“I was born down in South Melbourne, long before it was a fashionable place to live.
I was an only child and my parents used to argue a lot so I spent a lot of time in my bedroom just drawing. I left school at 13 to become an apprentice motor mechanic, which I was very unhappy doing. A guy who grew up in the same street, Alex Stitt, was going to RMIT, and he encouraged me to apply. Alex went on to become a famous animator [he created the Life.Be In It campaign in the 1980s, among others]. I applied to RMIT and did the entrance exam. But I hadn’t finished school, so I didn’t have much chance of getting in. My stepmother showed my exam paper drawings to Victor Greenhalgh [an Australian sculptor who was Head of Art at RMIT in the 1960s]. He went to extraordinary lengths to get me in. He called up my employer and asked them to break my contract. He said I could start class right away, on the condition that I do matriculation English at night school.
But then there was the question of how I could afford it.
There weren’t any grant systems in those days. But then I actually won a scholarship, which I seemed to win every year, which paid for my tuition every year. At RMIT I suddenly found a world of people like me. It changed my life completely. Advertising wasn’t really developed in Australia then. After graduating, I worked for a year in graphic design. Then I went to the UK. I discovered the power of words – putting words and pictures together, that separately say different things, but together they say a third thing. That is powerful. I wanted to get into advertising where you could use that as a medium.
I started at Young & Rubicam when I was 24 years old.
Within a year, I was made Creative Group Head on their largest account. It was actually a very bad experience for me, because I didn’t know much about politics and leadership, and it was very difficult. All I wanted to do was create great work. Years later I returned to Australia and started an agency in Sydney with people from Melbourne. It was called “The Campaign Palace.” But it was with Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney where I really made my career.
I was focussed on the idea of globalisation, where work can travel.
If something has meaning to people, it will cross borders. I was one of the early thinkers about that within Saatchi, and that helped my career. We did some pioneering work on Toyota in Australia, which helped to propel me onto the worldwide stage within the company, and from there I was made Chairman of the worldwide Creative Board and from that, Worldwide Creative Director.
For a little while I tried to do the job from Australia, then I had to fly to New York three times in two weeks, and that was enough. I had this idea that we needed to take advertising out of our name and rebrand ourselves as an ideas company. That was driven by the new media that was coming – you mightn’t be solving a problem with a traditional ad anymore, clients would be looking for your ideas.
One of the things I’m keen on is perseverance. I think it is much more important than talent.
Throughout my career I used to think about my time at RMIT and Victor Greenhalgh. For some reason he’d taken this tremendous chance on me, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and gone out of his way to actually help me. It’s something that I always try to remember now when I’m interviewing people or I have a chance to help someone else.
There’s a great line in the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, which said “Teachers affect eternity, they have no idea where their influence may end.”
A few years ago, I was back at RMIT for a function, and I was talking to [RMIT Vice-Chancellor] Margaret Gardner. I said to her, “I have a very sneaky suspicion that the scholarship that I won each year did not actually exist.” She said, “It probably didn’t. It was probably the teachers putting the money together themselves, and they used to do a lot of that back then.” I felt so touched by that that. I decided to start my own scholarship program at RMIT’s School of Communication for underprivileged students. I named the scholarship after Victor Greenhalgh, because I wanted what he’d done for me to perpetuate.
There’s a great line in the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, which said “Teachers affect eternity, they have no idea where their influence may end.
”This rings true to me. Victor had no idea where his influence would end with me, but his support enabled me to become a leader in my field. And that enabled me to create the scholarship program which is still carrying his name. Who knows where his influence will end? Who knows what the students who get these scholarships will go on to do? Who knows what that will mean for the world? I think it’s a really powerful thing to be able to pay back, and pay forward that legacy.”