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So You Want My Job? Grey Malaysia’s Graham Drew: ‘Not belonging can be a superpower’

Graham Drew, chief creative officer at Grey Malaysia

Welcome to So You Want My Job? Each week we ask the people working in some of the industry’s coolest roles about how they got where they are. Along the way, we dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully our interviewees can inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting.

This week we catch up with Graham Drew, who wears many hats as chief creative officer for Grey Malaysia, global executive creative director for Carlsberg and a member of the Grey Global Creative council.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Absolutely no idea. I wish I could say, ‘that day when I gazed upon that first Lego brick and I knew I wanted to build things, to be an architect, to construct visions in my mind made real’... no, none of that.

I have amazing parents who just let me follow my nose. I was the first one in my family to go to university, even then there was no plan of sorts (other than to hold off the impending terror of actually doing ‘work’ for as long as possible). I love reading, which led to studying English and a vague hope that I could maybe be a journalist or something. But really honestly I never knew what I was doing until I was doing it (which is still true today).

Does your job now resemble that in any way?

I didn’t grow up studying D&AD annuals and I am plagued with imposter syndrome all the time. As creatives, we’ve put ourselves in such an unusual situation where, almost every day, other people are judging what you’ve done, what you are worth. So learning to embrace that time when you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing is an essential talent of any creative. But one thing I have learned is that the feeling of not belonging can actually be a bit of a superpower, if you let it be. More on that later...

How did you get your job? Tell us the full story.

So, the long version, eh... Toward the end of university I opened up the pages of the Media Guardian and just applied to things. Loads of things. I got only three interviews and one of them was for a PR Agency and I managed to get a grad job at The Impact Agency. The following years were filled with late nights faxing 200 press releases (yes, faxes... I know), driving up and down the country in a Transit van with a pop-up spin-the-wheel game to sell Dr Bekman’s Colour Miracle powder and spending days and days just hitting the phones trying to sell a story to a journalist who is praying that you will die horribly within the next 10 seconds.

To this day I try not to be rude to telesales people – you need skin like a rhino to survive. A couple of agencies later, I co-founded an agency with Michael Frohlich (now the chief exec of Ogilvy UK... hasn’t he done well). For delightful legal reasons, we lost the client we were launching with, so six months of incredible squeaky bum time ensued as we hit those phones again – selling ourselves this time. As time went on, we began working with ad agencies on the publicity of their campaigns.

They increasingly saw the value of getting the brand work talked about outside of paid-for media. But, as PR, we were always bottom of the food chain and we felt the sharp end of the snobbishness that exists within different creative disciplines. That said, we did some really fun stuff with campaigns like the 118 118 runners (we had thousands of mustaches and headbands in the office), created a brand first with a daily branded comic strip in a national newspaper and even won a Gold Lion for PR for creating a football ballet with the National Ballet. A couple of years later I ‘jumped the fence’ and went to VCCP as a ‘PR creative head’ (a totally made-up title).

My imposter syndrome at being a genuine imposter of a PR person in an ad agency reached some pretty epic levels – some people were really supportive, some people didn’t care, and some people actively wanted me to fail. The ‘who the fuck are you?’ was said/unsaid but felt on a regular basis. But I learned a ton about the priceless value of craft and the planning department was incredible – that genuinely changed the game for me on how to interrogate an idea. This is going on far too long... I eventually found my place at VCCP and co-founded an agency within it with Dominic Stinton (who also taught me so much about the creative game) called VCCP Share (now VCCP Kin) and loved it.

But then my wife got the chance to come to Asia with her job, we had a bottle of wine or two and six months later I was sitting in the office of Grey Malaysia as the new executive creative director...

OK, so what do you actually do?

Try to create an environment where my team can become better than they think they are.

How would you explain your job to a taxi driver?

By asking him first what football team he supports. It is impossible not to come over as an ad wanker in almost all situations when asked this question. Many times I’ve listened to myself failing to explain what I do and watched with interest as I very successfully disappear up my own bumhole.

Do your parents understand what it is that you do?

Not specifically, but that’s not important. I’ve been lucky to be involved in a few of the ‘stuff you can show your mum’ campaigns – that’s better payback to the belief they showed in me than any award I could ever get. That said, pictures of shiny things are handy for Mum when she’s being proud of Son No 2 at the bowls club.

What do you love most about your job?

That moment when I’m giving an opinion on something and waffling on as I do, and there is a pause and one of the team say, ‘yeah... maybe, but what about this instead?’

How would someone entering the industry go about getting your job now? What would be their route?

I think all of us that are in positions where we get to interview people love to see the unexpected.

Increasingly I see people that actually have an ‘advertising degree’ – absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, they have probably learned far more theory and craft than I know.

But I do question if it’s far better to go out and get experience that everyone else doesn’t have. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who does this on purpose.

What advice would you offer to others entering the advertising industry, especially at this weird time?

We constantly bemoan the ‘brain drain’ to the other corners of the creative arts – to tech and startups. That advertising just isn’t cool anymore. I’d agree, ‘advertising’ isn’t that cool. But then you look at all of the great work from the past five years – is most of it really ‘advertising’?

I think we all want the same thing – to create work that matters, that has an impact on the world in some way. If you look at the industry from that lens, I’d argue that it’s a great place to be. So I’d say, think about the things that you really care about, that you yourself want to make better. Instead of waiting for that dream brief, waiting for that inspirational conversation over a pint with your creative director, write your own brief to yourself. 99% of what we do is for other people, so make a space for yourself. Use what you genuinely give a shit about as the fuel to make something great.

Who should those who want your job read or listen to?

Is this my ad break? Good. I’ve just started a podcast on imposter syndrome in the creative industry with my mate Michael Knox. It’s called The Imposterous. We’ve talked to people far better and more famous than us, including Nils Leonard and Rob Campbell, about their life with it. We’re discovering that Imposterism can drag you down, but it can also be a very good thing if you let it. The hope is that it might be useful for other creatives to pick up some advice and knowledge that will help them on their way up.

Last week we probed Suhail Khan, chief marketing officer of GWI [previously Global Web Index].

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