It’s time for Malaysian advertisements to be more reflective and distinctive

Passionate: Mitchell (right) said, ‘Our projects must do good, but must also have some return for the clients.’

OUR most recent guest at Power Lunch was Naga DDB chief operating officer and Kancil Awards 2012 organising chairman David Mitchell.

The Kancil Awards recently garnered comments from both extremes — admiring and critical. Much as I would like to not ruin our appetites and limit the conversation to the gold, silver and bronze awards, it would be neglectful to not at least ask his opinion on what people have been terming “scam ads”.

Is it a fair allegation? So, point blank, I asked him.

Mitchell understands why some people may have this opinion. However, he feels that it’s mostly a misunderstanding caused by not realising what the Kancil Awards really are.

He said, “The Kancil Awards are like haute couture. It’s a demonstration of an agency’s best work. It’s not prêt-a-porter. It’s about the industry as a whole benchmarking itself. The whole idea is to push the creative standard upwards. If an agency has developed an idea and gotten a client to sign off on it, then you can’t question its validity. A client has signed off on it.

“We need to be grown up about what the Kancils really are. If we’re talking about real work effectiveness, then that’s a different show. I think that’s why it’s important to position the Kancils as haute couture. The Kancils are a demonstration of an agency’s creative capabilities.”

With that said, he believes that the Kancil Awards are beneficial to the industry as a way of giving recognition for the work put in by the people in agencies, and he holds pride in the awards that Naga took home.

“We did well, considering that we weren’t that optimistic about this year. We won a lot of bronzes, one silver, no gold, and fourth overall. The level of satisfaction was that it was pretty good, considering that we’d been going through a little bit of a change creatively. We had an executive creative director who left us last year. And, with the culture change, sometimes you worry. But, Alvin Teoh took over the position, and he’s brought in someone who has worked for 10 years with some of the best agencies in San Francisco. So, between the two of them, they split the department up. And, I think the effort put in will bear fruit soon. I think we’ll do a lot better at next year’s awards.”

Being distinctive

Speaking plainly with Mitchell, I admitted an irritation that I had — the side-stepping of Asians and the preference of using mostly pan-Asian and Caucasian talent for ads in Malaysia.

He agrees that this has been the case, and that he’s also not in favour of this. “When I first got into the business, almost all the models in TV commercials and other mediums were pan-Asian. I always thought it was a little bit odd.

“Recently, a bunch of advertising students from UiTM, came to us. They were talking about iklan cermin (mirrored advertising) and iklan Pontianak (ghost advertising). They said that they liked mirrored advertising because it was a reflection of them. And, they didn’t like ghost advertising, because it represents things that they had never seen and they don’t understand it — that it’s so bizarre and weird. And, I think Malaysian advertising needs to be mirrored advertising. We need to be more reflective of what we really are. Don’t mimic anybody.

“For some reason, marketers and advertising agencies have promoted this image out there. It made me wonder, what’s wrong with us?

“What’s wrong with being distinctively Malaysian? Then, along the way, I had the good fortune of working with Yasmin Ahmad, who was very adamant about how it has to be about Malaysians. She did it with all the Petronas campaigns and they worked well — I think it’s because they were mirrored advertising. They were a reflection of peoples’ lives. They were real stories about the social issues and challenges that Malaysians face. Malaysian advertising needs to reflect Malaysians.”

However, it’s often been argued, that having more “neutral” talent in campaigns can sometimes work better.

He puts it down to choice, saying, “If you’re doing a regional campaign that’s covering multiple markets, then there’s some sense in it. But, one of the reasons that regional campaigns exist is because clients are told that you shoot one commercial and you’ll cover five markets and you’ll save some money. My argument has always been, ‘yes, but in each and every one of those five markets you are less effective than you would have been if you’d used locals’. So, it’s about cost versus effectiveness. For me, I’d rather be effective.”

Finding appeal

Another thing that I noticed is that in Malaysia, a large number of advertisements seem to miss the mark of being informative or entertaining, and end up being irritating.

Many people that I speak to say there is a need to “dumb things down”, or risk having the audience not understanding it.

When I asked Mitchell about this, he said he feels otherwise and has confidently steered Naga away from such practices.

“A lot of people don’t give Malaysians credit for being smart enough. But actually, I think they are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. I always hear, ‘the audience won’t understand it, it’s too sophisticated for them’. I think that’s rubbish. It is our job to put things in a manner that is appealing, interesting and understandable. Yes, there is still the rural community that may appreciate different things, but to say that they are less intelligent? No. If you talk to a guy who runs a farm, he may not know about balance sheets or restructuring a loan, but the knowledge that he has on how to run his farm and harvest cycles is amazing. It’s just that what they do is different.”

As he showed me an advertisement that he greatly admires, he talked about the importance of advertising going beyond selling a product. Many of those in the advertising industry speak of the difficulty in attracting talent, and have initiated programmes to spark greater interest.

However, Mitchell feels that more has to be done, that the young people need to be understood and given the chance to create impact, rather than just be invited to join.

“I think the agencies have not given them a sense of purpose. We have not been giving them the opportunity to be a part of something that is meaningful while providing some sort of satisfaction. We are seen as very close confidants of big corporations, big brands, capitalism, greed and corporate wealth. If you are a young, idealistic person, you may think that we are just promoting consumerism. Why would I support you?”

Doing good

Though this is still a business, Mitchell feels that recognsing that, and adapting to adopt a different approach to business is beneficial to not only talent, but also companies.

“Corporations are designed to fulfil one goal — to increase shareholder value. That’s the ultimate goal. Everything else is subservient to that idea. I understand that. It’s the way the world works.

“I don’t ever expect corporations to change that agenda. But, what I’m thinking about is, what if there is a different way to give corporations what they want and, to give kids what they want as well?

“I was going through the Cannes winners’ reel this year, and I noticed that a lot of the award-winning work was for campaigns that were about doing good — whether it was for raising political awareness in Egypt, or as simple as recognising mums.

“I thought that was really interesting. The campaigns that were promoting good were doing well in the award shows. So, it got me doing some research. And, I found that corporations that are seen as doing good, are out-performing those that aren’t. Doing good is actually good for business,” he explained.

He goes on to speak about how advertising agencies can drive this.

“For many years, advertising was defined as the voice of brands. How they spoke and how they looked. I want to evolve agencies to ‘coach’ brands — to advise on how a brand behaves.

“I think behaviour is more important than what we say or how we dress. Last year, the Hari Raya and Malaysia Day celebrations were quite close together. It was also a tense year. As Hari Raya is a time for seeking forgiveness, we created a project for a local telco that got Malaysians to apologise to each other for any misgivings that they had. It was a campaign called ‘Dear Malaysians’.

“The video gave one a sense of warmth and many people gravitated towards it; they understood that in fractious times, sometimes one of the best things that you can do is say that you are sorry.

“We had a website that allowed users to contribute their own videos and it became a movement. It was relevant, and it got people to reach out to one another.”

He gives me various examples of the possible campaigns that they can build around existing clients, and speaks confidently on making this a reality.

“I think Naga can do it. Because of our track record, client list and the fact that they want and are inclined to do this kind of stuff. We also have people who live this. Alvin has got a really good heart. He spends his free time volunteering for refugee and outreach programmes. He lives and breathes doing good.

“We want to make this part of our working ethos. When we evaluate work, we will ask ourselves — how does this do good? And, if it’s not doing good, we will advise clients on why it should be about doing good.

“It’s not about just doing good for the sake of being altruistic. It’s about smart business. This is the way of the future. These projects must do good, but must also have some return for our clients. Otherwise they will not come on board. I’m doing good, but, I still want a financial return. I run a business. I need to be very aware for that. I don’t run a charity or a community outreach programme. I run a for-profit business. At the same time, I don’t have to sell my soul either.

“I want to do this because I think it is good for our clients’, and I think it is great for the industry that we can finally give young people something beyond money and awards. I want to be able to give them the chance to feel they can do some good in Malaysia.”

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