Twist or Stick: Kastner & Partners' Neil Cook on why you shouldn't rest on your creative laurels

In the latest instalment of Twist or Stick, The Drum and Twist Recruitment catch up with Neil Cook, creative managing director of Kastner & Partners, who explains why he would urge young creatives not to rely on talent alone.

The old Dave Trott idiom ‘hard work beats talent’ is the mantra Kastner & Partners creative managing director Neil Cook lives by after coasting along as a young creative in the 90s.

Cook always wanted to be a writer and studied literature at university. When it came to the only two career paths that were “realistically open” to literature students, he chose advertising over journalism, getting his first break in the mid-90s with Electronic Arts (EA Sports), a time when, by his own admission, gaming was the pastime of “spotty teenage boys”.

Employed as an in-house copywriter, he worked his way up the ranks to become creative director. When the agency that held the EA Sports account in North America set up shop in London, the creative team he had built was “transplanted” there to help build the brand in Western Europe.

“The line I like to throw around is I’m part of the team that helped build EA Sports from a zerodollar to a billion-dollar brand,” he says. “It was an exciting, formative experience in advertising.”

During his time at the brand he was “lucky to work for and with some really inspiring creative directors” including Jeff Odiorne and Bruce Crouch.

And while he now always returns to the line ‘hard work beats talent’, it took him years to realise what it actually meant.

“Maybe this was just me, but as a young creative working on interesting products and brands you think you can coast, but you can’t coast. The number of times you have to stay late, work hard and think harder, and put in all the effort that’s required to get the right result will pay off more than licking your finger, sticking it in the air and hoping inspiration will strike.

“Creativity is a process, and if you dig deep and work through that process in a professional way you will get to a great result.”

Recalling his early career Cook says advertising in the 90s was “a bit of a party for a lot of people” and that at times it felt like “more of a lifestyle choice than a focused career choice”.

“If I could offer my younger self one piece of advice it would be take it seriously earlier. Don’t think you can rely on a little bit of creative talent to get somewhere.”

Joining Kastner & Partners, the global agency of record for Red Bull, in 2008, he has helped build the brand from “a nothing into a something” to today’s “global behemoth”.

It was Kaster & Partners who in 2013 helped the brand mastermind ‘Red Bull Stratos’, the ambitious stunt which saw Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner fly 39km into the stratosphere over New Mexico and ‘space jump’ back to Earth, breaking the sound barrier in the process.

“Each year we’re called upon to top the last thing the brand did and Red Bull consistently tops itself, but how do you top a Stratos? How do you cover a new event that might just go global?” he asks.

“That’s the real challenge – growing and evolving an already super successful product.”

To those looking to join the world of advertising today, he offers up an optimistic outlook, claiming that through his eyes the industry is “incredibly vibrant and healthy”. According to Cook we’re now at a point where digital is no longer seen as a threat to the old orthodoxies of advertising and is “universally embraced”.

Today’s graduates, however, seem “more switched on and professional” to Cook than he was.

“The culture at college has changed so much; it’s now a massive cash investment to come out with a degree, especially if you do something relatively nebulous like a creative degree. You have to justify it by getting into agencies because you have to pay off the debt.

“It’s not all about the drinking and the staying out late and the bleary-eyed stories of the night before any more,” he laughs.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 18 February issue, which is available now from The Drum Store.

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