The Interview Series // 25


Man or machine? Leo’s glowing global reputation as a ‘wunderkind’ will have you believe the latter. It was our supposition that surely he must be human — mortal and unfunny in real life — just like you or I. We ventured to New York City in order to find out, and the story goes thus: Three short years ago, Leo and his creative partner, Jan Jacobs, were anointed Saatchi & Saatchi New York’s joint Executive Creative Directors. At the time Leo was just 28. They left after one highly awarded year, joined forces again to set-up their own NYC-based agency, Johannes (http://www NULL.johannesleonardo Leonardo (http://www NULL.johannesleonardo, and have been working harder than you in the two years since. Leo and Jan have created some of the naughties’ most awarded, hilarious, insightful, haunting, and incredibly succinct advertising you’ve likely seen or heard in London and the U.S — ads like this (http://adland, this (http://www, this (http://www and this (http://www — winning many lions and other assorted animal like statues. The jury is still out on Leo’s genetic make-up, for at the interview, Leo spewed mythical reams of advice from his lion-like mouth, then galloped off into the sunset laughing like a hyena. The Junior team turned to one-another, wide-eyed and mystified, mouths gaping like hungry, hungry hippos, gasping for air. Are we making this up? Yes. Without further ado — Leo, Leo, bo-bio. Banana-fanna-fo-fio. Mee-my-mio. Leeeee-o.

Junior: Hey Leo! Sorry about that ridiculous intro — our intern wrote it. He’s nuts. So first we wanna know, how did you get into the ad game? What was your journey from raw junior to respected senior?

Leo: It’s a little odd… I was coming out of an operation; my appendix had burst hours before I was due to board a plane to Germany for professional football trials. I woke up from the anesthetic with an advertising idea and my decision was made. I stuck to advertising. Which was a good thing because I wouldn’t have stood a chance at the whole football thing.

A couple of years before that I had been selected as one of the AFA trainees out of university. It probably helped to have an understanding of how the entire process worked from media, to strategy to account management. But it was most useful in making me absolutely desperate and determined to work in the creative department because I quickly realized I didn’t want to do any of those other things for a living.

Jr: We’re dying to know if have any stories from your time as a junior when life sucked? Any horror book crits or moments of creative block that made you reassess life and what you were doing?

L: Sure I did, I think everyone does. Don’t be intimidated by thinking creating great work comes completely naturally to some people. Truth is, anyone who is any good has spent hours and hours perfecting their craft and if they tell you otherwise they’re full of it.

And the same goes for ‘creative block’. I don’t want to sit here and say I never have it, of course I do. I think the trick is to try and not see it as ‘creative block’. See it as something that happens to everyone, something you just need to work through or come at from a different angle.

Jr: Wow. Yes. You have no idea how relieving that is to hear from you. You know what else is intimidating? Awards. Obviously you’ve won a lot. Everyone has their own take on what they mean and what they should mean. 99% would agree they mean nothing when compared to ‘creativity’ or ‘effectiveness’ or ‘selling lots of shit and making your client happy’. How important have they been to you and how should we as juniors approach the current award industry?

L: I remember being about 25, at Cannes for the fist time and winning 4 or so Cannes Lions. I realized pretty much right then and there that awards weren’t going to keep me excited about getting out of bed each morning.

At the end of the day the most important thing for any junior to do is understand what sort of creative person they want to be. Then to strike that balance of getting enough respect and trust to actually one day be able to create that path for yourself.

Personally, I believe award shows matter less now than they once did. Partly because there’s so many of them, and partly because everyone has a gazillion of them, including students, but more importantly because why would we care so much to see what a panel of 20 or so people think when we have the opportunity to see what millions of people think about our ideas?

The true reward for our creations now is seeing how they effect and touch the public.

Jr: Ah yes! But! If that be true, are award books worth looking at these days for inspiration or an education in ideas?

L: I think it’s important to know what’s been done before, and what hasn’t, to know the rules so you know how to break them, to know the history of work and of a category. As a junior you should soak up all the inspiration you can get.

I’d just say don’t try and replicate the stuff you see in books. We live in unique and as they say exponential times. Things are changing quicker than ever before, so what was good a year back has never become so old so quickly.

True inspiration though — that’s not in award books. It’s around us in the world we live. But if the books can help make the work better year upon year, and ultimately the stuff we force into the public’s face a little less crap, then I guess we should take them any which way we can.

Jr: Someone once told us, “Leo is a genius. He was also supported by brilliant ECDs at every agency he went to.” How important have your mentors been to how you approach your work and what should juniors look for in a brilliant mentor?

L: Absolutely crucial. Whenever I see a junior unsure of which agency to join I tell them to focus on the individuals there. Ultimately it’s the individuals there who will help guide you and who define those places during the time they spend there. I was lucky enough to work under some great ones, but even more than that I got to work alongside some as a junior writer. With Toby Talbot at Colenso BBDO and of course a few years later working with Jan at Saatchi & Saatchi London.

So I’ll always be appreciative of how much time senior creatives gave me when I was knocking on their doors with a bad portfolio. Granted I could be an absolute pain in the ass so it was probably easier to see me than not back then. There are great people out there, generous with their time and passionate about their jobs, it’s really just a matter of tracking them down and feeding off them.

Jr: Could you possibly speculate how important working internationally has been to your career? Can you imagine if you had stayed in Australia and where you might be now?

L: Probably a much better surfer than I am these days…

Advertising is a great vehicle to check out the rest of the world. But the strange thing is wherever I’ve ended up I’ve always been glad that I started out in Australia. When there isn’t a whole lot to rely in terms of budgets, production time and global media buys you’re only left with the strength of your idea so that’s what you focus on. Once you’ve learnt how to make your idea bullet proof, all those other layers, they only make your original idea better.

Jr: What’s your best advice for dealing with politics within an agency, both dealing with others and fighting for ideas, especially when you’re at the bottom rung of the hierarchy?

Work for someone you believe can spot good ideas. It’s that simple. Chances are part of the reason you got into this industry is because you realized the work rules. So take advantage of that as a junior. My advice would be don’t worry about the other stuff. More and more the true power will lie in the hands of creative people, and we all know the best ones aren’t political.

Jr: Obviously there are a lot of kids coming straight out of ad schools today with the same work for the same old clients with the same witty headlines and such… What are you looking for in a junior and what can those graduating from the ad schools do differently to stand out and impress someone like you?

L: The best way I can think to explain that is with something John Lennon said. He was once asked why he wrote music and he responded by comparing it to writing a letter. Writing the letter, he said, got him excited but what he really got off on was the response he would get to that letter. That’s it at its essence. We’re looking for people who have that thing inside them, that urge to touch people with their ideas, those who live for simplifying things down to a common language that effects people, deeply and broadly.

Of course, now you’re also trying to stand out during the biggest recession of our lifetimes. But I believe that soon this will be an advantage to the kids coming through. History has shown that when the slate is clean, when things are being re-appraised, and it’s happening on two levels in our industry right now – on a technological and an economic level, it’s the turn of the new guard to step up…

So don’t underestimate yourself, don’t set the bar at junior thinking. You’re competing with every kid out there with a digital camera and internet access. We live in a democratic era of communication, a time of accessibility and participation, where big production budgets can in some cases be more of a burden than a gift.

Jr: Generating ideas – what’s your process? Have you got any crucial tips to tackling a problem creatively?

L: I ain’t got any secrets. It happens differently every time, that’s part of the fun. I don’t really keep shortlists of my ideas. I know if it’s good enough it’ll stick around in my head – Jan calls it ‘the volt’. I would say though, don’t ignore the things that on the surface don’t seem crucial to creating great advertising. Like, spending time to identify what the real problem is – not just the advertising problem but the business problem, and embracing the limits imposed on you. It’s often there the real gem lies.

I also think it’s important to keep in mind, especially as a junior when you don’t have a ton of production experience that as big and important as coming up with the great idea, is understanding what about it will keep it great. Another reason why it’s so important which creative director you work under.

Jr: OK, enough of that cliche ad-guy question guff — how the hell do you live a balanced life? You obviously work really hard. Is that something that comes naturally or do you have to sacrifice things to make your life liveable outside of hard work?

L: Hard work has never felt like hard work because it’s something I’ve always loved. Reducing something down to is most basic form, I’m not sure how many other professions there are where you have the same tools as anyone else in the business irrelevant of your experience – a blank pad and a pen.

So for me loving what you do is the most important ingredient really. If people advise you against being a creative don’t listen to them, listen to your heart. If you’re passionate enough about what you do, you’ll work hard enough at it and the skill will eventually come. Just make sure you’ve instilled a healthy effort reward ratio. By that I mean make sure you’re always working on something you’re excited about – which usually means something you haven’t done before.

Jr: How far into the future do you look? You’re not that far past thirty and you’ve already achieved more accolades than many people achieve in their entire careers. We know you probably don’t buy into that sort of statement, but where to next? How often do you need to reassess your career and where it fits within your entire life? Do you even think about that shit?

L: I was made ECD of the Saatchi & Saatchi New York office when I was 28, and I remember when I would walk there across west 4th street, there was a faded chalk scribble that would always catch me out. It simply said ‘where are you going?’. Every time I read it, it made me think: where was I going? To another meeting? To a corner office? Over time, without me realizing it, I think these four words embedded themselves into my subconscious.

So when I look back on it now Jan and I left Saatchi and Saatchi because we kinda had this feeling inside we weren’t being pushed as much as we could be. We began directing a couple of things and really enjoyed that as a distraction. But we knew there was a bigger issue on the table. We felt the world around us was changing quicker than the big agency model could, and us if we stayed in one. So even if you don’t intend to look far ahead, I guess there’s something inside of us that does.

Best of luck juniors, I hope this helps.

Written by Junior
Originally posted on: 20/11/2009