The Interview Series // 46

Chances are you’ve done AWARD School if you’re working, or wanting work in an advertising agency in Australia or NZ. For those of you not in the know — AWARD School isn’t a place that you end up learning how to craft trophies and useless dust collecting items to hang in your agency reception. It’s an industry-led 16 week part-time crash course in ideas — figuring out how to make the shiz that wins the awards in the first place. Usually the cream of the crop, i.e the top ten, land themselves a gig. Sounds awesome, right? Especially if you’ve placed 1-10. We wanted to do an interview for the fifty-odd others in the course that find themselves a few grand poorer and unsure what to do next. We spoke to Ben O’Brien — this CD and partner of Kastner & Partners (http://kastnerandpartners in Sydney used to run the Award School show. We met up with him for a liquid-lunch in Pyrmont and we got his thoughts on the matter.

Junior: The best place to start is probably the beginning. Where did you start off in advertising? Actually, we read somewhere you started in fashion, is that right?

Ben O’Brien: That’s very true, yes. Out of uni my first career was fashion design. I was working while I was at uni at R.M. Williams, and went out to the factory a couple of times. I thought the process seemed pretty easy. I pulled apart a whole bunch of my favourite jeans on the dining room table at home, and worked out the patterns. And I started manufacturing jeans. I made 2000 pairs of these jeans, and they sold pretty well. Made another 2000, then another 2000, and ended up with three stores in Adelaide.

Jr: What was your label called?

B: It was called ‘Bullet Proof Jeans’. People would ask if they were really bullet proof, and I’d say ‘Put them on, and I’ll get a gun and we’ll find out.’ And it was a good business, made some money, and I had a lot of fun doing it. You reach a point where you either invest a lot of money into it and take it to the next level, and you have to make a decision about whether you are going to go down that track or not. At the time I had some friends who were working in a design agency down the street, and I used to go there for drinks on a Friday afternoon. And they’d have these beautifully designed brochures, but terrible spelling mistakes. I used to get out a red pen and go through all the mistakes, and they started paying me for it with beers. I found it more interesting than the fashion thing. So, I just made a decision one Friday afternoon – am I going to keep going with fashion, or get into some form of copywriting? Even as a proofreader, maybe. I didn’t understand what the jobs were in advertising.

Jr: And so you’d always been good at English?

B: Yeah, I did English and philosophy at Uni. There wasn’t a huge calling for professional philosophers, so there wasn’t a future there. But advertising seemed to be fun. They were designing, I was proofreading, making a couple of dollars, and I thought I should make a go of it. So I put together a folio of what I thought was advertising, but it turned out to be a very bad portfolio. Somehow I got in the door of KWP! in Adelaide where Andrew Killey and Pete Withy very kindly said that I could work there for free. That was really good of them. So I sat in there and worked for free for a few months, and put together some ads. In the end they backpaid me to when I started and produced a few of the ads that I’d made, and that was my start in advertising. So I took the portfolio that I’d built up there over six months to Clemenger where Pete Watt interviewed me and gave me a job at Clemenger on a very small salary. I ended up working there for a couple of years with some guys, Jack Davies and Simon Briscoe. They decided to move up to Sydney, and when they arrived they rang me up and said man, you gotta get over here. This town has a lot of things happening and it’s a really cool place. So I rang around, made a bunch of interviews, snuck out of work for a week and came and met every creative director in Sydney and eventually ended up getting a job at Foster, Nunn, Loveder. Which unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore. But it was a great agency at the time. They were a tiny place but doing Volkswagen and Sony, which were amazing accounts. I got out a whole bunch of ads, and it was a really good start.

Jr: Did you find it hard to move from Adelaide over to Sydney, with the different kinds of work you were doing back home?

B: Not really. I learned some very valuable things at KWP! They had an account at the time called Sip & Save, which is a chain of bottle shops in Adelaide. Sip & Save had an ad in the paper every week. Every week they’d get a brief, which was a special, e.g a carton of beer for x dollars, and it would relate generally to one or two of their stores. It might be by the beach, in the mountains, in the city, etc. They were simple briefs, but you didn’t have much to work with. You’d have the picture of the bottle, or the carton of beer. What they’d built up was a personality of the brand, which was a quirky, larrikin kind of style. My job was basically writing headlines. I’d write hundreds of headlines a week – I’d fill up my floor with little boxes with headlines, and I got incredibly good at drawing a carton of beer, and a bottle of wine. I can still pull that out whenever I’m required to draw a bottle of wine! That was an incredibly good foundation for understanding the personality of a brand, but through words. The art of writing a really good headline is a little bit lost. I think that you couldn’t have had a better start in advertising than being forced to write a million headlines. The ad had to be off to the paper on a Friday afternoon, and every Thursday in the middle of the day Pete would walk into my office and I’d have thousands of headlines spread over the floor. He’d kick out of the way the ones he didn’t like, and then hopefully we’d end up with two or three that he did, which we’d present to the client. And then they’d choose one, we’d lay it up, and then we’d start the process all over again. It’s just an amazing thing that is a little bit lost now. Simple ideas, presented in a really simple way.

Jr: Sounds like a great start. How many months did you do that for?

B: Six months. Hundreds and hundreds of headlines.

Jr: Do you remember any of them?

B: Well, if I tell you one, people will say ‘that’s a shit headline’! But there was a carton of beer, which was $19.99. And it was 1999. So the headline was ‘Party like it’s $19.99’. You know what I mean, just a classic matter of going bang, that’s a solid headline with personality. It was 1999, so we are going back in time a fair way!

Jr: It’s so hard to find junior writers, who can actually write…

B: Exactly. Unfortunately there was no AWARD School when I was in Adelaide and I started off, so there was no option. I just kind of had to fight my own way. AWARD School is an incredibly great door opener. I have run AWARD School in the past, and I’m a huge fan of it. It’s a really fantastic way for people to get a foot in the door who have no other way in. Say you are a bus driver out west, for example, you are interested in creativity and advertising, but where do you start. That in a way is the purpose of AWARD School. A lot of people give it a hard time because it’s not digital enough, or focused enough. That’s not really the point of it. The point of it is to give people a way into the industry. And I don’t think that it’s just for advertising creatives. A powerful idea is powerful whether it’s a script for a movie, a product, etc. If you understand the power of a simple creative idea you can use that in your industry. People do it one or two times, just because it focuses you on what you want to do, and maybe it’s a good way to decide not to do advertising too. It’s hardcore pressure in AWARD School. I think it’s a very valuable course.

Jr: First folios are always very convoluted. Too many ideas on every page. And it’s a really valuable thing to teach people who have a talent for visuals or words to hone their ideas.

B: I think the question of, “Are you a writer or are you an art director”, and people who get to the end of AWARD school and still can’t decide – that is a very bizarre thing. There’s a very separate set of skills for those two jobs. Some people come in and like pictures, and think therefore they should be an art director. You actually have to have skills for these jobs. As a writer, you have to have an interest in words. It’s a skill built up over many years. I don’t think it has to be taught, but you have to have an interest in reading. And know how to use punctuation, and grammar. I had a Brazilian guy once who came out from Brazil and was working in our office, but English was a second language. I couldn’t give him any writing tasks because he literally couldn’t write. His ideas were good, but the writing wasn’t. I can’t proof read everything and be on top of everything all the time – so it makes you unemployable in a small agency. And the same thing goes for Art Directors – there are some Photoshop skills and InDesign skills that you pretty much have to have. The days of over the shoulder art director are over. I think it’s a shame because there are some very talented people who don’t have the Mac skills, but in a small agency like ours, it would be very difficult to employ someone who didn’t have them.

Jr: You’re essentially employing two people – a studio operator, and an art director.

B: Exactly, and at the moment I can’t afford to employ two people.

Jr: Totally. Hey, do you want another drink?

B: Sure.

Jr: (Leaves to get more drinks..)

B: (to the recording device (http://www NULL.old-picture NULL.jpg)): You better make me sound smart. Or else. (laughs)

Jr: (Returns with two beers.) The folio that you end up with out of AWARD School is very ideas based. If you were going to give advice to a young wannabe copywriter, in terms of the folios that you see these days, how best do you think that they can demonstrate that they can actually write? Do you still think you should still have one long copy ad to show that you can write?

B: I think that your portfolio defines what you want to do. Looking at folios, you can’t help but pigeon hole people depending on how their folio is. For that reason, I think that if you want to sell yourself as an ideas machine, then your portfolio should be full of ideas. If you want to sell yourself as a graphic designer, then it should be full of graphic design ideas. If you want to sell yourself as a brochure writer, then your portfolio is full of brochures. And it’s very important that you get that balance right of what it is that you want to do in your job. I think that if you want to work at a big, good agency, and you want to work in the creative department, then your folio should be full of good ideas. I don’t care if they are visual or written ideas, but as long as they are single minded, on brief, clever ideas, that is what I’m attracted to. I think that there are aspects of the job that anyone can do, but the ideas is the really hard part. If you can come up with ideas then you’re valuable. If you can write as well, then you’re even more valuable. If you can art direct too, then you’re even more so. The ideas are the important bit. For me it’s important to demonstrate that you can write, but I think that you can go overboard. I can usually tell if people can write just by reading a couple of paragraphs and talking to them. If they can communicate well, then that’s enough for me. I wouldn’t fill up my portfolio with philosophy essays from uni or anything like that. You can easily pigeonhole yourself by overloading your folio with writing rather than ideas.

Jr: So ideas are king.

B: Absolutely. They are the most important thing in advertising. And in business. I like to look at the work that we do from a business perspective as to how powerful it is rather than some hard to pinpoint ideas sense. It has to relate to business. Which is something that I learnt when running AWARD School. We got to listen to twelve speakers – and I was really fascinated by David Nobay’s speech, who was so focused on the business side of what he was doing that I think it brought some perspective, even for me, and I’ve been in the game for a while. It made me think. I think a lot of creatives lose sight of the business perspective of what we do.

Jr: It seems like a good idea – to understand the business side of the business you work in.

B: Yeah, I have an interest in business. I like to think I have an interest in the business of our clients. Rather than get too worried about my peers and what other people in the industry think about our creative work, I’m interested in what my clients think and how the creative work is affecting their business.

Jr: And it’s their money we’re spending after all.

B: Yes. When I was associate CD at JWT, I was working on Kellogg’s, which is a business driven marketing company – they understand that marketing is the most important part of their business, because they’re still selling Cornflakes, and their products aren’t really changing. So what changes? Only the marketing. And the marketing affects their business directly so they can measure it in every possible way. Having the creative director in their business really interested in their sales figures, which is literally the business — that opened them up and we became friends on a business level. As a result we had valuable conversations about how really good creative work can effect their business, and we ended up in a really good place, rather than using an ‘us and them’ approach.

Jr: So basically, you think taking that interest helped you to sell in better work?

B: Totally. I’m very proud of the work that we did on Kellogg’s in the two years that I was there. It was super creative, and it sold a shitload of cereal basically. I think that was a really good relationship. I think a lot of creatives forget that we are in business, we aren’t artists.

Jr: At what stage in your career did you aspire to take the next step and become creative director? Did you actively try or did you sort of fall into it?

B: I always wanted to be a creative director from the first minute I started.

Jr: It’s funny because some people really don’t want it.

B: I’ve always enjoyed the process of helping people make great ideas. Even if they aren’t my ideas.

Jr: Obviously – you did AWARD School teaching.

B: Yes, and I give a lecture twice a year as part of AdSchool on creativity. I really enjoy tutoring AWARD School for three reasons. 1) The most important is that it keeps me on my toes. It’s just too good of a reminder that a whole lot of people want my job, and I need to keep my act together. I’ve got to stay on the edge, and up to date. The second is to look for people, up and coming talent, and the third reason is just a general interest in helping people get good ideas somewhere. You can get as much enjoyment out of that as you can from your own idea. I really do like helping people fulfill their ideas.

Jr: You learn a lot as well?

B: Definitely. I love it when there’s a completely unusual way of tackling a problem that I hadn’t thought of. I find it inspiring. Sometimes I find it quite sobering, humiliating almost. But it makes me better. Maybe I’m doing it for selfish reasons almost, because I think it helps me in the process.

Jr: We read somewhere that you learn a lot putting into words what we do in terms of thinking and creating better ideas, that if you can sort of channel that into a sentence and teach others it will make you a better creative.

B: I think the difference between a creative department and AWARD School is that you don’t have to tell your creative department why you don’t like something. You can just say nah, nah, nah, yes, but in AWARD School, that’s not valuable. You have to be able to give people a decent explanation as to why it’s not a good idea or why it is a good idea, and that makes you think about it. I think you reach a point where you know instinctively whether it’s a good idea or not, but to put that in words is quite valuable and you do that every Thursday night. So yeah, I think that there is a value to that as well and that helps you talk to your clients, too, and describe to them why your ideas are good, and why they will have an impact.

Jr: So, Kastner & Partners – you’ve got offices all around the world. Crazy.

B: It’s what they call a boutique multinational. It’s independent, owned by one guy.

Jr: So there’s not so many partners.

B: Nope, there’s Mr Kastner, and there’s two partners here in Sydney. We run it like it’s our own business. So whilst we have obviously the international connections and that’s helpful, we run our own clients here in Australia completely separately. Our second biggest account is Centro Shopping Centres. That’s driving us to grow, which is leading us to pitch for more things, and the agency is steadily growing. And that’s a really exciting phase for Kastner & Partners at the moment, and we’re hiring a lot of people.

Jr: You’re going to get lots of emails.

B: I want lots of emails. We tend to do a lot of our hiring through social networking — Facebook and Twitter, are the main ways that we find our staff. We’ve doubled in the last ten months or so, and want to do it again this year. It is an exciting process so I’ve learnt a lot about the business of advertising. I’ve worked at a lot of places; JWT, DDB, Y&R, and in big agencies business comes in, business goes out, and in the creative department you work and do the best you can. But now I realise that with my own business it’s hard to get new clients, and people are expensive, there are costs, and I’m understanding a lot more about our business and making that work as well as the creative work, and trying to do that whilst building an agency, this is really valuable stuff that you wouldn’t learn in the positions that I’ve had. It’s been a steep learning curve over the last year.

Jr: In the position you are in now your eyes have been opened to what is ‘behind the curtain’ of the ad business? What advice would you pass back down the chain to us juniors?

B: I think that having seen all the business, still the most important thing in advertising is ideas. Simple, great, ideas. And you’ll be able to sell a simple great idea to anybody, but you have to have those ideas. What I’ve noticed over the last few years is younger people coming into advertising have a bit of an attitude of, ‘Well I finished AWARD School, now, where is my job?’ And that’s wrong. Out of that huge group there is a certain number of people who have a really great work ethic, and those people do still exist but there seem to be fewer of them around. If you can make yourself irreplaceable, invaluable, then you have got a really great career in advertising. But that takes a lot of hard work. I think a lot of people are really slack and they aren’t putting in the time or the effort that it takes to make yourself valuable. The valuable people will do really well, and the people that don’t will get left behind. Hard work is really important. Those that strive for a better idea, there’s always a better idea in any situation, and the people that take the time and put in the effort to get to that better idea will do well. And the people that don’t will end up working in a… I don’t want to say this because I used to work in the business, but a bottle shop.

Jr: Sip & Save.

B: They’ll end up working in Sip & Save. And not writing their ads.

Jr: Did you get lots of mentoring at KWP! back in those days?

B: Some of the things that I now say to my AWARD School students are the things that they told me back then. I think that a classic quote that my first creative director said something very important to me that I’ve told a lot of people.. ‘When you start out in advertising, you have a lot of good ideas, you just don’t know which ones they are’. And I think that that is absolutely true, and that’s why in AWARD school I formalised the pens and paper rule only, because I think people waste too much time mac-ing up shit ideas when they should be pressing on to find great ideas.

Jr: And they’re precious about them.

B: Exactly. Whereas the people that write down a hundred ideas, there’s got to be something good in there rather than spending a whole week mac-ing up your one idea. I think if you can find someone that you trust who can help you work out which ideas are the good ideas – whether it’s your AWARD School tutor or whether it’s a CD is critical in our business, because it’s not always what you think. There have been ads that I thought was the best one and I’ve presented it and the CD has asked for more. My CD at Foster, Nunn, Loveder picked out an ad that was my first awarded ad for Volkswagen, and it probably wasn’t the one that I would have picked.

Jr: AWARD School, wow, this is like a big ad for AWARD School! So I have one more question about it – obviously it’s started up again for this year. What advice do you give for people who don’t finish in the top ten, but are still mustard keen to get out there. They’ve got a folio of stuff, but they didn’t make it to the top ten. What would you say they should do?

B: I also was lucky enough to organise LaunchPad at DDB and start up The Deep End at JWT. I have spent a lot of time talking to people who have come in who didn’t finish in the top ten in AWARD school. I think that I’ve given internships to people who came much lower. Obviously life is going to be easier for those that came in the top ten. There’s no creative director going out of their way to hire the person who came 80th. They start at the top of the list, and work their way down. I think that it’s certainly not the time for anyone to give up. When you finish AWARD school it’s the beginning of your career. You don’t put down your pad and pen, and give up. There are a lot of people who only just “get it” late in the AWARD School process. Some of them come back and do AWARD School again. Others get it, go back, and reevaluate their portfolio. I think your folio should be constantly updated. It’s not about a number, it’s not about where you are in a list, it’s about your ideas, your passion, and your work ethic. A person that came in the top ten that’s really slack, over a person who came 80th who is really passionate, has good ideas, and is willing to be directed, and willing to improve their book – I think that person is probably more valuable. Don’t give up.

Jr: I like it. It’s good.

Written by Junior
Originally posted on: 11/05/2011