Host/Havas ECD on working across three continents, his creative icons and winning a Black Pencil
A few weeks ago the Palau Pledge - a campaign that changed the actual immigration policy of the Pacific island nation of Palau in order to protect its natural beauty - won a D&AD Black Pencil, one of the rarest and most coveted honours in the global creative community, along with only two other projects this year. Host/Havas was the agency behind the campaign and Seamus Higgins was the executive creative director overseeing the job.
Born in Ireland and having grown up in South Africa, Seamus’s career spans over 17 years and three continents. He’s worked for top agency networks including Saatchi & Saatchi and Lowe and has been at Host/Havas (formerly Havas Sydney) for five years. LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Seamus.
LBB> What were you like growing up in South Africa? Were there any signs back then of a creative spark?
SH> When I look back with that lens, the alarm-bells were ringing loud and clear. I used to spend hours on weird intricate drawings and I remember writing a lot too. I played Scrabble against myself and sometimes lost. From a young age my tendencies as a perfectionist were starting to show, even with Lego. I hated when my little friends built things using random colours instead of matching bricks. I still remember the incredulity. As a six-year-old this was a heavy cross to bear. I also remember my dad telling me once, “if you’re going to do something, do it right, or don’t do it at all”. This really stuck with me. Looking back, my obsession with creativity and craft seems to have always been there.
LBB> Do you remember anything about advertising or branding from your childhood that really stays with you?
SH> I remember that I always enjoyed watching ads, to me they were often more surprising and funny than the TV programs they interrupted. During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there were a hell of a lot of jingles and catch-phrases. Maybe it’s because we all had no choice but to watch them, but ads seemed to be more a part of culture then. People talked about them. And I can still remember them.
LBB> How did you end up in London?
SH> I had never intended to end up in London. I was barely two years into my advertising career in a little agency in Durban, South Africa. My ambition was burning and I was starting to realise that Durban’s advertising pond was in fact more of a puddle. Then I met a Swedish girl. She was out on holiday visiting a friend of mine and we hit it off. A few months later, I sold all of my shit, scraped together a handful of South African rands, and moved to Sweden.
Within five weeks my bold plan to take Stockholm's advertising industry by storm had amounted to nothing, and my rands hadn’t stretched much further than a couple of beers and an open prawn sandwich. Plus, my Swedish girlfriend was asking for rent money. I had to go somewhere that I could earn some quickly. And I realised it would help if I could actually speak the language. So a week later I arrived in London with £75 in travellers cheques and a hatred of open prawn sandwiches.
LBB> What was the experience like moving to the UK?
SH> I loved it. I loved that it felt and looked like a giant melting pot, with history and stories everywhere. It felt like the type of place you could be anyone you wanted to be. Unless you only had £75 to your name. Then you took what you could get; in my case, packing t-shirts into boxes for minimum wage.
The London advertising scene proved a tough nut to crack. But that’s what makes it so great; you’re competing for jobs in a global talent pool. In 2002 I found an industry very much divided between ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’. My South African portfolio was a weird mix of traditional advertising, illustration, writing and digital, but with no TV ads. I didn’t really fit either of the moulds.
Eventually I found a job in a tiny little agency that didn’t fit the moulds either. And from then on it became a journey of proving myself in bigger and better agencies. In London, because you work with some of the best people in the world, it’s an incredible place to learn, and I soaked it all up like a sponge.
LBB> And then years later you moved to another continent. How was the process of adapting to Australia and its industry?
SH> I found it a lot easier than London to break into. My soon-to-be wife and I travelled for nine months on our way to Australia. That’s as long as it takes for a new human to be born, and I think that trip was my rebirth in a way. My wife Leanne was a planner, (I’m biased, but the best I ever worked with - probably because she didn’t buy any of the advertising bullshit, she was just very interested in people). She got a job quickly out here in 303 Lowe, and then introduced me to the ECD, Simon Langley. He got me in immediately to freelance, which I strung out for as long as possible before going full time. I think the most exciting thing about the Australian industry is that it has so much room to grow. It’s full of opportunity, if you’re hungry enough to take it.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
SH> I have three. Dave Droga is top of my list. As an ambitious 24-year-old, I read about this guy who had been an ECD at 24. This blew my mind. Then I found out he was talking at a D&AD President's Lecture, so I bought a ticket and that night had one of my formative experiences. He was talking about his career, but one thing thing he said seared itself into my brain. It went something like: “If you’re not trying to help the teams working into you to be better than you, then you’re not worth shit.” Everyday as a creative leader I try to live up to this.
Dave Trott is another. He’s an advertising legend. I love his bravery and independence. And especially his passion for developing the talents of junior creatives. Ant Melder (who I’ll talk about shortly) and I had ambitions to be the best integrated team in London. We managed to blag some time with Dave to ask him for some career advice. This changed last-minute from a coffee in Starbucks into drinks in the Groucho Club, one of Soho’s private-members clubs. We sat under Tracey Emin neons and tried to keep up as Dave talked to us about the writings of Proust. That night seemed to take on a mythical status. We realised much later that what Dave had been telling us was this: be the reality that you want to see.
And then there is Roger Kennedy, who was the director of art and design at Saatchis London. He had started out as a typographer there in 1975, and as head of typography had a leading hand in everything great they did. Working in the same building as him was an honour, and working closely with him on a global Guinness campaign in 2009 was an incredible learning experience. I value the creative power of design and craft hugely.
LBB> You were recently reunited with Ant Melder as your fellow ECD. How does your creative relationship work? What's the dynamic?
SH> Ant Melder is one of my creative heroes too. We first worked together about 13 years ago, bonding immediately over our shared obsession for ideas that didn’t feel like traditional advertising. Ant is not only an incredibly talented writer and thinker, but he’s also incredibly industrious - he gets shit done. And on top of that he’s a just a great human being. When we had the chance to work together and combine our talents again, we leapt at it. Our working dynamic is based on trust, shared creative values and ambition. Plus it doesn’t hurt that we like each other.
LBB> We have to talk about the Palau Pledge, which recently won a Black Pencil at D&AD and I’m sure will go on to get more accolades in the year ahead. At what point did you realise it was going to be such a special project?
SH> From the moment we heard about it. Briefs like this are rare, and clients as brave and trusting as this are rarer still. Palau needed to solve a problem that much larger countries, with more resources and deeper pockets, had not been able to, which meant that we would have to do something that had never been done before. This brief needed more than an idea, it needed a genuine creative solution. And how often do you get asked to help an entire country? If there was ever an opportunity to show what the power of creativity could achieve, this was it.
LBB> Where did the idea come from to change the country's immigration policy itself? That must have taken a lot of collaboration with the government.
SH> It was all driven by the need to make a personal and meaningful connection with every tourist that entered the country. The passport itself, and the very act of passing through customs, felt like a huge, untapped opportunity for us. And that’s what drove the thinking behind stamping the Pledge into the passports of visitors. We also knew that the very act of signing something is an intrinsically personal act, no matter where you come from. It is proven to make people more likely to deliver on their promise. And of course, people don’t sign something legal without reading it, particularly if it’s stamped into their passport.
It took a long and carefully managed sequence of events to get each layer of leadership, including government and traditional leaders, to sign off the idea, and then implement it. I don’t think this idea could have happened anywhere else on earth. Palau, lead by its visionary president, Tommy Remengesau, is truly a global leader in taking bold, necessary steps to protect its beautiful environment and culture.
LBB> What other aspects of the campaign do you feel were most key to its success?
SH> I think the positive tone of the campaign was extremely important. Palauans are warm, welcoming people, and accept all visitors into their country as personal guests. We took great care to make sure that we weren’t wagging an accusatory finger at them. We also wanted to appeal to them on a more human level that would cut through cultural differences. By making the pledge to the children of Palau, we were able to reach people on an emotional level that would be more likely to genuinely change their behaviour.
I believe fervently that if a story is worth being told, it’s worth being told well - and that’s where craft comes in. People can tell when something has been crafted with love. And they respond to it. We poured ourselves into making sure that every single part of this job was as good as it could be. My mantra to the team literally was “picture it on the judging tables at D&AD - is it worthy?”
And lastly, you cannot create work like this without an incredible agency that believes in making work like this and backs the team every step of the way. Host/Havas is one of the few.
LBB> What other projects have you been really proud of recently?
SH> The type of work I most love doing is based on insight-driven strategy, and expressed with powerful storytelling, genuine innovation, and craft. I am hugely proud of the work we’ve done over the last four years for Defence Force Recruiting. They are one of Australia’s largest recruiters, and in 2017 we helped them achieve the most successful year in their history. The work that we do for them spans everything from film, to social, to hardcore digital and innovation projects. It’s truly rare to have the chance to shape an ecosystem like this for one client.
LBB> What are your main aims and ambitions for Host/Havas in the coming year?
SH> I’ve been at Host/Havas for nearly five years now. It’s my longest stint in an agency, and the best agency I’ve ever worked in. We have an incredibly deep pool of talent, and in my opinion, Australia’s best digital and design departments. My personal mission is to help Host/Havas be as famous around the world as we should be for our thinking and capabilities. And the only way to do that is through the work. Projects like the Palau Pledge are helping us achieve this, but my focus, and that of Host/Havas, is on what’s next.
LBB> What do you like to do in your spare time to unwind?
SH> I have four kids aged five and under, including twins, so I don’t have much spare time. This is genuinely the busiest my life has ever been, but also the most awesome. Jamie XX’s track ‘Gosh’ seems to sum it up. I listen to it repeatedly. One consistent thing in life that I’ve come to learn is that the hardest things seem to also be the best. Just like making great work. When I can carve out a little time, I’ll have a mix (my DJ setup has shrunk over the years, but I refuse to give it up), or I’ll go to the driving range and hit 200 balls, which doesn’t do much for my golf, but helps keep me sane.