanted to share that idea with everyone here, that everything that we do between an agency and a client gets put out into culture. So we just have to be very careful what we’re putting out there.

JVD: Now, you’ve been involved in some campaigns that have been memorable I think because they’ve combined cultural aspects with brands. Can you tell me a little bit about the thinking process that you go through when you’re, when you’re designing I guess or working, designing a new campaign or working with a new client? How do you get them to think more deeply than I guess just what they want to say?

GF: Well, there’s that expression, ‘Interrogate the product until it confesses’ and I think it’s not just about interrogating a product, it’s about interrogating your client because, you know, talking about culture there’s an agency culture, there’s a client culture and you really need to understand each other before you can, before you can start work and you really need to understand what you’re trying to do and it may be not what they think it is.

You’ve got to look at what’s going on around you. You’ve got to look at the patterns, the semiotics, codings and you’ve got to work out what’s going to touch these people. It’s no good putting stuff out there if it’s just highly creative. It’s got to touch people. It’s got to tap into the Zeitgeist and resonate with people.

JVD: Now, when you’re up on the stage you showed us this game that you play about sort of recognising faces and recog – in, in, in apparently abstract images. I’m wondering if that’s, well, what struck me if you like is, is that is the way that you’re constantly sort of looking for patterns and looking for new ideas and I’m wondering if you can actually teach others that, that thirst for patterns, that thirst for connecting up ideas or if it’s something that you believe is essentially innate.

GF: I think it’s in all of us. I think that, you know it’s well-known if we go out and look up at the sky and you see clouds, you always kind of see faces in it and as a kid I would spend hours looking at the fire to see faces in it and it’s something we always see.

The, the human brain always tries to see patterns in things and it, not, for me it’s not just about working in a creative business in advertising, looking for patterns and trying to find things but I like this street culture, this stuff that I do when I walk down the street and I see faces in rocks and cracks in the pavement and over the years I’ve shot thousands and thousands of them and I call them ghosts because they’re kind of there and lots of people don’t realise them and they, they change because it might be made out of a swish of a bit of mud or a crack in the wall that maybe at some other point gets plastered over.

So, you know, I find that very interesting and when I’m working with clients that whole thing about really exploring the brand is, is very much the, the same thing.

JVD: And can you tell us a little bit about I guess the next 12 months, 2016, what, what are you paying attention to? What do you think it will hold?

GF: Well, it’s always very dangerous to make predictions and especially in China because it moves so fast, I swear the molecules move faster there. I do think we’re, we go so fast that, you know, in June I call up my friends in London and they’re still in January.

But seriously, it’s evolving so fast. Social media there is huge. It’s not just a way of connecting with people, it’s almost a way of life and in China it’s, it’s a way of, because people are often very, very humble and they don’t really say very much in their day-to-day life but on, on social media they can express themselves and I, I wonder, probably because you, you can’t see them and it’s a little bit anonymous but they do say stuff and they express themselves so much more.

So it’s almost kind of like freedom of speech and as long as you’re not knocking the government, in which case your tweet will be taken down, but some very interesting stuff comes out there and we have social people that sit and monitor this stuff every day and they’re always telling us what, what people are talking about, what the latest thing is and of course that feeds into our creativity and, and, and some of the ideas and the campaigns that we do.

JVD: Given that you’ve had this chance to sort of create, create global campaigns and you’re now in a country where, where for all sorts of cultural reasons you’ve been misunderstood and you’ve probably misunderstood things around you, do you think there really is, it really is possible to create a global message, to create a, a, a, an idea which resonates with all of us just because we’re human?

GF: I think it is possible. It’s difficult. I mean, in China you’ve got 34 different provinces and Millward Brown will tell you that what works in one province only has a 52% chance of working in another and there’s many different languages, you know, not everybody speaks Mandarin. In Shanghai everyone speaks Shanghainese and so if you’re not from Shanghai you can’t understand it.

So a lot of cultural differences but I think that there – you can come back to basic human truths and that is the thing that does, you know, unite everyone. I mean, we all like going on holiday, you know, we all like having some time off with our friends, we like going to a restaurant or a bar or having a drink and there’s basic human truths where if you can tap into it, you resonate and it doesn’t matter whether that ad is running in Brazil or whether it’s running in China or London or the States, you know, people get it.

JVD: What is it that you’d like to explain or that you get frustrated that other, other people don’t understand about China and about the Chinese culture and the Chinese market?

GF: Well, interestingly when I go back to London, you know, people know very little about China and they think, you know, they’ve probably heard of Shanghai and Beijing. They hear that there’s a great wall that you can see from space which apparently is not true and they’ve heard about Chairman Mao and there’s not very much else that they really know about and when you’re there, you know, my eyes were, were just opened to so many incredible things and there is so much creativity there and I think it’s just a matter of trying to reveal it.

It’s a matter of giving, certainly in my creative department the confidence for people to experiment and say the wrong thing because in China and in Asia, you know, the concept of face is very important so people don’t like to, to, to say the wrong thing. They don’t want to get it wrong. So you have to give them lots of confidence. You have to make them, them feel safe.

But there is huge creativity there. It’s not just a nation that copies although, you know, you do see that a lot. I think it’s a nation that is full of undiscovered talent, of talent that is finding its, its voice again, maybe after the Cultural Revolution and, you know, it’s an extraordinary place to be.

JVD: Just, just finally speaking about sort of undiscovered talent, you told a beautiful story about a young man you reached out to who designed a, an Apple logo in commemoration of Steve Jobs’ passing. Can you just tell us a little bit about I guess the, the story in a nutshell if you could but also just if you’re still in contact today and where you’d like to see him go to and blossom with his talents?

GF: Well, it is a great story and it’s one I always tell people because he designed this, you know, the, the Apple logo with the silhouette with Steve Jobs and the minute I saw it I thought it was a great piece of thinking and although I was in London at the time I just, we made a connection with him and I flew to Hong Kong to meet him and a few months later I sent him the Coke brief and he came up with this idea and it ended up winning the Grand Prix.

He’s the youngest ever Grand Prix winner and I flew him to Cannes to come and pick the award up on stage with me and it is a lovely story because he still, he was still at college at the time. He was only 19 and he said, “Oh…” I said, I said, “You’ve got to come down to Cannes tomorrow. We’re going to fly you down” and he said, “Oh, I can’t come tomorrow. I’ve got this very important student presentation to all our main tutors” and I said, “I don’t realise quite what you’ve, what you’ve done here.”

So, you know, we flew him down. He was kind of like a celebrity for a whole week and what he’s done is he’s created a piece of work that is very inspiring but I think that whole story is inspiring because he’s never done a piece of advertising in his life and the very first piece of advertising that he does turns into the most awarded ad in Coca-Cola’s history. So we keep in touch.

I’m not sure where he is now because I saw him in Hong Kong about six months ago and he was thinking of going to America. He didn’t want to get into advertising as such, it’s more designing. He was very interested in animation. But he’s a lovely guy and he’s got a fantastic brain and actually when you talk to him he, he just sees things in a very, very different way.

His thinking is different, the way he sees things is different and actually I think that a lot of kids from, from – a lot of students at that age, if they’d won the Grand Prix in Cannes and they were say from London, I think, you know, it all would have gone to their head and, you know, they’d probably burn out a year later. But this guy, he just quietly takes his Grand Prix and he just takes it home and puts it on his shelf and gets on with his life and I think he’s got an amazing attitude.

JVD: Graham, You’ve been very generous with your time. So thank you very much for joining The CMO Show.

GF: Thank you very much.

JVD: Cheers.

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