Ogilvy fires Tham Khai Meng: 7 things to know about the Singaporean advertising veteran

Mr Tham Khai Meng was found in breach of company policies after complaints on his behaviour surfaced two weeks ago.
Mr Tham Khai Meng was found in breach of company policies after complaints on his behaviour surfaced two weeks ago.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Global ad giant Ogilvy on Thursday (July 12) fired Mr Tham Khai Meng, a Singaporean and its longtime worldwide chief creative officer, over alleged misconduct.

Mr Tham, who is married and in his 60s, was found in breach of company policies after complaints on his behaviour surfaced two weeks ago.

New York-based The Ogilvy Group announced Mr Tham's termination in an internal memo, and the news came as a shock to many who worked with him.

Widely influential in the advertising industry, Mr Tham became the first Asian and Singaporean worldwide chief creative officer in 2009.

Here are seven things you need to know about the advertising veteran.

1. After university, he landed his first job in advertising

Mr Tham graduated with first class honours at Central Saint Martins in London with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

This led to a scholarship to pursue a Master of Arts in film at the Royal College of Art London.

He landed his first job in advertising at communications firm Leo Burnett, initially at its London office and later at its headquarters in Chicago.

In 1996, he became executive creative director for Batey Ads in Singapore, where he quickly gained prominence for his work on brands such as Singapore Airlines.

In a 2013 interview with The Business Times, he said: "Some of my fondest memories in advertising are connected to the Singapore Girl. My journey in advertising started with her."

Through Batey's work, the kebaya-clad Singapore Girl became an internationally recognised icon of SIA's in-flight service.

And till today, it remains widely regarded in the industry as a textbook case on brand building.

He continued to contribute to his alma maters by teaching several master classes.

2. He joined Ogilvy in 1999, rising through the ranks

He left Batey Ads and moved to New York in 1999 to take on the role of Ogilvy & Mather's regional creative director of its Asia Pacific Network.

 
 

There, he was named Campaign Brief Asia's Creative Director of the Year for seven straight years. It was hailed as unprecedented, and led to his 2008 induction into the Campaign Brief Hall of Fame.

He joined Ogilvy's worldwide board in 2005 , the year he was named Regional Head of the Year in Asia Pacific.

And in 2009, he became the first Asian and Singaporean to assume the role of worldwide creative director. He oversaw the ad giant's worldwide network, including all of its global offices.

That year, he also received the Designer of the Year award at the 2009 President's Design Award in Singapore.

3. He believed that creativity was every employee's responsibility

According to his profile on global advertising agency directory AdForum, one of Mr Tham's first moves in Ogilvy was to grow a sense of "pervasive creativity" at work.

As worldwide chief creative officer, he said that his role went beyond designing advertising campaigns, but also to change company culture from within.

"I believe everyone is born creative, from the account handler to the security officer," he said in a report by The Business Times. "Pervasive creativity means having one's antenna tuned to 'Channel Muse', looking for inspiration in everything we do."

4. Some of the world's most influential brands are in his portfolio

In his career spanning more than 30 years, Mr Tham has worked with some of the world's greatest brands including American Express, Cadbury's, China Mobile, Coca-Cola, H. J. Heinz, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft Foods, Mercedes-Benz, McDonald's, Philips, Toyota, Unilever, among others.

In January 2012, he was named film and jury president at the prestigious Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

5. Bitten by the creative bug from an early age

Even as a child, Mr Tham already had a desire to change the status quo to improve his environment, according to his biography for the President's Design Award.

"As a child, when my parents were out of the house, I'd reconfigure the furniture. Things just felt right the way I'd arranged it. And when they came home, they'd find that nothing was quite the same," he was quoted as saying.

To quell his "restless creativity", his father set aside white walls at home on which he could write, draw and paint.

He is the third of four children of an engineer and housewife.

In his biography, he named German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Hungarian painter Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and his mentor, British advertising legend Neil French, as among those who have influenced him.

His brother is Singapore Press Holdings' (SPH) former senior executive vice-president of marketing, Mr Tham Khai Wor. He retired in 2005 at age 60, after 21 years in SPH marketing.

6. He served on numerous boards, including at three Temasek Group companies

Mr Tham served on the board of three Temasek Group companies between 2003 and 2005 - Singapore Cruise Centre, Singex Ventures and Singex.

He was deputy chairman of the Design Council between 2003 and 2006 and served on the National Arts Council Board between 2002 and 2004.

He has served on the Urban Redevelopment Authority Board from 2006 until 2009 and Singapore Land Authority from 2008 until 2009.

He was part of the 2002 Economic Review Committee, which was tasked with finding a strategic direction for the country in its evolution from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy.

Outside of Singapore, he serves on the board of directors at Miami Ad School, Berlin School of Creative Leadership and Future of Storytelling New York.

He is also an advisory board member at Twitter and a member of the Facebook Creative Council.

7. Home is a 19th century firehouse, where Andy Warhol once lived

After moving to New York City, Mr Tham lived with his family in a 19th century firehouse, that was once home to American pop artist Andy Warhol. Warhol was evicted because he could not afford rent.

Mr Tham is married to private art dealer, Ms Bee Tham. He has two sons, who are a doctor and a lawyer, from a previous marriage.

Ms Tham founded The Bee in the Lion gallery in New York and she specialises in modern, post-war and contemporary art.

In May, she was named on a list of the 100 most influential Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.