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Giving People a Story to Tell with Jason Leigh

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M&C Saatchi Australia’s creative Jason John Leigh brings LBB’s Zoe Antonov on his journey from pizza trays to writing meaningful stories at his dream job

Giving People a Story to Tell with Jason Leigh

A shy only child spending “too much time” around adults, copywriter at M&C Saatchi Australia Jason Leigh took some time before he figured out “how other kids work” in his childhood days. However timid and quiet, a pivotal point in his school days turned everybody’s expectations towards him on their heads – namely, a class presentation. “I put a lot of effort into a funny puppet show, which was oddly politically charged for a nine-year old, but made everyone laugh and all of a sudden I understood how other kids worked – you just need to make them laugh,” Jason says. Ever since, that is what he has been striving to do and is currently making a living out of. “It’s great!”

When it comes to early inklings towards his passions later in life, Jason has always been interested in creativity beyond just helping people have a good time. “I filled my weekends with books, writing stories, consuming comedy and playing in my imagination,” he admits. His favourite place? The local library, Blockbuster video and the newsagent where he could buy comic books. “Then I discovered puberty and rock and roll,” – which we all know is a great combination. 

When it comes to his favourite places today, Jason points at “dank storage units full of instruments” where he’d spend his time recording music or “an old man pub” where he’d sit with the company of his notepad and his thoughts. That would be his introverted side. However, he admits to always “love to party and perform, as long as there’s time to warm up and warm down”. F

Jason was raised in a very much dual scene – he split his time between living in a “fairly rough” town and a middle class one. “I’d spend most of the week with battlers and drug dealers and thieves, most of whom were lovely people, and the rest with teachers and nurses and people who’d been to university.” Admitting that it impacted his outlook a lot, this dichotomy was what eventually led the copywriter to understand that beyond it all we’re “pretty much the same.” Something that impacts his work to this day.

Later in life Jason went to university and enjoyed it so much, that he ended up pursuing not one, but two degrees. “It was liberating to be surrounded by smart people who were just as interested in ideas and beer bongs,” another good combination. He did his BA in Communication at Monash University and his postgraduate degree in Public Relations at RMIT. Throughout that time Jason was discovering other parts of himself through music – he was learning how to put bands and songs together (here’s where that love for spending time in storage units comes from). He was adamant to convince venues to book his band and stations to play them. “That gritty DIY ethos has been invaluable in my job as an advertising creative today,” tells Jason. 

However, what he points to as the “most formative experience” during his early years was the time he worked illegally in a pizza shop when he was a child, washing dishes for $5 an hour. “It was the hardest I’ve ever worked and everything’s felt easy since.” These days were probably the ones that he held dear to his heart in his first ever advertising gig where he wrote a long copy piece about how great it is to be “unapologetically wealthy”, while sitting beside “a dumpster on a milk crate behind a pub, drinking cheap white wine”. Remembering that experience, Jason says “I was getting paid next to nothing but having the time of my life”.

Surely after that experience going into public relations must have felt like a breeze, where he spent the next ten years before “discovering advertising and starting [his] career again as a junior.” Jason’s first job in PR was to “convince journalists to write about products for free,” where he started honing his writing skills and finding out more about what he likes and dislikes in the industry. One of his most successful stories, he remembers, is when he “got Honda engines all over the news because [he] found a Shetland Pony farmer who’d built an outdoor vacuum for horse manure, using those engines.” The story turned out to be a great success, because “not only did it have cute photos of Shetland ponies, but they could also use the phrase ‘powerful poo sucker’.” 

Contrastingly, he then moved on to doing more serious work, like writing speeches for CEOs and politicians, run government media units during natural disasters and translating scientists’ research into stories for journos to pick up. Little did he know, he would soon discover what he was meant to be going for the whole time.

“I didn’t even know what advertising was and assumed it wasn’t for me because I can’t draw. But then I met a girl in a bar who worked in advertising and told me what a copywriter was, and pointed me toward AWARD school,” Jason remembers. As anything faithful in life starts with meeting a stranger at the bar, he knew to follow her words. “When I got in and figured out what the job actually was, I couldn’t believe my luck,” he admits. 

Although he didn’t jump straight into advertising from that point, as he was deep into PR and funding his music activities on weekends, Jason soon realised that “being creative on the weekend wasn’t enough” and he needed it through the week too. “So I started my career again at 30 as a jJunior c Copywriter.” Due to the sharp turn in his career path, Jason is reluctant to claim he has fully honed his writing – “I’m at least a decade off that,” he admits “but I would claim I’m fairly good ”.

Fairly good might be a slight undervaluation. The copywriter first learned about good structure and storytelling in his Public Relations jobs, where he was “pumping out story after story for newspapers”. This is where he got better at being funny, through doing hundreds of stand-up comedy shows, while also writing and recording songs on his phone. “But writing is only part of being an advertising copywriter,” he explains “it’s a broad job, made up of lots of little jobs. You have to think of big ideas, sell them, protect them, obsess over small executional details, know your way around film sets and audio studios and edit suites and collaborate with technical specialists who know more than you.”

In the amount of time he has been learning about the nooks and crannies of the job, he has surely learned one thing he’d give as adviceadvise – “Don’t always do what you’re told”. At Jason’s first job a senior creative who had “been around the block a few times” opened him up to this little secret. “He’d seen lots of creatives do exactly what was asked of them, then have some great internal meetings, some easy client meetings because there was nothing too challenging, then become really popular with account service because they were too easy to deal with. But then the work wouldn’t sell any products because it was wallpaper, the client would fire the agency, the agency would fire the boss and the new boss would see nothing but boring work in the creative’s book.” The lesson was to always fight for what’s exciting and right for a particular client, even a bit outside of the brief. 

Jason carries those lessons through his own work. A piece of work that changed his career was an open brief at M&C Saatchi where he had to come up with something that would bring attention for Steggles Turkey. This is when he wrote some spoken word spots selling turkey as “ugly but good for you”, and celebrating other things that are ugly but good for you (“like sweating and masturbation,”, he says). This is the work that won him a D&AD pencil. 

The copywriter has discovered that what he enjoys most about creative work is being in a room with other creatives. He points to a very specific moment he loves – “when you pitch an idea and another creative totally gets it, completely understands the intangible thought bubble in your head so much that they start riffing on it and making it better”. On the flip side, what he finds hardest is coming up with an incredible idea that dies because of poor explanation. He points us to the insufferable moment in any creative’s career – “If you could just see what was in my head you’d already be booking flights to Cannes.”. That, and creating work that copies culture instead of adding to it is what frustrates him in the creative process. “Great culture that moves the world forward nearly always comes from creative people on the street with no money or power, who have to think bigger and scrappier, and rarely get paid for it,” Jason says. “In advertising we’re surrounded by opportunities to bring exciting ideas to the world, so it’s our responsibility to make the most of it rather than just following trends and blending in”.

And that is exactly what Jason aims to do – not blend in and not always do what he’s told. “I’m so grateful to do what I do for a living, and to be good at it,” he says, while reflecting on older days when he has been working all sorts of jobs since 13 years old. “Washing pizza trays, scrubbing butcher shops, stacking shelves, hustling journalists…but it turns out all the weird time wasting, the creative stuff I’ve done on the side has set me up well. Now I go to work and come up with ideas that hopefully put a smile on someone’s face. To give somebody a giggle or a cry, make them feel understood for a second, or at least give them a story to tell.”

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M&C Saatchi Australia Group, Tue, 15 Feb 2022 15:59:59 GMT