Perth is by no means the centre of Australian advertising, but it has a lot to brag about. Richard Berney, Executive Creative Director of 303 MullenLowe there, was born in Zimbabwe, but grew up in Perth and is proud of its unique offering. In many ways he represents everything the city is about. He’s balanced, compassionate and creative and has many strings to his bow, including a stage show with his wife about the menstrual cycle.
The agency’s work is evidence for how fertile a creative landscape the Western Australian capital can be, from their low-key comedy road safety webseries, ‘Time with Mum’ to ‘Passes with a Purpose’ - a neat project that’s no doubt saved lives at public pools around Australia.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Richard to find out what drives him and how he approaches creativity.
LBB> How did you end up in advertising? Were you interested from a young age or did you stumble into it?
RB> It wasn’t even on my radar, really. I was really interested in film and telling stories. I’ve always loved to draw. My mum’s an artist and I was encouraged to express myself. It never occurred to me that advertising would be right for me.
I went off to film school and I realised quite quickly that I didn’t have any stories to tell yet. I just felt a bit young to be a filmmaker. I experimented…I was just questioning the film school. I didn’t think that they were doing things all the right way. I was worried about my career and how I was going to get a job out of it.
I think a uni lecturer pointed me in that direction. I can’t remember exactly how it happened. I think I just chose an elective. I thought I’d spend a few weeks in advertising and it just took immediately. It felt like a good fit. I was good at it, I enjoyed it and I haven’t really ever looked back.
I loved how dynamic it was. I didn’t have to sit and do one story for 18 months. I could do one in a few weeks and then another one and another one. It suited my attention span. It still does [suit me]. I love that I’ve got three projects on the go and there’s never enough time to get bored of anything.
LBB> Then quite early in your career you moved to Europe. How did that come about?
RB> I think I was in Sydney for two years. I had a run in with an account service person at a place called Singo’s - Singleton Ogilvy & Mather. John Singleton is a bit of kingpin of the Australian advertising scene. He’s a bit like Crocodile Dundee in an ivory tower. He’s this really ocker bloke. He owns a lot of media. He’s rough as guts - always getting in fights and there’s always some whack story in the media about who he’s punched or [what he’s] bought. He’s just an Australiana folk tale in the business world.
They gave me nice cheque and sent me on my way. It was time to move on. But there was this worldwide sort of support group of people who’d been fired by John Singleton, so I found my feet quickly. I went over to London and didn’t spend too long there. I freelanced around but fell in love with Amsterdam.
LBB> What was it like moving to Amsterdam, having grown up on the other side of the world?
RB> It was super cool. I went over for a party with a bunch of London cousins who wanted to go to Amsterdam for the same reasons that most young men do. I remember I popped up from the subway into the central square and there was beautiful golden-age architecture and bicycles whizzing past with beautiful blonde women with long hair sitting on the backs of them. Then I smelt weed and I just thought “I think I need to move here.”
The next thing was I bumped into this copywriter who was looking for a partner. I think he was just as pleased to see me as I was to see him. And then I was on the creative team on Canon. That was fantastic for me because I’ve always loved photography and photographers. I was in a real hotspot for that there so that was a great time.
And then I travelled the world a bit because the weather was never good enough to shoot in Amsterdam. We shot in lots of spots in South America and South Africa - it was super. We shot in France a couple of times, in LA, Buenos Aires. The trick was to find places that looked European but had great weather that you could depend on.
LBB> But in 2006 you came back to Perth. How did that happen?
RB> I got a beautiful girl pregnant and the next thing I knew, I was heading home very soon after just starting this wonderful trajectory. Back to the hometown. So I’ve been a dad in Western Australia ever since and it’s been wonderful.
I landed at a very nice agency over here that’s part of the MullenLowe network. I’ve sort of grown up with two offices here - one in Perth and one in Sydney. I’ve worked between them for the last 10 or 11 years. It’s nice because you’ve got a really different market on both sides of the country.
LBB> How would you compare the two coasts in terms of advertising?
RB> I sort of specialise in behaviour change on the West Coast. We have lots of government clients, healthy eating, ‘put your seatbelts on’ and all those kinds of things. Which I really love because mostly’ it’s positive. The East Coast also does that but they’ve got some of those high-energy, fast moving consumer goods [clients]. And that’s nice to dip in and out of too. So it’s a nice spread between the two sides of Australia. We do share the clients but they’re very different markets.
It’s similar to the American East and West Coasts. LA vs New York. LA is a little bit sunnier and more relaxed and people don’t smoke as much. We like to think that we have the West-Coast vibe. I think we do things a little slower and surer. We’re very careful. And I think on the East Coast it’s a busier environment, so you have to tighten up all your screws and have more process and be very nimble. But we’re talking about advertising here. It is all very nimble and fast. wouldn’t describe it as relaxed, for sure. Comparatively speaking it’s probably a slightly more organic approach to each project.
LBB> What else defines the Perth advertising community?
RB> In terms of billings and creative rankings and those things I think we rank fourth. I think Brisbane might even have a larger market than us. There are five major agencies here and scores of smaller ones.
If I’m honest, I think most creatives come here to get some balance. People don’t want to be working 16-hour days until 10 or 11 at night. They want to come into work every day and do great work but they want some life balance.
This is going into what I’ve tried to do with the agency - to offer a bit of sustainability in people’s lives so they do their best work but go home to their family and are happy enough to come in the next day. [We need to] keep doing that because we don’t have an endless supply of great creatives here. We need the creatives we have to be happy. Most of them have moved here because they want to be happy. It’s a nice lifestyle in Perth.
I learnt this from the guy who started this agency, Lindsay Medalia. He’s not a great believer in working late every night. He’s a really smart guy and that was his philosophy. You’ll do better work. You’ll be happier, more enthusiastic and psyched about the work. All that stuff’s really important and it’s tough to hold onto. It’s super competitive and you’re just trying to get an edge. But the edge you have is working smart, calling it and using the enthusiasm you have, rather than an endless exhaustive drive. I think the work is better if it has that humanity in it, that fun and that spark.
LBB> Speaking of humanity, you’ve spoken in the past about how creative professionals are in pole position to help humanity get to a better place. Why do you think that and what can people do to help?
RB> I’m an environmentalist at heart, so I follow environmental stories and news carefully. A few years ago when it became clear that we are in real trouble. It occurred to me that the science wasn’t enough. I think that’s really sad. Let’s say it was when An Inconvenient Truth [the 2006 documentary] came out. That was the one that really hit it to the mainstream. It was like there’s no excuses. Everyone’s seen it. We’ve got to change our behaviour. Then nothing changed and it’s got progressively worse.
I suppose the reason that I think creatives have that responsibility is because science has not been enough. You need persuasion, storytelling and it’s up to the artists, commercial artists and storytellers who are most persuasive or who can find alternative ways to open people’s eyes. The science is there and it’s failed. So there is nobody else.
I can’t just sit around taking briefs and enjoying the salary. I think we’re at a crisis in the world and I’m armed with all these skills and resources.
LBB> What projects are you particularly proud of working on?
RB> There are two. If you’re talking about what we’re talking about, it was a campaign that I did for the Greens, which was creative but also really effective. Basically it was to help a Green senator get re-elected who was coming under a lot of fire a couple of years ago. I think it helped.
The other one was just getting people to slow down on the roads. It was a few years ago now, called Enjoy the Ride. (http://www.campaignbrief.com/wa/2012/09/303lowe-perth-wins-grand-effie.html) It harnessed the slow movement for speed on our roads. It didn’t say speed is bad; it just said slow is good. It was a three minute ad and we really didn’t push it out but it got three million hits and spoken of all over the place. It won the Golden Effie over here. It made quite an impression on road safety advertising. That was quite hefty one.
LBB> It must be nice to win Effies because they prove you’re doing the job properly and making a tangible difference.
RB> I wear those Effies as a badge of honour. It’s easy to walk into a room and say you’ve got awards but most clients don’t care. You talk about Effies and they’re interested in what you can do for them. I can be more creative from then on because they know you’re doing things for the right reasons and creativity will give them effectiveness. We talk about Effies a lot here.
LBB> You’ve kept up your interest in film on the side, making music videos and such. How did you get into that?
RB> I don’t think it was natural. I just forced my way into it. I really just wanted to make films and so I started directing music videos when I could and I just learnt so much from doing it. I learnt how to edit. I used to take lots of photographs and it was just a natural progression to shoot motion. I’m surrounded by music. My brother’s always been in bands. He’s in a pretty big one called Birds of Tokyo. My wife, Lucy Peach, is a great musician. Now I pretty much just do music videos for her.
LBB> What’s it like working creatively with your partner?
RB> It’s fantastic. I’m really in love with my wife and she’s a really cool woman. I don’t get sick of her. We have a great creative relationship. We haven’t done heaps. Two music videos and before that clips for other people.
LBB> And lately you’ve been working on a stage show together called ‘My Greatest Period Ever’. Can you tell us a bit about that?
RB> I didn’t see that one coming. I’ll tell you that. She’s a Period Preacher. As far as I know, that’s not a thing… but it’s the best way to describe what she does. She has a background in sexual education and she’s a musician. We have the Fringe festival here. We were asked to do a show there. She developed it.
It talks about the power of the menstrual cycle. It goes into the science about it - what the chemicals in the female body are doing throughout the month. You’ve got testosterone, progesterone and oestrogen and they kick in four different ways over a month. So one different punch per week for a month. And the show is all about that. She tells stories and science and sings songs about it. I’m on stage as well as a live doodler. I am the husband, listening intently and taking notes, but I draw interpretive things to explain the concepts, stories and songs.
I think it’s fantastic and it seems everybody wants to talk about their periods, or at least half the population. I have an iPad pro connected to a projector. For most of it I know what I’m going to do but I do try to change it up. It’s better when she doesn’t know what’s happening because it creates energy and it’s funny. It’s quite a different way to present. I don’t just draw. Sometimes I select and expand and animate and twist. It’s quite a cool thing, the iPad allows you to do. Although I don’t know who else would bother. It’s really fun.
It’s wonderful working with Lucy. To work with your wife in a creative capacity, especially if you’re an ECD and used to everybody doing what you say. That gets thrown out the window a bit when you’re working with your wife. She’s really the boss. Nobody in this town knows who the fuck I am. She’s the one and I’m just a guy. That’s really good for my ego.
LBB> I’ve heard you’re into rock climbing, too. What’s the deal with that?
RB> I’ve always been into climbing. It was mostly trees when I was a kid. It was actually an ex-girlfriend who was a rock climber that got me into it. She said she was going to a wedding in Thailand and asked me if I wanted to come. It’s one of the climbing hot spots of the world, so I got put in the deep end and I loved it.
I love how focused you are and you really don’t think about anything else because you have to concentrate really hard. I love the places it takes you - really beautiful places. I love that it’s always a bit of a mission to get there as well as the climbing itself. The breathing and strategy is as important as all of the hard things.
The people who do it are really interesting. They’re not knobs. They’re somewhere between jocks and geeks. They look like total nerds and then they take their shirt off and they’re just ripped. You can’t be a fool out there because there’s too much to think about.