The Industry Hot Lunch is a new monthly series that brings together London’s top senior agency creatives and rising stars to highlight the next generation of creativity in the agency sector.
Kicking off the series, we sit down with FCB Inferno’s CCO, Owen Lee, and Creative, Sarah Lefkowith, at South London gastropub, Great Guns Social. Over bibimbap and glass noodles, served up by visiting chef Jay Morjaria, the two discuss accidental industry beginnings, what you need to hack it in adland, and who they’d bring to the table with a heap load of pizza and beer.
Q> How did you get into advertising?
Sarah Lefkowith, Creative> By complete accident. I was set to do a placement at The Daily Show but that fell through. Viacom gave me two alternatives: work at MTV’s then ad agency Scratch…or 16 and Pregnant. I went for the agency. Until then, I didn’t really know that advertising existed as an option, so my reaction once there was “Oh my god, this is really cool”.
Owen Lee, CCO> I think it’s telling that a lot of people get into advertising by mistake. It attracts eclectic people. I got into the industry two years after Sarah was born…yeah, terrifying. I was at art college when a tutor introduced me to advertising as an option. That was a thunderbolt moment. I knew it was what I want to do, so I went to college for two years. Back then, you had to follow that up with a two-year placement – unpaid, of course. Instead, me and an art director decided to do our placement around the world (this was before gap years were a thing). After a lot of networking and letters sent, we managed to fly out the day after graduation. It was incredible.
Q> Why are you still in advertising? What motivates you?
Owen> That’s a question I ask myself every day. We get to work on so many eclectic businesses day-to-day and that’s what makes it an interesting profession. You’re constantly learning.
You can tackle so many different types of challenges within one job. Working on 'This Girl Can'
, and with UEFA on 'Together We Play Strong'
were great opportunities to do some really powerful, socially-impactful work. But, equally, getting to work with a brand like BMW is super interesting and offers a completely different type of complexity. What more could you want?
Q> Owen, compared to when you first started out, how different is it for young people in the industry today?
Owen> In terms of the difficulty getting in, I think it’s similar. There’s still this exploitative placement system, which I don’t like personally. FCB has always paid interns the London Living Wage – which increases annually in line with government updates - but it’s still not common practice across the whole sector. Agencies still attract a lot of white, middle-class kids because they can afford to be in London. This then plays into the problem with diversity, which is a whole other topic that we could come onto.
Q> Sarah, you’ve got quite the broad skillset! What was your experience like entering advertising?
Sarah> I didn’t go to portfolio school, so I’m kind of feral in a way. My career so far has involved a lot of figuring things out as I go along. Coming from the U.S., it was a big learning curve to get into the flow of the UK advertising industry. But all these experiences have definitely proved useful - not having been classically trained, having a background in tech, documentary, and social science helps me approach things from a very odd and fresh angle, I hope!
Owen> It really does. Sarah is naturally tech-focussed, digital-savvy, and she loves social - that to me is fantastic. There’s definitely been a lot of her teaching me, I think. Which didn’t exist as much when I entered the industry.
Q> What qualities can’t you do without in advertising?
Curiosity. Creativity for me is entertaining that up might be down or that left could be right – you have to entertain the ridiculous for a second. If you’re too rational, it’s difficult to come up with new ideas. I think being in advertising trains your brain to see the world from a different perspective. In fact, our ‘Queen Rules’
and ‘Change Please’
campaigns both came about as a result of our team being inspired change something they encountered in their lives.
On top of that, it’s passion, tenacity, resilience, and drive. Generally, I’d say people are quite outgoing and thick-skinned - especially creatives. You spend your time getting your ideas knocked back - and Sarah will know this well; I’m very honest about what works and what doesn’t. If that isn’t for you, it’s probably not a great industry to be in.
Sarah> Being thick-skinned is really important. It’s tricky when you’re putting all your heart and soul into a creative idea and everyone claws it to pieces! But if you can live through that, you can hack it in the industry. In terms of keeping your ideas fresh, it’s an active and ongoing process. Personally, I have a lot of interests that are creative and also really nerdy, so exposing myself to these different kinds of thinking helps.
Q> What can agencies be doing to retain talent?
Sarah> I’m only one person, but making sure young talent has the ability to tackle interesting problems is so important. I’ve had the opportunity to film a TVC, build a bot, go to Parliament for an ad - that’s all pretty compelling stuff for someone considering entering the industry. Whilst that’s not a universal truth for every creative, highlighting that this can be part of the job can be pretty powerful for talent.
Owen> That’s a good answer. I’d add that one issue we need to address is the massive draw of tech companies - The Googles, Facebooks and Snapchats of the world have a sexier image at the moment. I think we can be raising more awareness about the fact that advertising gives us the opportunity to make work that is making a difference to the world - that’s bigger than us. We’ve launched a coffee brand, ‘Change Please’, which has so far helped 35 homeless people off the streets and are now in employment. And we got three million more women exercising through This Girl Can. We’re part of the difference and that’s an incredible thing.
Q> If you had the power to change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
Owen> I’d have to say diversity. Agencies at the moment don’t reflect the audience. I’ve mentioned social mobility, but it’s especially the case for people of colour, people living with disabilities, and also those of age. Our audience is changing by the day and we’ve got to get with the program. It’s an easy thing to talk about, but a more difficult thing to achieve. So, if I had a wand, I would get to that immediately.
Sarah> Diversity gets a lot of lip service, but unless you have people who think differently and have different experiences of the world, you’re going to get the same answer and increasingly, it’s an answer that’s becoming more irrelevant. A possibility sometimes doesn’t seem like a possibility unless you see somebody you can relate to in that position, which is a problem that can affect women and minorities seeking to break into the creative department in a number of ways. So, the sooner we can get to that the better.
Q> To end on a fun note, if you could throw a dinner for your creative heroes, who would they be and what would be on the table?
Owen> If we can include anyone? I would love to have Bill Bernbach back because he was the godfather of creativity and really pushed for speaking to the consumer emotionally. I would also have Rosser Reeves – he was the complete opposite and believed in USP. They had a big battle, so I’d love to get that going again! I’d probably have Lee Clow, John Hegarty, David Abbott, George Lois, Dave Droga. That would be a great party in itself, I would think, because I’d be fascinated to hear how people have changed the industry throughout their eras. In terms of what we’d give them, definitely alcohol – no question. Food-wise, it’d be something really easy - imagine you got stuff from the deli counter and put it on the table - so we can talk informally.
Sarah> I’d literally nick his guest list! It’s pretty well thought through. I’m still learning when it comes to the advertising greats and the history of the industry. In terms of food and drink, I’d say something easy. I’d order a bunch of greasy pizzas, put them on a table, get lots of beer, and see what happens.
Owen ate pork belly glass noodles and Sarah ate bibimbap from Chef Jay Morjaria’s ‘Dynasty’ menu at Great Guns Social