Chris Kyme: Postcard from Hong Kong

Chris Kyme_April2016.jpgChris Kyme reminisces about a time when Asian Advertising had Balls in his latest Postcard from Hong Kong.

As I write I've just heard the sad news of the passing of Michael Ball. And with that a light is dimmed on the final memories of a bygone era which, at its peak, gave us budding creative hopefuls something to strive for that went beyond just knocking up a few scam ads to stick in the shows. 

When I arrived in Hong Kong (too long ago for me to wish to mention suffice to say that Milli Vanilli had not yet been found out and Fatal Attraction was a movie and nothing to do with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump), fresh faced off the plane I started asking around 'who were the hottest creative agencies in town?' and apart from at that time O&M and Leo Burnett (who I had just joined) it was unanimous - The Ball Partnership.
Just before my arrival the agency had just overseen the marriage of TBP and Synergy, bringing together the two Mikes, Fromowitz who was ECD of Ball, and the late Mike Chu, co-founder of Synergy which was at the time the best more locally-skewed creative start up. It was a marriage of East meets West and between them, once a sort of culture had been established, they set about tearing up the town and producing some of the best advertising of the day. 

As an outsider it would piss you off because year after year they would produce brilliantly simple and audacious work that would clean up in the local 4As Awards show, produced under the guidance of both Mikes through creative whiz kids such as Tan Khiang and Simon Hayward, Stuart D'Rozario, Jimmy Lam, Kasey Lin, Marc Lucas, Sandy Choi, Iris Lo, Titania Yuen, Adam Regan...I mean I could go on and sorry who I haven't mentioned, but there were loads. And the work was bloody annoyingly good in the environment of the time.

What's more, this ballsy culture was not just confined to Hong Kong. At Ball Singapore you had Neil French kicking ass and terrifying the hell out of poor unsuspecting suits with his take no prisoners approach to clocking up the gongs.

Michael-Ball.jpgAll I know is, arriving from a London industry which by all accounts thought that heading out to Asia was a dodgy move ("Don't stay longer than two years") it made for an exciting time. And it was all started by one man who had a vision - to build the best creative agency network in Asia. I never worked at Ball. I nearly did. I'm not even sure I was good enough. The best compliment I ever had was when someone called up my pal Charles Brian-Boys, himself an inspired and equally as enthralled suit at the agency at the time, to congratulate him on a TV commercial I had done in another agency, just assuming that as it was so good it must have come from Ball. Working at other agencies, you just knew that Ball was who you had to beat. Eventually life moves on. So did many of the people and the agency was sold and the rest is history.

In recent years, I had the honour and pleasure of interviewing Michael Ball for the book about those days, Made In Hong Kong, which I wrote with Tommy Cheng (he himself, ex Ball (so well informed). We dedicated a whole chapter to The Ball Partnership. Michael was extremely generous, spending a whole morning with me, and sending me original essays and articles. Explaining the philosophy behind the agency (he was no fluffy dreamer, he saw creativity as a means by which to make money, pure and simple) and at the same time, blunt and honest. Letting me know where my writing was inaccurate and setting me straight, by which I revised accordingly. The Ball Partnership fired me up when I landed in Asia. At a time when I could quite easily have become lazy and complacent.

As Neil French once wrote as a copy line in one of his brilliantly simple house ads for the agency at the time (a TV commercial no less) 'Don't you wish your advertising stood out like Balls?'

I did. 

Chris Kyme is chief executive officer at Kymechow, Hong Kong.

1 Comments

Mike Fromowitz (via Facebook) said:

I write this with great sadness over the unimaginable loss of my friend, mentor and boss Michael Ball on Sunday 25th September. He had recently celebrated his 80th birthday, and he had put up a brave and strong battle with multiple myeloma cancer for more than three years when the doctors only gave him months to live.

Michael and I kept in touch by email every month, and later, almost weekly when he learned of his myeloma. He took each day in stride, never really complaining about his illness, always looking forward to another day, another week, another month of life. This was my hope for Michael too.

Michael brought me out to Asia and changed my life considerably— as he did many other people. Michael supported me for more than six years that I was with his agency. We had a falling out when I resigned from the agency - he took it very personally. But we overcame our differences and remained friends again. We continued to keep in touch over the years - him in Australia and me in New York and Toronto.

Michael Ball made an interesting admission in one of his letters to me. “The first time I considered starting my own agency”, he said, “was over 30 years ago when I was working at J. Walter Thompson in Melbourne. At that time my boss was Bob Alcock. Bob and I talked about starting an agency together, but decided that an agency called Alcock and Ball wouldn't go far.”
His long time friend and Meridian colleague Ken Brady wrote to me today and said “I will surely miss him. He had an amazing life and lived it to the full with illness only at the very end”.

Michael was indeed very brave to the end. In the midst of his battle with cancer he kept reasonably active. He wrote to me telling about his lunch at the Australian Club in Sydney with John Howard, the 25th Prime Minister of Australia, serving from 1996 to 2007, and Michael Kirby, a former Justice of the High Court of Australia, serving from 1996 to 2009 The lunch, hosted by John Howard was in celebration of Michael Ball’s investiture as an AO. John Howard hosted the lunch.

"I take each day as it comes" he told me. "Some are better than others. As Forest Gump said: 'Life is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you are going to get. I take each day as it comes- some are better than others”.

When he wrote to me in his final weeks, his words were still positive: "I have been fortunate in life to have known and worked with many wonderful people, including you, and I am grateful you have stayed in touch.”

Rest in peace Michael.

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