When Leo Burnett Sydney’s Daniel Stewart reflects on his childhood he believes it’s no surprise that he ended up pursuing a creative career. “I wouldn’t say I was strange to the point of being disturbed, but I definitely took an interest in things that didn’t rely on having other people around. My imagination was definitely always switched on, and my guess is that I probably just had a hard time conveying my thoughts to someone other than myself.”
He grew up in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire to an Australian father and Vietnamese mother. “I think there’s quite an array of difficulties and benefits that come with the turf of growing up mixed race. It can be pretty confusing as a young boy to be singled out as one of the only Asian kids at school, while simultaneously being referred to as the ‘White cousin’ by my mother’s side of the family. On the other hand, I had to learn pretty quickly that there’s no shame in being different, and I think being fascinated by things like culture and identity have left a lasting, positive impression on me.”
Daniel muses that choosing a career that allows him to come up with creative solutions through a cultural lens was probably the most fitting path. But he does blame his dad for passing down a wry sense of humour that’s “not that funny all of the time!”
As with so many creatives, his start in the industry wasn’t a straightforward one and for someone who’d been born and raised in Australia, he still looks back on spending eight years on the other side of the world with amazement. “I majored in animation and film at a small college in Brighton, UK. I don’t think living in the UK for as long as I did was ever part of my life plan at that age. To me, it just followed what happened before that quite naturally. After I finished high school, my initial plan was to defer my university position for one year, go travelling and come back refreshed.”
This didn’t happen but Daniel was always proactive and spent time taking courses in advertising, journalism, design and marketing. His first job after finishing at Hove College was with a home removal company that nearly had a bad ending. “That was enjoyable for a few months until I nearly got flattened trying to carry a giant sofa bed up a rusted spiral staircase in the rain. I asked to quit the next day and found a job as a digital designer at a mid-sized marketing agency a few weeks later.”
With this first job and Daniel’s mantra that it didn’t matter where he started - as long as he got started - his career in advertising began. “The title of digital designer seemed to encompass a lot. I often found myself working on various ideas for pitches and campaigns. Even though it was demanding work, it’s something a look back on quite fondly because of how much I learned from the experience.”
His learning didn’t stop there and at the behest of many of his colleagues at Leo Burnett Daniel enrolled into AWARD School. “That basically translated to 13 weeks of spending every night trying to come up with great ideas. It was definitely a steeper than average learning curve. Doing it while working full-time didn’t leave a lot of time for my usual hobbies, or even sleeping.
“But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t better at what I love doing because I went through all of that. I think working hard and putting the hours into what matters is the only proven way to see some results.”
From the moment of starting out in the industry to where he is today, Daniel is adamant that although he’s received plenty of insightful advice through the years the one piece that’s stuck out to him is unique to say the least. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told no one is going to die because of a bad ad.”
This piece of advice resonated on Daniel’s first ever project for the University of Gloucestershire where he was tasked with creating a pitch around clearing day. He was a fresh-faced 22-year-old at this stage and still finding his feet on different industry terminology. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what a pitch was when they handed me the brief. The main things I remember were sitting at a small desk with two other people, writing out different campaign names while drinking some beers at nine o’clock the night before it was being presented. I don’t really know how it happened, but we somehow won that client with one of the ideas I put forward.”
However, it may have hit a little deeper on a project he was particularly proud of for the Walk Free Foundation. The creatives at Leo Burnett Sydney were tasked with raising awareness that one in 130 women is trapped in some form of slavery. The campaign eventually made it to the UN and received plenty of endorsements from public figures, but for Daniel the real success was working to be able to use ads to spread a message that drew him in.
Looking at the state of the industry and what really riles Daniel up, one thing sticks out more than others. “I know what bothers me, the shrinking down of every single ad format so that they all fit into a six-second spot. It’s ridiculous. I feel like the person who decided everything needed to be shorter than a subliminal message for ‘best practices’ is a terrible human being that didn’t get hugged by their parents enough as a child.”
Despite his jokes, Daniel’s frustration comes from a place of good intention. He would like to leave his mark on the ad industry by creating work that sparks conversations and change in the world – and perhaps less-than-10-second snippets aren’t the most effective way to do that.