14 years of Gruen: 4 legendary panellists share their stories

Seja Al Zaidi speaks with adland legends Russel Howcroft, Dee Madigan, Christina Aventi, and Carolyn Miller to hear their unfiltered thoughts on the best & worst ads of Gruen - as well as their most unforgettable, hilarious moments filming the iconic show.

Gruen, the show designed to unpack the dark arts of advertising and spin, has wrapped up its 14th year on air – so I took a look back at the legacy of a program Russel Howcroft says was never “produced for the industry”.

Gruen, which has aired on the ABC since 2008, has entertained, triggered and educated an Australian public who are widely pessimistic and cynical about advertising – and OG panellist Russel Howcroft, who is one of the most noteworthy faces of the Australian ad industry today, says this cynicism is precisely what’s fostered Gruen’s longevity in the Australian media landscape.

“The longevity of the show certainly proves that there are people in Australia that love what Gruen does – and of course, Gruen at its best is a skeptic. It’s demanding that advertising prove its worth – and that’s more than fair.

“Initially there was much conjecture, debate and discussion about the role Gruen was playing – that’s all gone now, Gruen is now just part of the entertainment landscape.

“When I ran George Patterson and Y&R Brands Group, I used to get people to report ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ – I think that ultimately is what Gruen does.”

Of course, Howcroft is quick to note that a masterful effort goes on behind the scenes to produce the alchemic value of the show that audiences love so much. “The research that goes into the show cannot be underestimated,” he said, noting the writers deploy painstaking levels of creative work in conjunction with host Wil Anderson to create the show’s ‘spine’.

To celebrate 14 years of Gruen, I asked four long-standing Gruen panellists and influential names in adland – Russel Howcroft, Christina Aventi, Carolyn Miller and Dee Madigan – their most memorable moment filming the show, and the best & worst ads they saw while on the panel.

Russel Howcroft

Russel Howcroft, OG Gruen panellist.

What was your most memorable moment from your time filming the show?

The most memorable moment was actually offscreen, in the early days. After we had filmed a show, Andrew Denton took me aside and said to me, “Russell, you’ll never do that again.”

What he was referring to was that I was flippant with regard to one of the pitches – and he was quite right, because it wasn’t what I would normally do. I don’t want to be flippant with regards to the Pitch. I don’t feel like I’ve ever done it since, but he made it very clear that that was not appropriate – and it’s not appropriate at a very, very simple level. 

People put in a huge amount of effort to get that thing right, and it’s disrespectful to be flippant. He made that very clear to me, and I sincerely appreciated the coaching he gave me on that night. 

How were you approached to do the show, and what was your reaction when it was first pitched to you?

When I was asked to do the show I said yes, but it took me a while to say yes. I was then asked why did you say yes, and my response was “so no other bastard would do it.”

You’ve got to remember the context. I was running an advertising agency and if it wasn’t me sitting in that seat, it would’ve been someone else sitting in that seat – ie, a competitor. I said yes to ensure one of my competitors wasn’t sitting there. It wasn’t through a burning desire to be on a TV panel show. It then turned out I really liked it, and I was really pleased I was chosen. It was definitely a sliding door moment. 

There is a fun story – when I was told Todd Sampson was going to be sitting opposite me, my response, which was written in the press, was ‘who the fuck is he?’

What’s the best ad you’ve seen while on the panel?

There were two brilliant Pitches – one about invading New Zealand, and the other Pitch was during the height of the Iraq War. That Pitch was to turn Baghdad into a holiday destination. You’d have loved the tagline – ‘Baghdad, where it’s never Shiite and always Sunni!’

There was an outstanding commercial made for the Greens when we did Gruen Nation (the show leading up to an election), the ad was so good that the Greens actually tried to buy it off Gruen!

And the worst?

There’s no such thing as a bad ad. An old boss of mine said ‘all advertising works, it’s just a matter of how much’! What’s the purpose of advertising? It’s to make something happen. If you believe that all advertising works, and it’s just a matter of how much, then there’s no such thing as a bad ad.

Christina Aventi

Christina Aventi.

What was your most memorable moment from your time filming the show?

Even being asked back to be honest. I don’t take it for granted.

But there is a moment that is imprinted in my memory, because it required something quite out of character for me. I think it was my second show, so I was having an out of body experience fuelled by nerves and imposterism.  Wil threw me a question about how to eat a banana in a way that was purely for sustenance, not suggestive or lewd. Quite the challenge given a banana’s anatomical doppelganger status, and the fact that my Italian mum was probably watching.

This was off the back of the ‘Make your body sing’ spot for Aussie bananas. So I demonstrated how to…  but I really didn’t want to degenerate into innuendo and so talked about establishing a peel and bite technique and eyeline that clearly indicated you and banana were friends, not friends with benefits. Nothing more. And Wil said something like ‘Friends with Bananafits’. At the time it was hilarious. Not sure now as I write this. I haven’t eaten a banana since. It’s too triggering.

What’s the best and worst ad you’ve seen while on the panel?

It’s easy to remember one of the worst. And it’s recent. It was for StarChicken Thailand. Basically, the ad used VR to bring the protagonist’s deceased mum back to life as they shared a StarChicken meal together – with a VR headset as the third (but highly necessary) wheel. 

It was emotional, I don’t doubt that. I was lured in by the sentimentality, thinking about my loved ones who had passed that I’d love to see again. But then I was absolutely livid that it was such a gratuitous play for a very previous part of my memories. I know that it’s a thorny industry in terms of the emotions and levers we pull, just don’t intrude on some of the most precious parts of our memories and leverage them. Please. 

As for the best? I suppose Libra’s Womb Stories stands out… I love that it’s not women running up hills defying their period or fempowerment fodder. Instead, it’s the good bits, the life creation bits, the annoying bits, the heavy bits, like the blood, the pain, the blahs, the reality of it. And it’s animated. But it is the truest expression of periods for me yet. And I’m glad we got a chance to champion it and talk openly about the bleed. As a panel, we got to celebrate the influence of our industry for good – normalising that, which ironically should be very bloody normal.

Carolyn Miller

Carolyn Miller.

What was your most memorable moment from your time filming the show?

My most memorable time was actually from an early series, and unfortunately it was an incident that didn’t make it to air. We used to have warm up segments that were designed to engage the live audience and help us as a panel find our rhythm – and often it was just a mini review of a terrible ad.

One week, the ‘terrible ad’ in question was actually one that I had worked on, for Dettol Instant Hand Sanitiser. The team didn’t realise that this was my own ad when they showed it and the rest of the panel started laughing at it – thinking that the fact pedestrians were using their elbows to push the button at the traffic lights was a ridiculous notion. 

It was all in good humour and I remember giving everyone the space to be critical before coming in at the end and defending it. And I still do! In this post Covid world, it has never been more reflective of the truth. We were ahead of our time – and to be fair, it sold a lot of hand sanitiser before it became a ubiquitous commodity product.

What’s the best and worst ad you’ve seen while on the panel?

Best ad: Aldi surfing santas by BMF. The whimsy, the local relevance and the soundtrack… I actually miss seeing it on TV.

Worst Ad: Ladbrokes featuring Mark Wahlberg. A complete dog’s breakfast.

Dee Madigan

Dee Madigan.

What was your most memorable moment from your time filming the show?

I said the word ‘wankers’ in my very first episode (which was actually the very first episode of Gruen). I’d never done any TV before that and I thought I’d be in so much trouble. I’ve said far worse words since!  

I also insisted on having a straight fringe with curly hair. I don’t know why. I blame pregnancy hormones (I was either pregnant or had just given birth for the first 3 seasons). It was not good.

What’s the best and worst ad you’ve seen while on the panel?

The best would have to be Smith Brothers Media’s ‘Masala Koala’ ad on the Pitch segment convincing Australians to eat koala. 

Worst ad was the Heart Foundation’s ‘Heartless Words’. It made me cry. Also a first on tv for me….

Gruen season 14 is now streaming here on ABC iview. 


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