As Wieden+Kennedy London chief executive officer Neil Christie bows out after almost 40 years in the ad business, we catch up with him to talk about his career, the place of advertising in pop culture and how the industry needs to change to attract young talent.
There are many paths to a graceful exit in advertising. You can quietly dedicate yourself to the art of the suntan in some tropical clime. You can make like Sir Martin Sorrell, and start building from the ground up, again. Or you can hit the books.
After 17 years at Wieden+Kennedy and nearly 40 in the ad business, Neil Christie is leaving in June – perhaps for good. Rather than soaking up the rays or launching a venture of his own, he’s heading off to study literature at King’s College London.
”Like a lot of people over the last 12 months, I’ve been thinking: what do I want to do when I grow up? It felt like time for a change,” he explains. ”I had no interest in going to work for another agency and wanted to reboot and do something different.”
An avid reader as well as an ad man, Christie carried books to stave off ennui on ”boring shoots” and is currently making his way through Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things and Tabitha Lasley’s oil rig memoir Sea State. Literature has been a ”personal passion” that he now has time to explore. ”I thought I’d go back to college, study and see where that takes me.”
Before he exchanges client pitches for the Canterbury Tales, we catch up with Christie to discuss his past career and the future of the industry.
Hailing from Aberdeen, Christie began his career as a graduate at Allen, Brady and Marsh in the ’80s. As he tells it: ”I kind of thought advertising might be interesting. I’ll give it a go and see if I like it. It wasn’t a terribly considered career plan at that point.”
If he didn’t start with one, clearly a plan emerged: over the next 20 years, Christie worked his way up via Yellowhammer, BBH, TBWA (for eight years, as managing director) and BDDH through its merger with Euro RSCG, prior to its own acquisition by Havas.
”I had gone through merger after merger after merger at network agencies and was thoroughly fed up with the purges, the coups, the layoffs and the internal politics.”
Joining the crew at W+K, he says, was ”a huge relief to be honest, to escape and to go to an independent where we could focus on the work and on the clients and on our people”.
Although roots had been put down, W+K’s London presence lacked ”a foothold in the market,” Christie recalls. Joining after the hire of creative directors Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth, he worked to establish its UK shop. Its winning pitch for Honda’s business was the key. ”It really was the making of the London office in a lot of ways. It was a big piece of business. It was very high profile. It wasn’t a network client, it was something that we had won in London, and we did work that was famous and demonstrably very effective.”
After helping to establish the agency in London, he stayed for almost two decades, while the team he led first as managing director and later as chief operating and chief executive officer (including a stretch leading the entire W+K network) became a bona fide hit factory.
”I feel lucky to have been part of some famous campaigns that made a dent in popular culture, and obviously did a great job for our clients.” As well as its Honda work, he points to the ’St Wayne’, ’Write the future’ and ’Nothing Beats a Londoner’ campaigns for Nike.
Its work for gourmet Danish butter brand Lurpak is another highlight; W+K London’s work in the UK for Arla Foods led to it gaining the international account from Saatchi & Saatchi in 2011.
”[It] was a really important campaign for us, and one which helped to change perceptions about what we could do as an agency, because people didn’t think we would be able to do FMCG work and do it in a highly creative way.
”Those were campaigns where you can feel the whole country, and even the world sometimes, is talking about what you’ve done. Those are the moments that really are rewarding, where you can see that you’re doing something that people are excited about and enjoying. And they’re doing a great job for the clients.”
Those moments, he says, are far harder to conjure up today. The fragmention of the media landscape means there are fewer moments of collective experience, and fewer opportunities for mass audience brand advertising to break through.
”It’s very difficult for advertising to be at the center of the popular conversation in the way that it used to be when everybody was watching the same thing at the same time. Advertising is less important in the popular conversation now.”
It’s not all been champagne and Cannes Lions. Christie points to one ”disappointment”, a campaign for dishwasher brand Finish that ended up flushing the agency’s account with consumer goods multinational Reckitt Benckiser down the sinkhole.
”It was a big global win. People said that W+K and Finish dishwasher tablets is never going to work. And then our first work came out, and in the industry the reaction was, ’fucking hell, W+K have actually done great work.’ It was as if this was the only great campaign for dishwasher tablets, ever.”
But the work clashed with the client’s expectations, he says. ”The work rolled out internationally over a couple of years and internal resistance at the client built up, because it was so contrary to how people in that organization believed advertising worked. We had a different idea of what how marketing works and what the role of advertising was. In the end, we did some work we thought was terrific, and they fired us.”
Ensuring that agency and client are both on the same page, and that client demands don’t exceed reasonable boundaries, is a familiar concern of Christie’s. With agency workers reporting increased pandemic workloads due to additional demands from clients, especially for junior talent, where does he draw the line?
”We’ve established ways of working ... we won’t do meetings after certain times. We don’t expect people to respond to emails after seven and before eight in the morning. We don’t require our staff to work at weekends. Most clients are not just reasonable about that these days, but supportive.
”I have always said to clients, if there’s an emergency that can’t wait until first thing the next morning, don’t contact the team – call me.”
Considering the bigger picture, however, he says that more demanding clients and harsher workloads are damaging the industry’s ability to attract new blood.
”Advertising has for a long time had a reputation of being an industry that was hard work, but fun. It could be challenging, it could be hard work, but there were a lot of compensations because it was a fun business to be involved in. If the hard work gets harder, and the fun gets less fun, then clearly there’s a point at which people say the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.
”Agencies and clients need to be very careful that the business doesn’t just become a grind,” he says. ”Over the pandemic, as a business, we’ve adapted to be able to do our work. But there’s a price to paid for that, in people’s wellbeing and mental health, and also in the job becoming more functional and task-related. A lot of the intangible, cultural, rewarding aspects of the job are just not present when it’s done remotely.”
In the long term, he says, agencies need to take better care of junior staff. “You’ve got to look after people’s health and wellbeing. But also everybody needs to understand what we’re trying to do and why. And they need to understand what their part in that is – everybody needs that.“
Still, Christie admits his own career involved plenty of 12-hour shifts and ”weird hours”, which he describes as ”just the nature of the job” at a senior level. ”You’ve got more responsibilities, you’ve got more expectations, you get paid more, so that’s the deal.”
Was it worth it? ”I didn’t feel most of the time like I was working. It was just what I was doing. I wasn’t thinking about work-life balance, because I wasn’t distinguishing between the two things,” he says.
”Working long hours and working hard was a choice that I made, and I don’t in any way suggest that anybody has to do that or should be made to do that. It’s entirely possible that if I was 21 now and going into the business, I would think, it’s six o’clock – I’m done – I’ll pick it up again tomorrow. Times have changed. It’s probably a good thing.”
Before Christie matriculates at King’s, there is some unfinished business to attend to: recording an album with his band Emperor Penguin, which makes ”tuneful music with noisy guitars” after the style of Teenage Fanclub.
With a few weeks left on the clock, he says it’s unlikely he’ll return to the industry. ”It’s not that I hate advertising, or that I don’t enjoy it anymore – but I want to try something different,” he concludes. ”You can only have toffee pudding for dessert every day for so long before you want to try the cheese.”