J. Walter Thompson’s Global CCO on being an agency renovator, giving creatives their swagger back and the importance of passion
Usually, when someone moves into a big leadership role at a new agency, you hear a lot about dead-heading, sweeping out the old guard and general creative destruction. But that’s not Matt Eastwood’s style. Instead, he takes a more nurturing approach, viewing himself as a renovator – which seems appropriate given Matt’s passion for bringing old houses back to life. And over the past two years he’s been working his magic with J. Walter Thompson. It looks to be working as 2016 saw the network pull in a record haul at Cannes Lions. These days, he spends his time zipping between J. Walter Thompson’s offices, celebrating the unexpected heroes in the network and spreading the belief that anyone can make great work.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Matt to talk about his ongoing journey with J. Walter Thompson, why we need to evangelise to young talent and why passion is so crucial.
LBB> You studied design at university – was advertising always on your radar as something you wanted to get into?
ME> Advertising was always on my radar but when I went to university there wasn’t a creative course specifically in advertising. This was in Western Australia and the only way to do it was to do design with a major in advertising. I did plan to be an art director when I graduated from university and there was really nothing out there. So, I eventually saw a job advertised for a senior copywriter and I thought ‘oh I’ll see what happens’ and I ended up sending in my portfolio and having an interview and I got the job! So my first job was as a copywriter and I remained a copywriter for the rest of my career. So that was a bit of a surprise.
LBB> Do you ever wonder, ‘what if I’d gone down that more visual route’?
ME> The thing is, particularly when you end up as a creative director, having expertise in art direction, design and copywriting is so useful. I still get to use that. And design is still something I’m incredibly passionate about and it’s very much part of my life. I don’t miss only doing that because I made it work for my career.
LBB> I remember you once saying that you had a tough time earlier in your career, when you were let go shortly before the agency that you were with closed, but it proved to be something of a springboard. How did this experience shape your approach to your career?
ME> It’s very hard when you’re in the middle of a crisis or a knock back to think ‘how am I going to get myself through this’. Luckily, I had some awards to make me feel confident and I knew that I had talent. When something bad happens to you early on, it proves that you can bounce back and even the bad stuff ends up being valuable in your career.
I had one job in my life that I just hated – I’m not going to say where it was as I’ll get in trouble. I didn’t like the people, I didn’t like the company but I didn’t want to walk away so quickly because I thought it would be bad for my reputation. I told myself I had to suck it up for two years then I could leave. And I did. But as bad as it was for two years, I look back and I learned so many valuable things about how not to treat people, how to be a manager. At the time, I was miserable but it made me a better person, a better manager of creative people.
LBB> Looking back, what advice do you wish you’d had when you started out?
ME> The only thing is not to be closed to a change in direction. Things will surprise you and don’t be afraid to follow a slightly different path than what you had in your head. Getting fired at that point let me move to Sydney and start my career there, and move to London and New York.
LBB> Do you think advertising is still an attractive career to young people, compared to when you started?
ME> I have a personal view on this. I think it’s the best time ever to be in the advertising industry. Our canvas is so much broader than it was five years ago, even, let alone 20 years ago. A young creative would get to write a couple of TV spots and print ads and that’s it. A lot of what we’re doing as a network is we’re inventing new products, writing TV shows, doing so many things that you wouldn’t have done before.
I think it’s a very attractive career, but I think it’s important that we evangelise that around young talent. One of the things I spend a lot of time doing is talking to the future talent of our industry, beyond just the advertising schools, looking at places outside of that. I go to MIT Media Lab and places like that. There are a bunch of people out there who love ideas but who maybe don’t realise that these ideas can live within a contemporary advertising agency.
LBB> You’ve been at the helm of J. Walter Thompson for over two and a half years now – what was it about the network that drew you over? And what has that time been like?
ME> It’s funny because I think in my whole career I’ve been what I call a ‘renovator’. I like to find a house with good bones and go in and see if I can make it beautiful and make everyone turn around and say ‘wow, look what you did with that!’. I did that in Australia, I did that in London and New York. When I was at DDB New York, the office was the third most awarded office in the US behind R/GA and Wieden+Kennedy.
At that point, I started to think about whether I could do that on a massive scale. I had done it two or three times at an office level and I wondered how you would do that at a bigger scale, with a company with more offices. I was thinking of taking a North American role, managing half a dozen offices or something… and then J. Walter Thompson got in touch with me. I started to think, ok, this could be an amazing opportunity. What I loved about JWT is that they are the oldest advertising agency in the world. But they hadn’t really focused on doing great creative for six or seven years since they didn’t have a global creative director. I thought, ‘The bones are really good here and I think I could bring some passion to the network around creativity’.
It’s been an amazing journey. I look at the success we had at Cannes last year - we had our best year ever in a hundred years. I think the surprising thing to a lot of people is that I didn’t walk in and replace every creative person around the world by any means. That work was done by the people who were already here – they just needed some vision and direction and encouragement. It’s been great to give everyone their swagger.
LBB> That’s interesting – usually when you speak to people who have taken on big new roles, the first thing they tell you is they’re getting rid of people and replacing them with ‘their’ team…
ME> I have found that sometimes there are good people who need to be set free and encouraged and supported. I found the same true when I got to DDB in New York. The agency, shockingly, hadn’t won a Lion for 17 years. How could that be true?
It was about saying, ‘there’s no rule about who gets to win and who doesn’t. Anyone can win. We can be a winning agency.’ When people get a taste for it, they want more of it. That’s what’s happened at JWT. We’ve got momentum now. People feel they can create great work and they keep pushing that. It’s only two-and-a-half years, so it’s relatively early in the journey. I think the early success has been great for people.
LBB> JWT Amsterdam is such a great example of that, obviously with The Last Rembrandt. Amsterdam is one of those markets that’s traditionally been divided between the cool shops doing international work and, I guess, the big network offices that cater to the local market and… and suddenly JWT is saying ‘we’re here and we’re doing really cool stuff’.
ME> That’s a great example. I didn’t put anyone new into the leadership of that office. All I really did was support them and help them get great work out and make them believe that they could. And now I just have to stand back and watch them! It’s amazing what they are doing and the passion has just gone up 200%.
LBB> You’ve also been working with Tamara Ingram for the past year, leading the network globally. How do the two of you work together?
ME> She’s fantastic. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard her nickname, Hurricane Tamara? She’s the whirlwind of energy, which is great. Our challenge is finding time to be together because we’ve got those global roles and travel so much that we need to formally schedule time together in our diaries so that we meet. She’s brought passion around diversity and inclusion, which is a really important part of what will make us stronger as an agency. And she’s someone who just loves the work, that’s what she’s all about, so we have great fun together.
LBB> That’s something I wanted to touch on. Before Tamara joined, J. Walter Thompson had some issues last year. But I’ve been impressed to see JWT really tackle issues around diversity and particularly gender head on in the creative work since then. I know WomanKind kicked off before then but it’s something that feels part of a sea change, and more recently there’s been that amazing Law School for former underage sex workers in India, that J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam launched with ‘Free a Girl’. Do you feel like there’s a substantive change in culture bedding in? How do you implement that across the network?
ME> It’s hard to talk about what happened last year, but even at that time we were moving quite heavily down that path. We had already done the Female Tribes study, and had brought that to life. We brought that to life but Tam has really brought some urgency to it, which is fantastic.
And at the same time, I’ve tried to put out a mandate to the network that this is not just about hiring women and people of diverse backgrounds, this is about the messaging we put out into the market. In the way we influence culture, we can talk about how women are portrayed in marketing and advertising; we can talk about how men are portrayed. I really put pressure on people to think about the responsibility they have as communicators and makers of communication.
It has become more than just how we can diversify as a company – and that makes sense – but it’s more about what messaging we put out into the world as well.
LBB> At LBB we’re kind of nerds about smaller or emerging markets coming into their own creatively. Which JWT offices around the network should we be keeping an eye on?
ME> There are the obvious ones; Amsterdam and Sao Paolo remains one of our best offices. And New York won more Lions last year than they had since 1972! I know New York is our head office but I think they hadn’t been delivering at the top level for a while, whereas now they really are.
But some of our offices were just such an amazing surprise. Costa Rica, for example. Costa Rica won five Lions last year. It’s a tiny office, there are about 22 people. I spent time there and met with a bunch of their clients. I knew there were good people and I just wanted to see if they could support the mission around award-winning work. And they absolutely got behind it. The piece they won so many awards for was called ‘The Second Scoreboard’ and it was about trying to stop domestic violence.
I really like the story of Costa Rica. When I travel around the world to our smaller offices that never really think that they can be the superstars and say, ‘look, anyone can do it’. And I know it because I grew up in Perth in Western Australia. You don’t have to be in London or New York to do amazing work.
The other one that’s done really well is Bangkok. They walked away with six Lions last year. And that’s a really important office in Asia Pacific, but it’s not one of the biggest ones. It’s not Singapore or Shanghai.
So, I’m spending time not just with our big offices, but with our big contributors.
LBB> That’s really cool – it’s great finding markets that are doing something different and unexpected. Last year I got really obsessed with Central and Eastern Europe, places like Poland and Romania…
ME> For us Romania was a really interesting one because they picked up a Gold for ‘The Purity Test’ for their client Aqua Carpatica. That was an office that needed some global support because when they submitted the case study it was terrible! It was so bad, but there was a piece of gold hidden in there and we just need to help you tell the story better. I spent a long time working with them, revising the case study to tell the story. That’s the thing, these little nuggets that are there just get ignored because the office isn’t the biggest. They’re not necessarily going to win 19 Lions like Amsterdam but they’re going to contribute. That’s been a real joy.
LBB> So, talking about the industry more generally, what’s exciting you about advertising right now? And what’s frustrating you?
ME> I definitely came off the back of CES this year quite excited by voice and artificial intelligence, two areas that are definitely growing. We’re working in different ways with various clients around the world about how we can use voice and AI. I find it fascinating and fun because it’s new and it’s not something that I know an enormous amount about, even though I’ve had an Amazon Alexa in my kitchen for the last two years!
At the same time, I’m doing so many things that I’ve never had the chance to do before. There’s one client where I’m co-writing, with a screenwriter, a scripted TV series. It’s a romantic drama-comedy with the writer of That ‘70s Show. I can’t believe I’m doing this! I don’t know how to write a TV show! But I’m pulling the right people around me. It’s exciting.
And I guess what’s frustrating me a little bit is… and it’s changing back a little bit… is that clients were splitting their relationships between five, six, seven agencies. They would have a digital agency, an experiential agency… and I think they’re starting to realise that that’s unmanageable for them. They actually just want somebody who can be responsible for the whole brand. I think they’re starting to come back but I want it to happen quicker because that’s what agencies do. But it’s a frustration but it’s also an exciting thing.
LBB> As an Australian in New York I’m curious to pick your brains about the situation in the US with regards to immigrants. With everything that’s going on, will New York still be the aspirational location for global advertising talent? (Also, not picking on NY here – London certainly has its own similar issues with Brexit!)
ME> Somebody made a comment to me, when I first moved to New York in 2000, which was, ‘you’ll love New York, it’s so close to America’. And I think what I’ve come to realise is that it is somewhat isolated from that middle America attitude. So, I think it will survive and be attractive as a call to creative talent around the world. But there’s no doubt, I’ve got friends working in the creative industry around the world who have said that United States is off their list now. I think it is going to have an effect, but I think that New York will be slightly less affected than the rest of America.
LBB> One thing that really resonated with me was a talk I saw you give some young creatives about the importance of passion. You love people with a passion for something because it means they will be passionate about their job. It seemed to be something that was a real guiding principle for you. Is that something you’ve always thought or was there a ‘penny dropping’ moment for you?
ME> I do think it’s something I’ve always believed in and which influenced my decisions at an early age. One of my pivotal moments was when I moved to Sydney; I was incredibly intimidated because I was this 23-year-old kid who had come from Perth – and Perth was definitely not ‘the main game’ – and I was really nervous. I thought I would get eaten alive by all these cool creatives. But I knew I was passionate and when I got there I realised that my talent was as good as their talent. That was the penny dropping moment. Talent is not dictated by geography.
But I’ve always believed that passion will bring you success, even if you’re not the most talented person. If you’re the most passionate, that makes a difference.
LBB> And what would you say are the things you’re most passionate about personally?
I’m obviously passionate about the industry I work in. I love it and that’s why I’m still doing it. But outside of work my big passion is architecture and interior design. I’ve designed three or four houses, three of which have been featured in interior design magazines. It’s something that I love, and I guess I must be good at it because people are acknowledging it. I even used to write a blog about interior design when I had a little bit more time. To me, that is an example of the idea that someone with ‘a’ passion is more passionate about everything.
LBB> And sometimes having something that is just for you can be freeing…
ME> It’s funny as well because I always say to people in the agency that you need to have a passion project because when you’re working on a big global project it can be tough and take a long time. You should always have something on the side so that at the end of a really long week you can go back to this other thing and it fills you with fun and passion. That’s why we’re working on things like the Free A Girl School for Justice in Amsterdam or Black Lives Matter here in New York. People want these other things to keep their passion alive.