Harmandar Singh likes to swim in the river of words and play with them the way a guitarist plucks his notes. He is happy to throw himself into a whirlpool of grammar and syntax, polish a turn of phrase or try to enhance the nuance in a sentence. At the end of the day, he can tell you what he wants to say in just one word.
That is a skill this advertising guru has honed over 32 years. Ham, as he is known, has made brands and people famous and furious. Grounded by the coronavirus, he felt it was the right time to reflect on his journey in an industry that is the catalyst for commerce. Rainmaker is the story of his life, a distillation of his thoughts, experiences and interactions with people, articulated in his inimitable style.
The title is self-proclaimed, says this “advertising creative director gone rogue”, and he wears it like a badge. Ham has won many awards for the campaigns he helmed; worked with top agencies in London, New York, Tokyo, Singapore and Manila; organised key events; placed people in top jobs; and served as broker for international companies coming to Malaysia. He runs Sledgehammer Communications and teaches at Taylor’s University’s School of Media and Communications, and has led media missions for Mercy Malaysia.
“You name it, I’ve done it. Let me be shameless: I’ve come to the point where I want to tell myself I am that special person who brings a little bit of hope and blessings. It’s not unfitting for me to call myself the rainmaker.
“I will work my ass off for anything and the hard work has paid off. I became rich, of course. My network is global and I know the best people who have done the best work, on a personal level. I’ve had all sorts of adventures and it’s been a joy.”
True to one who knows the impact of succinct writing, Ham keeps the pieces in his book short. He groups them in chapters, each starting with “Tales from …” Casting a well-trained eye on what is going on around him, he comments on ad fraud, illegal outdoor sites, discrepancies in government-linked tender systems, creativity and Malaysians who have left the country and are shining overseas, what next after Covid in a world that wants tomorrow today, and how to make rain.
Some pieces are old, such as his tribute to the legendary Yasmin Ahmad, whose mantra was to be positive, who “made herself so small when talking to you … and showed us how easy it is to be humble, how simple it is to be kind”.
Ham cannot say enough about his great late friend who fought non-stop for her ideas. “People who don’t fight for a good idea will never sell anything in life. Yasmin would do amazing work and then present it to her clients and make them feel as though they came up with the idea.”
Tales from advertising have gems from this old pro, from why the need to advertise to falsehoods and new lessons in marketing based on old truths, what marketers actually sell, the need for transparency and how ad people can survive anything, no matter how hard they are whipped.
Ham says the business has become more fragmented since he started, but the skill sets required, the critical thinking and out-of-the-box vision are still relevant. The platform has changed and the system has become interactive with digital, but the challenge of writing and the art of persuasion, remains.
“The implicit function of advertising — it’s all about persuasion — is still the same. Pulling the triggers, the emotions, all that comes down to observation. You have to consume life generously to understand the nation and observe how things work, how people think and react.
“Good work will still stand out. Ideas are not original but the combinations are new. You rearrange the language to express some detail.
“The client comes and tells us what they want to say. We tell them how to say it. We don’t reinvent anything. We just take a complex situation and simplify it, say it in three words. Then we explain and build the campaign from there. Everything we do in the world is selling. Simplify an idea and magnify — that’s what we do.”
This accidental ad man who gatecrashed his way into advertising in a case of mistaken identity — “We all turbanators look alike” — also mulls on growing shy with grace, and some things he knows for sure.
“I know tech hands will keep having a hidden hand in political destinies. I know everybody wants everything for free. I know I live in a world of disbelief where lies lie in wait. I know I have more friends than enemies. I know young people in our industry try really hard to shine. l know they don’t really know how much I believe in them.”
Ham put together Rainmaker within two weeks in September. He is working on his biography, which he hopes to launch next year. “I thought while doing that, let me get this one out of the way.
“I write about 20,000 words a week. I’m a well-practised writer who has been writing for a very long time. I was a columnist with The Star for 11 years, wrote scripts and ads, and I have my weekly e-magazine, MARKETING Weekender. I’ve shot six online videos this year.
“I’m perpetually creative. My philosophy is: When you’re on, you’re on. Either you have it or you don’t.”
What he is involved in now is Rasuah Busters, an initiative by Karangkraf Media Group chairman Datuk Hussamuddin Yaacub to fight corruption. His old friend asked him to join this crusade and Ham, who is “ready to take on anybody”, has produced trilingual videos to drive home the message with the Mak Kata Jangan! campaign.
Working on Rainmaker has made Ham realise one thing: “It is highly likely that from next year, I will only be an author. I was really so happy having this whirlpool of words, joining the syntax, reinventing the bloody grammar. If this makes me happy, okay lah. Seriously, after my biography, I can go into writing movies, comedies, TV shows and more books.”
Purchase a copy of 'Rainmaker' for RM37.50 here.
This article first appeared on Nov 22, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.