Confessions of an ‘advertisingh’

Harmandar Singh, better known as Ham, was a weekly columnist in this paper writing under the moniker Sledgehammer. He always seems to be in a rush.

It was like watching an F1 driver from the stands and wondering whether he waved at you as he blazed past.

Ham is no F1 racer, but he did spare some time to chat about his latest book. The book is entitled “The First Book of Ham”.

“It’s about my early years in the business, but is not written by me. That credit goes to Paul J. Loosley, my old-time friend. Actually, I am a fan of Loosley as he was already a celebrated creative director and film director in the ad business before I joined the industry.

“I sell like ‘hell; and he writes like ‘heaven’, so after six years this book came about,” he told StarBiz.

But the conversation pivoted from the start with a quick story. When having some beers with his ex-boss Peter Campbell, Ham asked, “Why is it that you always down your beers so fast?”

Campbell answered instantly: “It is no good in the glass.”

Lesson #1: GO FOR IT, because nobody is watching. “Those images of people in your head trying to stop you are all ‘ghosts’,” said Ham.

When commenting on his new book, he said it is a biography and travels from Bukit Besi to Kuala Lumpur and beyond, “my first 30 years”.

“It also covers my time in the advertising industry in the region and London, which started a little after the Mad Men TV series era.

“Loosley writes about my reckless experiences without editing the saucy and sordid stuff. For those who wish to know more about the industry and its roller-coaster idiosyncrasies, my journey will fast-forward their expectations in less than 250 pages.

“Of course, he writes vividly about my family and my mother’s punjabi delicacy (puri), Loosley’s sole motivation for this literary endeavour,” Ham noted.

What lessons are there for those in marketing and advertising today?

“I faced many conflicts in my life. One can never be an expert on everything, but one can have an opinion about stuff. And one should. I have always gravitated to people who stand up for their beliefs. I will say Tan Sri Vincent Lee is one such person.

“I believe conflict is a catalyst to creativity. And I’ve always maintained, ‘Don’t have meetings, always have encounters’. That way, every moment is memorable.”

Ham said much of the business world today is drowned in endless deliberations. “Take advertising for example, we interrogate it as if it will drive the planet off its axis,” he said.

Actually, he said the reverse is true. Ad legend Neil French once said: ” It’s only advertising. Nobody dies”.

Ham said: “And yet we beat ourselves up every day torturing creative ideas instead of nurturing them. I believe the reason for this is that many people in our industry gather to actually complete a learning they do not possess. Knowledge gaps cannot be compensated by incessant meetings.”

Nobody reads success stories, he said, noting that they want it spoon fed and in binge doses. “So they zoom themselves into one-way conversations where only one person speaks most of the time,” he added.

In learning, Ham said one has to consume life and not stand in line.

Is artificial intelligence (AI) mentioned in this book? Not really, he said as the book is more about human intelligence.

“Having said that, I believe AI will propel us into initial confusion before clarity sinks in. It is always lovely and fool-proof to talk about the future as nobody can fact check you,” he noted.

“We can’t get the present right, why talk about tomorrow?” he asked. AI is mandatory homework and essential weekend reading, he said, suggesting AI to be left on the “shelf” for a few more months.

In the meantime, he said it is better to attend a workshop on AI instead.

Sharing his views on copywriting, he said: “When I was a junior copywriter, the boss of a top agency called me for an ‘interview’ at the Long Bar of the Royal Selangor Club. There was much drinking and very little interviewing,” he said.

“Around 10.30pm this boss named Mr Bong, who had a booming and boisterous voice, huddled his buddies into close proximity and told them about this ‘fancy’ junior writer (referring to me) sitting with them. And he was going to test the junior.

“He fished out his cigarette lighter from his deep pocket and slapped it down on the bar counter. He then glared at the copywriter and hollered, ‘I want you to give me a headline for this lighter’.

“It has to say it is the best lighter, that it’s number one and a leader brand. I want a one-word headline!” he thundered.

Ham thought for a while and then said, “Matchless”. I am told Mr Bong subsequently continued with this “game” at his pub haunts and when everyone ran out of answers he would announce proudly “Matchless,” he said.

When asked to share one of the stories from this book, Ham said many years ago when he was at McCann Erickson in London, a half-year stint organised by his boss Campbell, he quickly ran afoul of the infamous creative director, Don White.

As Loosley writes, “White came to him, as if presenting him with the crown jewels, that he was ‘allowing’ him to attend a real, genuine TV commercial film shoot for Woolworths; the somewhat down-market chain of convenience stores; better known to the youth of England for the wide range of shoplifting opportunities it offered (this is maybe why Woolworths no longer exists).”

The author said Ham was so grateful he blurted and implied that he had probably attended more film shoots than White had had hot dinners. White took immediate umbrage and never engaged with Ham again. Instead he set his number two, Jerry Green, to be Ham’s overseer, according to Loosley.

While Ham was given assignments for Kronenbourg beer and Woolworths, the most heinous and unbearable of all was an account executive who would take Ham’s written copy and change; usually not for the better.

“I did not enjoy my job stint in London. I would have preferred working in their pubs. It was a time when they couldn’t believe I could think in English. Maybe I still can’t,” Ham quipped.

The book was launched recently at Taylor’s University Lakeside Campus and is available at

This article first appeared in The Star newspaper.

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