2012 was a good year for Ben Coulson. According to the most recent Cannes results, he’s number four in the creative director world rankings. He’s just been promoted from ECD at GPY&R Melbourne to CCO for the whole Y&R network in Australia and New Zealand. And he’s not bad to look at either. But things could have been oh-so-different for Coulson who had originally aspired to a career in journalism. A chance transport disaster and an encounter with an afternoon kids’ TV show serendipitously nudged him away from a life as a roving reporter as adland came calling. LBB's Laura Swinton caught up with Ben to find out more.
LBB> What is it about GPY&R – and Y&R more globally – that is making it so successful at the moment?
BC> At George Paterson Y&R we have a really rich creative heritage. Pretty much every year we have something that wins gold at Cannes and we have a really strong creative culture. I think it’s a bit of a local thing.
There’s a lovely meeting of minds here between me and Tony Granger [Global CCO of Y&R]. Tony and I are similarly obsessed with work. One of the best things about working with Tony is that he comes into the office, grabs a cup of tea and goes straight into the creative office, looking at what’s on the wall. It’s refreshingly hierarchy-free. He’s just one of those people who lets people get on and do stuff.
LBB> And what will your new role entail?
BC> I want to make sure that everyone’s doing their best work. I’ve actually been doing this role for the past year; it’s just that we’ve got to put a badge and a gun on my belt. In the last twelve months I’ve been helping out our Sydney office and the great new line up at our New Zealand offices. Officially the game is on for the Y&R network in Australia and New Zealand to make itself known. Gaining momentum is difficult, but maintaining it is much, much harder – that’s the challenge for next year.
LBB> Talking about the new creative line up in New Zealand – when you’re putting together a new team or bringing on new talent, what are the qualities you look for?
BC> Hardworking, unpretentious people with a good sense of humour who aren’t scared to roll their sleeves up and get stuck in. People who have their best years right in front of them, people who want to make it and want to do it at Y&R.
I also think it’s an interesting time. People aren’t just looking for copywriters and art directors anymore. The agency here is populated by all sorts of people, and now there are people coming in with skills that didn’t even exist a couple of years ago.
Now we’re attracting people who may not have originally thought about going into advertising; but they’ve heard we’ve got a bit of a vibe and we’re a bit entrepreneurial and got our eye on technology. You’re not looking at a folio – you’re looking at someone who’s started their own company. And we’ve got to then convince that person to take a chance and to come and work for a multinational advertising agency. There’s an interesting collaboration which comes from working with people who have done all of that and are still in their twenties.
LBB> But how do you go about recruiting these people?
BC> There’s a conversation going on about the ‘modern world of advertising’ and almost everyone is talking about the possibilities, the new ways of working, the new people. What’s interesting is how few companies are actually doing it. They might be able to talk about it, but very few can actually do it. It’s an interesting time. You go to Cannes and you meet a whole bunch of Muppets who can talk in circles for hours about this and then you go and look at their work and you go ‘woah what? You did some Facebook campaign that looks kinda crap’. It’s easy to talk about but pretty hard to do.
When you look at the job ads you see the same old thing. ‘Senior-to-midweight art director with four years experience with AutoCAD…’ Is this the sixties? What’s going on there? Basically you’re looking for the person you’ve already got. Wow, you’re really going to get to an exciting, new place by hiring a replica of someone you’ve already got. It’s client driven often, and to an extent it’s management driven. There’s comfort and security in a known quantity. HR directors set up a brief and put things in boxes.
For example you might have a candidate whose agency experience was great until two years ago when they went off to start their own business. A lot of people are wary of that and would argue that they’re a bit of an unknown right now – I think they’re fantastic. They’re braver than we are. Even if they failed, they’ve learnt a bunch of stuff. They’ve got interesting stories to tell. They had to go Ikea and put their office furniture together and deal with the stresses of paying for their lighting and all the things you need to run a business. Usually I think it makes people much more mature in their approach to advertising. One of the dangers of staying inside the agency culture is that you think that all clients are arseholes and that work is only interesting if it only wins creative trophies. That can be a really bad road to go down, but it’s pretty common for people to spend all their time sitting in advertising agencies, focusing on creative rankings.
LBB> Are things starting to change?
BC> Five years ago there was something fairly gloomy going on in advertising. Some of the best creative practitioners had left to go and do other, more interesting things. The advertising agency model was so ‘Mad Men’, and nothing had changed. It was so riddled with marketing, so polluted with strategy and research that the really inspiring, interesting people all went, ‘let’s go and do something else’. It’s really refreshing to see that there’s a real enthusiasm for working at advertising agencies right now. If you pick the right one you can come up with your own ideas, create products and sell them, and do whatever you to. About ten years ago Kessels Kramer were the only people in the whole wide world who were doing that. Everyone thought it was wonderful but no one knew how to do it.
LBB> In terms of your own career – how did you get into advertising?
BC> Two important things happened. The first is that I missed the tram for the journalism entrance exam. I had wanted to be a foreign correspondent because I love politics. By the time I arrived at the exam, I had 45 minutes to finish it. Unsurprisingly I didn’t get the spot. At about that time I also happened to see a kids’ TV show about jobs that featured a woman who worked in advertising. They were on a shoot and they were making a car commercial about a car jumping over a pit and turning into a white horse. I thought ‘what the hell? You get paid for doing that?’ I still hold to the belief that even a crap day in advertising is better than having to do what grownups do for a living.
LBB> It’s interesting that you wanted to be a foreign correspondent – do you think that curiosity about the world has filtered into your advertising work?
BC> I was desperate to make a difference in journalism. At the time, advertising was something you had to endure but journalism was something that was special. I loved the idea of it because people would pay money to read what I had written. Advertising, on the other hand, was this thing that happened in the breaks in between the journalism.
It’s funny because I’ve worked in advertising for 18 years and it’s not like that at all now. People are quite happy to seek out the work that we do, to participate in it, to spend time with it. If you look at what’s happening with mainstream media, Rupert Murdoch and News Corp, journalism isn’t so popular now. It’s got the image that advertising used to have – its sloppy crap that you know isn’t true and has been written by someone trying to draw you into something you don’t really believe in. Maybe I backed the right horse.
It does make me laugh that the ex-News of The World editor, who is in so much trouble right now, is called Andy Coulson. When I Google myself, it comes up with pictures of him and I think ‘I wonder if that could have been me?’ Right now I’m quite happy being Ben Coulson, not Andy Coulson.
LBB> You started your career at MoJo – what was that experience like?
BC> It was great. The agency was headed up by Alan Morris and Allan Johnson – Mo and Jo. This was the heady days of Australian advertising. They were famous jingle writers who came up with such fantastic things. They had their guitars in their offices and a music studio in the building, as well as a gymnasium, and it was wonderful. People were clawing themselves to pieces to get in the door and hear what they had to say. And just when I got there it ended.
I started in the early nineties when I think someone invented ‘marketing’ and intuition seemed to be the last thing that anyone wanted. People who just had a great that they could sing on a guitar were gone, and then marketing took over. Intuition was out and research was in.
I was there for maybe a year thinking ‘holy crap this is amazing’. That was an amazing first experience of working in advertising. It was a wholly Australian-owned, confident, independent agency. You could talk to the founders and the bosses and they would tell you about advertising and how they thought it worked. It was a terrific way to learn. I spent quite a bit of time working there in their New Zealand and Australian offices. It was a great place to start. I can’t play guitar so I don’t know how I was hired there. Maybe I was good on the tambourine…
LBB> Moving outside of advertising, when you’re not working what sort of thing do you enjoy doing?
BC> Hopefully this doesn’t sound too creepy but I love just sitting on the corner of a street watching people go past. It’s still my favourite thing in the world. Going to the shop, watching people, seeing what they do and trying to figure out why they do it... For about five years into my career I still worked in a bar. When you’re a bar tender everyone tells you their story. If I could do bar work a couple of nights a week I would. As far as I’m concerned, it’s been great for my career. It’s the ultimate research tool; go and hang out in the real world and talk to people. It’s fascinating to see the amount of money modern marketers spend putting people in strange rooms and giving them forms to fill in when you could find all that out by talking to people. Talk to someone on the bus and you’ll find out more.
I think the reason I’m so enthusiastic about watching people in the real world is that advertising is so full of measurement right now. There’s a fascination with how to get a target audience to interact with something in a certain way and it is so unhuman. The need to be human and interesting is more desperate than it’s ever been because people don’t have to hang out with us anymore if they don’t want to. It’s a bit of funny one. I’d love to own a research company because I’d be so wealthy. I’d hate the work though.
I’ve been in more research groups than anyone would ever want to over the last twenty years and I’ve never witnessed one of those ‘penny drop’ moments when someone comes out with a piece of amazing wisdom that forms the foundation of a brilliant campaign. However I regularly hear them from people at lunch or after tennis on a Tuesday or in hospital elevator. I constantly rely on the kind of things you pick up from people just by hanging out in the real world. I refer to it when we present our work and explain why we’re doing what we’re doing,
LBB> Is the problem too much research, or just poor research?
BC> More often than not, research is about having a document under your arm to give you a sense of security. I often think that maybe you should just go to a photocopying company and pick one up there. No one cares about what’s in it. You just need to choose how heavy you want it to be. These reports are very rarely read in the way they’re meant to be read.
The most obvious statistic that no research company has ever bothered to look at is that every modern advertising campaign goes through research – almost all of ours do, certainly the traditional mainstream work does. Work only gets made once research tells you that it’s going to be successful, and yet 95 per cent of the work that’s in the world is unsuccessful. So what is research telling everybody? Why are we so obsessed with trusting research results? Why will we only do advertising once research tells us it’s ok to do so? Research is so overwhelmingly inaccurate in terms of the actual success of the campaign. I’m more interested in why the research industry isn’t subject to much scrutiny when, if they tell you something is going to work, it pretty much always doesn’t.
LBB> So if not research, what’s the key to successful advertising?
BC> Good creative people generally try to work out how to like the person they’re creating the advertising for. You advertise for someone, not to them. If you start out by saying ‘we want to talk to these people’ then that’s already pretty old fashioned. What about talking with them? Maybe we should listen to them? If you can find a way to like the people you’re creating advertising for, hopefully they’ll like you back. It’s a very personal thing, creating advertising, even though it is corporate, commercial creativity.
LBB> Perhaps Australia is a good case in point when it comes to dissecting the public’s relationship with adverting, given the success of The Gruen Transfer (ABC panel show).
BC> Funnily enough, Russell Howcroft, the COO here is one of the panellists. They’re in their fifth year. It’s been fascinating because it’s been so popular with people. Every year at Christmas it’s one of the biggest selling DVD box sets. It's one of the first shows to normalise this dark art of advertising. It has real people who laugh and joke about it every week – it’s the opposite of shows like Mad Men. I think talking about it in an honest and open way is much more relevant to people.
LBB> Do you think that the show has had an impact on the industry itself?
BC> It’s true. A lot of people were sceptical of that show when it first came on – a lot of industry leaders and clients said it was a bad idea. But that show has had a big impact on how we all think about what people think about the advertising industry. It’s a better place to be honest.
I still think the ultimate prize in advertising for me is when your family talk about it over Christmas dinner. I love that moment when you mention a piece of work and suddenly your brother-in-law, the brain surgeon, who’s been talking about curing cancer in Africa shifts the conversation to this really funny piece of work you’ve done. There’s a kind of satisfaction in that. While you’ll never win a Nobel Peace prize with your work in advertising, isn’t it nice when the whole family thinks a piece of your work is unreal?