My Creative Career: Neale Horrigan, executive creative director at Elvis
As part of our My Creative Career series, the Elvis creative talks through his earliest film influences, his passion for special effects and the adland legends that inspired him.
Neale Horrigan / Elvis
“I got really into watching horror films,” explains Horrigan, thinking back to his adolescent years. “What I loved about them, and I still love them to this day, is the special effects.” The creative references the 80s John Landis classic American Werewolf in London, a movie that went on to inspire Michael Jackson’s infamous Thriller video, and the early Jason and the Argonauts films. Stop-motion animation master Ray Harryhausen is just one of Horrigan’s heroes and his obsession with the craft was a deciding factor on his chosen career path.
Sitting down with an advisor at school he was met with few options - navy, police or army – but after expressing that he wanted a more artistic career the teacher advised him a graphic design course at university might be a good fit.
“I was way out of my depth, but I really enjoyed it. There was a buzz about it,” he explains about his time at college. “I wasn’t a good designer, and I couldn’t quite figure out how I got to where I was or why I was there. I felt like I’d taken the wrong fork in the road.” Thankfully, there was an astute lecturer who paired him up with another creative and steered them toward advertising.
“It might have been a nice way of him saying we were terrible designers,” laughs Horrigan. “We had ideas but were like restless creatives who didn’t know how to articulate them. I then started getting into what the advertising industry was and for me, it was still posters, especially film posters.” The classic Jaws poster with a woman swimming above the monstrous shark is a firm favorite.
With his sights set on London, Horrigan put together a portfolio and boarded the train from Staffordshire and began doing the agency rounds. This was the 90s and the creative directors – Rosie Arnold, Tiger Savage and Kiki Kendrick – seemed like rockstars to the newbie. “They worked in these big agencies, you went to go see them and they sat in their offices like creative beings,” he adds. “For me, they were the film stars, and the streets were their stage.”
Horrigan confesses that getting your portfolio past an agency reception was extremely difficult. It’s something that requires a level of administration skills, not just creative prowess. Remember, this is during the early days of the internet. There’s no LinkedIn, no direct access to contacts at the tip of your fingers, no spreadsheets to tick off who you’ve met and liked. He had no idea how to approach it all.
As fate would have it though, the creative would land his first job at Mortimer Whittaker O’Sullivan Advertising where he would stay for five years. He remembers the top creatives there would wear Armani suits with black t-shirts underneath and take very long lunches. His position there had him solely focused on TV ads. He recalls making around 33 of them during that period. After a while, he needed to progress.
“I saw myself as a bit of an artist and I wanted to get back to that,” he says. “I went to Elvis as a freelancer, and I met people there that were craftsmen. They got excited about their craft, typesetting, and the design department was amazing. It felt like we were creators again.”
A spark was relit within Horrigan then, the exciting thing for him is learning and pushing his creativity. After that first stint at Elvis, which over the years has counted Odeon, Doritos and Cadbury as clients, he would go on to cut his teeth at Iris and Aesop before returning to the agency as executive creative director in 2013. As he puts it, big agencies weren’t really for him, there’s a tendency for people to get lost in the corner. Initially, he turned down the offer from Elvis. “Going back to somewhere didn’t sit with me but then they said it would be yours to mold however you want and actually, it was the canvas I had been looking for. It was a real privilege.”
Being around excitable people is what drives him. Everyone talking and having arguments about what works or doesn’t. Coming back to Elvis gave him renewed energy. Even this week he and his team got into a room and just stuck things on the wall, going old-school, he says.
At home, his walls are adorned with various artworks too. A collector of street art, the creative cites Banksy as a hero, not just for his rebellious attitude but for his creative touch. He likened the graffiti artists' printing shop a few years back to the early days of ad agencies.
“It’s been a journey for me,” he continues. “Of not really knowing and slight frustration because I wanted something but I didn’t know how to get it and then I was gifted an opportunity where I could put it all into practice. Nine years later, I’m still here.”
During his almost decade-long tenure, the work the agency achieved with Cadbury’s Cream Eggs still stands out. “We created the white cream egg, which was major news,” he remembers. The idea was to then hide that sweet treat in other people's advertising, resulting in people not skipping the YouTube ad but potentially watching it until the end, or (gasp) multiple times, to find the egg. Honda, Google and Benefit Makeup were all on board. It felt innovative, exciting and different, which are three things he tries to instill in his team of creatives today.
Advice he’d give to up-and-coming talent though, is to not try and prove yourself right away. He quotes Porsche’s Peter Schultz, who famously said: hire talent, train skill. “When you’ve got a lot of dinosaurs like me you look to the younger people coming in, full of energy and passion,”
“It’s important for them to remember they don’t have to be good at everything right away. What I’m after is a young excitable mind. I’d hire brains over ability anyday.”