Over 20 years, Damian Hanley has established himself as a prominent figure in Dublin’s creative advertising community, having worked at Havas Dublin (formerly Youngs), BBDO (formerly Irish International) and putting in a solid nine years at Rothco. For three years he’s been creative director of In the Company of Huskies, during which time the agency has built on its digital foundations to become a more creative agency - a transformation of which he’s very proud.
As we found out in his Essential List earlier this year, he’s never quite recovered from watching the whole of Lost, but he’s working through it by eating copious quantities of peanut butter and creating award-winning and effective work for Huskies’ clients, including Nissan, Londis and Fáilte Ireland.
Last week he returned to Kinsale Sharks to serve on the jury. LBB’s Laura Swinton sat down with him for a friendly chat.
LBB> Your work with Nissan just won your agency the grand prix at the ADFX awards. How do you feel about that? And how did that campaign come about?
Damian> We’re absolutely thrilled about that because we feel that our approach to it was unique. A lot of people talk about it but not so many actually do it. I think we’re managing to do it. We won two golds, two silvers and a grand prix. And we are very happy for both our client SVP and Nissan.
There’s a real pressure on the global business to do one ad and run it everywhere. Nissan Ireland decided that they loved this approach to the Micra.
They decided to make an Irish specific piece of creative.
Then the results came out and we doubled the share of the Micra compared to any other European country. I was just so happy. It was such a reward for the vision and courage of Nissan.
LBB> It proves that the agency has come a long way from its digital foundations to become more about building fame and creative. And at the same time all the traditional agencies are trying to prove they’re digital. How do you feel about the way agencies are trying to position themselves?
Damian> Every agency is trying to be the hero that the world wants. So a traditional agency says ‘we need to be digital now’ and a digital agency goes ‘we need to be traditional now’. All those arguments that have happened in the industry, we’ve had those inside of the agency - it’s harder than it looks. But we worked them out and now we have something very powerful.
We believe we have moved beyond that now. And are move on to the next stage of how brands should behave. Creative is more important than ever. And the future is wide open. You can do anything!
What we’re trying to do is genuinely be an agency that produces great creativity, but also make sure that it’s not like a tree falling in a forest and no one sees it. You have to do things people actually want to see and talk about.
LBB> You were recently on the Kinsale jury for press, outdoor and ambient. What sort of discussions went on there?
Damian> There was one interesting moment during the judging where there was a piece of work in the print and outdoor and it was actually an installation. We gave it a high award. Then it occurred to us, ‘hang on. This isn’t a piece of print or outdoor!’ I’m actually pretty sick of outdoor being diluted as a category. Outdoor to me is the one of purest creative categories because it has to be absolutely perfect and I don’t think you can start to call an installation a piece of outdoor. I think it’s disrespecting the integrity of what is a beautiful medium. It did win elsewhere but it wasn’t a piece of outdoor. It went from being a gold to being taken out altogether so I think that was a good victory for the purity of outdoor.
LBB> You were at Rothco for nine years. What was it about what Huskies were doing that convinced you to join them?
Damian> I never did the ‘reasons to stay, reasons to go’ list. I was very impressed by Huskies philosophy and passion for creativity. I could see the vision of where Huskies was going and I wanted to help make it happen. Change can be stressful, but I’ve always liked a challenge. And it’s so satisfying now to see the agency getting rewarded for all the hard work and putting our vision to work.
I’m very committed to culture. I think you have to inspire people and make them want to be better. And have good fun doing it.
LBB> That ties into the debate about work-life balance in the industry of course. How do you feel about the long hours that people in the industry often feel they have to work?
Damian> I think it’s fine for people to stay late if you actually want to stay late. The Nissan Micra film was written in the back of a taxi on the M50, about half an hour after being inspired by the car. It was outside work hours. But I really enjoy doing it.
It’s about the difference between pressure and passion. There’s a difference. If someone’s is working late because of passion to make it better that’s great, but if they’re there because of pressure that’s very different. I don’t like people being in that situation. I don’t mind people there working all night if it’s something they’re passionate about. But otherwise I try encourage everyone out the door and home.
LBB> How did you get into advertising to begin with? Most people don’t know it’s a job growing up. Did you discover it by accident or was it more deliberate?
Damian> I think advertising is the one career where, especially as a creative, specialisation is not a good thing in terms of your area of interest. Every creative you do draws on every single person you’ve ever met, every book you’ve ever read, every place you’ve ever been. It’s affected by everything you’ve ever done in your life and every interest you’ve ever had. It’s about combining different worlds together.
I went to six different colleges. I did fine art, industrial design, business studies, graphic design. And then suddenly I walked into advertising. Advertising’s the one career where you have to have an idea about business, you have to make stuff, which drew on industrial design, you have to design things which might be a bit of architecture, graphic design, fine art. It basically took little bits of all these things I was interested in. Advertising saved me!
LBB> You strike me as the sort of person who’s insatiably curious. You went through all these different things. What grabs your attention now?
Damian> I love the fortitude of the human spirit. I think if I ever leave advertising I’d love to do talks to schools about how to keep going for your entire life and maintain confidence in yourself.
There are so many people in this industry who are amazing. They have so much talent and the biggest mistake they can make is to wake up one day and think they don’t have that anymore. I’ve seen that too many times. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.
The thing that’s brilliant about Huskies is I feel like I’m in an environment where I can have all of these ideas and I’m surrounded by these amazingly competent people who are like agents and music managers who go ‘that’s a great idea. I’m going to go off and make that happen. I’m going to make sure people see that. Or here is how you can do it better. It’s a great team of diverse minds and skills.
LBB> The industry in Ireland seems to be going from strength to strength. From the inside, does it feel optimistic?
Damian> Here’s the thing about Ireland. We’re in the situation where we’re constantly looking at work from around the globe and constantly inspired by it. Clients spend most of their week managing their brand and then we expect them to come into a meeting and show them this amazing vision and for them to go, ‘oh yeah, that’s the idea.’ We need to allow them to be as inspired by the what is happening globally on the creative stage and bring them somewhere. And allow them to see the creative bar for themselves and actually begin to demand it from their agencies more.
But I think if you are asking your clients to be brave - you haven’t set up the strategy and creative right. But if you do, then brave just becomes smart.