Relentless, tough, demanding and brilliant: the culture that saw Clems Melbourne named creative agency of the decade

Clemenger BBDO Melbourne has become accustomed to winning awards. And last week it was named Mumbrella's creative agency of the decade. Steve Jones talks to past and present executives to see what has made the agency tick.

As 2011 drew to a close, Peter Biggs, the then chief executive of Clemenger BBDO Melbourne, reflected on what had been a hugely successful year for the agency.

After being named Mumbrella’s creative agency of the year – the latest in a series of gongs that year – he observed the challenges that any agency faces in continuing to deliver results.

“In the fickle, fluid and fragile industry we call advertising – which seems to have all the symptoms of ADD – it is horrendously difficult for an agency to be consistently successful,” Biggs noted. “But this year, we were recognised as Australia’s most creative agency. Again. We were chosen as Australia’s most effective agency. Again. We also delivered a record commercial result. Again.”

In typically effusive style, Biggs had articulated what most of the industry instinctively knew, and competitors reluctantly accepted; Clemenger Melbourne was setting the benchmark for creative flair and reaping the rewards.

Peter Biggs: CEO of Clemenger Melbourne between 2006 and 2014

For the remainder of the decade, amid tumultuous change across the advertising landscape, its star rarely faded.

To reflect such consistency, Mumbrella, after consultation with senior industry stakeholders, has now crowned Clemenger BBDO Melbourne creative agency of the decade.

The agency has been behind some of the decades’s most memorable, decorated and effective campaigns.

Among them were Break-Up for National Australia Bank, which redefined advertising in the often-staid financial sector; Meet Graham for Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission, a unique interactive and educational campaign illustrating the innate frailties of the human body; and Hungerithm, a digital retail activation that rolled out globally for Mars-owned Snickers.

Additionally, Clemenger produced a series of hugely popular ads for Carlton & United Breweries, along with celebrated work for Bonds, which involved talking testicles, Aboriginal Victoria which asked Deadly Questions and, notably, for Airbnb, which saw the design of an Acceptance Ring in support for marriage equality.

The agency perhaps enjoyed its finest year in 2017 when it was named Global Agency of the Year at Cannes after scooping 56 Lions, largely for its Meet Graham work and Hungerithm.

According to the agency’s veteran executive chairman Robert Morgan, who has been with the outfit for four of its seven decades, the past 10 have seen it scale new heights.

“Cannes was obviously a highlight, and the last 10 years have certainly been one of the golden periods in the agency’s history, and that goes back 73 years,” Morgan says. “In fact, it’s arguably been the most golden period in terms of the work, and the consistent high levels of creative excellence on big pieces of business.”

The Odd Couple

Speaking to Mumbrella, Morgan says the catalyst to this golden age can be traced to 2006, with the addition to its senior ranks of the “Odd Couple”.

That was James McGrath, who became creative chairman, and Peter Biggs, who left his native New Zealand where he ran Clemenger Wellington, to take the CEO reigns in Melbourne. Two more contrasting characters, working side by side in adland, you’d have been hard pressed to find.

McGrath: One half of Clemenger’s ‘Odd couple’

“We called them the Odd Couple, they were just so different,” Morgan recalls. “But in a sense that was what made them so fantastic. Biggsy is larger than life, an extrovert who loved people and entertaining. James is more studied and contemplative, fanatical about creativity, driven, and in some ways tough. He demands excellence.”

To illustrate the contrast, he remembers a Campaign Brief cover that pictured the pair dining in a restaurant. According to Morgan, while McGrath earnestly sipped on a glass of water accompanied by “lettuce”, Biggs tucked into “big steak and a bottle of heavy shiraz”.

It was a partnership that endured until Biggs’ departure in late 2014, with Nick Garrett taking over the following year.

Morgan is quick to value the contribution of many other staff members – including executive planning director Paul Rees-Jones and executive creative director Ant Keogh, who both joined soon after McGrath and Biggs  – and stresses the collective desire to produce creative and effective work.

Morgan: Agencies are demanding

However, Morgan admits that, at times, the agency’s reputation as a demanding workplace could be challenging – for staff and clients.

“Working at the agency is hard, it’s demanding. As an agency I think there is an attitude of ‘Are we sure it’s good enough?’ Near enough is not good enough and, going back to James, he is relentless in terms of wanting things to look fantastic. He’ll never put out a bad-looking piece of work. It has to be crafted.

“And because of the care taken in the work, clients would, from time to time, find us a little slower than maybe they would like. But we’re incredibly proud of the work we do. We have some wonderful, long-standing clients and there is great mutual affection.”

“What the fuck do you know?”

But it wasn’t always that way.

When Biggs, or Biggsy as he is universally known in the industry, arrived in 2006, the agency was, in his words “not in good shape”.

“It had been sliding commercially and there was a fortress attitude about the past, and very arrogant,” Biggs explains. “When I joined there was a number of confrontations. The degree of difficulty for a New Zealander arriving in Australia to lead and turnaround an Australian agency is very high.

“I remember meeting the senior team over breakfast, and one asking me: ‘What the fuck do you know?’ There was a belief that I’d come from a piss-ant town in a piss-ant country, and an attitude of ‘What makes you think you can lead Clemenger Melbourne?'”

But lead the agency he did – rather successfully as it turned out – for almost 10 years, only returning to NZ for family reasons.

Ant Keogh was among the many highly regarded creatives at Clems Melbourne

“It was real job to turn the culture round. But we did, and I mean we, not I. We got in some extraordinary talent – James, Ant, Paul McMillan, Sonia von Bibra, Liz Fulcher, Matt Kingston, so many – who wanted to do great work and were utterly professional in everything they did. And the talent kept coming, some of whom have gone on to leadership roles which is a great legacy.”

Creative duo Stephen de Wolf and Evan Roberts were also credited with a host of award-winning work.

Creative duo Stephen de Wolf and Evan Roberts

Biggs recalls how he had arrived in Melbourne armed with a moleskin black book containing a dozen or so names – all businesses he wanted to win for the agency. And when Clemenger secured Australia Post in 2011, Biggs had scratched all but one from the list

“We’d won CUB, TAC, Bonds, NAB, Tourism Victoria and others. The only one we didn’t manage was Defence Force Recruitment, even though we had a couple of goes. It was all an agency achievement and was the best experience of my life.”

Biggs laughs at recollections of the Odd Couple nickname, adding their differences did create tensions “that was good for the agency”. Nevertheless, it was sometimes hard to manage, he admits.

“James was ruthlessly about the product, and I mean ruthlessly,” Biggs explains. “He liked culture to be tense and disruptive, and that was great. But it also led to difficulties in terms of getting a balance between a culture that is generous and welcoming but also tough and uncompromising.”

Biggs recalls one company away day – he referred to them as “advance sessions” rather than “retreats” – where creatives tore into the performance of other departments and suggested “every other part of the agency should abolished”.

“So we had this unifying advance session which turned into an utter disaster. It actually ripped the agency apart at senior leadership level and lot of hard work and personal commitment went into keeping the culture together.”

Creativity ‘at the absolute core’

In 2018, Clemenger Melbourne underpinned its philosophy by rallying behind a new positioning: ‘Creativity is always the answer’. That is not to suggest, of course, that creativity had previously been an afterthought.

On the contrary, McGrath says creativity has been adopted “intuitively” within the agency, to the point that it’s rarely, if ever, a topic of discussion.

“The work, the work, the work is as relevant now as it was when that was first coined,” he tells Mumbrella. “We get pre-occupied with clients, and, like everyone else, with transformation, but we’ve never been pre-occupied with what drives the agenda and what is important to us, which is creativity.

“We never had to have a conversation about that because it’s always at the absolute core of what we do. It’s in our history, our DNA, and we’ve understood that from the very beginning.”

Gayle While, who took over from Nick Garrett as chief executive in August, added: “What excites people internally is that our intent is to use creativity in places it has never been. It galvanises everyone. There is a curiosity, and that makes interesting work and great creativity.”

Yet, as Biggs suggests, it would be inaccurate to paint a picture of utopian harmony.

Garrett says he observed a positive “step change” during his four year stint at Clemenger Melbourne, as the agency began acting “less like an arrogant creative department and more like a creative company”.

“But I think it’s fair to say there was something of a master-servant relationship in the past,” he explains. “It wasn’t egalitarian and that wasn’t healthy. But you could also argue that much of the creative consistency and brilliance came from this dynamic.

“When it comes to new business and casting, if the client likes creativity, was academic and regarded Clemenger as smart, then no one can get close to them. They are the best at what they do.”

Garrett says the company nearly doubled in size through an “amazing pitch-winning streak and through bringing in new capabilities to service and grow current clients”.

That pitch-winning streak included NAB Business Bank, with Garrett recalling a “genius” move by McGrath instrumental in delivering the business.

Clemenger, along with a handful of other agencies, was required to pitch in what Garrett recalls was a “huge dysfunctional brand room”.

“It’s the most distracting room in which I have ever presented,” he says. “There are campaigns all over the walls. It’s near-impossible to keep everyone’s attention. The heat was on us as well because there was probably some within the bank who didn’t want us to have the retail bank as well as the business bank.

“So two or three days before the pitch, James hired a black velvet curtain to create a micro environment around the boardroom. It removed all the distractions and mess in the room and created a perfectly chilled, calm environment. Everyone in that pitch remembers that move. It’s almost folklore.”

The quality of the work did not go unnoticed at its sister agencies. Al Crawford spent much of the decade watching with a mix of pride and jealousy from Clemenger’s Sydney office.


Al Crawford: Melbourne appeared a curious mix of self-assurance and self-doubt

“The way I looked at Clemenger Melbourne was the way you look at your talented sibling,” the agency’s former executive planning director jokes. “With affection but with incredible green-eyed envy.

“Some of the alchemy in advertising is hitting the sweet spot where you have a group of people who understand each other and what roles you play. They had that understanding and fed off each other.”

But Crawford, who departed Clems Sydney in February 2017, also observed a “curious mix of self-assurance and self-doubt”.

“They had a level of assurance that comes when you are on a role. Confidence breeds confidence.

“But they also had a relentless restlessness where they never felt they had hit the summit. That can breed anxiety, but it can also lead to a sense that there are more mountains to climb.

“They knew they could create great work but there was always the sense that they hadn’t quite nailed it. That, I think, is what made them so formidable.”

Additionally, the Melbourne team could master the “complete tonal gamut”, Crawford says.

“Sometimes agencies specialise in a particular kind of campaign. They had the ability to do everything from Meet Graham, which was stark and provocative, to humorous ads like the magic salad plate (for Four’N Twenty pies). It’s a strong body of work.”

The work

The start of the decade began with a 2011 campaign which infuriated three of the four major banks and left Morgan with his heart in his mouth. And – after initial uncertainty – it delighted its client, National Australia Bank.

NAB Break-Up saw the bank, on Valentine’s Day no less, pen an emotional Dear John letter to its three competitors, effectively “breaking up” with ANZ, Commonwealth Bank and Westpac. It was an ambitiously eye-catching attempt to disassociate NAB from rivals and position it as different. This, in a sector unaccustomed to such bold public statements.

Morgan describes it as one of the “defining moments” of the decade, while McGrath suggests it remains the benchmark for ingenuity.

“It wasn’t an easy project and wasn’t an easy campaign to maintain,” McGrath says. “It acknowledged the competition which is very rarely done. It wasn’t for the faint hearted.”

The work won a Cannes Grand Prix, and a host of other awards around the globe. Cannes jury president Dave Senay described it as a “a brilliant example of positioning a company, a bank, and at the same time depositioning your competition”.

Biggs, however, reveals that Break-Up almost didn’t get off the ground. While everyone at Clems was committed to the work, NAB executives were pushing back.

“The creative team did a wonderful job of never giving in, and we all knew it was great work. But it was tough,” Biggs says. “I particularly remember feedback from one senior executive. He told me ‘If you ever show that fucking break-up piece of work again I’ll fire you’. But we did have others who were championing it and ultimately it made them famous.”

Another client who almost ditched Clemenger was Patties Foods, parent of Four’N Twenty pies, over its ingenious Magic Salad Plate.

“Patties Foods CEO loved it, and then she left,” Biggs says. “Unfortunately the next CEO came in and stopped it. And he hated it so much the business almost stopped with it. I had to pedal incredibly hard to win back trust. But it was genius work and went straight to the heart of the Australian working man.”

Along with the celebrated NAB campaign, Meet Graham and CUB work, Morgan also fondly remembered Magic Salad Plate. “Brilliant,” he says. “I loved it.”

Arguably, Clems had the most fun with CUB, with a series of playful and entertaining campaigns under the ‘Made from Beer’ banner.

“We can’t have a conversation about creativity and cultural impact without mentioning CUB,” McGrath says. “There was a succession of great work and that was partly because CUB had great self-awareness. They have been an extraordinary backbone to this agency, as has NAB.”

McGrath singles out Carlton Draught’s 80s car cause parody, Beer Chase, as among the most memorable.

“It was incredibly playful…..and set a standard I think.”

Then there was the slow-mo ad, also for Carlton Draught, and Carlton Mid’s “Woman Whisperer” which depicted a woman transfixed by a mysterious character before allowing her partner to stay in the pub.

For Biggs however, the stand-out work for CUB was its efforts for Victoria Bitter, a brand which, the former CEO said, had been “declining at a rapid rate” under its previous agency, Droga 5.

Droga had controversially moved away from VB’s Hard Earned Thirst slogan, with a campaign called The Regulars. But the appointment of Clems saw a U-turn, with creative duo Jim Ingram and Ben Couzens receiving the plaudits.

“CUB wouldn’t give us VB, and finally when we did get it, we went back to the future and the core values of the brand which was reward for hard work,” he says. “For all the great work for CUB, VB is the one that stands out because it was a tough challenge.”

CUB marketing vice president Brian Phan says Clemenger “knows how to get people taking”.

“In a rapidly changing media environment, Clems continues to be a valued partner of CUB because they know how to cut through and to get people talking,” he says.

For Garrett, the 2017 Until We all Belong marriage equality campaign, which featured an ‘Acceptance Ring’ for Airbnb was among the stand outs.

“Meet Graham and Hungerithm were brilliant, but Airbnb was probably the best end-to-end project I worked on,” the highly-regarded executive says. “It was a phenomenal pitch and the best execution experience I had at the agency.

“We were an unstoppable team because we had a great client and everyone believed in what we were doing.”

Garrett is proud of the agency’s Airbnb work

Yet the creation of an incomplete ring to signify the equality gap – since closed by Australia lawmakers – almost never happened.

As Garrett recalls, it was only an 11th hour intervention by McGrath that enabled the idea to unfold.

“We had a tissue session a few weeks earlier and received good feedback,” he explains. “Internally I use scores out of 10 to rate the ideas and we had at least one eight and a couple of sevens. We doubled down on the best idea and needed to turn it into a nine, but the day before the final pitch James killed the lead idea because he believed we needed something better.

“Most of the time you would hate to be in this position, but magic can happen when under pressure and it did. I loved the agency for it, and I’ll never forget the moment when the acceptance ring idea popped up. Someone drew a circle with the gap, James pointed at it and said ‘That’s it’.

“He had this moment of creative genius when he knew there was a better idea. You stretch human endeavour to a point where it doesn’t make any sense and 99 times out of 100 you stop. But James didn’t. That was one of the best moments of creative leadership I have seen.”

More recently, McGrath highlights last year’s Naughty or Nice Christmas bauble campaign for Myer,  suggesting its relationship with the department store displayed “mutual confidence in each other”.

Meanwhile, While listed the ‘Healthier you’ work for Bupa and NAB’s Mini Legends as pivotal campaigns.

Despite widespread recognition for Clemenger Melbourne, Morgan stresses there was only ever one aim of its creative work – to nail the client brief.

“The work for Mars with Hungerithm, Meet Graham, CUB work, some of it was pretty wild. But we never take a client’s brand on a joy ride for the ego of the individual creative people,” he says. “Nothing is designed to win awards. That would be anathema to our agency.”

The Creative Agency of the Decade was decided by Mumbrella’s editorial team after consultation with senior industry stakeholders. It was not an award which agencies paid to enter, but rather an editorial decision.  


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.