The Interview Series // 49

Doom! Gloom! Boo! Like us, you probably don’t really consider what might happen in an economic downturn to us creative gen-y folk. We’re invincible, right? Well sadly no one is, kids. And when we met with Aussie expat Heath Rudduck – Chief Creative Officer of Campbell Mithun (http://www NULL.campbell-mithun in Minneapolis, we found out just who survives those dark days… Among other stuff. Don’t worry, this ain’t no ‘7.30 Report’. We’re sure Heath’s zeal for digital thinking will have you digital dreaming.

Jr: So Heath, start at the beginning.

Heath Rudduck: I started as an art director at Y&R. But originally my background was in architecture. I’d lived in the UK and the US before I took my gig at Y&R and I was just amazed in ‘91 or whatever it was why we really weren’t using desktop publishing, and why people weren’t using these new-fangled Macintosh systems to produce stuff. In the UK in architecture practices, we were using desktop publishing for all of our documents and promotional work – and I thought that advertising could use some of that technology. I’ve got a thing for gadgets anyway, so wanted to work out what this whole desktop publishing thing was about and this ‘internets’ thing. Back then, If you knew what an @ symbol was, you were a bloody genius. Anyway, long story short, I basically teamed up with a couple of the guys in the office to try it out, and we toyed around with making a website for Jeans Plus. It’s so funny to think that in 1994 we were even considering doing something like that. We were teaching ourselves the most basic of HTML and learning the fine art of image compression, whilst still doing traditional print and TV stuff for Mobil, Beaurepaires and Myer ads.

Jr: That’d be a pretty sweet blast from the past – seeing that website. We still get a kick out of the original Space Jam website. (http://www2 NULL.warnerbros NULL.htm)

H: We put it online, and of course no one was likely to see it, because no one was online. It took ages to upload stuff on the damned dial up modems and the office had no connection online. It’s amazing to think of that now. We really just wanted to know what we could do and how it would work. It was pretty basic. Soon after I was asked if I was interested in a gig at CHE, which was still really joined at the hip with Clems. Clemenger had a few things brewing in the online world so I jumped on board. We had a ball. Glenn Williams asked me one afternoon if I was interested in teaming up with a Danish bloke to explore more of the online stuff. I knew a little bit about this interweb business so I started working within Clemenger to start Clemenger Interactive – where we built sites for Libra, Mercedes and RACV. It was great fun and all very new. We were using a lot of Macromedia Director – that was a drag – heavy load times and all. And Flash was still called Future Splash for goodness sake. But it would change everything.

Jr: Did you notice a big difference moving from Melbourne five years ago, to Digitas in Boston?

H: Yes, firstly the scale. I had 240 creative staff over three offices when I arrived. That was just mind boggling. Wrangling a smaller creative team has enough ups and downs. But that many staff, plus $160 million bucks worth of business  and three offices is a real bloody challenge. There was a lot of ‘this is how we do it, this is how we like to do it, this is how we’ve always done it’ going on, and it was the true definition of drinking from a fire hose. At that scale, there’s politics galore and you spend a lot of your time trying to create a sanctuary for your teams to do great creative. But the real challenge came with some massive reductions in spending by some clients. Especially GM. The auto industry got caned. Tens and tens of millions of dollars vanished overnight. And of course that really affected my team. We had layoffs everywhere in the US. It was a pretty dark time, and quite depressing. At one point, round two, we were putting people on the skids at Christmas. I hate that part of our business.

Jr: Who survives those dark days? Or is it just pot luck?

H: It was a no brainer that you kept hybrids. You get people that I call T shaped, people that had a core skill set and were obviously good at what they did, but they could spread and be accountable for work in a spectrum of their skillset. So for example, art directors that had a strong design bent and digital understanding were invaluable. And there were plenty of people who still saw themselves as “TV” or “Print” creatives. I hadn’t seen that in Australia for years.  You need people who will step up and own work, and who aren’t afraid to share an idea around. That was another really important thing – people who weren’t precious about sharing an idea and making it a team effort, or jumping on board an idea that had already left the station, helping to make it better. I’ve been spending some time with the President of MCAD here in Minneapolis lately, and their course structure is reflecting this way of thinking.

Jr: It does seem that digital ideas, and the process, is a lot more collaborative than the traditional art director/copywriter process.

H: It really is, but I think what you will find is happening – and I’m certainly pushing this where I am now – is that it needs higher process, it needs to be open source, it needs to be collaborative, no matter what the brief.  This is a challenge, because you need to own things, but also have to be able to share. It’s a balance. What’s interesting is that some of the big schools in the US are really working this open source model into their curriculum. Like I said, MCAD seem to have an awesome grip of it. Basically, what they’re doing, is engineering incredible projects. Real world projects that, e.g, a water saving device that they’re working with a community, lets say in Tibet, and working to make some sort of community based program that needs to be invented, marketed, conceptualized, produced and finally released to the world. Those projects can take five to seven years, but if you are doing a three year course and you come in half way through that project, you’re not starting fresh. You’re coming in half way. It’s just like life. If you join a business, there’s already work in progress. It’s getting people to embrace the moving train and just get on board to make it better. But still feeling they’re part of the village that makes the ultimate product. It’s interesting that a lot of us have been encouraged over the years to be selfish in the way we look at our work. Ultimately you’ve got to build a book of the things you have conceptualized and worked on over the years. But the reality is that a lot of what you are doing is really coming from a team, and you need a director, a programmer, a UX person, and all these other people to make it happen. I think it’s Kevin Roberts that said ideas are like assholes, everyone’s got one – it’s what happens with the idea and how it comes to life that really counts. There’s a business at the end of it that also needs to benefit from your ideas. I’m seeing a lot of that thinking change within agencies in the US. Everyone is trimming back, and we’re bringing hybrid type people in. I’ve got people who aren’t traditional art directors but by god can they produce a beautiful piece of work. Man, there’s an awesome guy named Manny Bernardez I discovered at Nike. I plucked him out and he really helped change the shape of our work.  He can design, shoot, edit and wield After Effects like a champ.  He helped produce a really nice little piece for United Way for us recently.

Jr: For people who read Junior who are coming through the ranks and doing uni courses, do you think the skill set of a creative is going to change vastly?

H: I think I’ve seen it changing already. Some schools seem to be catching up faster than others. RMIT seem to be on top of it. I’ve done a lot of work with Miami Ad School over the years, and they’ve really changed their shape too. They’re producing these hybrid students who come out and have a real firm grasp on the fact that you are in the business of creativity. That’s very different from even ten years ago.

Jr: So are you imagining that your art director would even have skills in motion, filming, etc?

H: Yep, and they don’t necessarily have to be able to produce a hard core coded flash thing or know how to shoot the perfect shot – just to have a grip on how it all goes together. Look at the classic Art Director/Writer team, I’ve got a diagram I share with my team, that shows it’s not so long ago that it was just the Copywriter. Then the Art Director was let out of the studio, then planners came in, and if you look at the cast of people that it now takes to produce a piece of work, it’s as long as your arm. If you look at the skill set of each discipline, in a spectrum, there is so much crossover. Design, art direction, user experience, where does it start and stop? Planning and user experience — a user experience person is hard-core information architect at one end, but neuroscientist at the other. Planning is neuroscience at one end, and hard-core statistics and insights on the other. It’s a bloody awesome time. Then I look at companies like Ideo, they’re inventing business ideas. I really honestly believe that agencies moving forward need to be so bound so tightly into what their clients do, that they’re delivering business concepts based on human insights as much as they are marketing pieces. I clearly wasn’t around then, but that’s kind of how it used to happen. In 1935,  Ray Mithun said that “everything talks”. His belief was that every single little thing, around a product or a service, has to have a tone, a manner, and deliver a service that reflects the underlying message. His belief was to get in deep. So deep, that you’re delivering business solutions, not just ads. We should be inventing stuff to take it to our clients. Constantly. And I reckon the appetite for new thinking is growing.

We’ve got this social based idea for Mayo Clinic, that directly reflects their wonderful collaborative nature. It’s called Mayo Connect and it facilitates the connection of people with particular concerns or ailments, with qualified experts who have dealt with the same affliction. It helps people share their concerns and approach their issue with more confidence and support. To me this is awesome, that we can have an effect on someone’s life, as advertisers.

Jr: It feels like that the best work, the stuff that consumers really pay attention to, are those kind of ideas these days. That’s where the bar is these days for advertisers. You’ve worked here in Melbourne, and now you’ve been working in the US for the last five years. Do you think those business changing ideas are more common in the US than in Melbourne? Do you think we are catching up still to that thinking?

H: Depends in what category I think. I think I often see more courageous thinking outside of the US. But volume and access to technology here is enabling people to experiment. I am starting to see clients start to stick their necks out a little more.

Jr: But obviously the US has the scale.

H: Like I said, scale helps, and it has the dollars. Reduced significantly, but it has the volume. Volume means you can take a bit more risk. But they’re also more risk adverse so you need to eat the elephant a bite at a time.

Jr: We hear things move a bit more slowly over there.

H: There’s a lot of layers in businesses here. Loads of titles and politics. We tend to be a bit more ballsy in Australia.  But let’s be honest, there’s a hell of a lot that’s the same. I think wanting to give things a go is in our DNA though. I’ll say things like “let’s just try it”, make something, take it to the client and see. There’s been a reluctance to do that. It’s like people have been emasculated. What we’re doing in our agency now is dedicating time to test the water. Make stuff and take it. Doing the real Aussie thing of barbed wire, string and sticky tape to make something and take it to see if they like it. If a client sees that it can be done, and you can demonstrate it to them, even if it’s fake, they’ll go for it.

Jr: Do you think that’s an important part of selling it?

H: I really think so. This entrepreneurial R&D mentality – you have to do it. Unless you can make it look like it can be done, they won’t go for it. Telling a story around things too – this is the one thing I’ve really noticed younger students from good schools are really able to do. The VCU students for example. It’s an awesome school. I’m seeing a lot of them really have a grip of how a brand lives in the middle of these fragmented media elements and how it might harness each one of these things to operate. I’m a huge believer that everything is kind of spherical.  You’ve got this sphere, and depending on which place, which person, what time of day, and what device, you could be having a completely different story and conversation with them. Understanding that – this is why planning has become vital to what we do. And the big brands, like the Targets of the world – these guys are hiring neuroscientists into their teams to get deep down into human behavior. Agencies need to get almost under the next layer of skin of people.

Jr: Especially in the digital sense with all these layers, it’s a very different level of communication than just passing a billboard.

H: The thing I think is happening very quickly in the US is the separation between digital and traditional is disappearing. The reason why I was so interested in this gig I have now is that they’ve merged the two businesses. They’ve pulled the two hemispheres of the brain together. They’re forcing osmosis within the business. I saw a quote the other day that basically said, if you can’t accept where digital is at, that these digital media elements are here to stay, then you may as well retire. I’ve been banging on about this for years, I really honestly believe that it’s finally having a big influence. All the big campaigns that are cutting through the award shows have digital components. But I love the other stuff too – it’s finding the balance.

Jr: Here in Australia we have AWARD school, which has been around for years, kids at the end come out with a folio of essentially print ads. Which is great for showing  a CD quickly how you think. From your end, in terms of hiring, what do you think kids these days should put in their books?

H: It’s still about the ideas. It has to be. The difference is now that ideas can be massive. Big campaigns, really genius little snippits, little snacks. I’d want to see a spread of those. It’s fine to have a bunch of print, but the reality is that the cost of developing a print ad and the lead times – a lot of clients have vastly reduced budgets.  I’m in the final stages of editing a TV spot that had it’s budget cut after the ad was shot. So we are releasing the spot online now. We’ve got to work out how to be smarter and more effective in these tricky financial times. Every year – faster, cheaper, smarter. Sheeesh.  I’d want to see a book that has a real spread of beautiful traditional ideas, because then I can get a grip of your art direction and writing because I still think that beautifully art directed and deliciously crafted words are a great demonstration of your visual and cerebral mindset, and being a thinker. Then I want to see that idea off the chain – a big organising idea, an umbrella thought, that’s campaigned out in different ways. The finance pressure that I’m under as a creative director means I can’t hire a one trick pony. It doesn’t mean you have to be able to code HTML, but you have to have a grip on every medium and what is possible.

Jr: Have people come around to the thinking that small is good? Especially in the online space, it seems like everyone is still of the mentality that the big campaign is what goes.

H: My writing partner Reid Holmes and I were chatting about this stuff today. We’ve had the “BIG” idea expectations for years. But a big idea can start very small now. A few years ago when the primary elections were on in the US – one of my team came to me and asked, if there was all this noise around Primary Elections, and we had Holiday Inn Express as a client and ‘It’s a smart choice’  (that’s their positioning) – wouldn’t politicians be smarter if they stayed there? We built a simple comparison site, showing how much smarter they would be if they had have stayed in Holiday Inn Express. It cost 98K, and in the first two week got 85 million free media impressions. You can’t buy that media. I think on the first broadcast on Fox News in the morning it was mentioned 17 times. That was awesome. All  from a smart little thought. That stuff is super smart.

I’ve seen projects where someone has walked into the office and said, did you know that there are going to be two million 3D glasses handed out at the super bowl, and then someone else says well why don’t we do this.. and then it finds a head of steam. Bingo. It’s this collaboration that makes what we do gold. Our director of technology, Sean O’Brien, is a total legend. He’s basically a super smart hacker brain working in advertising. He’s got that experimental-entrepreneurial brain. That type of spirit really needs to be let off the chain.

The beauty now is it’s all so accessible. For years the digital teams played classic technical tricks, keeping it under the cloaks and then, tada! By keeping it collaborative, we’re growing things quicker and better than before, and doing it more often. It’s truly a great time to be doing what we do.

Written by Junior
Originally posted on: 28/09/2011