A love letter to Australian advertising: Why Russel Howcroft turned his love of Mojo into a TV show

Russel Howcroft's 'love letter to Australian advertising', a documentary about advertising agency Mojo, goes to air on the ABC tonight. Before it screens, Howcroft explains to Mumbrella's Vivienne Kelly what was so special about this agency, this era and this legacy - and who in adland he'd pen a love letter to today.

Since the British invasion of Australia in 1788, who has been the most influential voice in our story? Even though Russel Howcroft acknowledges most people would point to the likes of writers and poets Henry Lawson or Banjo Paterson, he says it’s actually Alan ‘Mo’ Morris and Allan ‘Jo’ Johnston who formed ad agency Mojo in the 1970s who have most effectively shaped and told our story.

A bold – and, yes, tongue-in-cheek – claim, but, Howcroft says his hypothesis is worth exploring.

So, that’s what he does in How Australia Found Its Mojo, a documentary tracking the rise of the men behind the agency, the agency itself, and the work – not to mention its cultural and commercial impact.

He’s not the only passionate voice advocating for the adland duo to receive more recognition.

John Brown, who during Mojo’s heyday was minister for tourism, says there should be a statue of Morris and Johnston in every town in Australia “because they created the tourism industry”, explains Howcroft, “and then think about the GDP effect of creating a tourism industry, then, you know, they deserve to be known, recognised, and I even suggest, celebrated.”

But while passionate ad nerds, and members of the advertising industry who have studied Mojo’s iconic campaigns, may be able to justify sitting down in front of the television set and switching to the ABC – or loading its streaming app iView – will everyday consumers care about a documentary about ads?

The ongoing success of Gruen – the panel show Howcroft has been a part of since 2008 – would indicate there is an appetite. Indeed its season 11 premiere had an overnight metro audience of 754,000 last week despite technical difficulties.

Mojo, however, is so specific in its content, its era, and its love – is it too self-indulgent to share this love on the national broadcaster?

Howcroft rejects this suggestion and says the program should stir a sense of nostalgia, and, if nothing else, kick off a discussion about the Australia of yesterday, versus the Australia we find ourselves in in 2019 – both creatively and culturally.

“Those that were around at the time will get a really strong sense of nostalgia, because… Australia is not like that now, we don’t operate like we did back in those days,” reflects Howcroft. “And so, for some, it’s a celebration of what Australia was. For others, it will be a reminder of how far the country has moved since that point in time.

“And, of course, advertising itself is a little social capsule. Advertising gets made for an era, and Mojo of course were critical players of that era.”

The greater population, he believes, will enjoy it.

And many not already familiar with the story, he says, will be surprised to learn that Johnston’s voice was behind so many iconic campaigns of the era.

“What they would think if they sort of chose to sit down and actually have a think about it, is ‘This is interesting, because I’m hearing the same voice’. One of the really, I think, fascinating parts of the Mojo story is that it was always Allan Johntson’s voice.

“So what clients would do, is they would buy a style. They’d say ‘We want the Mojo style. We want that song. We want that voice’. And they would attach that style, that song, to their brand.

“Now, a lot of people would advise against that now, wouldn’t they? They’d say ‘Well that’s not very differentiating’. However, evidence is in. It worked. It worked its arse off for the clients. So maybe the clients that chose to go down that route were very clever.”

For those, such as occupants of the media, marketing and advertising industry who may be perusing Mumbrella and are already familiar with the Mojo story, is there anything to learn from the documentary? What did Howcroft himself glean from the experience that, as a lover of the industry, he didn’t already know?

“I knew the stories well, I knew the ads well, but the sheer weight of commercial impact is actually a really critical part of the show, which I’m sure that everyone in the ad game is going to enjoy seeing,” he says.

“When you discover that Put A Shrimp On The Barbie moved Australia from number 70 on the countries that Americans would visit to number seven. Or when you learn that World Series Cricket, the stadiums were empty, then the stadiums were full off the back of Come On Aussie, Come On. Or when the chief marketing officer of Tooheys said they opened up the doors of the brewery and money came flooding in. Or when you learn that Meadow Lea doubled its market share and doubled the market for margarine. These are really big commercial stories.

“So, yes, the social side, the cultural side, just the advertising style is all worth talking about, but the numbers are pretty amazing as well.”

Howcroft’s passion for the bygone era of Mojo is clear, as his delight at being able to tell commercial stories on the ad-free, government-funded ABC. But who ignites his passion in October, 2019? Who would he pen a love letter to in adland today?

“There is some fantastic work being produced. So I think about DDB’s work. I think about The Monkeys’ work. I think about – I declare the interest – but Thinkerbell’s work with regard to Vegemite [Howcroft’s employer PwC has a stake in the Thinkerbell agency].

“They did a great – the Thinkerbell work for Vegemite during The Ashes – that’s a very old-fashioned thing for an advertising agency and a brand to do, ie topical work that was borne in the ’70s. Agencies did that in the ’70s and ’80s. It was nice to see that happening again.

A full-page ad by Thinkerbell in The Mirror in the UK during The Ashes test (Click to enlarge)

“There’s plenty of great work. Of course, the lamb work which is this era’s celebration of what it is to be Australian. There’s plenty of good stuff going on.”

So given the show draws attention to, and indeed celebrates, commercial successes off the back of advertising campaigns, what constitutes success for Howcroft on a commercial-free broadcaster, less concerned with large ratings numbers than its charter and obligations to the Australian people?

Howcroft can’t be tied down on a specific number that he’s hoping for. Rather, he says, he’s concerned with its ongoing cultural resonance.

“In the end, a good number will be celebrated, that’s for sure,” he says, noting that “what a good number is, I don’t know.”

“We’ll probably make that assessment tomorrow {Wednesday]. It will be on iView. There will be regional people who will watch it as well, which isn’t included in the five-city number.

“And then, look, I’m hopeful that it will be discussed in schools. There’s a really interesting discussion around what Australia was versus what Australia is. So I’m hoping there’s some good impact off the back of it.”

The impact could extend well beyond the life of the program, if Howcroft has his way.

“I hope everyone enjoys it. We need to start a petition for Allan Johnston and Alan Morris – Allan Morris died in 2007 – but they should have an AO. They should be celebrated for what they did. And we should also have a petition to get Allan Johnston singing Come On Aussie Come On at the next Sydney test.”


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