"I’ve heard so many people say ‘everything in art has been done,’ which is bollocks" – an interview with adman turned artist Julian Hanford

The Drum’s editor-at-large Dave Birss visits the first public exhibition of adman turned artist Julian Hanford, finding out how a career in advertising led him to what he does now.

The people who’ve always interested me most in the advertising industry are the ones who have a creative passion that extends beyond the walls of the agency. There’s a disproportionately high number of musicians, screenwriters, fashion designers, graffiti artists, bloggers, bakers and DJs inhabiting our nation's creative departments. And I’m always really impressed by the brave souls who leave the security of an agency job to pursue that passion. One of these inspiring individuals is Julian Hanford, who walked away from a successful advertising career to pursue his dream of being an artist. If you’re a regular reader of The Drum you’ll be familiar with some of his work already. We regularly feature shots from his Assorted Nuts project where he’s taken portraits of many of the UK’s most respected creative legends.I recently caught up with him at his first public exhibition, and took the opportunity to ask a few questions. When you were an advertising creative, did you always have the desire to create art? I went through design and I went through advertising, but the thing that underpinned it all was the importance of ideas. The allure of advertising is you can express yourself and get paid well for it. That, and there’s a lot of parties. But the trouble that comes with it is a constant compromise that you have to go through; the dulling-down of things you know are good ideas because a client isn’t seeing the colour scheme the same way you are. I just got really, really jaded with it and realised that somewhere along the line I’d made a mistake. Art, to me, is a jettisoning of the filter of compromise. It’s about saying the things that I really think in the purest possible form. You have to take a step back from big salaries and stuff, but I don’t care. It really is that important to me. A lot of your work has a commercial photography feel to it. Was advertising like a training ground to get you to where you are? It taught me a hell of a lot. I had a lot of fun in advertising. Aside from what I’ve just said about the compromise element of it, I just liked doing stuff. I liked producing stuff. I liked to refine stuff. I liked to strip and pare-back stuff. Ultimately I have to look at it again the following morning and say ‘yes, that really does it for me’. If it doesn’t, it gets modified.Do you get a different buzz creating art than you did when you were creating advertising? It’s essentially the same buzz. Getting a brief and starting the process of thinking about it is not that dissimilar. I give myself my own briefs. The creative process actually isn’t any different. All it means is that I set the brief just by thinking about the world, the way it is, how we interact with it, how we interact with our increasing knowledge of science and technology.
Is there something different about artists? Something that differentiates these people from the rest of us? I don’t really buy into this idea of people being individual creative geniuses. The stuff that comes through me can come through us all – all I am is a conduit. The important thing is to grab hold of those things when they do come to you and put them into reality, so that we can all share them as an idea. That's how I see it. Is communication central to what you do or is your focus more on aesthetics? I think the two are wrapped up indelibly, because the more aesthetic something is and the more visually arresting it is, the more it’s going to help the communication process. The difference in advertising is that ultimately, and nobody really knows if this is what can happen, is that you want a finite result. You want somebody to say ‘oh God, I really like that and I buy that idea, and because I buy that idea I’m interested enough in that product to go out and buy it’. You're looking for a finite thing. The problem is that throughout the history of advertising, the arguments have gone ‘well you've got to brand-build – it doesn’t matter about sales, you've got to brand-build’. Or the other side of the coin is ‘it doesn't matter about brandbuilding, you’ve got to sell widgets’. There’s always this frenetic friction in the advertising industry that really makes it schizophrenic. Art’s not about that at all. Art is about communication, but it is communication with open-ended questions. It’s about flagging up things that we see, but haven’t got the time in our busy lives to notice. Picasso said ‘art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’ and I think that’s what it’s about. It’s about reminding us of the little things in an aesthetically affecting way. It doesn’t have to be attractive. Some art is desperately not attractive in terms of being visceral or making an impact on you. The impact’s the thing. It’s got to make you feel something, even if it makes you feel angry.
What influences and inspires your work?Everything. One of the beauties of working just in terms of abstract concepts and ideas is there are no limits. And the more you play around with it, the less limits you see. I’ve heard so many people say ‘everything in art has been done,’ which is bollocks. That would mean that everything in human life was done, and it isn’t. New things come around all the time. There is so much to discover. Creativity to me is about juxtaposing disparate things which when brought together have a different meaning. The basis of modern surrealism was shocking people by combining elements which you wouldn’t have thought should be brought together. And there are so many combinations that you can make; an infinite amount of combinations. We search for meaning in everything as individuals and as a race. Everything we look at we try to decipher some kind of meaning. Again, it’s an interesting psychological game that the artist plays with the audience: “I’m combining these things that you probably haven’t seen in this combination before, what do you think of it? Does it mean something to you? It means something to me as an artist, sure, but does it mean something to you?” And if it doesn’t mean anything to the audience and they can’t decipher it all, the artist has failed. It’s got to promote some kind of feeling. It could be a feeling of disconnect; it could be a feeling of anger; it could be a feeling of beauty; it could be a feeling of awe. But there’s got to be an emotional response to it. The ad industry can occasionally be guilty of plagiarism. If an agency plagiarised some of your work, how would you feel about that as a former adman?If I’d been at all involved in the process and they ripped me off, I’d be very displeased and they’d be hearing from my lawyers. As an artist, if anybody thought that my work was culturally significant enough to plagiarise it into an ad campaign, I’d probably feel quite honoured actually. It wouldn’t bother me that much at all. Art plagiarises advertising, advertising plagiarises art.
This is your first gallery show. What's next?My second gallery show, which I’m working on at the moment. It will be different to this – lots more 3D sculptural installational stuff, which is going to be fun. Photography will always be there for me. It will always be an element in my art, but I don’t want to be bound by that. The medium to me is defined by the message. And the message has no boundaries to it. So there'll be much more three dimensional stuff. And I’d like to travel this exhibition. I can’t see myself doing anything different until I disappear off this mortal coil. This, for me, is it for the long-term. I’ll still do portraiture of people that I like and do things to eke out the family finances, but as an ongoing thing, it’s art. Julian Hanford’s show ‘Meh.’ is on at the Apostrophe gallery on Brewer Street in Soho and runs until the end of June.The interview was originally published in The Drum's 28 May issue, available to purchase from The Drum Store.

Dave Birss

I used to be an advertising Creative Director. Now I'm on a mission to demystify creativity. I do that by writing, speaking, broadcasting and consulting.

I’m the founder of RIGHTthinking.co - which helps businesses get to more effective ideas more effectively.

I’m the editor of OpenforIdeas.org - an online magazine that explores creativity and innovation in business.

I was the writer, director and presenter of the TV series, The Day Before Tomorrow.

I'm the author of A User Guide to the Creative Mind. And have a couple of other books in the pipeline.

You can often find me debunking creative myths on stage at conferences all over the world.

All by Dave