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Ideas from the edge: this year's Kiwi Cannes Lions winners

Kiwi advertising is basking in its most successful awards season ever, bringing home a golden haul from the Cannes Lions awards. Our agencies are showing what can be achieved with a limited budget, great ideas and lots of ambition and skill. How are they doing it? Catherine Smith talks to the winners and those who help make it happen

'Ideas from the edge' gatefold layout

Can-do creatives (from left): Aimee McCammon, Kim Pick, Wayne Pick, Guy Denniston, Ben Chandler, Patrick Murphy, Brian Merrifield, Chris Jones, Karen Maurice-O’Leary, Verity Butt, Andy Blood, Mike Ballantyne, Guy Roberts. Idealog September/October 2006, page 32. Photographs by Toaki Okano/Croydon Studios

Kiwi advertising is basking in its most successful awards season ever, bringing home a golden haul from the Cannes Lions awards. Our agencies are showing what can be achieved with a limited budget, great ideas and lots of ambition and skill. How are they doing it? Idealog talks to the winners and those who help make it happen

Make a list of ‘Kiwi traits’: we're enterprising on the smell of an oily rag, twist that number eight wire into rockets if we have to, unfazeable, unflappable, funny. We tell ourselves this stuff often enough and then, gee, there are moments when national stereotypes really do step in to help propel creative New Zealanders to the top of their industry and the world.

At least that’s what the judges of the Cannes Lions advertising awards seem to think. In June New Zealand agencies scooped eight Gold and Promo awards (ten if you count the win by Saatchi New York for their campaign for Kiwi company 42 Below, which, of course, we do). Those who do the sums say that New Zealand placed ninth in the world at Cannes, despite our tiny populations and—by global standards—laughable budgets.

Take a close look at those winning entries. There’s not a TV commercial among them. All are marked by a clever idea, a willingness to step outside the confines of the medium, and most are interactive. In the emerging tech-savvy, everyone-is-creative society that we call Generation C, New Zealand’s advertising industry is showing a vision of the future of advertising. It’s showing other New Zealanders how to make a mark with a limited budget, a great idea, ambition and skill.

It also shows the upside of young New Zealanders’ hankering to travel. While Sydney and then London, with perhaps a stop-off via Hong Kong, have traditionally been Kiwi creatives’ overseas stomping grounds, an increasing number of Kiwis are breaking into the tough US advertising market as New Zealanders ignore boundaries and pick and choose the most exciting markets to work in. Just as exciting is the steady arrival of worldwide creatives deliberately seeking out New Zealand, not as a retirement paradise, but because they get to do work now that would take years to crack back home.

Kiwi creatives are helping their Aussie mates look good too. Last year’s much talked-about ‘big ad’ for Carlton Draught had an Aussie client and an Aussie director of photography but was put together here by Kiwi line producers and directed by New Zealander Paul Middleditch. Who said the Anzac spirit was dead?

Can-do creatives: Brian Merrifield and Chris Jones

Media Gold plus a Promo Lion: Saatchi for Rubbish Film Festival. Brian Merrifield and Chris Jones

What is it about New Zealand creatives—and the briefs, the suits and planners who make it happen—that they are punching way above their weight in the world? And what can other New Zealanders learn from them?

Peter Maher, who now heads Macquarie Bank’s Financial Services Group in Sydney, spent most of the 1980s and 90s in New Zealand marketing, building brands such as Arnott’s, Campbell’s and DB. When he crossed the Tasman in 1998 he was disappointed.

“I’d been used to stand-out creatives,” he says. “The standard of creativity [in Australia] was just not all that inspiring. Now all around you see Kiwi agencies, Kiwi creative directors.” Just another biased Kiwi? “Look at the stats, it’s not just a bias.” Maher’s own creative teams have included Meares Taine, servicing the bank out of Auckland, and DesignWorks Enterprise IG, whose Sydney creatives are Kiwis.

Can-do creatives: Guy Denniston and Emmanuel Bougneres

Press Gold: Publicis Mojo for the ketchup landmines sachet printed in Blood magazine. Guy Denniston and Emmanuel Bougneres

Dave Walden, chief executive of Whybin\TBWA, has had roles in Sydney and Melbourne as well as New Zealand and reckons one of the standout things about our market is that the large shops are the most creative. “In other markets the great ideas come from small boutiques, but here the big players are producing the brave ideas,” he says. “With the size of the industry here, if many of your peers are dominated by creative-led large shops—the Colensos and Saatchis and DDBs—then you get an intimacy and trust with top level ideas.” He doesn’t exactly call us sheep, but Walden says when big-brand clients such as Telecom and Toyota are seen to do brave things with their advertising, then the role of advertising is taken more seriously further down the ranks.

“We’ve produced outstanding creative driven by big brands and conservative categories. Take ASB in the banking industry. Let’s face it, banking was pretty moribund, but they were prepared to put a human face on it, even laugh at themselves, and it has become the most successful campaign in the country,” Walden says. “The other agencies who want to sell work through can point to that. It builds on itself and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” 

There’s also a strong element of giving it a go and getting to have a go younger. At Cannes, Guy Denniston, only six years in the business, won a Press Gold for his pro-bono landmines campaign with collaborator Emmanuel Bougneres. Verity Butt and Karen Maurice O’Leary, only two years out of AXIS Adschool, won an international pitch against all the agencies in the TBWA network for their adidas ‘Be the ball’ idea, then went on to scoop the Cannes, Clio and D&AD awards. Chris Jones spent five years slogging in the ranks in London, only to win gold after 18 months in New Zealand for the Telecom Rubbish Film Festival campaign with partner Brian Merrifield.

“There’s so much competition and it’s so intense in London,” he says. “Here I was lucky enough to prove myself. Being here has catapulted our careers [his wife is a TV producer for Y&R] where in London you’re just battling everyone to be seen.”

Can-do creatives: Aimee McCammon

Press Gold plus an Outdoor Gold: Saatchi and Saatchi New York for 42 Below. Aimee McCammon

And sometimes just battling to let your work see the light of day, as creative couple Kim and Wayne Pick found. She’s a Kiwi who did 18 years in Australia, Singapore and at Saatchi in London. He’s South African, and for the purposes of this story, agrees that he counts as an antipodean. They reckon they get more opportunity in New Zealand to do fantastic work; overseas, “95 percent of your work didn’t see the light of day. You’d work on something for a couple of days and then it would take two years to sell, research, globally test, do language checks to make it,” says Kim Pick. “Weeks of work that would never go anywhere,” says Wayne.

Here, both say, the distance from top-to-bottom decision makers is short and often the idea is sold directly to the CEO, which means time to market is fast. And when great ideas have a shelf life—if you don’t get it out on the market someone else will beat you to it—this means good ideas happen.

“The hotspots used to be London or New York. Moving to New Zealand or Aussie meant to retire or wrap up,” says Wayne Pick. “Now we’re seeing the fresh thinking, the pure ideas. You can be a global player from here, so you get the best of both worlds.”

Even a relative newbie to the industry like Denniston is having second thoughts about the growth opportunities overseas. After short stints at the company’s offices in Sydney and the US, he found he had fewer opportunities. “We say we’re overworked here because there are not as many people. But it allows you to have more shots at goal because of that. Over there, there is such rigmarole: research, layers to approve at every step,” he gripes. “By the time it gets through, no-one finds it offensive, but no-one likes it much either. Most creatives argue like hell against research.” And with the local Publicis Mojo office now attracting one of the top three creatives in the network, Nick Worthington, to Enzed, some great opportunities have come here.

Can-do creatives: Ben Chandler and Patrick Murphy

Direct Gold: AIM Proximity for BNZ body parts campaign. Ben Chandler and Patrick Murphy

Kiwis who are experienced in the New York ad scene are even more vehement that we breed ’em young and keen. Take Kiwi Tracey Lee, for example, who after a decade in the Big A considers herself a dual citizen. She batted for The Campaign Palace, TBWA\Chiat\Day and vanguard Amsterdam agency StrawberryFrog before taking global residence with Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s New York offices and worked on heavy-duty old and new economy accounts such as Unilever, British Airways, Absolut, Google, CNN and Amazon.

“Our young talent is thrown in the deep end,” she says. “Comparing the portfolios of a young creative in New Zealand versus overseas is telling. It’s a baptism by fire here. The wealth of experience and range of clients you get to work with pours gasoline on our knowledge and skills. The same is true of management. It also means a more meaningful appreciation that ideas can come from anywhere. People are not afraid to have an opinion. We breed firecrackers.”

Maher agrees: “The calibre of the marketing community in New Zealand, pound for pound, is much stronger.” But, like the Picks, he says it’s not a lack of good creative ideas that stifles larger markets; it’s the tortuous process to get an idea up and out. “The smaller the number of people, the greater the likelihood an idea gets through.”

Adds Fran Cook, who moved to Saatchi New York as a planner last year: “We’re not afraid to put on our flip-flops and backpack and head off for a couple of days to spend real time with real people. In the US you can end up spending too many hours in an air-conditioned room watching focus groups. The Saatchi philosophy is ‘If you want to understand how the lion hunts, don’t go to the zoo. Go to the jungle.’” Cook and South African planner Adene van der Walt have just made it through 15 US states, put 5,000 miles on the clock and “met the most amazing mums, kids, teachers, bus drivers, counsellors, clowns, nutritionists ... in their world, not ours. Saatchi calls it ‘xploring’. This way you don’t just learn, you feel. And only then can you write a brief that will be the inspiration for a great creative idea.”

The choice of media is new too. Notice none of the Cannes wins were for old media (even the print winner had a unique insert). Kevin Malloy, who returned to New Zealand to head media shop Starcom after 17 years in London, Hong Kong and New York, reckons creatives here are thinking wider because they have to cover everything. In his shop of 700 in New York, by contrast, one person’s role was to buy five cable channels and the next person bought a different five. “Here everyone has to do everything; juniors are exposed to the client and have to just get on and do it. You mature faster, rather than slogging your way up to the top to break through.”

Can-do creatives: Karen Maurice-O'Leary and Verity Butt

Outdoor Gold plus a Promo Lion, a Grand Clio and a UK Designers and Art Directors Association (D&AD) silver: Whybin\TBWA for adidas ‘Be the ball’. Karen Maurice-O’Leary and Verity Butt

Can-do creatives: Mike Ballantyne, Guy Roberts and Andy Blood

Promo Lion: Whybin\TBWA for adidas ‘Stand in Black’. Mike Ballantyne, Guy Roberts and Andy Blood

Brian Sweeney, who created the NZ Edge website and community in 1998 with Kevin Roberts, says Kiwis have a fantastic reputation in North America because they are reliable, do what they say they’ll do and have an appealing mix of creativity and practical, can-do skill. He says that Saatchi supremo Roberts has been a significant factor in boosting New Zealanders outside their traditional market. “Kevin’s pulled people through with him but it’s not any great master plan, and includes South Africans and Australians, a real Super 14 at a New York bar. We all have that similar genetic construct—that sense of being on the edge and have a role of merging with the centre.”

Roberts has supported young New Zealand Saatchi-ites like Aimee McCammon in the agency’s New York office. McCammon subsequently convinced the hierarchy to back 42 Below and their teensy budget, busting through the “usual process and officialdom thing” and winning another Cannes Gold in the process. But working on the little Kiwi account reminded McCammon how much she missed bringing great ideas to life. Now back in Auckland, her goal is to combine somehow the New Zealand and New York lifestyles to get the best of both worlds.

Tracey Lee cautions against thinking of an emerging Mafioso, reckoning the invasion has been happening organically for decades and has legs in other directions too (Oscars, anyone? 42 Below, Karen Walker, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Flight of the Conchords …). “What I do hope is that … we will never be so self-aware or congratulatory of our cultural uniqueness or cachet that we become complacent or sacrifice other elements of our DNA that make us so compelling—our unaffectedness, our cultural curiosity and wonder, and our lack of pose.”

Can-do creatives: Wayne Pick

Gold Direct: Tequila for ASB Bank bootscraper. Wayne Pick

The Kiwi creative mood spreads beyond advertising and beyond New York. Kiwi artists such as David Trubridge and Anthony Morris were feted at events like the recent Essenze mini-expo; Trelise Cooper is showing her collections for the first time at the New York Fashion Week in September (marketed by another Saatchi alumni, Laura Myers); and there’s a whole crowd of scientists, thinkers and Web people celebrated every month in Sweeney’s NZ Edge website and e-zine. What they have in common is a sense of urgency, a sense that from the edge of the world we can show the centre how to do more with less; and a teensy molecule of ‘down on the farm’ still in their DNA.

Sweeney reckons the biggest “unresolved strand” is how to better relate to New Zealanders overseas, to gather the stories they are telling around the world so that all our “points of presence” add up to growth and vibrancy for New Zealand. “Business conversations are the same, whether it’s Wellington or Cincinnati or London, it’s the same issue,” he says. “Pockets of us all around the world, working in the creative economies, in the widest sense of the meaning of creative. With our can-do attitude, we need to have more depth of perception of ourselves as CEOs, CFOs, chiefs of marketing. The edge merging on the centre.”