“A fickle relationship with creativity” – that’s how Jon Austin, executive creative director of Host/Havas Australia would describe his childhood interests. His father happened to be in a band and in his own words was “the most amazing storyteller,” with an eye for fantasy and sci-fi, which ultimately filled his childhood memories with great music, fantastical bedtime stories and age-inappropriate horror movies. With the exception of the memory of watching The Exorcist by himself at the fragile age of ten, Jon loved the creativity his dad brought into his childhood home.
“But he also wasn’t the type to suffer the meandering mess and directionless energy of young creativity. So, for a long time, it felt like creativity was something I had to observe rather than participate in.” That went on until he turned nine, when he started learning the guitar and succumbed to sci-fi more than ever, working his way from Salvatore up through to Feist.
All of the reading and gradual opening to creativity led to Jon being quite keen on writing by the time he left school. “After the obligatory travel period, I had a crack at a journalism degree, but very quickly realised I hated the rigid, expository style it required.” This led to him dropping out of university and pursuing music instead, which satisfied his need for creative freedom for the first several years but gradually went from liberating to “physically and emotionally crushing.”
“Sure, I now had the freedom to write and create, but the chaos that surrounded it had become exhausting and depressing and was taking a huge toll on me”. Surprisingly, that led him to go back to university and finally collide with advertising. During his time at uni he got put in a two week placement at Saatchi & Saatchi and just “never left.” Him and his randomly assigned partner at the time made an arrangement with their tutors that they would submit real work instead of ideas against mock briefs, and they ended up working together for the next decade. Then, one thing led to another and his 15-year-long career in some of Australia and New Zealand’s most creatively driven agencies, on some of the world’s most famous brands blossomed. Between his work in DDB and Saatchi & Saatchi, he worked with brands such as Emirates, Volkswagen, McDonald’s, Toyota, Sky TV and many others.
However, with so much experience under his belt, Jon still thinks that real good creative ideas win in the real world and don’t need award justification. “Awards are like prison cigarettes – a valuable currency on the inside, but totally worthless on the outside. I think we have patted ourselves on the back so hard and for so long that our idea of what ‘good’ is can be a little skewed at times.” As opposed to that, the really good ideas to Jon are the ones that solve genuine problems rather than made-up ones – the ones that give people what they really want, utility or entertainment.
In 2017 Jon took over the creative leadership at Host/Havas, where he helped Air New Zealand get named as Australia’s most trusted brand five years in a row, launched Kayo, Australia’s most popular sports streaming service, helped Sydneysiders save over 170 million litres of water a day during the worst drought on record and collaborated with WWF and Botanica to save over 20 species of threatened Australian wildflower.
And whilst Jon’s relationship with music when he was younger was a bit dicey by the end, it certainly honed his ability to write. “When all you do every day is think in rhythm and meter; when you’re surrounded by people who do the same; when you need to convey thoughts and ideas in ways that literally get people nodding along, you find smashing out an eDM a lot less straining”.
Nevertheless, being an executive creative director is definitely strenuous stuff. But Jon claims to work better in the crunch. “I love looming deadlines and long odds and hail Marys. I like creativity with stakes, which is fortunate given the way our industry is speeding up. People always seem to describe creativity as this fragile, delicate flower that needs time and space and constant care to survive. But I reckon creativity is a weed. It thrives in any environment. It grows through the thinnest of cracks and smashes through any barrier. I think that resilient, chaos-borne, hard-earned creativity has produced some of the most beautiful, incredible and transformational things in the world.”
Yet for him, an important part of the creative process is that you need to remind yourself you don’t always need to have your foot on the gas and not always be in a creative mindset. “Hell, you shouldn’t stay in a creative mindset! No one can be expected to be ‘on’ every hour of every day. You need the downs to recognise the ups.” After balancing sharp bursts of creativity with moments of staleness in his own career, Jon seems to have come to realise that you cannot get into a creative mindset if you never get out of one.
When looking more broadly at the industry in Australia, Jon believes that over the last couple of years emerging ideas seem to unfortunately seem smaller. “Not better or worse necessarily. Just…smaller. And it’s unsurprising, really. The pandemic hasn’t just taken a shrink ray to our lives – it’s taken one to our dreams.” Even with the doom and gloom of the reduced insights and ambitions, the creative director still thinks the industry is to live through its most exciting and transformative time.
“Because a lot of people genuinely dislike what we do, and it’s not them that need to change, it’s us. So, rather than trying to figure out loopholes and hacks to break into their lives and sneakily get their attention, I want to do work that makes them want to engage. Work that pulls them in, rather than pushes, unwelcome, into their eyes, ears, and brains. I want to make things people want, rather than making people want things”.