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Creativity means breaking rules, says JWT global CEO Tamara Ingram

Tamara Ingram was promoted to the role of CEO, J. Walter Thompson last year. Experienced in the marketing and advertising field, Ingram’s last role was as WPP’s chief client team officer where she oversaw the group’s 45 global account teams, representing one-third of the group’s US$20 billion of revenues, with more than 38,000 employees working on these clients.

Ingram shot into the limelight soon after the resignation of Gustavo Martinez, following a lawsuit for allegedly “joking” about rape and racial issues. WPP swiftly handed Ingram the role as CEO and also appointed George Rogers to replace her in her last position.

In an exclusive interview with Marketing during her recent visit to Singapore, Ingram shared the changing role of creative agencies, and the challenges it needs to address moving forward.

MarketingLet’s talk about when you took on the new role. What was your biggest concern and what was it like?

When you have a company with a history, with a DNA like ours, it is pretty robust. So your task as a leader is always to go forward and to take people with you; And to understand that when you take people with you there’s always going to be fragile moments and momentous, strong moments. Of course, that’s true whether you’re leading a company or leading a country.

So you must ensure to lead people in the right way going forward. A priority for me was to continue to do the best for a wonderful company and to take it forward in a way that we’re still going to be here in another 152 years as the most exciting, the best agency the world has ever known.

Marketing: So were you nervous? Were there any jitters?

No, none at all. And that’s not a complacent thing to say. What I ask of everyone is to be hungry. I was hungry for doing the best I could for all the people here. And be humble, by really listening to what needs to be done for our clients and our people. So that’s where I expect everyone to be- hungry and humble. I am not without humility, but I have hunger to do the best by everyone here, for our clients, for our people.

Marketing: In your eyes, how has the role of the creative agency changed over the past few years?  

The role of the creative agency has changed dramatically and hasn’t changed at all.

So there’s a paradox. Where the role of creative agencies has changed dramatically is that the extraordinary technology has enabled us to be much richer in the service that our brands can deliver via AI, VR, personalisation, and the ability to talk to someone one-on-one. A creative agency is no longer just about the communication. It is about the data, it is about creative technology, and it is about understanding people and meeting them with the brand messages beyond just communication.

The dramatic change is in understanding the globe. How do you stay close to local people and yet have some sense of what’s happening around the globe? That is becoming very important.

On the other hand, there has been no change because in the end, we deliver from our clients’ businesses and brands.

To do that you need great, deep human insights. You have to still turn data into something that can be a creative transformation.

The creative industry has always been about inspiring people with changing behaviour. But now, we have different tools to change behaviour. We have data, we have technology, we have an ability to understand people where they are and when they are.

Marketing: What are your thoughts in terms of the creative scene in Southeast Asia?

We see some great creativity in different areas. I think that Thailand is a very creative country; I see a lot of really fantastic emotions both very funny and very sad. I think that they’re really ahead there.

Creativity means you have to break rules, and breaking rules means that you need to enable a culture to do that.

I mean, if you look at Singapore, it has an amazing airport, which is a client of ours. It’s better and ahead of everyone else. That’s what we have to encourage, that’s what I mean by breaking rules. Have a vision like Changi Airport had, that was and is ahead of everyone else, and having the courage to be ahead. And that’s what I want to encourage. Breaking rules to me doesn’t mean being “anti-something”, it’s really looking ahead to the future and envisaging what that could be. It is about really seeing it in your mind’s eye, and having the courage to get there first.

Marketing: What do you think of the criticism that creative agencies are still too stuck in the “big idea”?

I love that criticism. I really love that criticism because it is again, a paradox. I believe in ideas. And I’ve never lost my belief in ideas because something that is simple, and has a spine, and has a sense of purpose can change the way people feel.

If there is one thing we learnt from Trump (despite whatever we feel about politics), is the power of a big line. Whatever people were feeling, is what they could bind to.

If there were just a lot of small things and that was just hanging on I don’t think he would have been so successful. So I think it’s very important to understand that even in a world where we can constantly change our messaging, companies and brands need a lighthouse (or big idea) to go towards.

Marketing: Moving forward, how can creative agencies safeguard their businesses?

I think in a world where there is a multiplicity of messages, fragmentation and an extraordinary amount of escapism, the task of creative agencies is to shed a light on the brand and on the service. The role of the brand has never been more important. So I think that creative agencies have to safeguard it and do outstanding work and make our clients’ brands truly engaging.

Now, if you say, “How do we ensure we do that?”, as you know, I firmly believe this is a talent game and it’s incredibly important to have the culture and the diversity of talents in order to meet those challenges in a world that’s changing very fast. So I think that’s our task.

I also think creative agencies undoubtedly will become more product focused and will be able to “productise” and make things for their clients. We will need to bring a brand to life that enables consumers to engage in an experience will be important. I think that’s very interesting as the world becomes digital.

Experiencing things is becoming as important as seeing it online. So I think that making things that leads to an outcome or transaction will become more important.

Marketing: We know finding great talent is big on your agenda. So is finding the right talent a challenge? 

In my opinion, talent comes from all places irrespective of their educational or cultural background. This is what enables creativity. I do not believe in “walls”. Working in a boundary less format is the right way forward.

But that being said, talent is an area that keeps me up at night. These include questions such as: Are we creating the best environment for our people? Are we helping them flourish by providing the best amenities?

We are interested in their well-being and are trying to figure out how they can have a good work-life balance. In view of the same, we’re putting a lot of initiatives in place, with the help of our well-being programmes. For me, talent and creativity go hand-in-hand, but in order to keep that symbiotic relationship, we have to give the best to our people.

Marketing: As a leader, what would you want to be remembered for? 

My goal is to bring out the DNA of great companies. Our DNA is extraordinary brand-building. We’ve invented the future for many of our clients and we would want to continue to do the same going forward. We have a responsibility to make the world we’re living in better, and I would like for us to do that with our creativity.

As a leader, you need to look out for your employees during fragile moments and push people forward, with a sense of opportunism. This is true whether you’re leading a company or leading a country!

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