Tham Khai Meng: 'Don't grow up'
Posted on April 18, 2018 | By Nils Adriaans

Tham Khai Meng, Co-Chairman & Worldwide Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy is, according to AdAge ‘one of the world’s most influential people in the communication business'. His secret: 'Not growing up. You don't have to in this business.'

'The question is, how has creativity helped me in my personal and professional life? But of course, when you work in a creative field there is no distinction between the two. You don’t ‘clock off’ as a creative.

Being a creative…

'Being a creative means doing what you love for a living, and this is a great privilege. So many people spend their entire lives doing something they hate. After work they visit bookshops filled with self-help books on how to be happy. But happiness is not something you make happen. It arises as a by-product of doing something meaningful. And few things are more meaningful than imagining new worlds. Just as a midwife never wonders whether her job is meaningful, it is the same with us; midwives to ideas. Creativity is central to what it means to be human.

'In his book Sapiens, the author Yuval Noah Harari claims it was our storytelling faculty that enabled humans to outcompete the Neanderthals and all the other apes. The stories we told - such as religion, ideology, nationalism etc. - allowed us to collaborate to form alliances in pursuit of a common goal. In essence, man is a storytelling ape.'

“We all know about the grave problems facing the human race. Where will we find the solutions? Not from people who were taught to conform and think inside the box.

It will be the people who never stopped dreaming who will find the new stories that will save us. The Peter Pans who never grew up.”

Then tragedy strikes

'If this is true, and I believe it is, it should come as no surprise that creativity, and storytelling should be so satisfying, because they are hardwired into our DNA. You can see this when you look at little children at play. It really is quite remarkable to watch them in their world of make-believe, pretending to be kings or queens or fighting imaginary monsters. This is creativity in its most primal form, unfettered imagination. 

Nobody tells the children to do this, it comes naturally and spontaneously from within, they do it with intense absorption. All children do it. But then tragedy strikes. It all gets educated out of them. They are taught to feel self-conscious, to worry what other people will think, to fear looking foolish. They are taught that play is childish. They are told to grow up so they can work in factories.

'In school they wear a uniform and uniformity is imposed not just on the way they look but on the way they think. Society needs obedient workers. 

Only a handful, a privileged few - artists, dreamers, poets, musicians...  are allowed to carry on playing like children. This is not just a tragedy for those unfortunates stuck in dead-end jobs, it is a tragedy for us all.

Picasso

'Storytelling and creativity helped us emerge from the caves and take over the planet. The amazing ability to form an image in the mind of something that does not yet exist and then create it, is responsible for all the wonders of our civilization. But somewhere along the way we got lost, we became beguiled by the wrong stories, such as the myth of endless consumption in a world of finite resources. We all know about the grave problems facing the human race. Where will we find the solutions? Not from people who were taught to conform and think inside the box.

It will be the people who never stopped dreaming who will find the new stories that will save us. The Peter Pans who never grew up. And there are a lot of in and around our profession. I’m happy that I too don’t have to grow up. Picasso said it took him a lifetime to learn to paint as a child. There is some sound career advise to be found in that.'