MarcomBest 11-14 November 2013
Location: National Convention Center, Hanoi, Vietnam
John Merrifield

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Merrifield
Chief Creative Officer
Google Asia - Pacific

 

 

 

 

Day Two: November 13th

New Communication Strategies

Asia’s contemporary Don Draper is not a man in a sharp suit—you’re more likely to find him in a wet suit, surfing the waves of Bali. And his ads aren’t limited to the tools of the “Mad Men” era. John Merrifield, “creative at large” for TBWA Asia-Pacific, goes far beyond the billboard: Recent campaigns included suspending men from the top of a building to run along the side of a skyscraper.

The sheer number of consumer messages that “assault the public” has increased exponentially in the past few years, Mr. Merrifield says. “Right now we’re at a point where we in the advertising industry have to look at the negative impact of what we do as well as the positive.”

He has won multiple times at the Cannes Lions International Creative Festival and picked up some Clio Awards—two of advertising’s leading prizes—and has also sat on the juries that pick the winners. He was named Asia Creative of the Year in 2004 and 2008 by Media Magazine. His parent firm, TBWA Worldwide, was named Agency of the Year by AdWeek Magazine in 2008.

Born and raised in San Francisco, he has lived in Asia since 1980, when he first landed in Indonesia to surf. Hong Kong was his home from 1997 to 2000.

“I get more culture shock when I go back to the States and Europe,” says Mr. Merrifield, 52, now based in Singapore and Bali. “Every time I land [in Asia] I just think, thank God I’m home.”

Surf Bum to Ad Man: Mr. Merrifield credits “unusually good luck” for his career. A graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, he arrived in Indonesia with $7,000 in savings—and lasted two years and nine months as a full-time surf bum. “I lived in a place called Desert Point where the locals would take pity on me,” he says. “I’d be begging for food from the boats.” Down to $200, he went to Japan, where he taught English and shorthand (“even though I didn’t know shorthand,” he says). It was at a small copy shop in Tokyo—“copy shops used to be the creative bull pen for agencies,” he says—that he landed his first ad job: writing brochures for technology companies.

Criminal Acts: When Mr. Merrifield was creative director of Saatchi and Saatchi in Japan, his entire Tokyo office went to jail in 2002 for an Adidas campaign that included crushing a real car under a giant soccer ball in the middle of Tokyo’s Shibuya district. Police arrested all 33 employees for violating traffic laws and advertising without a permit. Eventually everyone was let out on bail; charges were dismissed but they were forced to promise to never do such a thing again. “We quite deliberately transgressed that promise,” says Mr. Merrifield.

Defying Gravity: Mr. Merrifield is most known for his high-flying stunts for Adidas. In 2003, he created the “vertical football” billboards in Osaka and Tokyo, in which two soccer players, suspended from a skyscraper, kicked a hanging ball along the face of the building. Then there was the “impossible sprint” campaign, in which runners suspended from buildings in Osaka and the Swire building in Hong Kong ran up the facades. (A typhoon in Osaka blew off two runners, but no one was hurt.) That campaign ended up winning a coveted Media Lion award at the 2005 Cannes Lions International Creative Festival. “I’ve always wanted to do things that have never been done before,” he says.

The Future of Advertising: Recently, Mr. Merrifield has been working with clients on “making the world a better place,” he says. Sounds cliché, he admits, but he insists that ad agencies should help clients see that “doing good is good business.” Advertising campaigns are no longer just about branding, he says, but about giving back; he cites the Pepsi Refresh project that gives funding to local community workers. “I think this is what the future is going to be,” he says. “A lot of people will make brand decisions based on what that brand stands for.”