Tag Archives: advertising

‘Where did the creatives go?’ (Part 1)

Many years ago, while I was at university, one of my friends (also studying communication / advertising) remarked, ‘I wonder where all the art directors and copywriters go when they get older. You don’t see many in ad agencies.’ However, we didn’t spend too much time pondering (it was Bar Night at uni and we were in a hurry to get to $1 Drinks).
Many years later, that question still seems largely unanswered.

Look at the creative departments of ad agencies – they’re all stacked with people in their 20s and 30s. But where are the older creatives? You know, the ones you once showed your book to and gained mentorship from. Surely they haven’t put enough cash aside to retire at 40? Where do they go for the second half of their careers?

Some might start their own agencies. Maybe others find variations of their job, using their skill set outside of the hectic pace of ad agency life. And perhaps there would be those who walk away from the advertising business altogether.

Some time ago, I set out to find the answers…

Part 1: Matt Cumming
Thursday, 31 July 2014
I met with Matt at a café in North Sydney. I hadn’t seen him for a few years. He looked well. He was in Sydney working on a project but later that day, boarded a plane and returned to his rural home on the far north coast of New South Wales.
So, how does an advertising creative end up living on a coastal farm? This is his story:

Matt Cumming

Matt Cumming

I entered the industry as an AFA (Advertising Federation of Australia) trainee in 1985. The traineeship required me to spend time within different departments of an ad agency, but when I got to the Creative Department I simply stayed there.

The agency was Dancer Fitzgerald Sample – a US-based agency that held the global Toyota account. They had set up an office in Sydney to service the Australian market for Toyota.

At that stage, my time in the Creative Department was spent primarily using my illustration skills to create storyboards.

To progress my career as an art director, I then did AWARD School. That course had only been running for a few years and was set up by the industry to help foster aspiring art directors and copywriters. It’s still the most popular way for people to get a job in the creative department of an Australian agency.

After AWARD School I teamed up with a young writer named Danny Ginges.
(Incidentally, at the time of our meeting Danny was in New York, where he’s operating a successful musical called Atomic.)

Dancer Fitzgerald was then bought by Saatchi & Saatchi. Saatchis seemed to be buying everything at the time and, in this case, they essentially bought the Toyota account. By that time, Danny and I had earned a reputation at the agency as being a fairly good team, and our new bosses – Bob Isherwood and Ron Mather – kept us on.

It was a good creative department with plenty of people who would go on to accomplish many things in the ad industry. I was working alongside people like Matt McGrath, Paul Fishlock, Tom Moult and others. I stayed there for around 5 years, and then the recession hit.

The recession meant retrenchments right across the industry, of which I was one. However, because of all the retrenchments there was plenty of freelance work around.

Anyway, I used the payout Saatchis gave me to produce a play. It was a fun thing to do, although it was fairly stressful and I didn’t make any great profits from it.

My next stint was at The Ball Partnership. Tom Moult had become the CD there, and I stayed there for another 5 years before taking 6 months off to go travelling.

When I returned from my travels, The Ball Partnership had been bought by Euro RSCG. Tom Moult was still the CD, and the internet was in its infancy.

Tom said, ‘You like the internet. I’ll give you a room, a computer and a year.’
That was the birth of their Digital Department. After a year, enough was happening with it to justify its existence. I had poached Brendan Tansey from our print studio, and we were good at just jumping in and getting stuff done rather than sitting around talking about it.

My role with Euro’s Digital Department continued for a few more years, until Tom left. Then they gave me his job as Executive Creative Director.

The agency was doing well but it was challenging. Volvo kept changing Marketing Directors, and subsequently pitching. After the third pitch, I left to go surfing.

Leaving Euro felt good. It was quite brave to leave a big salary and not know what I was going to do.

After 6 months of surfing I got bored. I came back to Sydney and wrote a list of 6 agencies I’d like to work for. It comprised 3 agencies who I respected due to the work they did, and 3 agencies included on the basis of ‘they’d probably pay shitloads’.

I then created a direct mail pack to send to all 6 agencies, informing them that I was back, I was excited about one-to-one marketing (both digital and direct), and that I’d like to work for them.

The mailing got a 100% response rate with replies from all 6 recipients, and interviews with senior people at 5 of those agencies. There were job offers from 3 of them.

I chose M&C Saatchi. I respected their work and Andy Pontin, the MD, was fairly impressive. They also had a good IT infrastructure in place. From my time at Euro, I knew I’d need that help and support to grow the agency’s digital capabilities.

The M&C Saatchi bosses, Tom McFarlane and Tom Dery, were wary of digital as they’d been burnt before by people who over-promised and under-delivered. However, clients were starting to grow into the digital space and were willing to pay for the services of a Digital Creative Director.

After 6 years at M&C Saatchi, I left to go surfing once again. By then, my wife and I had a house in Bronte (Sydney’s eastern suburbs) and a holiday house at Sussex Inlet (on the New South Wales south coast). We decided to rent out our Bronte home and try living at Sussex Inlet for a while.

We lived in Sussex Inlet for 8 months. Our kids went to school down there. I joined the sailing club. Living in a town of only 3,500 people was a lot different from the hustle and bustle of Sydney.

We returned to Sydney and I worked at a place called Bienalto – a digital analytics and solutions company. They felt like a family business. You had lots of freedom and client contact and no agency politics. I stayed there for about 18 months before a headhunter approached me for a job at another ad agency – Lavender.

I stayed at Lavender for 6 months but it just wasn’t for me, and by now I was looking for a bigger break. By that stage my wife and I had a block of land at Byron Bay (the far north coast of New South Wales). We were looking at selling it to fund our life in Sydney, but instead chose to sell our Sydney home and live at Byron Bay, downsizing my commitment to advertising.

I’ve been in Byron Bay for 2 years now. We live on a 2-acre block of land but share 80 acres with our neighbours. It’s not a commune – more like a gated community in a rural setting.

Within that community there are different jobs, and one of my roles is to keep the lawn mowed. When you have 80 acres, mowing the lawn means having cows. So my job is to move the cows around. Every year the cows have calves that are then sold to offset some of the community’s maintenance costs. But cattle farming isn’t the reason for having them, lawn mowing is.

It’s a much easier life up there. So far, we’ve built our house and I help look after the kids. My wife is a hair and make-up artist, so she’s often travelling around the country for work.


The building of Matt’s house at Byron Bay.

I’m currently working on writing and directing a music video for a local artist. Byron Bay is a good place. There are lots of smart people there, lots of retired business people, good food and entertainment. I still work in advertising. I usually work remotely and come to Sydney or Melbourne when I have to, for things like presentations and the like.

I take most briefs via phone or email, with work increasingly from clients directly rather than via agencies. They’re mostly people who have heard of me through someone else and require the services of a consultant.

Looking back, I realise I resigned every 5 to 6 years, just to refresh and recharge rather than jump straight into another job. As a creative, you’re ‘always on’ and I don’t think anyone can maintain that over an extended time. There’s always a deadline or a live brief that’s ticking over in your mind. You can’t love the work if it’s month upon month of tight deadlines and working weekends.

It’s important to ‘jump out’ every once in a while to refresh. That’s why I would go surfing or travelling. I hadn’t saved heaps of money, but I had enough so I wasn’t stressed about it. I wasn’t overburdened by the mortgage. I just needed time out.

This last ‘time out’ has been my biggest. I don’t have the energy I did when I was 30. I wouldn’t come back to a full-time position right now, but that’s not to rule it out in the future. I’m enjoying the bits and pieces I do now as a consultant. I still get excited about the work.

I think this is the new form of retirement. I think people chose to ‘taper down’ and shift to a more reasonable work/life situation. That way, they can continue it for a longer time. I’m still only 53, and with the younger of my 2 kids still in the early years of primary school, I plan on being around for a while yet. I’m just going to pace the rest of my life better.

Matt Cumming Advertising

Matt and his wife Annette at their Byron Bay house.

I think the absence of older people in the creative departments of ad agencies is because we’re all commercial artists. At some point, we say to ourselves, ‘I want to do more art’. We find ways to apply our ideas and thinking without it necessarily being through advertising.

Note: Matt has remained true to his ‘time out to recharge’ ethos, and since the time of writing, has leased his Byron home and returned to Sydney with his family.

Are ad agencies and creativity getting a divorce?

I look at the advertising industry these days and it often looks like the side of a spanner is being used as a hammer. Or to put it simply, it’s not the right tool for the job, but we’re trying to make it work.
But before we discuss that, it’s probably worth a quick look at how we got here (but if you want to skip the history lesson, just scroll down):

1841 – A chap named Volney B. Palmer sets up what is believed to be the first ad agency in Philadelphia. His clients create the ads and he places them in newspapers. (So these days, we’d probably refer to him as a Media Agency).
Ultimately, it was this media placing that gave birth to  a commission-based remuneration model for the advertising world.

Early 1900s – The Industrial Age arrives and with it comes mass-produced products. With mass production, manufacturers began to differentiate their products through branding and packaging.

1922 – Broadcast radio realises that it can fund its existence through advertising.

1929 – The Stock Market crash puts greater pressure on advertising to prove its effectiveness, so research becomes a player.

1938 – Radio ad revenue surpasses that of magazines.

1941 – The first TV commercial for Bulova Clocks airs. At this stage there are only 4,000 television sets, but by 1954 CBS becomes the largest advertising medium in the world.

1960 – The creative team of Copywriter and Art Director is born at DDB.

The 1980s – Personal computers make desktop publishing easier.

2000 – The Internet has 400 million users, making it the fastest growing medium ever.

So history shows that ad agencies were born to allow marketers to communicate with their customers. They did this through interrupting media that the customers were already reading/watching / listening to. To negate this ‘interruption’, creativity was engaged to make the message seem more informative or more emotive, or a point of difference.

However for many marketers, the relationship with creativity has always been an uneasy one. That’s because, understandably, marketers seek certainty. Creativity, by its very nature, isn’t certain. Creativity is unpredictable. At times, it can be erratic and wild.

And sometimes, creativity simply isn’t the answer.
Just recently I had lunch with a friend who left the agency world a few years ago to go client-side. He’s now National Head of Managing Something Or Other. He said that with a lot of the work they do, creativity just tends to get in the way.

This kind of thinking is happening in a lot of places.

It also reminded me of a recent article about former advertising creative, Yanni Pounartzis. In that article, Yanni suggests that creatives won’t exist in agencies in the near future.
I’ve seen this first hand. There are agencies out there that simply don’t have a creative department or ‘creatives’. In many ways, it does seem that ‘advertising’, as we know it, will simply become the management of data.

I do think creativity will live on. That’s what it does. It will find a new home.
But if you were unencumbered by history and were building a business today for the purpose of communicating with customers, I doubt that an ‘ad agency’ is what you would end up with.

Talk has always been cheap. But now it’s even cheaper.

It seems that almost every day, I hear stories or read articles about how the digital world is killing various businesses. However, in my opinion, it’s not the digital age that is causing grief for many organisations. It’s actually their inability to be authentic.

In marketing, there once was a methodology that if you told people your message enough times, they’d ultimately believe it (or as some would say, ‘throw enough shit, and some of it will stick’).

But, as we all know, mass communication is no longer the sole domain of commercial media channels. Anyone with a Twitter account, or access to an online forum can reach a large audience. That means that brands can’t rely on simply talking a good game, they now  have to actually play a good game.
Or, as one marketing quote puts it, “A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is. It’s what consumers tell each other it is.”

But the most successful brands have always set out to ‘do’ rather than ‘say’.
After all, a good comedian doesn’t tell you he’s funny. He simply is funny.
Good brands live their values. They don’t just put them together in a Powerpoint presentation and then subscribe to the ‘throw enough shit’ model.

And ads are simply an extension of this. It’s ads that ‘do’ rather the ‘say’ that are the most powerful. For example:

Apple, with their grammatically-challenged line, actually were different.





Likewise, Tesco didn’t talk about making cuts. With it’s tagline, they did.




Nike doesn’t just talk about getting out there and doing it.
nike bench





And Kit Kat doesn’t just lecture people to take a break. They take one themselves.
kit kat





It’s when you  say you do one thing, and you actually do another, that brands run into trouble. The digital age has merely exposed it.

What’s your day rate?

Poor quality, low priceIf you’ve ever spent any time as a freelancer recently, you’ll be familiar with this question. It’s usually the first one asked. I guess it’s quite reflective of the commoditised market we now live in.

Rather than any number of other fitting questions, like: ‘Do you have experience with <insert target market>?’ or ‘Do you have experience with <insert brand category>?’ or ‘Do you have experience with <insert media channel>?’ or ‘Can I see your portfolio?’, the very first question is cost. And many people see cost and value as the same thing. They’re not.

However, the bigger problem here is the whole ‘time for money’ conundrum. Are we really selling ‘time’? If so, where can I buy some? (as I never seem to have enough of it)
I thought we were selling solutions – creative answers to communication or business problems.
That said, we’ve never really worked out how to charge for that. The value of an idea is so subjective. But is it any more subjective than the value of someone’s time?

I was once at an agency and heard the traffic person negotiating over the phone with a freelancer. He was looking at it through the wrong lens.
In his negotiations, I could see him quickly doing the calculations:

day rate
5 days per week
52 weeks per year
Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Even if you were working on that very ill-fitting equation, he needed to consider the following:
annual leave (take 20 days off in Australia)
public holidays (take another 10 days off in Australia)
sick days (another 10 days of allowance in Australia)
time spent invoicing and doing book work (all non bill-able)
superannuation contributions (this is actually a grey area that the Australian Tax Office is trying to tighten up)
down-time (no freelancer is booked 100% of the time. Sometimes the time between paying jobs can be considerable)

However, going back to the original question, what was the traffic person really buying? What was the value of the idea or piece of work they required?

A friend was recently contacted by a prospective client who said they didn’t have a very big budget and could only afford to pay $X per day. I asked him, ‘how does she know how long it will take you?’ My friend responded with the proposal of a project fee.

Another thing some agencies try and use as a bargaining chip is GST (Goods & Services Tax – you English readers will know it as VAT). In Australia, you must register for GST if you run a business or enterprise and your turnover is $75,000 or more ($150,000 or more for non-profit organisations).

In laymen’s terms, you simply add 10% to your invoice amount. You collect that on behalf of the tax office and pay it to them quarterly. Then, provided the client was a GST-registered business, they simply claim it back.

However, some clients try and use it as a bargaining tool, as if it’s actually costing them something. It isn’t. They claim it back. Don’t let them include the GST within your fee – it’s kept strictly separate.

When did the industry become about ensuring nobody else actually turns a profit? Was it the rise of the procurement department that gave birth to this behaviour? Was it the death of media commissions? Who knows?
But putting all that aside, we just need to remember that, as with most things in life, you ultimately get what you pay for.

Mark Twain was wrong. Shorter isn’t always better.

A famous Mark Twain quote goes like this: ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead’.
Plus, almost every advertising book ever written also extols the virtues of crafting copy so it’s short, sharp, and punchy. After all, less is more.

And while I agree, I’ll also say that it’s important to know when to bend the rules a little. Sometimes you’ll run into a client who has also read those same advertising books. They then go to work trimming back words with little regard to the overall effect on the tone of the ad. As a result, sometimes you find it’s definitely shorter but it’s also lost something. So, while ‘shorter’ is one way of making copy better, it’s  not synonymous with  making copy better.

To illustrate this point, I’ve taken the script of one of my favourite ads (1997’s ‘Crazy Ones’ for Apple, by TBWA\Chiat\Day). I’ve then applied the ‘word economy’ rule and cut out the tautologies and other words someone might deem to be ‘superflous’.
Sure, you end up with shorter copy, but I wouldn’t say it’s better.
If you know the rules, you should also know when to break them (or, perhaps more relevant here, when to ‘think different’).

crazy ran

crazy strikethrough

crazy bastardised

Step back and take a look at yourself

If you work in advertising (or for that matter, any field that demands a lot of your time and energy) I strongly recommend you read this:


Time poor = Attention poor

The other morning it was raining so unless I wanted to sit in wet clothes all day, it meant leaving the motorbike at home and catching public transport to work.

First, the bus. A lady sat next to me and, for the duration of the trip, furiously checked the emails on her Blackberry – no doubt trying to get up to speed so she could hit the ground running once she actually arrived at work.

Next, I was off the bus and boarded the train. In my carriage were two young ladies. Given their confined surroundings, they were having a reasonably loud conversation. It grabbed my attention because it turns out that one of them worked at another ad agency, across town. She was telling her friend how busy she was at the moment with one particular account, how she was working 14-hour days, and how the agency couldn’t afford to hire another Account Manager to help her out.

After the train, a short walk was all that was left between me and my place of work. However, just outside the station were two young people in purple t-shirts trying to hand out flyers for a nearby car-parking station. Like me, most people brushed past them in their hurry to get to work.

This small observation was where most advertising sits with people’s time-poor lives. The offer on those flyers could have been great. In fact, they could have been offering parking space for free, but because the message wasn’t delivered in a way that people were willing to accept it, it was lost.

People simply haven’t got time in today’s busy world. Just ask the lady reading her emails on the bus, or the train lady on her way to another 14-hour day. John Kane, founder of Happy Soldiers, used to tell his clients that their starting point was that people simply don’t care what the client has to say. And it’s true.

Years ago, Howard Gossage said that people read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad. Nothing’s changed. Put simply, it’s never an interruption if it’s interesting.

Back to those people handing the flyers out. What if you gave them a guitar and asked them to write some lyrics about how much better driving to work would be than using public transport? Surely, that would be better accepted than trying to shove flyers in people’s hands.

Look at the guy below. He had a pretty mundane message, but I’m sure people talked about it for days…

Mark Fenske’s Nincompoop Forest

I recently came across a story that talked about Mark Fenske (at the time of writing, his site was offline) and his ‘Nincompoop Forest’.

Put simply, he talks about the importance of fighting for great ideas, and it goes like this:

For an idea to live, it must journey from the mind of its originator out into the ears of others, into the world.

To live, it must cross an area that is dangerous to the life of an idea… an area between the mind of an originator and the world where other people live who fight against ideas and try to kill them. This area, that challenges every ad idea the moment it is born, is called the Nincompoop Forest.

To find your way through the Nincompoop Forest, it takes heart, intelligence and determination.

There are many obstacles lying in wait. Some people fear big ideas, or are afraid to defend them, or don’t know how to explain or sell them.

Some people are afraid to buy big ideas because, by their nature, they have never been done before and can be scary. (It’s been said that if you’re not scared of an idea, it probably is not a big idea at all.)

You’ll have to save your idea from all the people who want to change the idea, “help” the idea, compromise the idea. They want to “make it better” or safer or less expensive or more comfortable.

All great ideas have to beware of the Nincompoop Forest.

The power of music

At the moment, there’s a team seated a few desks over from me who are busy putting a TV ad together. They’re trying to decide on the music they’ll use (or create). Music should always be given the upmost consideration because it can make or break an ad. They don’t call it ‘the golden thread of film’ for nothing.

To illustrate this point to clients, I like to show them this ad from a few years back for Tourism Victoria…

Then, I show them the same ad, but where someone has put the music from Donnie Darko behind it…

I think you’ll see just how much of a role music plays in the mood and feeling of an ad.