Founder and creative director of independent Dublin agency The Public House on sidestepping “Oirish” stereotypes, embracing the tension of Irish culture and the motivation of “positive jealousy”
“Colin Hart is one of the leading figures in the commercial creative industry in Ireland, producing some of the most memorable and effective campaigns to come out of this country. He is one of the most ambitious creatives I know, delivering clever concepts with quick-witted humour guaranteed to stand out from the crowd – just see if you can spot his work on Ireland: Where Creative is Native.” Charley Stoney, IAPI CEO
LBB> You set up The Public House nine years ago. What perspective did you come to that from?
Colin> I suppose from my perspective of starting a company at the height of the Celtic Tiger before the recession. We're probably one of the only creative agencies to have started up within that time.
I'd travelled all over the world. I'd worked in London, Tokyo, Vancouver, Sydney and Paris as an art director. I've taken my trade around the world. I remember, I'd been working my way up the ladder to when I was in Vancouver, working on the Winter Olympics and a bunch of projects for Canadian tourism. I wanted to come back to Ireland, my home, of course. But unfortunately, there were no agencies that stood out. Part of that would have arguably been to do with ambition from an agency point of view, maybe a little bit from the clients’ point of view.
As a creative in an international agency at the time, my ambitions were always international, never local. I'd been quite well awarded. I walked back to the Irish market and my ambition was to set up an agency that would have an international reputation from a local place. As a country we have all the equipment, all the tools to stand out around the world. Ireland's got this amazing tension between smart and funny.
LBB> And how did that shape what The Public House aims to do?
Colin> Our challenge to ourselves was could we leverage the kind of creativity and tension that is inherent within Irish culture to create really interesting work that's internationally seen as smart because it's culturally relevant. I know I'm bandying around loaded terms here but those things are actually true to us as an agency.
We work with loads of Irish brands. FBD is an Irish insurance company, Paddy Power are Irish betting people, Jameson is Irish whiskey, as is Redbreast. We help them keep their Irishness, but at the same time keep it as an attitude and not as what we in Ireland call, 'Oirish', which is the kind of twee version of Irish. Loads of brands think that's great and it works for a lot of them. But we think that there's a much better opportunity in being smart Irish, the attitude we have in Ireland - that wit, that tension, all that stuff comes together.
LBB> You've mentioned a few of the clients you've worked with and I know it's like picking a favourite child, but are there any particular campaigns that you think encapsulate that?
Colin> In Ireland, we are bombarded with a quality of production, ideas and concepts from all over the world. So our clients are not looking to settle. They need a proper smart idea that any agency around the world could do.
EPIC is the only emigration museum in the world. It celebrates the diaspora of Irish people who've left and gone around the world. We've done loads of work with them. We did a thing with them about a year ago called St Plastics Day. The whole idea of the museum is that they give you a deeper understanding of what it's like to be Irish, not the shamrocks and plastic Paddywhackery that the world thinks is Irish (not that there's anything wrong with that!). On St Patrick's Day we let tourists in Ireland understand that there's more to Ireland than what they're doing right now, so it was quite tactical in where we did it. The next day we offered an amnesty on plastic Paddywhackery - hats and ginger beards and stuff - as a free entry into the museum. That was picked up internationally by a lot of people.
The other interesting thing we got a lot of exposure for was the open letter to Donald Trump when he visited Ireland.
I think it cost 300 quid or something like that to get placement in The Clare Champion, which is where his fancy hotel is. It just invited him and his wife to come along and learn a little bit about the positive impact that emigration has on countries. I think EPIC is taking that wit and sense of humour that we've got here - and it's a bit self-deprecating - but at the same time, it's making a pretty clear point, and it’s advertising and selling.
LBB> Let's rewind a little. You touched on founding The Public House and what you were trying to achieve back then. Right in the beginning, what was that first year like?
Colin> It was so hard. We called it The Public House because we set up above one of Dublin's coolest pubs. It was one room, me and the dog. I couldn't understand why brands in Ireland didn't speak to people like people spoke in pubs. This is our culture. We’re funny, we're smart, we're cheeky as fuck - all these things we do naturally. And whenever it comes to advertising, we become a different person because we're reflecting on this formula that happens around the world. One of our principles, based on that, was ‘we are anti formula’.
As you can imagine, I had no reputation in Ireland, but I had an international reputation so I was still picking up awards around the world while working for super small clients here to try and prove to people the effects of really good creativity. Honestly, it took about two years to really get people to see.
Then I met my business partner Catrióna Campbell
and she's awesome. I'm the creative side, and she's very organised - she's a logistical legend. Myself and her hit it off immediately and that was where, really, The Public House started. It was a test until we met and then we took it to that next stage and together we've been able to bounce off each other. The interesting thing is I'd come back from Vancouver, she'd come back from London. Our other senior person is Jarrod Banadyga. He's a brilliant Canadian copywriter. We have South Africans, Australians, Irish people who came back from other countries. We're pulling in international experience to Ireland. And that is not a recruitment mandate or anything like that. It's just naturally what we've done. We've got a guy working in Geneva, a fellow working in Hong Kong - full time - and two people in London. We're using the world. But they all have that wit and that's the key thing for us.
LBB> That's an interesting fact to place within the context of talking about the Irish diaspora and people coming back to Ireland who've been away. Making use of that Irishness tinged with working in another market sounds like a winning formula.
Colin> I mean, we're not quite winning yet. We're in the race, getting faster and faster. There's a couple of people winning more than us. But in fairness, in nine years we've grown from one to 35 people so we're doing alright. The industry here is recognising us. We picked up the third biggest amount of ICADs this year, for an agency and that is a sixth the size of the two agencies that beat us. We're punching well above our weight.
But that takes me on to the next founding principle that we had as an agency which was ‘outcreate versus outspend’. We talk to our clients about this. This isn't just about money; this is about ambition. We want to do work that gets noticed and budgets aren't the lead on that.
We're the only major creative agency that is owned and led by a creative in Ireland. All the other major agencies in Dublin are owned by business people, and that's fine, but there is a considerable difference in choices that we make.
LBB> And how do you think your independence has shaped the way The Public House has evolved?
Colin> There are few independent creative agencies left in Ireland. We've been fiercely independent. We've kind of played that a lot because there's a freedom in how we do stuff. If you think about Paddy Power, for example. We do some incredibly irreverent work for them because we don't need to talk to a lawyer and we don't have five people in New York saying we can't do that. And I think there's something interesting in the creative ambition.
I've got a few advisors. One is Chris Gallery at Mother who's a partner there now. A guy called Chris Staples at Rethink in Canada who are an amazing agency - he's a founder there. Both of them are my independent agency heroes. They are fiercely independent as well and we discuss all the same problems. We don't hate networks. We actually think networks serve a brilliant purpose. It's just the idea that [independence] gives us a slight competitive advantage within the creative area I think, personally.
The third defining principle we've got is ‘boring doesn't sell’. Whenever you have six people you need to get work through just to get it to the client, you know you're getting into a committee there. Networks, even though they talk about being anti silos, are designed to create silos for revenue streams. There's no question about that. And I've worked on them so I know exactly what I'm saying. Whereas as at an independent agency it's way more easy to do stuff. I do think from a creative point of view that means a lot. That allows us to make decisions quickly, to work with clients that have creative ambition, that are prepared to get into trouble, a little bit. That's sort of what we like. ‘Boring doesn't sell’ isn't about being reckless. It's about challenging those formulas and about how people do stuff.
LBB> Over that time since you set up as an agency, what have been the biggest shifts for you?
Colin> It's pretty much every two weeks there's an amazing shift for us where we either pick up a bigger piece of business or do a piece of work that gets recognised. Like the day we got on page five in the Wall Street Journal, for some of the work we did for Paddy Power. Those kinds of things are huge for us.
LBB> And how about shifts more broadly in the Irish industry?
Colin> You can't argue about the quality of work that someone like Rothco has put out. And the industry here, there was probably quite a lot of jealousy within agencies. Who's doing the best work, who's better and who's not. Coming from the Canadian market in Vancouver, all of the major agencies are best friends. They fight for business, but it's done in an incredibly professional, charming way. Somebody wins, somebody doesn't win; they're not happy, but they are also nice. And they're all grown out of the same agencies. I think that's something that's happened in the Irish market, because it was arguably a bit insecure. Someone like Rothco has spearheaded this way to put Ireland on an international map from an awards point of view, and it's given to everybody in Ireland, including clients and people who work in the industry, a way to access that. It's kind of secured the industry. Also I think something like IAPI, those kinds of organisations have had quite a bit to play in that as well. I think we have gained confidence as an industry here. And that has led to a much more fun environment.
LBB> Is there any other work that you want to shout out that you've done recently that you think really encapsulates what The Public House does?
Colin> Through lockdown we've actually been crazy busy. We spent the first three months shitting ourselves thinking about all the things we could possibly do for clients. And then, thankfully, most of our clients took us up on that offer. One that's interesting, particularly for the subject of Creative is Native is Redbreast. We did a huge launch, mainly in the States actually. It's an animated Robin Redbreast, but he's an Irish character and he's kind of taking the piss out of the Americans and the Irish, and the whiskey-making process. He's just a sarcastic little bird, and he's hilarious. We're working with the guys at Jelly in London. It's generated here in Ireland, it's directed by a Canadian, it's produced by a UK production company and it's exported around the world. It's getting a brilliant response and Redbreast is doing really well through it. It feels like it's close to what Creative is Native is all about, actually.
LBB> Is there any other work that you've seen recently from other people that you've been jealous of, or thought represents the Irish industry well?
Colin> Yeah, there's actually quite a lot that we look out and wish we'd done. Rothco have just done the Saylists
- really meaningful, deep and smart. We don't look at it as an agency and critique it, which is what I think the industry used to do here. We actually look at it and go "fair play, that's a great platform and they've done something really special that people are talking about". That drives you, so we want to make something better. And they'll want to do something better. It is a positive jealousy that comes out of it. It makes us better. All of us want to be that good.