The Interview Series // 07

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Emma Hill is the Creative Director at Clemenger BBDO (http://www NULL.clemengerbbdo NULL.com NULL.au/) Melbourne. It’s that big agency with the big clients and the awards on the shelf and stuff like that. Emma is the ultimate junior success story. She started off as the receptionist, became an account director, and through years of hard work got a gig in creative. Now she runs the show. So again over beer, we asked Emma every question we ‘d thought of, and then some more we thought of on the spot, because she’s cool and really fucking interesting. If you’re a junior looking for a job, a new job, to go overseas, to excel at your craft, are a female, are stressing about the economy or maybe you’re just a generally inquisitve individual – start scrolling baby. This is awesome.

Junior: Hello Emma! What’s your story? How did you start out as a junior?

Emma: I started as a junior late. I don’t know if you’ve done the bio?

Jr: Yes we read.

E: Yes, well, it took me five years to get into creative.

Jr: You must have really wanted it.

E: Yeah I did. Desperately. I was in account service and they were starting to think I was going to make a really good suit. That was when I started to panic. I didn’t start writing until I was 24. So I guess I sort of see that as late-ish. I came here to Melbourne after four years at Clemenger in Hobart. Though I didn’t come in as a junior at that point. I was lucky enough to be teamed up with a guy who was a senior. Which meant I was kind of instantly elevated because of his experience. Which I really appreciated, because I got to work on things I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

Jr: So how did you become a writer? Did you learn from other writers in the agency?

E: : I suppose I had a bit of a natural writing thing. I used to write stuff all the time. I wrote in a journal that I never wanted my mum to find, I used to love writing essays at school, love letters etc. But it’s not until you get into an agency that you realise writing is suddenly a very different skill. You have to be able to adapt the way you write to suit different brands, different tones. We’re kinda forced to label ourselves a writer or an art director in advertising. Hope I don’t sound like a total bitch when I say I’ve seen a lot of books from juniors who label themselves writers, and they actually can’t. Step one would be to actually recognise that you have a natural ability for it, or learn how first. I was very lucky to find a mentor early on at Clemenger Hobart who really taught me to how to write for advertising. He was John Douglas. He still is actually. Such a patient, excellent person. I would take him my copy four, five, six times a day. He was ruthless, but lovely. And he’d just tell me to keep crafting, crafting, crafting – it was like going to see teacher. Minus the apple. Along the way, something clicked. I got it, and became quite adaptable.

Jr: Yes that’s what seems to happen for people. Things just click. But it’s hard to know how to get things to click. Do you have any advice for young creatives who need to learn their craft?

E: It’s obviously easier if you get into an agency. If you’re in one,  pin-point someone senior who you respect and take your stuff to them religiously. Even if it starts to piss them off. If you’re outside one, trying to get in, and I can only really speak for writers, read a lot. See a lot of well written films. Read authors that you love. And that you find effortless to read. Find a style that you like. Chances are, it’ll be that they write in a voice that you relate to. I think that’s the key. I get told a lot that the stuff that I write sounds just like talking to me. What I write has a “voice”. I think we come out of high school and uni and we’ve been funneled into a specific way of writing. I think you need to bust all that down and start writing like yourself. Not like Dickens or Jane Eyre. Unless you’re writing ads for a corsetry shop of course.

Jr: Damn straight. Writing as a profession and the writing you do in school are poles apart. We spoke about that with Penny. So, do you have any Junior teams here?

E: We’ve got… Let me think… I wouldn’t classify them as juniors anymore actually. But we’ve got one junior team – Russ and Ant, who are ex-RMIT. They’re really just the youngest.

Jr: How old are they?

E: They’re 24’ish. I think.

Jr: Well we had heard a rumour – which is obviously just a rumour now – that you guys don’t hire any juniors.

E: Right. Well, I hired them as juniors. They hadn’t worked in an agency before.

Jr: And why did you hire them?

E: They did two things. First thing they did was send in this giant water pistol which was on a cardboard back. It was obviously from a toy shop. They’d redesigned the back with their heads, taxidermy heads, and some line like, “you’re about to go on the Russ and Ant hunt.” They emailed me about a week later and I said, “yeah, cool, come in and we’ll see your book.” They came in and you could just tell they were really onto it. They weren’t cocky, they were just really cool guys. They walked into the office with a pet cage. Their book was in the cage and it was covered in fur with a tail, and they just took it out like it wasn’t even an issue. They handed it over and said “here’s our book”, I just thought, “you guys are nuts!” But what was an issue, novelty aside, was their book was great.

Jr: Ha, that’s hilarious. How long ago was that?

E: They’ve been here three, four years now.

Jr: You see, we’ve spoken a lot on Junior about how to get a job and how to get a foot in the door. But there’s this no man’s land the year after you get the job that no one talks about – You’ve got the job, the salary is rolling in, but all of a sudden you realise, “shit, I’ve got to perform and I’ve got to add value to this business”. How did they go in the year after that, and what’s your advice to others who fall into that position?

E: That’s a really good point. I think Juniors specifically when you get into an agency, especially those guys, you’re seen as the crazy energy in the corner. What I love about first timers in an agency is that they haven’t been poisoned by what we experience everyday. And they’re not as restrained by everything. They’re very free thinkers. That’s an amazing quality to have. But after 12 months there’s a huge expectation that you can start to do both. The crazy shit, and the serious stuff. The worry with Russ and Ant, and I’m assuming they’re reading this right now, was ‘can they just do crazy?’ But to their credit they worked really hard at becoming more versatile as a team. So now we can put them on a government pitch, or they can work on brands like Starburst and M&Ms. They’ve really developed and matured as a team, but they’ve still got that kind of edge. That’s the other worry – to go too far the sensible boring way and lose that spark that you had when you came in.

Jr: So how do you keep that junior edge?

E: I think maybe it’s about reminding yourself constantly: Don’t lose your junior-ness. Ever. It’s really sad if you do. I’ve caught myself doing it. You also don’t want to end up being the ‘serious senior team’. A lot of agencies have those teams. They’re the guys that get the responsible briefs, on the “not so much an opportunity” briefs. You definitely don’t want to end up only being able to do that. You need to be able to do both. You don’t want to lose that child-like sense of wonder. That’s what we all grew up having and how we ended up in this industry in the first place. Because we have nuts imaginations. And now we get paid to take that ability into the world.

Jr: Yes! We always say, “we never want to be senior creatives”. It seems to be a bit of a professional black-hole for some of the codgers in the industry. (Sorry senior folk. This is Junior. What do you expect?) Ok, so here’s the obligatory question you must get asked a lot. There aren’t many women in positions of power within the advertising industry, why do you think that is?

E: Yeah I do get asked this a lot. The thing that freaks me out more than the fact that there aren’t many women at a higher level in advertising is that there aren’t many in creative departments at all. Because from what I can see of books that come in and from people looking for jobs is that it seems to be pretty equal. But for some reason departments are really male heavy. And I can’t answer that question. I have no idea why because I don’t think guys are any more creative than women. I don’t know, maybe more chicks take a career turn and head into marketing or PR? At a higher level I do understand why there aren’t as many, because it’s fucking hard, the hours are long and it can be a really blokey environment. But I think as a female in the industry, as long as you can relaxed in a male “dominated” department, for want of a better word, you’re automatically involved in a lot of conversations, and social events, and that’s where a lot of ideas happen as well. I seem to able to do that. But then, I do love footy and cricket, so I think that helps. Maybe all gals that want to get in should have to do a mandatory AFL course or Day/Night cricket assignment . That might change the female/male ratio.

Jr: Have you ever had a bad experience being a female in advertising working under male Creative Directors?

E: I have to say I’ve never been treated differently by male Creative Directors. I’ve only ever had male CDs and I’ve only ever been in teams with guys, so maybe that balances it as well. But I think it is a level playing field. I really do. And if it’s not then you should get out of that agency. If you’re not getting true feedback and are being treated with kid gloves because you’re a girl, get out.

Jr: That’s along the lines of what our previous interviewee Vince told us; if you’re not in a place where you want to be, get out as soon as you can, and go to the place where you do want to be.

E: I totally agree with that. Or at least use that as a place to leave from. I don’t think it’s ever smart to leave somewhere without having somewhere to go. No matter how much you hate being there, just stay to put your feelers out – use the email system. Use the web power!

Jr: Actually this brings up a really good discussion. The economy is slowing rapidly, Uni has just finished for a lot of people, and there’s bound to be working juniors out there looking to make a move. How can a junior go about getting a job in the current climate?

E: It’s the toughest that it’s ever been for juniors. That being said, their advantage is they don’t cost much. So you can look at it as glass half empty or full. But I know a lot of agencies in Australia have put freezes on hiring. Unfortunately that’s just the way of the world at the moment. But all it takes is for someone to leave and a door opens. It might not happen as much, because people are less inclined to look around. I don’t think it should deter juniors from taking their books around. Though you will have to be particularly thick skinned right now. I know I have received double as many books as usual in the last couple of months. There’s only been two really good ones though. One junior guy from Canada was awesome. But there’s just no way you could say “yeah fly over, maybe there’s a chance.. but probably not” . it’s just not fair to ask that of someone. So all you can do is put good people in touch with recruiters. They’ve got the best inside info of when and where something comes up.

Jr: Recruiters! Friends of ours use these people. Is that a good thing to do rather than handing your book in at reception?

E: I think you need to do everything. Both. Just going the scattergun approach is probably best. There’s no point giving your book to a recruiter if it’s a half-assed one though – there’s no point. But what you might get from seeing agencies in person with a book, is you can befriend someone – a CD, or at worst a senior art director or writer, and you might be able to get some really good advice on how to make it better. Then there’s the religious route, and you just pray like hell for a break.

Jr: And Networking of course. Generally juniors see it as going to events and handing out business cards – but networking can probably be asking for ten minutes of a senior art director or writer’s time.

E: Yeah. And look, with networking you’ve got to do smart networking. Otherwise you fall into the category of stalker.

Jr: You must have a few of those being the Creative Director at Clemenger.

E: I have had a couple, not in a spooky sense.

Jr: But in a they give you lame stuff to say they’re interested kind of way?

E: Yes. This is in complete contradiction to the Russ and Ant story, but unless it’s genius, never do the creative pun/visual gag gift. Although ones you can eat are always good, But no amount of Sherbies in a box is going to make a shit book good. If your idea is a bit gimmicky, you come across as a gimmicky creative. Rather than a genuine, intelligent one. Which is what agencies are looking for. It is really hard. Desperate vs intelligent, stalker vs networker. You’ve got to use your integrity and your intelligence. It’s cool to rock up to those industry things like Award school or MADC if you can afford it. I’d attend things that senior people and CDs are going to be at to see good work. Like the RMIT exhibition and the Award school graduation.

Jr: You know, we don’t think a lot of CD’s come to those things. They generally fall on a Friday night when you’re at the Belgian Beer Garden with all the other Creative Directors.

E: Ha, yeah you’re probably right. If they’re going there they’re probably tools anyway. Look, every Creative Director will be different. I have people who really appeal to my soft side, who I think are good people and seem really interested in having a crack. So I have some dead briefs on my desktop and I’ll send them out to them. It’s really a gauge for me as to how into it they are. Rarely do I get anything back.

Jr: Hmm that’s interesting. You’d think juniors would take their breaks when they can get them. How often does that happen?

E: In my experience that happens more. I’m not sure how the phenomenon has occurred either. It’s cool to come in with confidence, but cocky is never good. Maybe they’re marking stuff too generously in the courses or something and people leave thinking they’re genius. Back when I was trying to get in, if someone had given me the same opportunity, I would have worked all fucking night on it. For nights and nights. And then got feedback, and then done it all again. The other thing you could try is doing something on one of their brands. Look back at the work they’ve done and try and do the next campaign. But this can be dangerous, especially if your next thought is lame. Or maybe consider what might be happening to brands within the economy at the moment. Come up with an idea for an agencies brand that might be a product idea or a new way of thinking. It doesn’t have to be an ad.

Jr: So say I did a new campaign for Pure Blonde and sent it into you, would you look at that better than a foot that had been cut off and stuck in your door with a line that said “here’s a foot in the door”?

E: I would. Personally I would. And if it was better than the last one I’d done, I’d probably feel quite shit about myself. But be careful to show that you’ve taken the time to look at a brand that belongs in the agency, and that you’ve done something to show you understand the brand, it’s personality and where it fits in the market – don’t just do something random. Showing you understand a brand strategically, that’s much more valuable than a foot in my door.

Jr: Someone we admire greatly is Leo Premutico. The golden boy some would say. He went from Melbourne to London to being the ECD of Saatchi and Saatchi New York. Now he’s running his own agency at 30 years of age. Do you think what he’s done is just an anomaly or is it possible for the Gen-Y’s in the audience?

E: He is a freak. Talented freaky. Leo was always going to kill it wherever he was. His strike rate creatively is insane. He made really good choices where he went and was supported by great ECDs. You know, he’s the sort of person you want looking at your book. My advice would be go. Go overseas. There are great headhunters over there. But don’t fall for the jobs that are easier to get in the bigger kinds of places. It will be much harder to get into Saatchi’s than McCann New York for example. Getting the experience of taking your book and getting criticism is amazing. I was really interested in some of the smaller agencies in New York. If you ended up getting into somewhere like Taxi or Droga as a junior you’d be doing fucking well. Hard. But impressive.

Jr: So would you say it’s important to build a good book and get some experience before you go?

E: Depends how good your book is. It doesn’t have to be all you’ve done in an agency. It could be ten killer ideas that haven’t seen the light of day. Juniors with ads in their books that have run are normally pretty shit – because of the opportunities that juniors get. But if you’ve got amazing ideas in there that you’ve just generated over the weekend, you might have a shot.

Written by Junior
Originally posted on: 09/01/2009