Being the oldest person in the room

bruce matchettIn this guest post, Bruce Matchett, who over a 40-year career as a creative director at the likes of Saatchi & Saatchi Singapore, Ogilvy Australia, JWT India and now Sapient Nitro – with a stint at a monastery in northern Thailand in between – talks about what drives him, and what keeps him going.

I’m easy to spot.

Just walk into any meeting full of shiny, fresh-faced young ad men and look for the oldest person in the room.

That’ll be me. Bruce Matchett.

And why, exactly, am I still here? Is there a Dorian Grey type secret hidden in my attic?

Advertising has a voracious and insatiable appetite for newer, bigger, better ideas. It can suck even the most prolific creative mind bone dry in a frighteningly short space of time.

When that happens there’s nowhere to hide. They say you’re only as good as your last ad. If you don’t deliver, it can literally become your last ad before you even realise it.

That makes me something of an anomaly.

How have I survived and even thrived in a culture built on youth?

The answer is probably not what you’d expect. My working life has not followed the conventional career path, rather it has been an obstacle course littered with self imposed pitfalls and man traps that I have had to climb and, in some cases, crawl out of.

So, as the oldest person in the room, what pearls of wisdom can I lay before you?

Sorry to disappoint you, but I have no fancy power point filled with clever, snappy bullet points on how to get ahead in advertising.

All I have is my story. Take from it what you will.

As a kid I was never really brilliant at anything. Poor school reports from a very poor school in a small village in Scotland called Blackburn. The singer Susan Boyle lives there and finally put it on the map.

I was a daydreamer. Today they would probably call it ADHD or some other fancy name. But I could draw rather well. It was the only thing that flowed effortlessly and naturally.

In those days that was enough to get your foot in the door in advertising.

But then again, the world of advertising was littered with people who can draw rather well. So that can’t be why I’m still around.

Having spent a lot of my early life in pubs pontificating and holding centre stage, I could spin a good yarn.

Clients liked my stories. The consumers liked my stories. Alcohol had made me a successful story teller. Unfortunately it also made me an alcoholic.

Truth be known, there used to be a lot of drunks in advertising and many of them were more than functional.

Drunks are experts at reading a room. They can walk into a new bar, tell the same old stories embellishing and modifying to suit the audience.

They are very good at bending the truth whilst remaining totally convincing.

And, after all, isn’t that what advertising is all about?

The downside of course is you can also end up in jail or, worse still, on your deathbed being read the last rites.

Both of which happened to me.

I needed to find a new addiction. I swapped alcohol for work.

I found that AA sharpened up my presentation technique. I had actually been terrified standing up in front of a room full of people.

Now I was forced to. Stone cold sober. Peeling away the layers and finding out, for the first time, who I really was.

Things picked up quickly. I found myself in New Zealand at an agency that offered safety, security and an award winning lifestyle.

Perfect. So what did I do? You guessed it. I quit on a whim to head up the biggest and most hated agency in Australia. One that didn’t even enter awards; the lifeblood of every ambitious creative.

Was it my self-destructive gene kicking in again?

Who knows?

But I moved to Sydney, stayed sober, learnt about the inner machinations of mega agency life and built a pitch machine that won twenty-three pitches in a row.

Needless to say, people hated us even more.

Once again, just as everything settled into a nice comfortable groove, I quit again. This time not to join another agency but a monastery in Northern Thailand.

You’re starting to see the pattern, right?

The truth is, I was struggling to stay sober. Once I had taken the time to push the demons back in their cage, I headed to India.

The challenge was the one I love most: take a big, staid agency and help put it on the creative map.

In two years we became the number one agency in India and conquered Cannes. Although even that couldn’t be enjoyed. After walking off stage with a handful of golds, I had to rush straight to an AA meeting rather than the Gutter Bar to celebrate.

But shortly afterwards I was off again. This time back to Australia.

By this time I had been sober long enough to realize that I wasn’t moving to a new job, I was always running from one. Fearful that people would find out that I was a fraud. Far from being a hot shot creative director, I was in fact just a drunk from a small, one horse town in Scotland.

It wasn’t until I found my self confidence, that I could finally understand that most of what I had been doing was to hide my lack of it.

Australia was my introduction to the “new” world. Collaboration was the new buzzword. I found myself managing change rather than changing the creative.

But I stayed sober, worked hard and kept my head down. A second marriage underpinned my new found emotional stability.

By now I was usually the oldest person in any meeting. You get to speak last, have the final say, watch people nod and take notes when you talk.

You’re not old. You’re wise. You can recount war stories of how things were sold against all the odds well before these whipper-snappers were even born.

Life was sweet.

And then Saatchi Singapore came calling.

This was one of the most creative shops in Asia. Dave Droga had cut his teeth there garnering truckloads of awards for the agency.

I jumped at the chance.

When I arrived, I found that all that glistened were the gold lions in reception.

All icing and not much cake.

Thirty people were left in an agency that had suffered traumatic client loss.

No resources, but we did have a bunch of resourceful people.

For the next four years we rebuilt the cake. A very nice, multi-layered cake with a strong, collaborative structure.

The agency was evolving every day. So was I.

Even as the oldest man in the room, I too, realised once again I am still learning. And, if there is a secret, that’s it.

Like a recovering alcoholic, you always need to remember that there is no finishing line. You just take it one day at a time.

Once again I found myself taking a leap into the dark, going from a traditional powerhouse agency to a future facing hothouse called SapientNitro, full of young fresh minds and devilish optimism.

With skills I’ve never heard of.

Scared? You bet.

Necessary? Absolutely.

In-fact, anyone who thinks they know it all and have been around a bit should embark on this enlightening, humble journey. Once again it was about putting my ego aside and rediscovering myself and moving away from the traditional way of working. Sitting alongside a new breed of storytellers creating platforms and sustaining consumer engagement across multiple devices. Try saying that fast.

I was no longer the teacher, I was once again the student. How liberating.

For both them and me. I had discovered a new breed of agency.

With a different way of working. A collaborative ever-evolving solution hub.

So where does that leave me? A little confused or very clear?

I often wonder where this exciting but crazy industry will end up. Every agency is trying to predict what the future holds. Bold confident statements. Over exaggerated claims. But I reckon it still comes down to a group of talented collaborative people sitting around a table totally understanding the clients business and creatively helping them navigate this ‘always on’ world.

That’s what I’m going to do surround myself with lots of talented people. And help clients navigate the future. Yeah that’s it. I think.

So here’s the timeline as I see it:

In your twenties?

Make as many mistakes as you can. Be brave. Be Curious. Party hard and experiment.

In your thirties?

Work on your craft. Feed your hunger.

In your forties?

Find out who you really are. Stay true to yourself.

In your fifties?

Remain humble, teachable, a challenge, but not impossible.

But hey, don’t worry. I’m still going to be the oldest person in the room!

Bruce Matchett,

Been around for (as of today, 15 December 2015) 22,677 days. 9,732 days sober.

Bruce Matchett is the regional creative director, APAC, for Sapient Nitro


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