Henry Kember is an award-winning hybrid creative leader, currently serving as group creative director at Host/Havas Sydney. In his 16-year career, Henry has won over 60 local and international awards, and worked at leading agencies across the world like Droga5 New York and CP+B Los Angeles. In his output Henry consistently produces work like music videos, interactive installations and social initiatives that defy categorisation and transcend the norms of the industry.
I would describe myself as a pale human hadron collider, where obscure fragments of high and low culture awkwardly bump into each other like exes at a barbeque travelling at the speed of light.
In past lives I’ve done a Latin degree, a music degree, electroacoustic installation art, playing of disco records for rent money (don’t call it DJing), digital design, radio presenting, working on building sites, and a bunch more things that went nowhere. What they did, though, is make me interested in just about everything, and provide me with a wide “map” or frame of reference.
Having a tiny bit of knowledge about a lot of things makes you more likely to see how any given idea you’re presented with slots into a context somewhere; how it’s meaningful in some way to someone.
Moreover, and I cringe as I say this, it all helps you see that there’s beauty in everything, and everyone. The fundamental truth of humanity is that we’re all on an arc; getting into trouble, out of trouble, succeeding, fucking up, being weird, eating cold pot noodles as we look up at the night sky, living out a story of some kind; one that’s entertaining if you tell it right.
As far as how I judge a piece of work, it all depends on what you’re judging against doesn’t it. But there are a few themes that remain constant. How truly new is it? There are plenty of good, nicely made campaigns out there, where the fundamental idea seems like an algorithm based on everything that won at a big show two years ago. Learned, slightly cynical creative work is everywhere. New, inimitable creativity is far more rare.
How unique or inspired is the execution? It can’t just be the script on the page poured into Final Cut. The best work always treats the idea as a leaping-off point to a beautiful well-crafted piece. Does it make me feel something? For me, an emotional connection is what separates good work from not-good work. So much stuff, even the winningest of winning campaigns, leaves me cold. But every so often, a ‘Ghost Chips’ or ‘Viva La Vulva’ or ‘Question Your Answers’ comes along and makes me do an air-punch or get teary or somewhere in between.
When talking about the work I’m proudest of, I’m going to try my hardest to not sound like a LinkedIn humble brag. Here goes: Diageo Mixionary posters. A simple idea, executed as well as it could have possibly been. And given what an arcane, slightly dorky world cocktail-making is, I’m glad we could shine a little light on the whole thing.
Having a wife who works at a marketing AI startup, I hear the solemn death knell of our industry every time she walks through the door. I also hear the death knell of our industry whenever I see a bad ad on TV. (5:30pm to 8pm at ours is basically one deafening death knell.)
But I don’t think I’m guilty of wishful thinking when I say that our industry is more likely to change than die, provided we prove our value to our clients, and try to add that value in more places. How do we do that? By making stuff that’s too unique, inspired, and humanly insightful to have plausibly been generated by artificial intelligence.
I like making work with other people—so much more fun. Aside from the obvious math around quantity of brains and ideas, collaborative creation with other people is just endlessly fascinating for the surprise factor: the bonkers ideas that come from the straighty 180s; the heartfelt thoughts that come from the most hardened of cynics.
As much as remote working has some very salient practical advantages (i.e. avoiding traffic and covid), it’s taken the spontaneity and serendipity out of collaboration. I love the odd, impromptu office chats I have with producers, planners—or the cleaners if it’s late—which at the very least get you out of your own head and into some kind of dialogue that may, occasionally, lead to a great idea.
Reference material is critical for me; having something to prompt your mind’s eye (or completely reset it) is for me essential to the growth and development of an idea. And when it comes to showing other people, being able to point to a photo or clip avoids both misinterpretation and blank stares. Which is all great. But to be able to call upon references when needed requires an appetite for filing and screen time. I use Instagram for makers and companies so you can hit them up straight away; Pinterest for imagery; Vimeo and YouTube for moving image. I make dozens of little lists, and then one big one where I know everything will be if I can’t find it elsewhere.
All I can say to anyone is, when you see/hear/read/experience anything good, for your own sanity’s sake stash it away. Even a dirty old bookmark will save you hours of frustration. My love affair with the internet is strong, true, and will last for all eternity. Every day I jump around between music videos, photography, film, contemporary art, fashion, new fiction writing, Reddit threads, and stuff in between.
But I’m not some kind of mad e-hoarder. At the end of each day, I bookmark the unread and file the interesting. Then, like a priest extinguishing candles at Easter, I close my tabs one by one.
Like anyone I’m the sum total of my experiences. I’m glad my parents threw me into a lot of extracurricular activities; for all the thousands of hours I practised scales or failed to hit a cricket ball, I came away with some useful skills (not cricket) but more importantly the instinct to try things out and experiment fearlessly.
By contrast, my first three years—like so many young creatives—were defined by the fear of messing up. But I took a year off to go backpacking, ate borscht in seven different countries, picked grapes along the Rhine, almost got arrested by corrupt police in Romania, and realised advertising meant far less than I’d ginned myself up to believe.
I got back into the industry with a renewed sense of perspective, and everything took care of itself. To be fair, a little cortisol never did anyone any harm. But there’s no need to manufacture it. So, when it comes to the teams under me (especially newbies), I always emphasise the rewards of pushing harder to find the magic idea, rather than hang the risk of not cracking the brief over them. Don’t stress, just care.
You know that triangle chart every grumpy agency print producer has above their desk about time, money, quality, and how you can only pick two? Pretty damn accurate. You can normally make the budget in front of you work. But time is a finite resource that’s harder to bend.
The best project managers, account people and producers I’ve worked with are geniuses at finding little pockets of time and smooshing them into whole hours of your life back.
Sometimes that means eight half-hour meetings back-to-back, but the two extra hours you get to find a better idea or think of a more cost-effective execution make it worth it.