Harmandar Singh, or Ham, was a junior copywriter-cum-errand boy when he hammered a headline in just over 20 seconds during an interview in a bar.
The boss of a top advertising agency, Stephen Bong, wanted a one-word headline for the best cigarette lighter, and in a flick, Ham said, “matchless”.
Maybe it was the drinks, as suggested in his biography, “The First Book of Ham”.
Or perhaps it was just an illustration of Ham’s creative wit and grasp of the English language.
Everyone at the Long Bar of the Royal Selangor Club sobered instantly, and Bong’s booming and boisterous voice fell silent.
Bong raced after Ham as he left the bar, choosing to remain with McCann-Erickson, where he was hired in a case of being mistaken for his lifelong friend Malkeet Singh.
McCann-Erickson had thought they were hiring Malkeet, a fresh copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather, as both the men, partners in mischief, wore a turban.
Malkeet had encouraged Ham to move on from being a bartender and occasional 12-string pub folk-rock singer into the world of copywriting.
But it wasn’t what the lad from the iron ore mining town of Bukit Besi, Dungun in Terengganu, had expected as a RM250 a month creative assistant.
He had to operate a bulky 35mm projector and make coffee, basically hanging around, volunteering snappy headlines to anyone who would listen.
In four months, there was an exodus of creative staff who followed their boss, John Lane, to a new independent agency.
The creative heart of McCann-Erickson was reduced to two art directors, Spencer Wing and Dick Yap, with Ham in the middle.
There were about 50 ads to be done, and the three guys ploughed through the workload, spending 24 hours a day in the office.
The result was spotless, and they pulled the agency back onto the top of the heap from what was a potential disaster.
Within two weeks, Ham became a senior writer on a princely monthly salary of RM3,000, and there was no stopping him.
At his first industry awards, Ham, who once got demoted to a lower class for answering ‘yup” instead of “yes” to the headmaster, had his name on over 20 prizes.
Ham had made it to the A-list of Malaysian creative talent for his work, including for Coca-Cola, Gillette and Kodak.
“When Malkeet came over to congratulate us, my boss did a double-take but it was too late to get rid of me,” said Ham.
The late Lim Kok Wing, who had months earlier denied Ham a job, had a change of heart and offered him a position with his flourishing Wings Creative Consultancy. Ham ignored him.
Rocker to elite copy creator
“The First Book of Ham”, by Paul Loosley is chock-full of personal stories – some sad, some humorous – and intrigues in the advertising industry.
Any ambitious person can use the visionary takeaways in the book to turbocharge their career.
The biography depicts Ham’s steady rise as an elite copy creator in the fiercely competitive world of admen.
He had achieved success after struggling as a cement factory worker blowing up limestone, fast-food employee, barman, pub singer, sometime groupie of rock band Zachariah Dash, and an errand boy.
Loosley describes Ham as an “excellent testimony to sheer grit, resilience, and perseverance” and “like the proverbial duck, seemingly calm and serene on the surface but paddling away like mad down below.”
Ham’s parables based on curiosity, tenacity and good instincts, at times amid emotional pain, paint him like a charismatic mentor rooting for the success of underdogs.
Briton Loosley has known Ham for about 33 years during his 45 years in Asia as creative director of local and regional advertising agencies, and as director of television commercials.
In the preface, he wrote Ham laughs like the animated dog Muttley in the 1960s American TV cartoon show Dastardly and Muttley, and “is pretty much the personification of the common definition of Sikh friendliness.”
Ham, 65, is probably the most well-known Punjabi in the Malaysian advertising and communication society today.
He modestly credits one of his heroes, the late Daljindra Singh Dogra (Del) as the first Sikh advertising icon in the country.
He said the six-footer Del drove a Porsche, rode a Triumph bike, and was known for brilliant headlines for brands like Toyota and F&N Zapple while working at J Walter Thompson, Naga and Idris Pawanchik.
Del’s death from a brain tumour just after his 40th birthday in 1986 crushed Ham, though not as devastating when, aged 14, his 32-year-old mother was killed in a car crash.
Losing his mother and then seeing his distraught father consumed by alcoholism changed his outlook on life and the battles that he faced along the way.
Chak Dey Fathey! (Nothing is insurmountable)
Ham recalled saving the Proton Satria launch storyboard by Suhaimi Saadun from the trash bin after the creative director dumped it in the 1990s.
He said: “I was part of the campaign when I worked as a freelance creative, not in a big agency. The only meaningful role I played was to defend the idea from dying.”
Ham said he and Malkeet sold it to the client and Loosley shot the award-winning work to the delight of then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
He has amassed so many awards that he has lost count. As a creative director, he developed over 400 television commercials (TVCs) and picked up numerous awards for them.
His creativity and dedication earned him recognition and respect on his secondment to McCann’s offices in London, Manila, New York and Singapore.
Armed with newfound knowledge and fresh perspectives, he returned to Malaysia with a renewed vigour.
True to his pursuit of excellence, Ham founded the Sledgehammer Institute upon his return to nurture young talents in advertising.
For his contribution to education, he was awarded the inaugural chairman’s award by the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents (4As).
Why sledgehammer? “The fearlessness of the creative team, led by my former boss, the late Bruce Bendrey, to make presentations is evoked by the word, sledgehammer.”
Sledgehammer later became his pen-name in the weekly columns he wrote for The Star for over eight years, and for his communications company that publishes the Marketing magazine.
The book is available at https://marketingmagazine.com.my/shop/books/the-first-book-of-ham-by-paul-loosley/
This article first appeared on news portal FreeMalaysiaToday
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