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Feeling the pulse

As head of the one of the world's largest ad agencies, Tamara Ingram is on a mission to communicate core truths about brands in the most innovative ways possible.

Photo: Tawatchai Kemgumnerd

When Tamara Ingram was named CEO of J Walter Thompson (JWT) in March last year, many in the industry cheered the fact that a big glass ceiling had finally been shattered where women in advertising are concerned.

It so happened that the appointment followed a turbulent time at the giant agency, where her male predecessor had stepped down amid allegations of sexist and racist behaviour. The immediate challenge for Ms Ingram was to reinforce the message that JWT needed to be inclusive. Talent and creativity, she declared, would continue to be the benchmarks against which everyone would be measured.

It's a challenge the friendly and outspoken British executive is embracing with the same passion that she devotes to her family. She loves being both a business leader and a mother of two, she tells Asia Focus, and sees no need to separate the two passions.

"I believe that we need to help people who work for us to have a life and to be able to flourish with their children and flourish with their work but I, personally, have no balance," she says with a disarming smile.

"I believe that we need to enable balance in other people but I am passionately in love with my children and they occupy all of my brain as work occupies all of my brain. There is no compromise, I am completely 'unbalanced' and in love with both."

A Londoner who now lives in New York, Ms Ingram began her working life by tearing out a page with a list of film companies from the Yellow Pages. She knocked on doors for three or four days until she got her first junior position at a producing house.

However, she found the work unfulfilling and began to yearn for a career in advertising. She started scouting London agencies and got her first job by impressing the interviewer in an unconventional way by anticipating what she wanted.

"In the interview, the woman was on the telephone and without thinking I made a cup of tea and gave it to her and she said, 'You have the job so now let me tell you about it'," she recalls.

"The learning that I have taken with me from this is what I want out of the people at J Walter Thompson, which is for them to be like street fighters. Have the smell of the consumers, the people around them, be hungry, and anticipate the need. In a way, being in my 20s, I think I anticipated the need and that's why I got the job."

For her, the advertising industry has many qualities that she loves, such as a focus on how to grow a business, how to change it and how to expand it with creativity. Asked what interests her the most, she says the answer is how to change consumer behaviour by means of innovation and imagination.

This in a way reflects her family background. Her mother is a psychotherapist, a profession that is all about understanding people's behaviour, while her late father was an entrepreneur in the fashion design business and instilled a love of creativity in his daughter.

Before being appointed last year to lead JWT, a global network with more than 200 offices in 90 countries employing 12,000 marketing professionals, Ms Ingram was the chief talent officer at WPP Group, the parent of JWT, overseeing 45 global account teams that made up one-third of the holding company's US$20 billion revenue and included 38,000 staff. Before that she was the leader of Team P&G and was responsible for $1 billion in Procter & Gamble business across 40 agencies.

Even with this impressive track record as well as a wealth of experience leading global teams, Ms Ingram humbly observes that whether a person is leading an organisation of three people or 30,000, he or she still needs a sense of vision of where they want to go.

"I think that when you have that sense of vision you also need to take people with you," she says. "You need to be able to communicate that vision and give it a sense of purpose and then enable people to get there, and then in the end you need perfect execution because it is in the detail that makes that vision realisable.

"You have to have trust in the right talent and let them do it because you can't do everything yourself. You will have to enable your team to do that for you, so leadership is about enabling people to rise up, to think tall, and to feel that they have the capacity and the power to do it."

CREATIVE AND INSPIRED

When asked what motivated her to visit JWT's Bangkok unit last month, Ms Ingram says it was her admiration for the creativity and the profound emotions that advertising in Thailand seems to tap into.

JWT employs more than 4,000 people in 53 offices across 18 countries in Asia Pacific with a presence in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Australia and New Zealand. It also has a presence in Myanmar through its affiliate, Mango Marketing.

"The works I see from Thailand excite me," she points out.

She praised the "Touchable Ink" commercial made by JWT Bangkok for Thai Samsung Electronics, which won 31 international awards including the Product Design Lion award at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2016. She's also a fan of the latest TV commercial for Bireley's drinks and the Valentine's Day spots for Kit Kat, saying that they "speak to the innovative character in Thailand".

"What's inspiring for me to come here is to see an agency that is doing great work that touches people's hearts, and also that is innovative and on the edge, and changes life and society," she says.

"What stands out [in advertising in Thailand] is humour such as the latest Bireley's commercial which is very funny, while another emotion that stands out is sadness, so Thai works are either really funny or really sad and that is what I love about it."

Everyone likes to be emotionally moved but the edges of emotion, as she terms them, are very important in the Land of Smiles, where people respond to strong contrasts and that is what is great about the local market, Ms Ingram explains.

In terms of personal inspiration for creative work, Ms Ingram draws on art, literature and theatre pieces on which people have a unique voice or a surprising point of view.

She believes people can learn a lot from great art and listening to interesting music, or any form of expression where there is a "uniqueness of the voice" stands out. Most of all, she draws inspiration from people who have the courage to believe in an idea.

"Our work in advertising and marketing is to shed a light on a brand," says Ms Ingram.

"There was the man who took over from J Walter Thompson, Stanley Resor, who had this expression 'shed a light', and if you think about all the fragmentation, all the media, all the digital channels, the distractions we all have on our mobile phones, our task is to find something that we can say and feel about a brand that connects with humans and sheds a light."

In 1916, Stanley Burnet Resor and a group of investors bought the agency from Thompson, and Resor managed the agency as president and chairman until his retirement in 1961. His legacy to JWT included a commitment to a scientific approach to advertising and the importance of research.

Ms Ingram also is a great admirer of Robert Rauschenberg, the American painter who was "very different" and had the courage to stand out and combined not only art but theatre, and to her that was very inspirational. Rauschenberg is best known for his "combines" of the 1950s, in which non-traditional materials and objects were employed in innovative combinations such as combining a painting and a sculpture into one piece of art.

More recently, a book that has inspired her is The Optician of Lampedusa, based on the true story of the courageous Italian who rescued dozens of drowning migrants in the Mediterranean in 2013. She's also a devoted fan of Arsenal, a football club that clearly could use some good ideas these days.

She believes ideas that resonate are ideas that everyone can engage with. In advertising, this can involve combining different media from digital to outdoors and covering sorts of areas, and what she is trying to do at JWT is to make these ideas come alive.

DIGITAL CHALLENGES

To respond to digital transformation, Ms Ingram says that the way advertising agencies do business and organise themselves has to change because they have the paradoxical ability to "talk to everyone" by being "particular about who we talk to".

"We can know everyone's behaviour because of smartphones and we can be very specific in the content and yet we can talk to people who love us and to people who no longer love us and people who we want to include because we can be programmatic and performance-led," she explains.

"This means that we have to be much faster. We have to have much greater behavioural insight and we have to be listening all the time so that we can change things, and yet we also have to hold on to beautiful old things which are the great insights of human truths while being creative too."

The approach of JWT is to be agile and fast with content and data creation while being able to stand out, which requires experience in knowing how to enter and "feel" a brand and how to get it closer to people.

"Thailand is one most socially active countries in the world with a very high usage of Facebook. How we as an agency can take an advantage of the natural warmth and sociability of the community is something that is very important to us," she says.

"Digital transformation is changing us in terms of having to be agile, fast and flexible in making things while retaining our belief in deep human insight."

Ms Ingram sees two trends in advertising in Asia. One is the "power of local", a new capability and belief in local Asian brands that is challenging for multinationals but is "an exciting one because it is about speed and innovation meeting consumer behaviour". The other trend is technology such as e-commerce and artificial intelligence.

"Asia is a huge business for us and Asia affects how we think in the rest of the world. I believe that e-commerce and mobile are further ahead in Asia and it is a market that continues to grow, while the level of innovation and the commitment that comes out of this continent have always impressed me," she says.

The ability for anyone to make a purchase by phone very quickly -- even if the distribution process takes a long time -- is also changing consumer expectations.

"Everything will be leading toward the possibility of a transaction in some way, or more knowledge or whatever that transaction means," says Ms Ingram.

"The second thing is voice in everything. We can see this with Amazon's voice assistant, Alexa, and we will soon be able to have a conversation such as 'How can you get me one of them?' to a machine and we will go back to being a bit more human by going back to looking out and using our voice in conversation, but it may not be with another human being -- and machines will become more like us."

It will take time in her view, but brands will be able to take to take advantage of advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and voice technology so that digital services are no longer confined to store shelves or e-commerce websites.

"With all this fragmentation, being able to shed a light and stand out with something that has big thinking and something that touches the soul is still important."

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