Barbara Humphries is approaching her tenth anniversary with one of Australia and New Zealand’s gutsiest creative agencies, The Monkeys. In her time there, she’s worked on eye-catching and impactful projects - such as this year’s UN Women campaign that provocatively suggested that humans would walk on Mars before gender equality would be achieved on earth. There’s also the NRMA Insurance campaign that argued every home was worth protecting - including koalas’ homes, vulnerable to deforestation and wildfire. And there’s a sports bra campaign for Berlei that’s long been an LBB favourite.
Having admired Barbara’s work for many years, LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with her in Cannes, where she was judging on the Cannes Lions Direct jury. Here she chats about her early experiences in editorial design, how Wieden + Kennedy London’s Tony Davidson inspired her approach to creativity and what it’s been like to be part of the ever-evolving agency that is now part of the Accenture Song network.
LBB> What was your starting point in advertising?
Barbara> My very first industry job was in medical advertising, which was interesting. I’d done some experience when I was at uni and a year out working at an educational resource centre at a children’s hospital. We were making everything from doctors’ medical posters for conferences to illustrated picture books for kids explaining surgery, walking them through the process to make it feel a little less scary.
In terms of an entry into communication, it was great training in using empathy to deliver complex information in a human and accessible way, and it lead to my first advertising job in a Healthcare agency. While I was there, a lecturer from uni contacted me about a job going at Conde Nast, at Vogue. So I spent some time in editorial design and working with the advertorial team. It’s where I first got to assist and then art direct shoots, as well as learning about layout and production. It was such a buzz finally seeing those first pictures come through from a shoot.
LBB> And what was it that first drew you to the world of design and creativity before all of that?
Barbara> I just loved anything visual. I was obsessed with colour, type, drawing, everything. It was a case of ‘how many different things can I do?’ I did weekend courses, and as many design and art subjects as I could get my hands on at school.
I think the one defining moment was when an art teacher said, ‘if you don’t know if you want to be an artist or you have to think about it… you’re probably not an artist’. I love design and I love problem solving. I found that I’m probably better when someone gives me something to solve than if I’m sitting there by myself with a blank page.
LBB> What were some of the formative lessons you learned early on that shaped your career?
Barbara> I was fortunate to learn from some pretty incredible people throughout my career. Brilliant creatives like Tony and Kim at W+K London when I was over in London for a while. Christy Peacock and Darren Spiller at Mojo Melbourne were really influential. And of course over the years at the Monkeys – Micah Walker early on, and Justin Drape. Currently still learning daily from Scott Nowell and Tara Ford who have been wonderful mentors.
I owe any learnings to the opportunities I’ve been given by those great people, in terms of shaping how I approach everything from creativity, craft, culture and leadership.
LBB> What are your memories from your time at Wieden + Kennedy London?
Barbara> It was pretty awesome. It was about 2003-2004. It was a very collaborative, exciting place. One of the things they drilled into us was not to sit at the desk but to go out and do stuff. You’re not necessarily going to come up with something just sitting with a blank sheet of paper the whole time. You’ve got to get out, break it up, do things and be exposed to more things. And there’s lots to be exposed to in East London. It was a great time.
LBB> Back in Australia, you mentioned Tara Ford and the Monkeys. What do you think of the level of female leadership in the local industry and what’s your experience been like?
Barbara> Tara has been someone I’ve admired from afar throughout her career, and now I’m privileged to be able to learn from her up close on a daily basis. Having so many great examples gives you a sense that everybody can be individual in this business, which is super important. When it comes to creative work and culture, diversity is obviously important across all facets. The more different points of view that you’re getting under one roof, the better for the work. I think Australia is catching up to other countries on that front.
LBB> How has The Monkeys evolved since you’ve joined?
Barbara> It’s evolved with the people who are there and it’s evolved with the clients and different kinds of projects. But even though there has been change, across buildings, leadership and clients – there’s a constant spirit, character and culture.
It’s always been an exciting place to work.
And now, under David Droga, Nick Law and Neil Heyman, there’s an incredible network. This week we’ve been spending time meeting people across the network and it’s been great.
Damon Stapleton (of Monkeys Aotearoa) is here too, he’s phenomenal and someone I’ve always looked up to. It’s great to see all of these people that you look up to in the industry are now under the one name.
LBB> What have been the most creatively interesting or satisfying projects that you’ve been involved in?
Barbara> It’s great to be doing projects like the ones we’ve done for UN Women where you feel like it’s making more of a difference in the world and talking about issues that you’re passionate about.
I’m also really proud of the work we’ve done for NRMA and Berlei. I think over the years I’ve enjoyed all of it, especially the bigger things when you invest so much of your time into something and making it great. As much as possible, you want to walk away feeling that it was all worth it.
LBB> How would you describe the culture at the Monkeys - what makes it distinct from what else is out there in Australia?
Barbara> Obviously we’re now part of Accenture Song, which is unique in and of itself, but I think that where we are now is tied to the reason for existing in the first place. There was always an independent spirit and a desire to do something a little bit differently. I think that kind of filters through to how we build departments, how we approach culture, the type of people we bring in and the way they see the world. I think it has felt very open, very collaborative, we want people to enjoy coming to work. The partners started this company did so because they really were passionate about it and believed in it, and that’s still absolutely true of it today.
LBB> So you started out in print media which is fairly traditional but now you work across all kinds of platforms and channels. As the industry has evolved and projects have expanded how have you navigated these new skills and landscapes?
Barbara> Whichever shape it takes, there’s the same goal. Communicating the idea in a way that’s clear and seamless and connects with people on an emotional level. The way that I think about craft in any channel is still about choices. Things that you include, things that you don’t include, things that make it stronger, things that start to complicate it. I think that applies no matter what area or medium you’re working in, what’s key is having that kind of discipline and interrogation of it to make sure it’s as clear as can be.
LBB> And how do you approach the creative direction and feedback side of your work when you’re leading teams?
Barbara> I try to be supportive to people in what they do, guide them and help them through challenges – but a lot of the time just getting the hell out of the way and letting them surprise you. As an art director by training, I think it’s probably one of the things that I have to always remind myself - to give people space to do it their way.
LBB> What’s exciting you about the industry right now - and what’s frustrating you?
Barbara> What is exciting is the potential and capability within the industry, and within Accenture Song. There are incredibly bright and talented who are audacious in their thinking and they take risks. I do think there’s some really exciting work coming out of Australia too, and there always has been.
But I think there are challenges when times are tough, and we have to be aware of what businesss are going through and aware of the culture the work is coming out in. I think some of the brands that have done really well in this market are the ones that know that sometimes overcoming those challenges means taking a leap to have more impact and to reach more people. The biggest risk can sometimes be not taking one.
LBB> You recently judged at Cannes Lions - what pieces of work are you excited about showing your team?
Barbara> So many. Coinbase, our Grand Prix
, was such a perfect example of direct advertising at its best. So fresh in it’s simplicity, and the impact, the share of that audience from Superbowl interacting with it was insane. There was also a wonderful piece of work from Lebanon, the Elections Edition
. When the government postponed an election due to ‘lack of paper for ballot papers’ they cancelled their print edition, donated all the paper for ballot forms. The notices they placed instead to drive people to the online edition resulted in the biggest ever sales of any edition. It’s a great example of a brand or company taking action and creating change and conversation, while also dramatically impacting the business itself.