John Harlow – The brilliant misfit who changed the media world

mike wilsonIn this guest post, Mike Wilson recalls John Harlow, the iconoclast who shook up the media planning world with the launch of Naked Communications.

It’s always hard writing a piece like this, when you know that most Mumbrella readers won’t have known John personally, who was just yet another Pom leading light in the industry. It’s also hard, because everyone will also know someone, or know of someone, who has died far too young – just 45 in John’s case – and who has been devastated by alcoholism.

John and I wrote the original agreement to open Naked Australia on the back of a beer coaster, taken from the Shelbourne Hotel in Sydney’s Kent Street. This gesture wasn’t meant to be cool, or funny, but it was meant to be just a little bit subversive. (And of course ironic, as we knew full well that the sorts of people who do deals on beer mats are, by and large, self-important buffoons). We were sitting across the road from the WPP office where I worked, the beer mat serving as my trigger to leave the multi-national world and embark on a new start-up adventure. And sitting in reception, waiting for the cue, was a hungry, turbo-talented 25 year old called Mat Baxter (now CEO of UM)…

Together with his visionary partners, Jon Wilkins, and Will Collin, John Harlow walked out of a multi-national agency in London, in 2000, and they set up on their own. Determined to prove that there was a better way than the prevailing model which peddled pre-determined ad agency creative solutions, or shoe-horned boring traditional content into pre-booked media slots, with scant regard for client need, Naked was born.

John Harlow

John Harlow – taken during his brief time at The Brand Agency in Perth

I’d actually known John since the late eighties as we were starting our careers in London media agencies. He was at Abbott Mead and very early on established a reputation as one of the industry’s finest young minds, as well as someone who enjoyed the accompanying trappings, perhaps more than most.

John was truly fanatical about popular culture and especially music; he trained as a young violinist, and became a talented and obsessive synth player, aspiring madly to follow in the footsteps of OMD, (the band, not the agency). Readers of a certain vintage will know the band Orange Juice, and their singer/guitarist Edwyn Collins , whom John idolized.

He would characteristically raise an eyebrow, I think, at the recent Publicis/Omnicom merger. The inexorable march towards the industry’s new goal – Efficiency – would have bemused him. That seemingly exclusive focus flies in the face of just about everything John believed in. He never deviated, in work or life, from core principles – the pursuit of creativity; doing things differently; challenging the status quo.

His passing serves as a poignant reminder of the way so many talented young people in the industry become compromised as their efficiency-driven bosses’ urge them to produce average work, for average returns. It’s why they become disillusioned, and it’s why they leave. And it’s the opposite of everything John stood for.

Few starters join the creative community with the ambition of working for a holding company, or aspiring to be the most ‘efficient’; John Harlow understood this. It’s why (with Jon and Will) they coined the term ‘brilliant misfit’ to describe the proto-typical Naked employee, a term that endures in the company’s culture.

Sadly, fate has shown that John also spent a bit too much time in the fast lane; the stories I have about that used to be funny, but now they’re not. He’s not the first, and I fear that that he won’t be the last either. His journey can serve as a warning light, though. I know some others who could go down the same path, and I’m sure you do too. Look out for them, because I can assure you that you won’t ever want to write a piece like this about one of your good friends.

Back at the Shelbourne, I remember asking John what was the real driving force behind the plans to open Naked in Australia; was it the local market opportunity, the gateway to Asia, the entrepreneurial spirit of young Australians….? ‘No, mate’, he said, ‘we want to be here because this is the best country in the world. One day I want to retire here, sit by the Margaret River, write a book and drink red wine’.

Fearless and passionate, John will never get to achieve that ambition, and he will be very, very missed.

Along with Mat Baxter and Adam Ferrier, Mike Wilson co-founded Naked Communications Australia. He stepped down as chairman last month



  1. Rob Campbell
    13 Aug 13
    11:12 am

  2. Nice Mike. Very nice.

  3. mumbrella
    13 Aug 13
    11:19 am

  4. I was lucky enough to get to know John a little about a decade ago, within a week or two of starting to write about media agencies for Media Week in the UK.

    While most meetings fade from the mind, I can still remember vividly his tales of placing sofas in city centres and travelling to Tokyo to get insights for a retail client. I came away with my first understandings of what a media strategy was.

    I don’t think I fully appreciated at the time what an original thinker I was talking to. I just assumed that everybody in the media industry was that interesting.

    Tim – Mumbrella

  5. Mat Baxter
    13 Aug 13
    12:00 pm

  6. Beautifully said Mike.

    John, thank you for everything you did for me and our industry. You will be missed.

  7. Jay
    13 Aug 13
    12:42 pm

  8. I don’t know any of the people this story but I stopped what I was doing and read it from start to finish. Beautifully written and really sad.

  9. Richard @ Mogul
    13 Aug 13
    12:44 pm

  10. A lovely tribute Mike. Thank you.

  11. Jon
    13 Aug 13
    12:46 pm

  12. Lovely mike, and totally spot on. Today has been overwhelming with the love and support shown to John, and his friends and family.

  13. Justin Singh
    13 Aug 13
    12:48 pm

  14. I worked with John in the UK, at PHD, but then more closely with him at Rocket Communications. He was truly inspiring at that stage in my own career, in terms of his great thinking, but also in terms of his fearless approach to take on the multinationals, challenge conventional thinking and his ability to engage with people, … especially clients!
    I’m a little lost for words, what a loss, not just to the Industry but to society in general.
    Thoughts go out to Johns family.

  15. Jane
    13 Aug 13
    1:09 pm

  16. a touching tribute Mike, John was an industry figure who I didn’t know personally but I have a lot of respect for what he achieved.

  17. Adam Ferrier
    13 Aug 13
    1:14 pm

  18. Well said mate.

    John was a truly visionary thinker, a lovely bloke, great fun – and a true brilliant misfit. He was much loved and much admired. Love and peace to Johns family and friends.

  19. Imogen
    13 Aug 13
    1:19 pm

  20. I am sure that this was written with a very heavy heart. You have said it all beautifully Mike.

  21. Jaqui Lane
    13 Aug 13
    1:45 pm

  22. Like Jay, I don’t know any of the people in this article as I am not in the advertising industry but it is a brave thing you do Mike in recognising a clearly talented person and being honest about his alcoholism. Perhaps your honesty and openness might help others to deal with their own issues and enjoy a longer life.

  23. Rupert
    13 Aug 13
    1:49 pm

  24. Beautifully said Mike. Those were indeed exciting and heady times when we all used to knock about together in London in the nineties. I was at John’s wedding he was at mine. It’s all too sad, he was a true character.

  25. Georgie
    13 Aug 13
    2:03 pm

  26. Bravo… beautiful :)
    Can we have more couches n stuff please!

  27. WTF
    13 Aug 13
    2:30 pm

  28. Nice piece

  29. Ruth Heenan
    13 Aug 13
    2:57 pm

  30. John was one of my first bosses in advertising and media @ Rocket PHD. He was inspirational and I do remember many fun times and ludicrous conversations with him. Such a shock. Having worked for someone like John early on in my career has given me the confidence to think outside of the box and never be afraid to ask.

  31. Gareth
    13 Aug 13
    3:20 pm

  32. Well said Mike.

  33. Erin Jameson
    13 Aug 13
    3:22 pm

  34. A beautifully written tribute. I didn’t know John or any of his colleagues mentioned in the story, but the sense of losing a talented, vibrant and colourful character is tangible.

  35. Eddie DSa
    13 Aug 13
    3:29 pm

  36. Great piece Mike, it puts into words what a lot of us are feeling.

  37. Chris Stephenson
    13 Aug 13
    3:31 pm

  38. it was whilst working at Rocket that I first appreciated what our industry could do when we set our minds to it, John was a brilliant misfit indeed. a beautifully written and heartfelt piece Mike. thank you.

  39. Danny
    13 Aug 13
    3:49 pm

  40. I was also fortunate enough to have worked with John – an inspirational person and a top top bloke. Great times had and a really sad day today.

  41. Paul Yole
    13 Aug 13
    3:53 pm

  42. Thank you for writing this lovely piece Mike. Our hearts goes out to John’s family and everyone at Naked. I only knew him for a very short time, but he was a genius who made a lasting impression.

  43. Ben Richards
    13 Aug 13
    4:04 pm

  44. Lovely piece, Mike. John was quite simply the most inspirational person I’ve ever met. A maverick and misfit — but also an incredible mentor and friend. My deep condolences to his family & friends.

  45. Pete Lien
    13 Aug 13
    4:05 pm

  46. Well said, Mike. I think there are many of us who have John to thank for where we are today.

  47. Neal
    13 Aug 13
    4:58 pm

  48. Thank you, Mike – you’ve written something beautifully personal that speaks to a lot of shared experiences and heavy hearts right now. I’m off to play Rip It Up…

  49. Sean Adams
    13 Aug 13
    6:04 pm

  50. Beautifully written eulogy Mike. I never knew John in person, but very much knew him by reputation. You have captured perfectly the essence of a brilliant mind – I’m sure it was tough to write, but you have done his memory justice.

  51. Nikki Stammers
    13 Aug 13
    6:30 pm

  52. Very sad news indeed. He was a very charismatic person with a lot of personality. No doubt he will be missed by many. Thanks Mike for an excellently written piece.

  53. Anna Bongiorno
    13 Aug 13
    7:20 pm

  54. Beautifully written Mike.

  55. Casper Willer
    13 Aug 13
    7:30 pm

  56. Well said Mike, also speaking for all of us standing on the shoulders of this truly brilliant misfit.

  57. Dan
    13 Aug 13
    8:11 pm

  58. Never knew him but after reading this I wish I did.

  59. The other John H
    13 Aug 13
    8:39 pm

  60. John was a force of nature – smart and fearless. A great inspiration to many. A loss for us all.

  61. Will Collin
    13 Aug 13
    9:37 pm

  62. Thanks for encapsulating the whole story so vividly, Mike. I didn’t know the bit about him wanting to while away his golden years on the banks of the Margaret River but I’m not surprised. John’s maverick disregard for traditional convention always made me think that underneath the half-Brit, half-Dutch exterior John was actually more than a little bit Aussie.

  63. Jo Pearce
    13 Aug 13
    10:14 pm

  64. How hard must that have been to remember, let alone write Mike? I saw the news on Twitter, the headlines and the photo of John most of all took my breath away. Working with him at that time in London is something I will never forget and am immensely grateful for.

  65. Hobbsie
    13 Aug 13
    10:24 pm

  66. Awesome piece mike. I can’t claim to know John personally, although, having worked at naked for a few years I can confirm that the influence he had is still obvious in the way they approach work today and the people they employ. My thoughts are with his family and friends, very sad news.

  67. ian
    14 Aug 13
    1:16 am

  68. nicely written mate.I knew John back in the 80’s at FCO where he fitted in perfectly, probably a first for him in adland. Last time we met was over a decade ago and he spent a lengthy lunch beer encouraging me to help him start Naked South Africa. We should have, and now we won’t. Sad

  69. Joan Lind
    14 Aug 13
    1:20 am

  70. Dear Mike. I don’t know you, but this is a tremendous tribute to John and you. I knew John well after 6 years at AMV. I simply can’t believe John has gone but his legacy will be sure to live on. Thank you Mumbrella for this piece.

  71. Gita
    14 Aug 13
    1:27 am

  72. What a lovely story you tell. Thanks for sharing.

  73. Steve Gatfield
    14 Aug 13
    3:10 am

  74. John was an original in every sense .He could be delightful and demanding all at the same time.Like those few who are truly rare he burnt too bright .His light that has now dimmed was brilliant: in fact to quote John “blloody brilliant”!Thank you Mike for capturing his spark for those of us lucky enough to know him

  75. Scott Thomson
    14 Aug 13
    3:18 am

  76. Professionally he gave us all refuge from the mediocre. Personally every interaction I had with him told me I was dealing with an exceptional bloke. Thanks Mike for sharing some beautiful words – now rebooting some Edwyn Collins.

  77. denise
    14 Aug 13
    8:08 am

  78. A truly wonderful piece. Worked with John when he first started at AMV, a bright, fun, mad boy…a very sad day.

  79. Dana Ingster
    14 Aug 13
    9:51 am

  80. Mike, a well written and heartfelt piece. And so nice to touch on those early days of Naked magic of which I feel so fortunate to have been a part of in some small way. John was always an inspiring presence; both remotely and on his flying visits. Your piece is a reminder to be bold, be creative and speak out for what you believe in, thank you! My thoughts are with all of you who knew him so well.

  81. Paul
    14 Aug 13
    11:25 pm

  82. Lovely piece – thanks for sharing. John used to sing to me when we worked together at AMV – he was my boss – but more than this he was my best friend. He also did a mean Jarvis Cocker complete with dancing eyebrows – what a hero. RIP.

  83. Vince Parrinello
    17 Aug 13
    12:19 am

  84. What an honest way to pay tribute to someone who mattered in your life. Telling the whole story about John Harlow’s life, and how brilliant and yet complex and fragile life is, tells me volumes about John, as well as the quality and uniqueness of Mike Wilson and the community they were, and are a part off. Cheers to you all.

  85. Bryan Weynand
    20 Aug 13
    3:15 am

  86. I had the privilege of knowing John personally, a great and brilliant man. Alcoholism doesn’t discriminate and has taken another one of the greats. Love you buddy rest in peace. With us always

  87. Geoffrey Gray
    22 Aug 13
    3:23 am

  88. John H thank-you for giving so many of us confidence, structure and direction. Beautifully written, thank you Mike.