adobo Editor-in-Chief and Founder Angel Guerrero chats with TBWA\Group Singapore’s CEO Ara Hampartsoumian during the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, on the terrace of the Majestic Hotel in Cannes, talking about the rollercoaster ride that led him to his life’s work in Singapore.
“That’s life, I think, Angel. If you don’t plan too much, things will come”, Ara Hampartsoumian muses over an espresso martini, salsa music in the background as he lounges in one of the bars dotting Cannes’ sandy beaches in the French Riviera. “What goes around, comes around. I’m a big believer in all that.”
Barely half a year into his newly minted stint as the group’s CEO, the long-time adman reflects on the serpentine journey it took him to land and build a fruitful career in Asia. One would think that being in the coastal French town would impart a sense of familiarity as being closer in culture to Canada, his birth country. Yet after spending almost two decades in the region, he’s ready to claim the Lion City as home.
“I’m Armenian first, I always say that’s pre-heritage. I’m still an Armenian from Canada, but after 19 years in Singapore — my wife is Singaporean-Chinese, my kids are half-Singaporean, I’ve been a permanent resident for 18 years, I think I’m Singaporean”, Hampartsoumian comments on his multi-cultural identity. This is, perhaps, one of his secrets to his original and creative mindset that has marked him as one of the best in the industry: a diverse background enriched by colorful experiences, with an innate understanding of how different cultures work. He’s traveled and lived everywhere on the map, tried everything and nothing, and has hit the reset button with every feeling of restlessness until the creative life called him back. Maybe it’s in the blood, but it’s in the world of advertising where he thrives — and on the other side of the world is where he found his footing.
Hampartsoumian’s dream of turning the agency into the region’s most innovative integrated agency started when he was the group’s managing director back in 2014. By 2017, his efforts proved to be effective as the group was named Campaign Asia’s Southeast Asia Integrated Agency of the Year.
Before being appointed as CEO, he was named Regional Agency Head of the Year 2018 by Campaign Asia, while TBWA\Group Singapore won Campaign Asia’s SEA and Singapore Creative Agency of the Year 2018, and Marketing Magazine’s Overall Agency of the Year.
TBWA\Group Singapore’s Stop The Drama Now Masterclass Campaign for Manulife Singapore
Today, Hampartsoumian leads a company of 300, making TBWA the largest agency in Singapore with over 27 nationalities — a “little United Nations”, the CEO jokes. They are also proud to have a robust intership and school outreach program with over 168 interns from 70 tertiary institutions, with an 11% conversion rate to full time staff.
His dreams of Yet diversity is a facet he’s serious about, and it’s this melting pot of cultures and identities that give the agency its creative edge. “It’s all about diverse thinking. We’re a creative company at the end of the day and I think if you bring in the diversity of thought, thinking, and experiences from other countries in the world, it’s amazing and we love that”, he says. “The more experience you have, the diversity that you have, the better product you have at the end of the day and so we push that agenda.”
Diversity in personalities and ideas also leads Hampartsoumian and his team to lead the way in disruptive concepts. Still, despite the need for the industry to evolve, old habits die hard and it becomes a challenge to convince existing clients to take on disruptive campaigns.
“We say, ‘TBWA, always in beta’. So we’re always in beta, we’re always trying, learning, failing, trying again, and I think we need to continue to do that as a business. But, disruption in Asia as a culture is difficult. I think we need to educate our clients a bit more on taking risks.”
“Seattle Sounds Even Better Now” – Together with creative agency, Singapore Airlines created and conceived a campaign to celebrate the Airline’s first non-stop Singapore to Seattle route with the release of a new music track featuring ambient sounds from the Airbus A350.
When given rein, though, the work pays off — as evident in their winning pitch for Singapore Airlines, securing a $100 million contract alongside sister company PHD for an innovative and integrated communications strategy. Before the win was a grueling six-month bidding contest against 10 other agencies. Retaining SIA as a client after 12 years was no small feat, especially after an intensely competitive process against other heavyweights such as DDB and Dentsu. The integration with PHD as its media arm, which formed the SIA-TBWA-PHD tripartite, is an unprecedented move, and is one they’re learning to roll out within the global network.
Through his leadership, the group also bagged and continuously creates campaigns for one of the region’s most dynamic accounts with the Singapore Tourism Board.
If there’s anything else that’s remarkable about Hampartsoumian, he seems to perform best when out of his comfort zone. Taking risks is one he’s no stranger to — he’s traveled and lived in several countries, working with companies and starting his own ventures, and he’s learned to pack up and move on when it was time.
Here For Good: Elephant Poaching campaign with Standard Chartered, a bid to stop money laundering and the poaching of 30,000 elephants a year.
Born and raised in Montreal, Canada, the agency vet was practically born into a family of creatives. His brother, Arto, is Executive Chairman at BBH China, while his uncle, Tro Piliguian, held a long-time stint as the head of Ogilvy & Mather in North America. Hampartsoumian credits his uncle for inspiring his career in advertising, describing him as the classic “Madman”.
Hampartsoumian joined his uncle’s agency after graduating with a degree in Graphic Design, where he worked as a production manager before flying to Los Angeles to work at a large print company, doing the rounds on the West Coast for four years. Growing restless at his job, the creative decided to pack his bags once more and follow his mother to the Bahamas, trying all sorts of ventures for size like opening Nassau’s first ad agency, Thyme Design, and running his own bar — “a tiny one, with a maximum of 20 people,” he said.
“Return of the Condor Heroes” campaign made under the partnership with Singapore Tourism Board.
Yet that all-too familiar feeling of burnout and restlessness struck again, and an invitation from his brother beckoned him to Singapore. “He said, ‘There’s an opening at BBDO in Singapore. Would you like to try?’ and I said, ‘OK’. I packed my bags, sold my bar, and moved to Singapore.”
Over a decade and a few offices later, Hampartsoumian has firmly planted his roots in the Southeast Asian metropolis, imparting his experiences and insights with TBWA as managing director, and later, CEO. “I was very lucky to step into an agency that wasn’t in trouble. It was a solid, steady agency with good brands, good clients, and good people. So I didn’t have to firefight a lot.” He muses, “[TBWA] was very silo-ed as an agency and so I needed to break down those walls and then kind of bring people together.”
From all the colorful life experiences he’s had, perhaps one of his most significant lessons learned is investing in people. Hampartsoumian still credits his biggest successes as being based on people.
“I think I’m a very collaborative leader. I wear my heart on my sleeve, I say it as it is as many times as my foot is in my mouth”, he jokes, before adding, “You have to have happy people you know, working in an environment that makes them enjoy what they do.”