Till Hohmann: “It’s Only by Staying Human That We Can Think beyond Machines”
BIG KAHUNA FILMS, the award-winning creative production house based in Dubai and Beirut, is proud to support creativity across the Middle East. Over the coming months, as part of our sponsorship of LBB’s Middle East edition, we’ll be speaking to some of the great minds driving creativity forward across the region.
Today we meet Till Hohmann, Memac Ogilvy’s CCO for the MENA region. Having grown up between Germany and the US before making the move to the Middle East, Till brings a uniquely multicultural experience to his role. Here, he reflects on how that upbringing influenced his approach to and love for creative expression, and why - in an age of unprecedented technological innovation - he still believes in magic.
LBB> Growing up, when did you first realise you were a ‘creative’?
Till> As a kid, I didn’t spray graffiti.
I didn’t rap or sing.
I didn’t slam poems.
I just thought. A lot. About many things.
And I liked to write down my thoughts in long texts. It was my way to investigate, discuss, and conclude.
From the age of 15 onwards I knew that I wanted to do something which used the power of language to convince and persuade people: “I will be an amazing investigative journalist for DER SPIEGEL”, I thought.
So, upon finishing school I signed up for a “Social and Business Communication Arts” course at the Berlin University of Arts. I thought it would equip me with the professional writing skills needed. But surprisingly, this course was all about communication planning and it was geared more towards advertising. I learned: ‘wow, this is fun’. I had great courses and mentors. And, of course, experiencing this in the wild, techno-crazed 90s Berlin helped…
A few unpaid agency-internships later, I knew what I wanted to be: A conceptual creative.
LBB> You also spent some of your childhood in America. How did that international outlook inform your creativity and worldview at such a young age?
Till> Indeed, I lived in the famously well-off and protected suburbia of run-down and crazy Detroit - the same Detroit featured in Eminem’s early lyrics and 8 Mile. At the time it was a culture shock coming from Germany at the age of 12.
A little later, I was into it all: I loved basketball and Hulk Hogan, I played in the school’s marching band, I participated in flag salutes. I lived through all those things we know from US high school films: homecoming mania, Halloween fun, the school dance… I was blessed to see all the States during amazing road and camping trips with my parents. And I caught the vibe of the Reaganomics of the 80s. The shift of power. The winning West.
So, when I moved back to “small” Germany again, at the brink of turning 16, I took a part of “my” USA with me. It is still there, inside, somewhere. My very own personal version of a very big country that, like any country, is all too often reduced to represent a narrow clichéd perception.
I feel this early transnational move has created a certain degree of wanderlust. It comes as little surprise that I continued to move all my life, domestically and globally.
But the more important learning, one that has grown over the many years since then and through all the experiences that followed: generalizations about countries, people, groups are to be taken with the greatest of care. Yes, our perception of other cultures and people tends to be biased. And while the best method to correct those biases is to go out, listen, learn, understand, the most important step may well be to realize our biases in the first place.
Especially in this industry, where we often base decisions on stereotypes, personas, audience group profiles. They can only ever be a very rough guide, because reality, real people, real culture is far more varied.
LBB> Looking back at your career so far, is there a particular moment or piece of work that stands out as especially significant to you?
Till> That is a very hard question.
I tend to dedicate most of my thinking to the next piece and the current project.
I feel as creatives in our industry, we are all problem solvers. We need to constantly create ingeniously smart and creatively vibrant solutions to the challenges brands face. “Make it new”, as Ezra Pound said (probably inspired by ancient Chinese texts).
Of course: in “making it new”, our experience of the past guides us and that can be an advantage. But not at the cost of telling us what to do tomorrow…
Here’s what’s interesting to me: When I look back, I do remember many projects, but it’s not the final output that’s most striking. Personally, for me, it is mainly the unique energy that was present within the team. The passion and positive stress of being “in the flow” together is what makes me recall moments in agencies. This need not have led to projects that earned the most awards or the grandest publicity.
This team spirit and passion underpins the importance of team energy and culture. It is something that we create around us with the people we work with. It cannot be “given to you” by management but rather something that builds up and then, like a powerful wave, lets you surf atop it.
It is the true magic of our profession, because those moments are rare and beautiful. And they are addictive. In fact, that’s really what I’m in this profession for.
LBB> You recently joined Memac Ogilvy as CCO. What’s exciting you about this role, and what kind of work are you looking forward to in the near future?
Till> As all will have seen and read: Ogilvy globally is pushing hard to reinvent and lead – again. As one of the most iconic, if not the most iconic, agency brands – a brand that has always evolved and ended up a leader. Just consider: The Ogilvy network became the second most awarded network in Cannes last year. And second only by a very few points…
So, without question, it is an honor and privilege to be part and be a co-driver of this evolution in the MENA region.
Our evolution towards borderless creativity lives at the intersection of communication, culture, commerce and technology. All of it is fueled by what we all know about building brands with big ideas based on big insights. A concept that seamlessly connects disciplines and capabilities to deliver world class solutions at scale.
Joining this powerhouse right now is great.
It’s all about shaping our MENA team to become even better at delivering a high-value product that helps accelerate the business of brands. At the same time, we’ll maintain our ability to create and produce content at scale and volume for all the many different markets we, as Memac Ogilvy, are uniquely present in – with much more than a front-office.
LBB> The role will see you take up responsibility - not for the first time in your career - of such a wide region of vibrant and different cultures. Frankly, how do you intend to stay on top of it all?
Till> By communicating, both with the region, and with our on-ground teams.
It is important to interact with the planners we have in various markets because this leads to discovery, cultural connectivity, observations, and insights, which ultimately drive the quality of our output.
I’ll also be communicating with the creative leads and teams that are part of all businesses through a new creative council that stands at a local and regional level. This helps connect our unique and passionate minds to ultimately act as a real network.
With many new specialists and capabilities joining our family, I love the fact that our network already has true strength beyond advertising. That is true in PR, in experience, in all things social - even in media and health. And, increasingly, in consulting.
The past few years I have seen and learned that it is critical to create platforms, tools, and new ways of working to really enhance collaboration between all these very different and unique capabilities.
It is when we connect that we excel. That’s the order of the day.
LBB> More broadly, how would you describe the industry in the Middle East right now? And in what ways have you seen it evolve since the start of your career?
Till> It is clear that various parts of the region are moving at different speeds linked to their own realities. Some markets and countries are more advanced than others. This is not new, but I believe that the divides in many ways have gotten a bit bigger. I question whether a “one formula fits all” approach will ever exist, let alone succeed.
One thing I have noticed is that a lot of the regional work, even the best, is still somewhat traditional in thinking. Marketing is still considered to be mainly about communication and often just “advertising” – even when using new tech or platforms.
I believe it is critical to move beyond driving awareness and to grow capabilities that help create future-proof, sustainable, and connected brands. This can be achieved through the shift towards data-informed and tech-augmented work that helps brands identify, access, and then own new routes to consumers and markets, with category-defining business models. This approach will demand creatives to accept that there will be more complexity and we will need to embrace the input and advice from multiple experts.
And while that is the case anywhere in the world, we do need to remember that this region is unique, and it offers many opportunities. Not least because it also faces unique challenges. There are unique tensions to overcome. This is where providing real solutions and not just disconnected ideas comes in. We need to think broader and deeper to make that happen.
Like our client EXPO 2020 says: join the making of a new world. Making is more than talking…
LBB> I read an interview with you from 2017 in which you’re reflecting on the winners of that year’s Cannes Lions festival. You spoke then about the enormous creative potential for data-driven marketing, how it needn’t be “cold, analytical and a poor copy of Minority Report”. What are your impressions of how data and targeting have evolved to help creatives in the years since?
Till> This is a huge topic. And indeed: much has happened since 2017. Exponentially much, which is only logical considering that this field is linked to the exponential growth of computational power.
Placing the technical note aside, I feel one of the biggest mistakes currently being made is to attribute data-driven marketing solely to the task of creating more precise, albeit “personalized” targeting. Yes, programmatic media deployment is a thing. But it’s still only a way of presenting communication. It is serving up ads.
What is more interesting to me is the input part.
That’s obviously data mining and analytics because both infuse a project with precision. Understanding the audience’s wants, needs, and behaviors helps us pinpoint new opportunities through which brands can engage with their target audience and make a tangible difference. This takes a unique mix of automation and ingenious analysts.
But not only that: it also demands new tools and ways of working. If input is more precise, it needs to be introduced in an inspiring way that conceptual teams understand. Otherwise, the precision is lost, and the gut feeling takes over again which renders the entire approach somewhat pointless.
One gap I do see in data-analytics is that data which leads to complex graphs and abstract charts are not inspiring. This is the gap we need to close to be able to inspire and leap to solutions which really matter.
This demands new tools, better collaboration, tech, and new ways of working and thinking. Conceptual creatives need to be ready to deal with real problems and precise input while still being able to elevate themselves beyond the mere logical conclusion.
This is the one area that agencies will be better at than consultancies: turning all that data-informed wisdom into inspired magic.
I do feel some of the new e-commerce businesses of the region and certainly some of the VC groups are pushing for this to happen in MENA – in a unique local version. All I can say is: we are ready to play!
LBB> Finally, if you could give a piece of advice to a young person starting their career in the industry today, what would it be and why?
Till> The future we are collectively creating today is one where machines will automatically do all those logical things. They will create ‘perfect’. Every time, all the time.
But what about that amazing imperfect? That weird other choice? That alternative? That is born out of understanding all information – all data-based input – but coming to a very different, emotional, inspired solution…
This is what you need to gear up for: To be able to think beyond machines. And the only way to do that is by staying human.