The Interview Series // 39

Juniors, meet Sarah. We met her on a recent jaunt to New York City where she is the Executive Creative Director of JWT. If you were born circa 1985 like us, you missed out on probably the best years of working in advertising. But you might just remember seeing the ad that launched this Aussie expat’s career — Antz Pantz. 21 years on, with 10 of those years based in New York, we wanted to know how she made it through the eighties and nineties and got from Antz to the Big Apple, as well as the low down on working States-side.

Junior: Ok! From the top. What’s your story? Where did you start out?

Sarah Barclay: I started at JWT. I grew up in Sydney and went to the Sydney College of the Arts, which is now the Sydney University of Technology. I won one of ten scholarships for the Australian Federation of Advertising, and back then it was all about academic prowess rather than your book. There was this motley crew of ten of us, and we were placed at various agencies for 9 months — and I got placed at JWT Sydney. So I’ve actually come full circle ending up at JWT in New York. I was there for a couple of years and then went to Garland, Stewart and Roach, and then that merged with The Ball Partnership. Then Mara Marich (my copywriter) and I got offered a job at The Campaign Palace in Melbourne, so we moved there.

Jr: Was that in The Campaign Palace hey-day?

S: Oh yeah. Saatchi Sydney and the Palace were the top at that time. I was there for 5 years before going to Clem’s.

Jr: The Campaign Palace… We’ve heard some crazy stories. But there was some great work coming out of the agency then. What was it there that made the work, and agency, so great?

S: Ah, the eighties and early nineties. Good times. There was such a great, inspiring group of people there, and the agency had such a clear and passionate creative philosophy, which helped push and support us to keep doing out-of-the-box work. People like Scott Whybin, John Turnbull, James Woollett, Terry Durack (http://blogs NULL.smh NULL.com NULL.au/entertainment/tabletalk/terrydurack/) and Graeme Smith to name a few. Creatives didn’t have much client contact back then, we just concentrated on the work, and the account people had to sell or not come back. And there was such a sense of fun. I remember getting pretty bloody good at table tennis.

 

Jr: What was a typical day like when the agency was at the top of its game?

S: We would spend the morning concepting, go to lunch, come back and play some table tennis, pop in to Terry’s office and see which restaurant he was reviewing, then back to do some more work. Then we might ring Scott at Lynch’s or the Bot and present over the phone and then pop down later for a drink if he liked the idea. Heaven on every level.

Jr: Tell us about Antz Pantz (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=GU59Vq-nxjg)! Was that your first TV ad?

S: I think that was 1989 [at the Campaign Palace]. Candy Shoes (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=qdWUbRW-M1c) was actually my first ad. It was with Ian McKenzie who was a great DOP and it was his first director job, and we worked with this model that had to pull a folded up shoe out of her mouth. She pulled it out perfectly on the 32nd or 33rd take. The line was, Candy Shoes – put them on your feet not in your mouth. It was 15 seconds long, and the lead singer from the Models, Sean Kelly, was the voice over. It was this really cool, out-there ad.

Jr: That’s a great start. Was Antz Pantz a hard thing to get off the ground at the time?

S: They were the halcyon days. That was with Scott Whybin as Creative Director. I remember Mara and I were in our office and had layouts all over the floor. A boy team had done some jingle like “the girls in France have ants in their pants, the girls in Spain have ants on their brain…” which got rejected by the client. We had this script and had a picture on the floor of a girl with ants crawling over her crotch with an anteater and Scott sort of stumbled in after lunch and looked down at the mess on the floor and we told him the idea and he said that’s it, and just walked out.

Jr: That’s amazing. You must be sick of people asking you about that campaign! We saw it recently on 20 to 1.

S: It won a lot of awards. It’s up there with the 20 best Australian ads of all time.

Jr: Did you feel at the time that that was your big break?

S: Yeah, it really was quite ground breaking on many levels, and it really did get so much PR. It sold lots of product so it worked in market as well as in the award shows. And then they tested it 20 years later and girls still loved it so much, that they made a sequel.

Jr: How soon after that did you move to New York?

S: I’ve been in NY ten years. After my seven years at Clem’s doing Yellow Pages and the milk stuff with Tony Greenwood, we won a trip to NY for some of the Yellow Pages posters that we did. The Australian Outdoor Poster Award. We had a bit of a look around while we were here, as you do, and BBDO NY were really interested and brought us over.

Jr: How did you find it when you first went to New York? What were the differences from coming from Australia?

S: It’s a different world. It’s like it’s own little country. I’d always wanted to live and work somewhere else, I had traveled a lot but I was ready to try somewhere else. New York is the mother of all cities, and the center of the advertising world some would say. I’m British, so I wanted to try NY. I guess the size of the place, the energy and the budgets are extraordinary. It’s a completely different ball game from Australia. It’s a different sort of discipline.
In Australia you are trained to be a bit scrappier because you don’t have the luxury of those budgets. I think that makes us strong, holistic thinkers that are always trying to find a cheap way to get the message across. You still have to do that in NY, but you do have more of the luxury of the big budgets to do that.

Jr: Do you think the style of advertising is different in New York?

S: Yeah, it’s much more conservative. It really is the mid-west that you need to measure everything against. Unless it’s more of a content online piece of work that has less of a mass audience, but anything that is in the bigger traditional veins it’s much more conservative. The USA is the country of litigation and political correctness. We have loads of instances where we present to a US client and they think it’s fantastic, but they could never run it. And then the UK and European client will take it instead. A few of my clients are global so that makes it a little bit more rewarding.

Jr: So you’re an Art Director by trade, right?

S: I went to Art College so I started as an Art Director. Funnily enough most of my partners have been art directors, so I do a bit of writing too. A bit of everything.

Jr: Do you have a less rigid working style here in New York?

S: Yeah, and one of my teams here at JWT are both Art Directors as well. It’s weird. They both dabble in a bit of writing. I think strong conceptual thinkers are important, and of course it’s great if you have some writing craft as well.

Jr: That’s really interesting. There’s always been the whole question of whether you have to be a traditional team or not. It feels like it is frowned upon in Melbourne.

S: Some of my teams are regimented into the Art Director/Copywriter role, and I like having that because if I’ve got something that I need written in a very comedic style, I want to be able to go to someone who has that ability to craft it out.

Jr: How did you learn your craft?

S: I looked at a lot of award annuals, design books, fashion mags, record covers (ah, remember them)… art stuff, type stuff, anything I could get my hands on really. At Clem’s there were people like Henry Winkler and Libby Austin and others that were around at the time who were fab at craft. In Australia it is much more of an intimate environment so you could bounce ideas off of other art directors, and more senior creatives. I worked with Lionel Hunt a few times and that was really cool. You just look to those people that you admired within your agency and then bugged them for advice. At the Palace back then we had everyone, which was great.

Jr: Do you think it’s true though that Australia is behind the rest of the world?

S: Not really. Look at what wins at Cannes. There are bucket loads of stuff in the promo, media and digital categories from Australian agencies. I think that the budgets are probably the difference. In the US a lot of my clients still do heavy television and print work, but they are also very aware that people are also using other forms of media to view things, and they want to be where they are. Because of the nature of how much money you have it feels like you have more money to spend in those areas. I always have felt that Australia and New Zealand have been really progressive in advertising, and certainly in the quality of it, and how they make things go further with limited amounts of funds. It’s the obvious thing to do a great piece of content that doesn’t need a huge amount of media weight and spend behind it to get a message across.

Jr: Did you have a strategy when you were starting out for the agencies you wanted to work?

S: I always knew that I’d love to work somewhere like The Campaign Palace or Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney, and luckily I was given the opportunity to work at the Palace Melbourne in it’s hey-day. You don’t want to get sucked up into some faceless giant. There’s plenty of time for that. I think when you’re young and you’ve got buckets of energy, you need to have a vision and stay true to that. Even if you do get swallowed up in something bigger until you get that opportunity, I think you’ve always got to have a little side book of stuff that you keep on working on. Bigger clients always look favourably when you’re being proactive which is a great way to sneak things through. That’s what happened with a lot of the work that we’ve done here. It’s being scrappy, inventive and proactive.

Jr: We definitely don’t want to get sucked up into a faceless giant… so If you had your time over as a junior what would you look for in an agency? Would you look at the Creative Director?

S: Absolutely. It’s the Chief Creative Officer over here in New York. I’d look at the brands that they have, the work that they do and the philosophy of the place. I think you get a feel by talking to people, the culture of the place – not all places suit all types. I just read about someone who I knew who was let go from an agency that everyone would love to work at. And he’s great, and the agency is great, but for some reason it just didn’t work.

Jr: Do you think it’s very different over in New York for juniors starting out their career?

S: I think because of the size of the industry, and the size of the agencies, you can get swallowed up and forgotten about. You need to make sure that you have some goals and not fall prey to the golden handcuffs if you can avoid it, and still keep true to doing great work for as long as you can. The money will come eventually if you get those awards and recognition under your belt.

Jr: In terms of the way agencies work here it seems like there are a lot more roles that make things easier?

S: We have print producers here that go on the shoots, and project managers. There are lots of people to help out-to make the process more streamlined. But there are still a lot of account service people here, and meetings can sometimes have 20 people in them. As a creative you have to keep focused that the end product is this piece of communication that everyone will see, and you all have to keep striving to make it the best it possibly can be. And sometimes people forget that and you need to remind yourself and your team of that. Always look to your Creative Director for that guidance, and that’s where your loyalty should be. Art Directors are slaves to the Mac, but it is also liberating. The thing I miss is the attention to typography and craft that we had back in the day. You need to find Art Directors who are brilliant at all craft these days, which is hard. We have a great Head Of Art here, Aaron Padin, who I worked with at Saatchi NYC, so he keeps everyone on their toes.

Jr: Did you have any key mentors throughout your career?

S: Oh yeah. Scott Whybin. He was so incredibly brilliant at spotting an idea even from a scribble. And he always pushed us and encouraged us to be better. And then at Clem’s David Blackley and Ant Shannon were really supportive and inspiring. In New York, I worked with the wonderful Tony Granger at Saatchi for 4 years. He definitely encouraged me to push the envelope and was so particular with crafting work. I hear his voice as I review work now. Ty Montague, who hired me here at JWT but has since left, is an amazingly smart and talented guy.

Jr: Do people work like that in New York too?

S: Not as much. Because of the nature and the size of the place it’s harder to get that sort of intimate working environment happening. We try and create something like that, but there are so many meetings, so many deadlines, so many jobs going on that it is easy to lose sight of just taking that moment, and giving yourself some time to really craft that piece of work. You have to remind yourself that if it’s not as good as it can be, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

Jr: What are your clients that you are working on at the moment?

S: I run Wilkinson Sword Schick. We do a lot of work for the US and also we do some of the smaller content/digital projects for Europe. Up until recently I had a lot of the Kimberly-Clark business. We had a great time doing the Kotex work — that really reframed how that sort of stuff is advertised here. The US are still in the era of twirling white skirts and horses galloping along the beach and using blue liquid, so that was excellent to stick the finger up at the hideous stuff that has been perpetrated here for years. We are also launching a global hair brand, but I can’t say any more about that just yet!

Jr: If you had advice for young people from Australia wanting to hit up New York or London, do you have any thoughts of what they can do to try to get their feet in the door?

S: Try and find an in somehow – whether it’s another Australian, or doing something proactive. Obviously the Australian Mafia works well. Hang out at 8 Mile Creek (http://maps NULL.google NULL.com NULL.au/maps/place?oe=utf-8&rls=org NULL.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&q=8+mile+creek+ny&fb=1&gl=au&hq=8+mile+creek&hnear=New+York,+NY,+USA&cid=11036833762921432919) and you’ll bump into someone who is working in advertising. There are quite a few of us sprinkled around the place and that’s always a great thing.

Jr: A lot of people have different opinions on when to go.

S: I’d say sooner, rather than later. I wish I’d done it earlier. That being said, it is a hard slog to get your foot in the door without a good solid base of stuff. Definitely try. I think world experience is just fantastic. And New York is an inspiring and motivating place on every level. When you walk out the door every day there is always something silly, bizarre or different happening. You’re constantly moved to experience stuff. I’ve been here ten years and feel like I’m still scratching the surface. You’re never bored. You’re always challenged.

Written by Junior
Originally posted on: 24/11/2010