An Oz Abroad
I was a thirty-three years old, mildly comfortablely pissed copywriter who was on the brink of discovering what Socrates was on about when he said that the only thing he knew for sure was that he knew nothing. For one minute I was sitting in my seat at the Perth Concert Hall and the next I was on stage accepting the Perth Advertising and Design Fellowship (PADC) which gave me the chance to visit some leading agencies on the other side of the world. This is my story:
Exiting Heathrow, I blearily focused on three men sitting in a front garden on folding chairs, watching the arrival and departure of aircraft through binoculars. According to my brother, they were not terrorists, but ‘Planespotters’; the high-tech cousins of those whose idea of a big day out involves wearing an anorak and standing in the rain at Clapham Junction, cataloguing the comings and goings of British Rail. It was a reminder of that queerly English talent for finding something worthwhile and occasionally beautiful in the things nobody else notices. Which is why I think they still produce the world’s best advertising.
Hanging out with ex-Perth people is not something I usually do when I leave the country. It kind of defeats the purpose. But on this trip, I figured I was more likely to learn something meaningful if my experiences had some frame of reference.
It was a gut feeling that turned out to be right because, apart from two notable exceptions in Edinburgh, I learned the most from those people who knew where I was coming from before I asked them where they were going.
With this in mind, I spent a week of my time in London working with my ex-art director Steve Back and his writer Murray Blackett at The Arnold Group’s Partners BDDH and a couple of weeks in the creative department at Springer and Jacoby (now Kate Stanners and Andy Law’s new shop, Boymeetsgirl SJ) with my brother Wayne and his art director Azar Kazimir.
I sat in on briefings and internal presentations. I worked on briefs for Daimler Chrysler, Smart cars, Jeffrey West shoes, the National Advertising Benevolent Society and a still un-named blend of soy and cows milk. I was even roped into chatting to (and then buying beer for) students from the Miami Ad School, the institution that provided Cliff Freeman and Partners with its newest junior team.
So, what did I learn from all this?
Basically, the complaints you hear from creatives, suits, planners and probably the accounts department, are the same wherever you go. In short, when it comes to doing brilliant work, there is never enough time or money.
Regardless of how much time and money there is.
However, the good people will tell you that, like everything else in life, the path to greatness lies in making the most of the things you have, rather than whingeing about the stuff you don’t.
“We're the most creative Scottish agency of all time with clients from all over the UK, so we get great stuff to work on; beer, soft drinks, cars, whisky, radio stations. Eighty percent of what we do is TV... We make it into The Book most years and there are a few Cannes Gold Lions kicking around our boardroom. In my creative department it's a meritocracy... There's no "them" and "us" between creatives and suits and planners. (What a lot of poncey old nonsense that was, eh?) Why am I telling you all this? Quite simply because it's time you stopped thinking London is the only place a good creative team can thrive. And because I'm considering taking on a placement team in the very near future.”
From Gerry Farrell’s ‘Open letter to London creatives’ on the Leith Agency website.
Convincing or what? Which is why I had set up an appontment to see him. On arriving in Edinbrugh I called to confirm the meeting.
The quizzical reaction at the other end of the phone was a dead giveaway. And in fairness to Gerry, he did mention in earlier e-mails that he’d be away on a shoot until the day before my arrival.
So I was not altogether shocked when, on fronting up for my appointment at 10am the next day, the receptionist told me (in the polite yet firm way only a Scottish woman can) that as Gerry had gotten off a plane that morning after a week out of an insanely busy office, I was the least of his worries.
Thankfully, I’d also planned to visit Kevin Bird and David Isaac, mates of Marketforce planning director Ronnie Duncan, who’ve started their own agency. So, after a few phone calls ‘Family’ took me in earlier than expected.
Given the pride Kevin and David take in both the people who work with them and the work that they produce, Family is an appropriate name for their business. Assuming, of course, that your family is full of people who are relaxed, comfortable and happy to be part of it.
And, despite being at base camp on a mountain of work postponed while they were handling an election campaign, the guys took an afternoon to look at my book and talk about advertising, creativity philosophy and Scottish nationalism.
The Family album contains everything from an amusing campaign for an Edinburgh five-a-side soccer competition to a poster for the Scottish Conservatives, featuring a photo of Tony Blair beside the headline ‘BLIAR’. However, in an interesting departure from most credentials documents I’ve read, the writing is mostly client testimonials and quotes from the media about Family’s work.
It’s a blend of creativity and accountability that was reflected in just about everything Kevin and David said. And it reminded me of a few basic truths.
First, there are no excuses.
Edinburgh has a population half the size of Perth’s. With some notable exceptions, the clients spend about the same. And over the last decade, Edinburgh seems to have lost as many accounts to London as Perth has to Sydney. Yet on the whole, Edinburgh’s best ads look better thought out and executed than Perth’s best ads.
Especially the retail stuff.
Maybe it’s raw creative passion. Or the fact they’re forced to spend more than half the year indoors. But whatever the motivation, Scotland’s best seem to spend a lot of time in the room of mirrors, critically examining both the work that they do and the thinking behind it.
Also, while those I met were a long way from being ‘up themselves’, they weren’t shy about letting the world know when they’d done a good ad, either.
On the surface, it sounds uncomfortably like the parochialism we West Australian’s spend our careers trying to either escape or live down. But that night, after three reflective pints and a bag of crisps, I realised it was just an expression of how little interest the good Scots agencies have in being merely satellites of London.
Instead, they look and sound like they’ve embraced the realities of being a small population, living in an isolated city with a self-contained culture (sound familiar?) and turned them into a distinctive tone of voice.
And if you think that’s not possible here in Perth, Western Australia, have a listen to a Triffids album. Or read a Tim Winton novel.
This city moved Baudelaire to poetry, Hugo to prose and an entire population to passionate and violent revolution. I managed a drunken impression of a Gibbon running down a street at two in the morning.
My intention was to have a break from advertising and go on a birthday bender with my brother, Steve Back and Stuart Nichols, another member of Perth’s creative diaspora who’s crossed over to the dark side and become a writer at Saatchi and Saatchi in Paris.
However, the talk eventually meandered back to advertising.
And it was an offhand comment Stu made about a Toyota brief he was working on that nailed the creative difference between Perth and everywhere else.
Apparently, when you’re working at this level, ideas don’t just have to be insightful and on strategy. They also have to be ‘big enough’. Which seems to be the nice way of saying that the finished ad needs to contain enough bells and whistles to justify the million or so pounds, Euros or US Dollars spent on its creation.
In fourteen years as a Perth writer, I can count on the fingers of a butcher’s hand the number of times I’ve had a concept knocked back because it wasn’t ‘big enough’. Conversely, I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve ended up with an average ad because I allowed my imagination to outrun my budget.
That said, this ‘bigger is better’ attitude appeared as frustrating to the Europeans as it was bewildering to me, because I listened to more than one creative complain that nobody seemed to appreciate that a simple idea, brilliantly executed was the same price as no idea done the same way.
I’m also pretty sure it was what moved one West Australian I spoke to in London to comment that the thing he missed most about Perth was the chance to ‘sneak stuff under the radar’.
And no, he wasn’t talking about scam ads either.
He was reminiscing about a place where you still occasionally present work to the man or woman who makes the final decision. And where every storyboard and layout isn’t focus-grouped to within an inch of its life.
Of course, it’s a comment that needs to be taken with a healthy pinch of reality. Hell, I look back fondly on my days as storeman too, but it doesn’t mean I want to go back to packing boxes for a living.
However, given the amount of average but stupefyingly expensive global advertising we’re exposed to these days, it’s a timely reminder that size isn’t everything.
I went. I saw. And I was quickly forgotten by some really important people.
Dick Baynham once told me that staying in Perth was fine, provided you were happy painting miniatures. He did add however that small budgets and small amounts of time were no excuses for small-mindedness.
And I think that neatly sums up the value of The West Australian PADC Fellowship.
Yes, it gives you the opportunity to meet men and women whose names you’ve grown up reading as credits in award annuals. You get a chance to visit the agencies you’ve idly fantasised about working in one day. If you’re lucky, you might even get thrown a brief or two while you’re there.
But in the end, these experiences are only worthwhile if they inspire you to greater things once you’re back behind your desk in West Perth, Subiaco or Northbridge.
A few years after the Stone Roses imploded and tossed cans of paint over their A&R man’s Jaguar, I read an interview in which lead singer Ian Brown was asked how his band produced some of the most influential music of the late twentieth century from a backwater like Manchester.
His reply was simple.
“It’s not where you are, it’s where you’re at”.
Thanks to The West Australian, National Homes and Marketforce, I now know he was right.