On resilience: Everything that’s gone wrong in my career… so far

Psembi Kinstan, the group executive creative director for DDB Group Melbourne, was recently asked to share some insights about resilience. What he arrived at was a laundry list of the good and the bad of his career.

I was recently asked to do a talk to a group of a few hundred ad people at the Four A’s Festival on the topic of resilience in your career. Problem is, resilience implies a hard slog through unhappy and trying conditions, and I bloody love my job, and nearly always have.

So, what insights could I possibly share about resilience?

I started with a quick flick back through the mental runsheet of my career to date. To my own surprise I realised, ‘oh bollocks, it’s all gone wrong’. Far from being the perfectly positive and manicured timeline my LinkedIn makes it out to be, just beneath the surface it’s been a complete fucking shitshow.

So, here’s a relatively unfiltered look at the good and the bad of my career, starting right back before I even discovered advertising was an industry.

Good. Things start well-ish, from a job as an online producer at a regional ABC station, I snag a job on a kids’ TV show. I’m 16 at the time and because of this, the TV executive producer immediately after I sign up warns, “Watch out for pedos.”

Good. Thankfully no pedos. The TV show rolls into a film, into another TV show, into another film. I end up working in the camera department of the late Oscar-winning DOP Andrew Lesnie and 1st Assistant Directing another kids’ show. Geoffrey Rush gives me a box set of Robert De Niro movies as we wrap a shoot on Christmas Eve. I think I’ve made it.

Good. I work on a few commercial shoots and discover advertising. This looks fun I think, and I move to Melbourne to study ads.

Bad. I can’t get into RMIT’s advertising degree, so I went to the next best thing, a Bachelor of Communications. After I realise there were four advertising units in three years, I drop out and start reading every book on ads I can find.

Good. I went to agencies door to door, eventually winning a competition and getting an internship at CHE Proximity.

Bad. It’s all catalogue headlines and Retravision radio ads for two years. But not only was it great fun, there were lots of great writers to learn from.

Good. I put enough fake work in the book until my partner and I land a role at GPY&R as digital junior creatives. Bad. All the briefs seem to be for eDMs and radio ads. The briefs no one else is interested in.

Good. We manage to win a Webby and an AWARD pencil with an eDM, and a Lion with a radio campaign. Then some more Lions for a direct mail campaign.

Bad. On the day of our (now infamous) Christmas party, we realise we’ve lost our agency’s largest account whilst reading trade press. Oh well, f*** it, let’s move overseas.

Bad. Good luck getting interviews the week before Christmas. Six interviews cancel on me. On my last day before flying back to Australia, one EA loses a meeting from a CCO’s diary. I show up anyway and beg for an interview. The CCO finds 20 minutes to see me but seems pissed off the entire time and asks me to see myself out.

Good. They offer me a job a few weeks later and I move to RKCRY&R, home to 350 people and prestigious brands such as Virgin Atlantic, Land Rover, Lloyd’s Bank, Vodafone, Holland&Barrett, Bank of Scotland, BBC, M&S, and many, many more.

Bad. The agency loses Virgin Atlantic, Land Rover, Lloyd’s Bank, Vodafone, Holland&Barrett, Bank of Scotland, BBC and many, many more.

Good. But somehow along the way I have the most fun in advertising I’ve ever had. With everything changing, I stick my hat in the ring on every brief and every opportunity no one else wants.

Good. I write a M&S Christmas campaign that sticks. And the pissed off CCO even leaves for greener pastures (or at least gardening leave) ushering in a new ECD.

Bad. The new ECD promptly stands up in front of the leadership team in the open plan office and remarks whilst branding our M&S Christmas script, “I don’t want my name anywhere near this crap.”

Good. The campaign does rather well, winning the first Lion for M&S in a long time and contributing to the first growth in M&S in six years. I’m onto BBC by now and our campaigns there do well too, scoring the shiniest of all pointless shiny things to be proud of, a BAFTA. I also help Kate Griggs launch her charity, Made by Dyslexia, and persuade Sir Richard Branson to donate sperm to the Dyslexic Sperm Bank to launch the charity.

Bad. Creating the first growth in six years for M&S rather points out the shortcomings of an agency partner, so we lose M&S. And the BBC decides to develop an in-house agency (an early adopter). From 350 people, the agency is now about 95.

Good. Two interviews with John Hegarty later, and three with Nick Gill and Ian Heartfield, it’s time to leave for BBH, home to 400 people and prestigious brands such as Johnny Walker, The Guardian, Audi, Tesco and many, many more.

Bad. Before I even even start, BBH loses Johnnie Walker and The Guardian…

Good. …But that’s it. In fact, we win pitches for Samsung, Barclays, and Western Union. I make some fine work for Tesco, Burger King, and Absolut Vodka. After 18 months, the Deputy ECD is promoted to ECD and I inherit his account, Audi, the foundation account for BBH. What an honour. What a privilege.

Bad. Audi calls its first pitch in 25 years.

Good. We win that too. Maybe I’m getting better at this? The years ahead are looking brilliant at BBH.

Bad. My fucking amazing wife gets cancer. For the third time. We walk from the doctor’s office home and I ring BBH and let them know I won’t be coming back in again.

Bad. We move home immediately. Six days after the doctor’s appointment, after nearly eight years in London, we are back in Australia to start treatment. Daily radiotherapy and a 13-hour surgery later they chop the f***er out, but they take out a tangle of nerves near the top of the spine and Emily might not be able to use her arm again.

Beyond good. Clear margins. Best news ever.

Beyond good. Again. Another very clever surgeon transplants some nerves and mobility begins to return. And Em is pregnant (another medical miracle). It’s the end of February 2020 and we’re out of hospital and life is about to return to normal. There’s even an interesting job offer.

Bad. COVID lockdown part one begins. And we are in Melbourne.

Good. As does my first ECD role begin.

Bad. I learn some valuable lessons about financial management the hard way.

Good. Whilst we win Toyota and work with some excellent people and strategists, I also learn plenty more lessons about leadership the hard way. That said, I am very thankful for Ben for helping me discover that I enjoy leading a department, even more than all the other roles (and I loved those too).

Good. Offered a job, described by the headhunter as ‘gnarly’. Begin a total rebuild of the DDB Melbourne office alongside my partners Mike Napolitano and Matt Pearce. Two years have gone past. In that time, the agency has tripled in clients, head count and revenue, and grown creatively much more than that. We’ve got the best bench in Melbourne. Porsche Taycan ‘Arcade’, Movember’s ‘The Mo is Calling’ and ‘Mancestry’, NGV and Jarden’s The Creative Index, Kind Royale, Coles’ Great Lengths for Quality, Vodka Cruiser ‘Cannoisseurs’ and ‘Hex Your Ex’, even a few clients have followed us from our time in the UK.

So, what’s the moral of all this? What’s the lesson on resilience?

Any career in this industry is going to be a shit show. Take it for granted that there will be ups and downs.

Plenty will go wrong. All you can control is how you show up.

All that matters is how hard you work and how good your ideas are.


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