Tuesday Mar 28

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Jim Aitchison: Back to Batey Ads

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Issue #02 - Interviews

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According to the official press release, Grey Group has announced a strategic alignment with WPP sister company, Batey. Operating as a so-called ‘independent entity’, Batey will be housed within Grey Group Singapore.

I
n bygone days Batey Ads was one of those iconic agencies that most evertbody dreamed of working for whether they were fresh out of college or already firmly established in the advertisng industry.

Indeed, some of the very best creatives in the world today worked at Batey in its early days, when this boutique agency put Singapore on the advertising map. We caught up with one of the people that made it one of the most legendary advertising agencies in the world, Batey Ads former chief creative officer, Jim Aitchison.

 

Subbaraju Alluri, CEO of Grey Group Singapore, said,

We’re proud to have the Batey legacy continue at Grey Group Singapore. With our combined capabilities in creativity and thought leadership, I am confident that Grey Group Singapore's performance will be accelerated to the next level. Batey serves as the perfect fit for the group and together, I firmly believe we are better positioned to provide our clients with the highest level of service and support across all communication touch points.

 

We’ll leave it up to our readers to decipher what that means precisely. We are left wondering what the ‘next level’ is for Grey, and why indeed they’re not already there. The rest of the release is here – rather than regurgitating it.

Agency.Asia: Batey was indeed one of the hottest and most creatively awarded shops in Asia back in your day. Let’s not tippy-toe around the fact that in recent years it became a shadow of its former self. With WPP also boasting some of the world’s hottest advertising agencies, were you disappointed at this union? Indeed, are you of the same mind as Grey's CEO and contend that any Batey ‘legacy’ remains?

Jim Aitchison: There is nothing permanent in advertising. Great agencies are built by great men who have great clients. Eventually those great men (who are only human beings after all) have to step down. Bernbach died, David Abbott retired, Ian Batey retired. Thankfully, Sir John Hegarty soldiers on!

Looking back over all my years in advertising, I can reflect: whatever happened to OMON? Whatever happened to Howell Henry? Whatever happened to Amirati & Puris? Nothing is permanent!

All virtuous agencies have their moments in the sun; some have longer moments than others. Grey Australia, for example, once had Siimon Reynolds as creative director and its iconic AIDS/Grim Reaper commercial is still one of the landmarks in Australian advertising.

The hardest thing in the world is to sustain a creative reputation over decades. It calls for special magic, and a commitment to the agency akin to entering the priesthood. The original Batey Ads has long gone.

What one does with its husk is of little interest. If however, someone is eventually empowered to breathe new life into the old mother ship and build it again as an independent WPP shop, then that would definitely deserve our support and praise.

Agency.Asia: Its freefall from grace is also eerily reminiscent of another WPP purchase, Australia’s Campaign Palace, also born in 1972. Once considered to be among the hottest agencies in the world where people would give their right arm to work there - it just seemed to run out of puff.

Batey went from servicing Singapore Tourism Board, StarHub, OCBC, DaimlerChrysler and Singapore Airlines to, well, today. How in heaven’s name does an agency crash so badly?

Jim Aitchison: Nothing is permanent. An example: the dream factories. Look at the decline of the great Hollywood movie studios. They lost ownership and control of the cinema circuits that screened their output.

Thanks to the disaster of "Cleopatra", Fox had to sell its vast back lot of castles, rivers, jungles (it's now Century City). MGM, once the all-powerful kingdom of Louis B. Mayer, now a shadow of its former shelf.

How can any agency survive merger and acquisition, gutting and rebranding? As I said earlier, you build an agency by committing yourself to it body and soul, like entering the priesthood.

You don't have days off. You don't let up. But how long can anyone sustain that kind of pressure? So rather than regret the present, we should celebrate the past and dedicate our energies to the future.

Batey Ads will never come again. But Ian's achievements, and those of his staff, will hopefully inspire other agencies to keep fighting the good fight.

Agency.Asia: The agency held the Singapore Airlines advertising account since it was formed in 1972 - and kept it ‘til 2007. In addition to iconic branding, that must be some sort of record for an agency and client marriage. Describe the relationship you had with the SIA client – and the others by all means.

Jim Aitchison: Ian held several accounts for record lengths of time. SIA was one. UOB and the Tourist Board were others. His relationships always began with the people at the top: shared marketing visions and mutual respect. Ian would act as Brand Guardian, a role he relished and excelled at.

He could always spot a false note in brand tonality. He could always sense when the tail had started to wag the dog. He inculcated the importance of branding among suits and creatives alike.

He abhorred the one-off creative award-winning ads done at the expense of the brand. Everything came back to serving the brand. And that's why clients trusted him. That's why his judgment prevailed.

But over three decades, while Batey Ads maintained its consistency, seismic changes were happening on the client side. Advertising managers were replaced by marketing directors. Sales managers increasingly had no say in advertising. Soon, marketing became the buzz word.

By the 90s, marketing directors might stay in their jobs for 3 years; later, 15 months became the norm. They either left or were fired, and each new candidate brought his own agency with him. CEOs changed rapidly too. Then along came branding consultants.

So it became harder and harder for an agency to hold an account. And because of so much change on the client side, brand building continuity was lost. Brands changed personalities at the whim of each new marketing director.

Brand heritages were binned. In the end, the agency probably knew more about the brand than the client did, assuming of course the agency still held the account.

I had little involvement with SIA. The airline was Ian's baby. My work covered the other accounts. I worked with Rod Pullen, Daniel Lim and Lye Kok Hong to win Mercedes-Benz. That was my pet account. We lapped up the brand and its history, its personality, and crafted our ads accordingly.

Sharon Lee was the suit; she had the rare, rare, rare talent to know what product stories would inspire us. I loved the work we did. And we wanted to do our best; the client was charming, the product to die for, and having Ian's trust we wanted to craft ads he'd be proud of too.

Agency.Asia: Looking back at the work your team did almost twenty years ago, we are of the opinion that the bulk of it just doesn’t seem to date. As the ECD, what was the creative philosophy that you held closest your heart? Go ahead and tell us what your fondest memories are of your days at that oddly shaped advertising agency at 28 Ann Siang Road? Singapore was a different place.

Jim Aitchison: From the outset, I wanted to craft a creative department where everyone was an equal, where mutual respect and award-winning productivity replaced politics. It worked.

Nothing made me happier than to see gigantic talents sharing triumphs and failures, helping one another, nurturing their mates, bonding with newcomers. We didn't really have teams cast in stone; people could explore working with someone new, it was up to them.

We were so proud when any of us won a gong. We knew our turn would be coming soon. Don't get me wrong --- it wasn't a department of robots; everyone still had their own personalities and personal space; it was just that we erased the bickering and politics that consume valuable creative juice.

I was surprised, years later, during interviews for the Cutting Edge books, when David Abbott and the late Roy Grace described the creative department at DDB in its heyday; it sounded exactly like what we had at Bateys; behind every door was a team that other agencies would die for. And we had eight or ten of them. And everyone respected everyone else.

One of my fondest memories was tracking Kash Sree down in India and hiring him; he thought he was an art director but I hired him as a writer. He flourished at Bateys. A few years ago he rang me from Cannes; he'd just won the Grand Prix for Nike and wanted to thank me for my support in the old Batey days. Phone calls like that are worth millions!

But eventually I had to leave to write; so much of an end's job is taken up in nurturing, helping to sell the work, fighting the good fight, being the ringmaster, etc, and I was conscious that my own creative drive was becoming lost in that process. When I told Ian Batey that I was leaving to risk all and become an author, he said "Spoken like a true writer."

And that was Ian's strength: he loved the creative side of the business, the art, the craft, and no matter how many other problems he had to deal with, he always made time to share his knowledge and passion with us.

Agency.Asia: Coming from the man who quite literally wrote the book on sarongs, what do you have to say about the ‘Singapore Girl’ being an outmoded and some claim a sexist representative - an airline too focused on tight fitting sarong kebaya uniforms?

One magazine, Singapore Window, observed that in some quarters she was seen to, “Serve male passengers' fantasies of desirable, subservient Oriental women”. We’re tipping you might disagree, just a tad.

Jim Aitchison: Have a read of Ian's book ASIAN BRANDING: A GREAT WAY TO FLY (published by Pearson). It gives you the whole logic and evolution of the campaign. Then go back to some of the great TV and print executions. There's nothing cheap or tacky about those great images crafted by masters like John Finn, Tham Khai Meng, John Ashenhurst, Ross Wood et al.

Those who call for change, for whatever reason, should make that call armed with a new iconic campaign. It's not enough to cry 'sexist' or 'outmoded'. Show us something better, can or not?

Agency.Asia: Any creative in advertising knows that you went on to write about the business. Neil French describes ‘Cutting Edge Advertising’ as compulsory reading and probably the best long book on the subject. David Abbott says that it is by far the best book on print advertising in existence.

We’ll just pipe in here and say that we agree with those two chaps. You tell us that you’re writing a book every three weeks. What the hell about? Bring us up to speed with you life after advertising! Do you ever miss it – and do you think you’ll ever come back?

Jim Aitchison: Everything Ian Batey taught me about branding has been put to good use in my new career as an author. I've notched up 91 books at this moment, and hopefully will pass the 100 mark by the end of the year. (As Frenchy once said, you can't stop Jim writing even if you slap his wrist.)

I write under the name James Lee: two series Mr. Midnight horror stories for kids 8-12, Mr. Mystery detective stories for kids 8-16, and a third series The Young Immortals kicks off in May. The books have been translated into all the major Asian languages.

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I miss the camaraderie of agency life; being an author is a lonely pursuit. I also miss having jobs bags and a traffic system to keep me working. I've had to develop my own system. Sometimes (for about a nanosecond) I wish I'd stayed on in the business, or started my own agency, but publishing is far more engrossing than advertising, and I still have so much to learn.

Also, after my stint at Lee Strasberg's in New York, the training ground of Method actors, I've realized we can actually have three careers in one lifetime if we set about it early enough. (I still can't believe that a few months after leaving Batey's I was in a small dark room performing a scene from The Seagull for Al Pacino's former teacher.

The Seagull for Al Pacino

Or wandering through the streets of New York at night as a homeless person, unshaven, in a secondhand bomber jacket and filthy old trousers, in grubby shoes and carrying a broken umbrella, receiving handouts from Dunkin Donuts with all the other bums, just to learn what it was like for a part I had to do.)

Agency.Asia: We ask our guests to nominate someone they hold in high esteem in the industry and we’ll try our damndest to interview them in the next edition of Agency.Asia. Who will you be wanting to nominate then?

Jim Aitchison: Someone I did work with and truly admire: the one and only Peter Soh, a great Chinese creative. Peter and I developed some campaigns that ran in both Chinese and English, and had a lot of fun doing so. And when Frenchy's ads needed to run in Chinese, Peter was always the first bloke he looked for.

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