5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes with… Simon Fairweather

San Jose, United States
SVP, creative director and head of art at Leo Burnett Detroit speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper, in association with Adobe, about working at the likes of Ammirati Puris Lintas, the importance of being able to adapt to change, and his love of photography

Adobe XD is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the ‘5 Minutes with…’ channel, we will be spending time with some of the most innovative and creative minds in the industry.

Up today is Simon Fairweather, SVP, creative director and head of art at Leo Burnett Detroit, the agency responsible for the advertising of General Motors vehicles like Buick, GMC and the iconic Hummer. A native Brit, Simon has worked at iconic agencies like Y&R London, Ammirati Puris Lintas, before heading Stateside and ending up at Hill Holliday and eventually Leo Burnett. He’s always been a keen photographer, something he tries to put to good use for his clients when appropriate. 

LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with him. 

LBB> What’s exciting you at Leo Burnett Detroit at the moment?

Simon> I work on Buick, GMC, and Hummer. They're great clients to work with and they have a great product. One thing about working in an agency is that we are privy to what's coming, and what's coming is really exciting for all three. The latest, GMC’s Sierra, the leading truck in the GMC lineup, looks gorgeous and the technology is terrific. Buick as well. This gives us good things to leverage, and what's coming is really, really interesting. The all-electric Hummer is a good example of the quality of the design from inside out. Its capability is just unbelievable.  

LBB> You've worked with cars a lot but sometimes people in advertising are a bit judgmental about car advertising. What do you enjoy about it?

Simon> I’ve always liked working on cars – I love cars. I was lucky to work on Fiat, Mini, MG and Rover in the UK. The MG work was all emotional, Mini was all about customisation and making it your own, and for Rover we launched the R75. The work was quite distinctly different, and I think some of it you could even run today and it would still stand up.  

LBB> You’ve worked with some really big names and at some really iconic agencies. Tell us about the earlier days of your career. 

Simon> I was a photographer in my formative years, and I was enthralled by what was coming with computers. I've been around design and printing and things like that my whole life, but with the computer everything was the right way up and the right way around. I used to shoot a lot of 10x8 and 5x4 stuff so you're forever looking upside down and everything's back to front. I think all of that helps me today when we're capturing vehicles, either in motion or stills. 

I got into a lot of fragrance and makeup work, found a Mac, started exploring with that, and just got more into graphics. I learned all about prepress with a friend of mine – Ian Greatorex at Orange - and spent a lot of time working on developing what it took to go from the screen to paper. And then I did some freelance stuff at Simons Palmer and then took a job at Y&R with Barry Brand – Mike Cozens was my ECD. I worked with some amazing people there and we did great work for brands like Pirelli, Lufthansa, Colgate and Eurostar. I went to work with Peter Harold at Ammirati Puris Lintas, which is where we did all of the Rover work. Peter is just such a great talent. I’ve been fortunate to encounter some really good people along the way; Mark Tutssel, Kiki Kendrick, Walter Campbell, Rosie Arnold. They have all been big influences. 

LBB> How did you end up in the US?

Simon> Ammirati is essentially what got me to the US. I was a 'shared asset' between New York and London. When Lowe merged with Ammirati’s, I moved to New York full time. I got a job at Hill Holliday, spent a few years at JWT NY and eventually moved to Detroit in 2005. Tor Myhren was my creative director at Leo Burnett then. My creative directors now, Tim Thomas and Steve Glinski, are just classic, great people and terrific to work for – it shows in the work we are doing.

LBB> How do you find working and living in Detroit versus London or New York?

Simon> I miss New York and I miss London. I'd be a fool not to because they're such great cities. But that's a different time for me. My son was born in New York in 2004. He was born very early and he has cerebral palsy, so that changed things. But one of the things that I've always liked about myself is my ability to change and adapt. Change is for the most part the most difficult thing but I find it relatively easy. 

It's like with the computer and photography. Someone told me once that it looked like I had no fear with that but I couldn't see that I could break anything. With photography it used to be experimentation – you could burn through a whole host of film -- but with a computer I can iterate and play around with it as much as I like. We’re doing a lot of that at the moment with Adobe Xd. You have to be able to adapt. For example, right now we’re challenged with understanding what is now being referred to as the metaverse. You have to dive in and take a look and try some stuff.   

LBB> Do you still get to photograph stuff for work?  

Simon> Yeah, I invested in a nice little Leica about two years ago and carry it around with me all the time, especially if we're doing smaller shoots and social stuff. Less so on the big shoots, but the social stuff is a bit more run and gun and I get to shoot a lot more myself. Finding photographers and working with the right photographers is still the important thing though. There are some out there that rely on things that don't make them the strongest visually, such as shooting with an insane amount of frames, which doesn't strike me as having particularly great vision. I'm fortunate to have worked with some excellent photographers though, especially in the automotive space. 

One of the challenges we have as creatives for shooting cars is the shapes that you have to fit them in these days, there's such a variety. Classically, you would frame your image in the camera but that's not such a thing anymore, and it's a little tough. If you're shooting for a certain format or for multiple formats, you can't frame it as you would naturally in the viewfinder.   

LBB> You’re a creative director but also head of art. Can you tell us a bit more about that second title?

Simon> A lot of it is about the design of things. It can be right down to the shape and colour of buttons online, and then you build upon those foundations. Once you've established a graphic language for a brand, it can also apply to how you represent things visually. For example, a while ago GMC vehicles were always pictured around architectural spaces but these vehicles are made to be used. So, we started taking them outside of the city and throwing them around a bit more. There's some great photography from that time from a German photographer out of LA called Lisa Linke. She really set the standard for where we are today, she's a great photographer. One of the things that we really liked about her work was that she was raised on motorsport, so capturing motion successfully is natural for her.  

LBB> What do you get up to outside of work?

Simon> We're a blended family, my wife has her boy and I have mine, and they both have special needs. I love our boys, they are terrific. But it is challenging. During the pandemic, we decamped to Florida for a few weeks. So, whenever we get the chance, we might all escape for a weekend somewhere or what have you. 

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