She’s a keen fencer. She takes in stray students. She’s still a fan of good old-fashioned pencil and paper. She once filled all her teachers’ hubcaps with gravel. When it comes to Rosie Arnold, there’s just so much cool stuff to talk about – and that’s before you get to her career in advertising, which has seen her build brands like Lynx and Levi’s, fight for women (and parents) in the creative department and carve a reputation as one of the finest art directors working in the industry.
After 33 years at BBH London, Rosie moved to AMV BBDO to become the agency’s Head of Art and now she’s been at her new home for nearly a year. It’s a role that allows her to do what she loves best – getting hands on with the work and cultivating up-and-coming creative talent. This September Rosie will also be a keynote speaker at Kinsale Sharks, where she’ll be giving the talk, ‘Un-Stereotype the World’ (it’s a topic that’s more relevant than ever given this week’s Advertising Standards Association ruling on gender stereotypes).
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Rosie.
LBB> You’ve been at AMV BBDO for 10 months – how has it been settling in after 33 years at BBH?
RA> Sadly my husband died and after two tough years looking after him. When I went back it felt wrong to just pretend life was going on as normal. I needed to make a shift – it was quite a big decision. BBH were fantastically supportive over a difficult period, so it wasn’t a reflection of BBH or my relationships there; I just felt I needed to make a change.
It was interesting working out where to go because I had to reassess everything. I felt quite guilty that I didn’t take a CCO role, which felt like a logical step, but the thing that excites me is coming up with ideas, being close to the creative work and nurturing teams.
I was Chairwoman on the British Arrows jury and saw all these amazing pieces of work and they all came from AMV. Not only were they doing the Sainsbury’s work but they absolutely turned Curry’s around with the fabulous Jeff Goldblum work. Even Smart Energy and Tena Men… There are so many amazing accounts and such wonderful, wonderful work. I knew the Alex [Grieve] and Adrian [Rossi], who used to work at BBH, and felt very comfortable about working for them as my ECDs. It is an incredibly talented group of people but there is no arrogance – just self-deprecation and warmth.
LBB> The first thing that you creative directed for AMV BBDO was the brail poster for Maltesers. They’ve done so much as a brand to tackle the problematic lack of representation of disabled people in advertising. What was that like to work on?
RA> That all started with the Channel 4 competition last year – which AMV won before I started there. We’re working on the next tranche of work now.
We’re in an interesting period - the ‘post-Pepsi’ period. There’s been a bit of a backlash against companies that are seen to be piggybacking issues for their own gain. It’s going to be very difficult writing this ‘unstereotyping’ talk [Rosie will be talking about ‘Unstereotyping’ at this year’s Kinsale festival] because how you do that without being cynical?
LBB> With the Maltesers stuff though it did feel genuine and authentic, and I know that AMV BBDO were careful to do their research and talk to people, to make sure it was not…
RA> … not patronising! I think that’s because they were driven by insights from real disabled people. With the poster, we ran groups and took quotes and were very careful to make sure it was a genuine quote from a blind person and they were happy for us to use it. We didn’t want to put words into peoples’ mouths.
LBB> So, going back to the theme of ‘Unstereotyping’, I was at the press conference you were at in Cannes 2016, with Aline Santos from Unilever, where Unilever announced their drive to remove stereotype from their communications. Do you think that since the announcement there has been any substantial progress in the industry?
RA> There’s been a big inclusive movement that’s been coming along and when you look at a lot of work – like the Lynx ‘Find Your Magic’, for example – it features every sort of creed, colour disability as a vignette.
What’s difficult now is that it can look off-the-peg rather than natural. I want us to naturally use a range of people rather than the whole ad being about the fact we’ve used someone in a wheelchair or they’re mixed race.
Have I seen a change? Yes, I have. But I’m still being told that certain European markets won’t run an ad if there’s a black person in it and I fight that every single time. I’ve said to the companies involved, ‘you’re big enough to make sure you don’t accept that behaviour’. Do people stop going to Hollywood movies because there’s a black actor in it? No, they don’t. I think we’ve got to stop that mentality and if big marketeers aren’t prepared to make a stand, then where are we?
LBB> I wanted to touch on what you were talking about earlier – the reasons that you went for this role was being hands on and nurturing the creative teams. What does that look like for you?
RA> We’ve got something called Hatch here; there are a number of junior teams and I’m a mentor for them. So how does that look? I work with whoever is working on my briefs and we give the younger teams great creative opportunities. Charlotte [Mather] and Lucy [Jones], who did the Braille poster, were a Hatch team who had just started. The account team were incredible to get that away because we came up with it in the beginning of December and we wanted it to run on the 4th of January, World Braille Day. To get that bought and made in such a short space of time was a magnum opus, let me tell you! That was their first work and I’m thrilled for them.
LBB> Talking of getting your hands dirty, I read an interview where you said you still prefer to draw things…
RA>… because I’m rubbish with computers!
LBB> There’s the creative and meditative side of drawing, the process of that, can be something we’re in danger of losing if we rely entirely on digital tools?
RA> Yeah. The other thing that I feel very strongly about is that it’s so easy to use existing imagery when you’re Mac-ing something up. When you sell that to the client, you end up trying to replicate the image that you’ve used, so it’s much harder to come up with original creative ideas. The client’s trying to buy it before you’ve created it and then you have to replicate whatever you’ve chosen. Whereas if you can make a loose drawing and you use a number of different references, then it’s easier to come up with some truly original ideas and images.
LBB> That’s the thing, people say they want creativity but aren’t open to the creative process, which, by its nature, is unexpected and unpredictable because you’re making something new…
RA> I think anybody who’s not creative imagines that there is a formula to creativity and we’re keeping it a secret. They think we know exactly what music we’re going to put on the ad before we make it… no we don’t. It is a creative process and I can’t tell you what’s going to happen on frame eight.
When I first came into the industry and you made a film, you couldn’t change it in post. It was a piece of celluloid that you had to cut with scissors and stuck together with Sellotape. The client couldn’t go ‘can we change the colour of her hair? Can we post that out? Can we change the background?’ It’s become so over complicated and over neurotic.
And then there’s the number of people who need to agree on something. We have pre-pre-pre-pre-production meetings instead of pre-production meetings. It seems like people are trying to iron out anything that might possibly go wrong but it’s a creative process and it’s the things that happen unexpectedly that make all the difference. The more we try to iron them out, the less opportunity there is for some happy accident. And of course, things can go wrong but you need to learn to roll with the punches. I know I sound like an old fart, but there’s so much control and control doesn’t equal genius.
LBB> Now for a change of pace – I read that you also do a bit of fencing!
RA> Yes, I’ve been fencing for years now.
LBB> So how did that become part of your life?
RA> I always fancied it. I’m rubbish at tennis – anything with a ball, forget it. I was in Cornwall at a little village fete, and there was a fencing display. I asked if I could have a go and I was moderately good at it. It’s like physical chess because you’re thinking your way through it. I do foil – which is where the target is just your torso, front and back, so it’s strategic; you’ve got to deceive someone to make the hit. I don’t really push myself at a gym, but I always say, ‘if someone’s coming at you with a sword, you do your best!’
When my brother and I were clearing out my mum’s house, we found in my Dad’s old trunk some fencing medals from way back when, the early 1900s, so maybe it’s just in the family!
LBB> I want to go back a little bit; was advertising something you thought ‘that would be cool’ or was it more of an accident?
RA> I went to art school thinking I was going to be Picasso but I didn’t have that talent. I then did Graphic Design at Central St Martins. I was disappointed when I turned up because I thought you wrote the book or invented the game and then did the typography and illustration – I thought you did everything. I liked the idea of putting it all together. It was my husband – my boyfriend at the time – who said ‘what about advertising? You love ideas’. He pointed me in the direction of the D&AD annual and actually having an idea and being able to access much better talent than me.
It wasn’t a particularly known job then. I’m also of a generation where I was just expected to have children and that was it. I haven’t really kept in touch with many people. Lots of girls went to do cordon bleu cookery classes and if you were to be a secretary, it was with the understanding that you were there until you found a husband, twiddling your thumbs till Mr Right came along.
LBB> The industry has changed so much, and it feels like there is so much more brilliant, high profile female talent around London.
RA> That’s why I said I felt guilty not taking one of those roles. I thought I should do, to show women that you can rise to the top, but I just felt that it wasn’t for me.
LBB> Isn’t that just as valuable? To do what works for you?
RA> My sons are great, they’re both very feminist. They said, “it’s just as important to show women that you can do what you want to do to, do what makes you happy, rather than doing something that doesn’t make you happy just because you feel you’re doing the right thing for other women.” It’s allowing yourself to have the life you want.
LBB> So as someone who was, for a long time, one of the few senior women in the industry, people often speak of you as someone who has blazed a trail. Did it feel like you were fighting a bigger fight at the time?
RA> There were a couple of key points that felt challenging. I was the breadwinner; my husband was divorced with three daughters. I thought, ‘one of us had better earn some money and he’s an artist so it’s not going to be him’. That made it essential that I work.
It was tough. There was a point at BBH where I wanted to work four days a week and I was told ‘no, creatives don’t work four days a week’. I considered getting another job and it was at that point they said, ‘ok we’ll try…’ And at that point I totally renegotiated the maternity pay. Back then, it was six weeks at 90% of your pay and then a further 12 weeks at £49 a week. I said, ‘I can’t live on that and I’m not coming back to work with a month-old baby’. I did a lot of research into what other companies offered, particularly airlines, that wanted women to come back. I negotiated paternity leave as well.
That was 26 years ago – and this year this agency has just launched a big initiative to get more female creatives on board. It’s not my initiative – it comes from Ian [Pearman], Alex and Adrian, I want to make that absolutely clear. But what I love is that this place is really thinking about the dearth of women in creative departments and what we can do to encourage more women into creative departments. This is absolutely action not words.
At the moment, I’ve got a student living with me and she’s a sculptress. She’s building a structure in Powys square and it was funded by the Arts Council, but she’s had real problems with the men running the scheme who she feels have used her to get the grant. They’re side-lining her, not involving her in major decisions and she’s got to elbow her way in. She’s livid. Things should have changed properly by now.
LBB> Hold up – you’ve got students living with you?
RA> I’ve got a dog and when my husband died I thought, ‘what am I going to do? I don’t want to leave Oscar alone all day.’ I thought I could do something nice and offer a theoretical artist free accommodation in exchange for walking the dog. There’s Karma, who is from Bhutan and who is studying at the Courtauld, and then – typical me – he took another course which meant he could no longer walk the dog, so I now have a dog walker and Karma still lives with me. And I’ve got another student living with me for a bit because she’s an artist doing a project nearby and she couldn’t afford somewhere to stay. It’s lovely for me to have company. I’ve got the house so I might as well… and I think it’s so hard nowadays, London is so expensive.
LBB> And at the end of the summer you’re going to headline Kinsale. What are you looking forward to seeing there?
RA> I’ve never been and I’m dying to go. I’m saying to everyone I’m not going to Cannes this year because I feel it’s completely overrun with clients and that the creative community is being pushed out somehow. So, I’m saying, ‘come on guys let’s all go make Kinsale the festival where all the creatives go!’ It feels a bit more intimate and maybe the clients have overlooked it. Not that I don’t like clients but suddenly it’s become a massive jamboree and it’s a bit mad!