My Creative Career: Ian Heartfield, founder of New Commercial Arts
The adland legend walks us through his professional life, the people that inspired him and what it took to get to the top.
Ian Heartfield / NCA
With a career in advertising spanning almost 30 years, Heartfield has been the creative thinker behind many standout ads from Guinness, Heinz and Nando's while at AMV BBDO, BBH and now his own agency, New Commercial Arts. As he puts it, he’s always been more artistic than academic.
“I was pursuing art, but I wasn’t actually that good. I certainly wasn’t good enough to make a living out of it,” confesses the agency boss. “So, I drifted towards graphic design.” After getting a place at Buck’s University, his career aspirations would take a different path after he was enrolled in a joint course, with the second subject being advertising.
“There’s an amazing tutor there, a guy called Dave Morris, who has taught many legends above me, and he was incredibly inspiring,” Fine art photographer Morris was a lecturer at the school for 15 years and nudged Heartfield towards what would become his long-time profession. He remembers the tutor would always say that students only needed a year to learn the basics and then they had to get themselves out there. “Start practicing, get experience. You can’t talk about advertising for three years.”
At the same time, Morris “made you understand how difficult it was to get into and that became a real reason to give it a go,” admits Heartfield. “When someone tells me how hard something is, it’s like telling a child not to put their finger in a plug socket. Why does everyone want to do it so badly? I fancy that, it must be really good.”
Ultimately, he says that he found advertising much more interesting than any graphic design work he was presented with, coming up with scripts and ideas got him hooked and luckily, his passion landed him a job while still at college. “You work hard,” he admits. “But obviously there’s a lot of luck involved.”
That first taste of agency life came about “four recessions ago”, as he jokingly puts it, at the agency, then known as McCann Erickson. “I was part of a creative team and we got a placement that led straight through to a job, so we didn’t actually finish our degree course.” This was a sore point for Heartfield’s parents, especially his father. “He wasn’t particularly pleased with me dropping out of a degree course and never getting a qualification.” It’s something that the creative can now sympathize with, being a dad himself, but at the time, knowing how difficult it could be to get a job in advertising, and fortunately being able to forgo the typical tour around town with an ideas book, he grabbed the opportunity.
During this time Heartfield worked as a copywriter and his time at the agency lasted around three years, before a move to Ogilvy, MCBD and then AMV BBDO. The latter had created one of his favorite ads, albeit a good few years before he joined. “It’s hardly controversial but it’s the answer I’ve always given,” before stating that the ad in question is, of course, ‘The Surfer’ from Guinness.
“It’s just perfection. No one is beating it and I’m not sure they ever will. There are not many ads you can say this for but I remember actually being at home and seeing it on the ad break [on the TV] in the little flat I had.”
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“I can picture what I was doing. I was taking the plates from the table through to the kitchen to wash up and tik followed tok, this sound started on the telly, which made me turn around and just stare open-mouthed for 60 seconds. I was absolutely blown away. That’s the effect of it.” It’s a showstopper, as he puts it, and one you never tire of watching.
The ad was part of the stout brand’s ‘Good Things Come to Those Who Wait’ campaign, one that Heartfield would eventually lend his creative touch to. “I was lucky enough to work on that campaign quite a few years later. My favorite ad is linked to my favorite ad of mine, too.”
After this successful stint at AMV BBDO, he went on to cut his teeth as a creative director at Fallon and BMB before finally moving to BBH, where he stayed for almost a decade.
It was an agency he had long admired; its Levi’s ads of the mid-90s like ‘Creek’ and ‘Drugstore’ had been inspirational to the young creative fresh out of college. “At that time, I was going into Woolworth’s and buying the Stiltskin single on CD [from that ad]. The music was in the charts.” Both of those ads have gone on to be some of the most-awarded campaigns ever and solidified the American denim brand’s place in the cultural zeitgeist of that time. “Advertising was part of the culture. The songs were on Top of the Pops. You can see why it was an incredibly appealing industry to head into.”
His own career has been lauded with countless awards, too. One of them was for the Guinness ‘noitulovE’ ad that came out in 2005, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes Lions the following year. “Everything changed from that moment on,” says the creative. “When you get something of that scale that gets that much attention around the world. Everybody knew about it, not just in advertising.” Heartfield states that although it is probably the favorite ad that he has worked on, there are obviously many others that he likes.
That variety of work is one of the aspects that he loves about the industry he has found himself in. “One minute you’re thinking about a big supermarket, the next you’re thinking about a can of beer, a price comparison site or a furniture retailer,”
“There’s a sheer variety of briefs and subject matter, therefore people, you have to know about.” He thinks that’s why creatives tend to work in three- or four-year cycles at the beginning of their careers, they need that mix.
Growing up, loving cinema and TV means that the joy of making a “mini-movie” is something Heartfield has cherished since the beginning of his career. “It’s a chance to go and make a 30-second version of a film, whether it lives, it’s a film. There’s a director, a crew and sound. I always loved the sound part of the process. It’s just cool.”
After such an extensive and rewarding career, the agency boss has this to say to people looking to get started in advertising: “Have some patience. You’ve got to come in and be prepared to learn the ropes, do your time.” After all, Heartfield was already a decade into his career when his breakthrough Guinness ad came along, but he’s aware, to someone starting out, that sounds like a lifetime. Accepting that things take time is crucial or you might get disillusioned, he adds.
“There’s so much emphasis on getting the job, that equally, after getting it is just as hard. There’s the realization of how much you have to learn.”
It’s also all about teamwork. “The other disciples like strategy, account handling and production, you need them all. You need everyone around you. They can have just as good ideas as you do and you can all influence each other,
Successful creatives realize that sooner and then you get to make the work that you want to make.”
Many times, he adds, people come into this business as frustrated artists but quickly realize it’s a commercial game and there is a job to do for clients. He quotes John Hegarty’s mentality of using “creativity to solve business problems”.
“Have a bit of brazen, a thick skin. There are so many factors that can scupper your brilliant vision at any point. Don’t roll over but don’t take it to heart.”
Heartfield ends with a sentiment that he heard from another advertising legend David Abbott. “He said that if a client rejects an ad, thought or script then that’s their right, but his aim then was to go and write something better.
“The successful creatives learn that early in their career and are happy to say ‘here’s another one and this one’s better’ and just keep going.”