5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with… Catrióna Campbell

Advertising Agency
Dublin 2, Ireland
The Public House Managing Partner talks to Alex Reeves about reality of Derry Girls, seeking adventure in London and the vision to be ‘Ireland’s most interesting agency’
Catrióna Campbell has always had an opinion about advertising. Even as a child, she’d pull apart campaigns she’d see on the TV, wondering whether they really worked. That constant questioning led her from her home in County Down, Northern Ireland to London, where she kickstarted her career and found a lifelong friends at iris. 

In 2012 Catrióna moved to Dublin, in search of a less anonymous way of life. There she met Colin Hart, founder of The Public House – the two hit it off and she decided to join him in his mission to turn this ‘dirty start up’ into the most interesting creative shop in Ireland. And looking at recent work, they’re definitely not afraid to make a statement with their work, whether they’re subverting the cliché of ‘plastic Paddies’ or winding up English rugby fans. 

LBB> Where did you grow up and, when you reflect on it, what do you think your childhood was like? 
Catrióna > Home for me was a tiny village, called Burren, in County Down, Northern Ireland, where everybody knew everyone.

I grew up in the 1990s, and what you see on Derry Girls, with army checkpoints and bomb scares, was just something that happened. We didn’t know anything different, so you don’t question at the time how actually insane that is, with army patrol helicopters landing in the field next to your house.  I suppose when I reflect on that, I think, fair play to my parents for protecting us and still letting us be kids. I don’t look back and think, 'geez, I grew up in a kind-of war zone…'

LBB> What do you remember about your early thoughts on advertising? Were you interested from an early age?
Catrióna> I was always a bit of a critic - I would give off to people who were sitting on the fence about any issue, from whether they preferred Blur to Oasis to their favourite Andrew McCarthy film. I remember a public service ad about ‘Go Walking, that’s what to do’ from when I was nine or ten, and I remember questioning whether it was the right approach to getting people off their backsides. But, I don’t think I necessarily knew that having an opinion could be something I could turn into a career.

LBB> Were there any clues back then about what you would end up doing for a job? 
Catrióna> I’m not sure. I have an identical twin sister - we grew up wearing name badges in school so teachers and classmates could tell us apart. So maybe I’ve been subconsciously learning about differentiation and distinctiveness since Day 1.

LBB> When did you first consider going into advertising as a career?
Catrióna>  When making my university choices, I decided to study advertising and marketing, more so because it felt a bit more dynamic and interesting to me than reading law or English for three years. And it was definitely the right choice for me - I lean on that foundation of marketing more than I would have anticipated. The advertising modules excited me most, working on test briefs and researching campaigns. I read Campaign Magazine and other advertising journals whenever I could get my hands on them. I was really interested in advertising campaigns, but I still hadn’t a clue about how the industry worked.  So I suppose that decision at 17 about my university degree really helped shape my career.

LBB> And why did you land on account handling?
Catrióna> I don’t know if that was an active choice, I think I understood the outputs of the advertising industry, but was still naive about the inputs and how campaigns are actually made. But I knew that after having stayed in Northern Ireland for university, that I was really hungry for a bit of an adventure, and I believed that to work in advertising I had to go to London. I hope today people don’t necessarily feel that way, but I did have this sense back then that London was this magical place where ads got made. 

I got a place on a graduate account management course in a London agency, and I went with that. So I suppose ‘account handling’ wasn’t really something I sought out, it was just my way in. And the agencies I’ve worked with have never made me feel ‘less creative’ because I’m an account handler, I was taught that everybody in an agency is creative, we all just play different roles in making it actually happen.

LBB> How did you feel about that change in your life? What was life like working at iris in London and what did you learn from that experience?
Catrióna> I don’t think you can prepare for the scale, the stature, the pace of London. It was exhilarating, but to be honest I did find the anonymity quite lonely at first. I got used to not saying hello to people I walked past in the street, and I got used to not knowing my neighbours. I was in London for about 18 months when I joined iris, and that’s definitely where I found my ‘tribe’ - a set of life-long friends who made me feel London was my home. So iris will always be something I always look back on positively because of that.

Working at an agency that is going through phenomenal growth is exciting.  But what I value most from my time there is that they taught me a lot about principles, and about compromise. If the work is good, but the experience of making it is shit, then that’s not good. If the work is good, but you aren’t being fairly paid, then that’s not good either.  It wasn’t always brilliant, it was really, really hard work, but we had that underdog mentality of trying to prove ourselves against the networks, and that ideology stuck with me.

LBB> Then you decided to move to Dublin. Why?
Catrióna> I wanted to move back to Ireland with my husband (also from Northern Ireland), and Dublin had a bit more of an advertising industry than Belfast, so I took a punt. The city and country had been fairly battered by the recession, and I felt like I was part of the clean up operation despite not being at the Celtic Tiger party. But, after nearly nine years in London, I was ready for something a bit different. Dublin isn’t a world city, it’s more like a large village. You can be at the beach, in the mountains, in the countryside, all within thirty minutes.  People don’t look at me oddly when I say good morning. And I felt I could get a bit more of a life back. I definitely don’t do the hours I did in London - but maybe that’s a lifestage thing.

I also saw an opportunity to be part of a city punching above its weight creatively - Dublin is a city of storytellers, artists, and makers, and that creativity is exciting, and potent.  And I felt that potentially the lessons and the training I had in London would be of some use. We’re all a product of our experience, and I think my experience in London gives me a different perspective, to look at challenges through a different lens.
LBB> What was it about The Public House that you found so enticing?
Catrióna> When I met Colin [Hart, agency founder) it was a genuine meeting of minds. We’re both nordies [from Northern Ireland] so we’re pretty straight-talking. We had both worked outside Ireland and had a bit of healthy/unhealthy disrespect, earned or not, for the traditional Dublin industry players. After a few meetings, I decided to give it a shot, and I joined him as a partner to give it a go. It was definitely a bit of a gamble for both of us — we’d never worked together, we didn’t really know each other, but we had a ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ outlook, and a shared vision for an agency that was creatively led, and didn’t settle for average, or pedestrian, work.

LBB> What was the agency like when you joined and how would you compare it to what it is now? Is it the same boutique shop it was then?
Catrióna> To call us a boutique shop back then is a huge compliment. Dirty start-up is more like it - with an office down a back alley with the reassuring message of ‘Do not be afraid’ graffiti at the alleyway entrance. Six of us - myself, Colin and Jarrod, a Canadian, who was Colin’s fellow Creative Director, and three juniors who had never worked in an agency before. Being reductive, collaborative problem solving, and a desire to stop things from getting too complicated, soon became our agency way of working.

We had a vision, which is still the same today, to be Ireland’s most interesting agency. When I joined, Colin already had some fantastic clients on the books - some of whom we still work with, and who are trusting us more and more with bold and brave ideas. Back then the goal was to keep the lights on and we definitely lived month to month, but that gave us real freedom to work with client partners we liked and respected, and to take risks. We’re still a streamlined outfit - we’re a self-financed independent agency, so we’ve always had to be entrepreneurial and commercially-minded, but I think our clients like that we know the value of money.

LBB> What lesson or piece of advice do you wish you'd had earlier in your career?
Catrióna> Give more time and energy to the people trying to raise you up, not knock you down. 

LBB> Which recent projects are you most proud of? Why?
Catrióna> There’s a few projects where we’ve embarked on a journey with a client and helped them unlock the power of what creativity can do to their business.

A recent project with EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum, is a case in point. They have a world-class product — one of the most highly-rated museums in Europe on TripAdvisor. But, they hadn’t quite landed on how to position it. We got this real sense that what they actually do is help people understand what it means to be Irish - and used this for the basis of a St. Patrick’s Day campaign. 

Paddy’s Day is dominated by green hats, fake ginger beards - it’s this stereotypical image of Ireland, rather than really celebrating something a little deeper.  That this tat - the green beards, the leprechaun hats - end up in the bin the next day just cements its worthlessness, the opposite of a ‘green’ celebration.  So our campaign ‘St. Plastic’s Day’ encouraged people to exchange their tat for a ticket to EPIC - exchanging superficial stereotypes for substance, or, as someone described it, exchanging pseudo-culture for actual culture.
There are a few others. A recent campaign for Paddy Power playfully provoked my old Londoner mates with a Brexit-themed hijacking of the rugby conversation around the Ireland Vs England 6 Nations game. It backfired in terms of the sporting result, but it became a genuine talking point around the match. 

The agency also got involved in Ireland’s Repeal referendum, and the work - a beautifully striking projection on a Dublin building - was a brilliant example of the power of an anti-formula approach, of the power of quiet when everyone else is loud.

More recently, we worked with Jameson to create an off-the-grid St. Patrick’s Day Expedition to 17° 80°, as a nod to 1780, the year Jameson was established. It was very cold, and there were polar bears, so I was happy not to be 'on set'.

LBB> Which aspects of your job are most enjoyable for you?
Catrióna>  I genuinely love doing the work. The right people in a room, debating and discussing a particular challenge… that moment when you unlock something. I still get a buzz when work goes live and, more importantly, when it works.

LBB> What are your main aims and ambitions for The Public House in the coming months and years?
Catrióna> To do work that is significant - continuing the fight against boring work, and striving to find more clients and people who aren’t afraid to stick their heads above the parapet. And to stick to our principles about building a place where people want to come to work, without handing over their soul.

LBB> What do you like to do in your spare time? Any current obsessions?
Catrióna> Ah, spare time. Running a business, as well as being a mum to two kids under three, means spare time is definitely something I reminisce about. I do a lot of running after an overly confident three year old on the crest of a hill with a scooter. We’re also undergoing our second home renovation in a year, so my current obsession is probably encaustic cement tiles, and finding in real life things I’ve found in Pinterest - or not finding them, and starting the search all over again.