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:
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.
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.
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.