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Sean Cummins: ‘You have to call bullshit on things that don’t do a good job for the art of advertising’

International office closures, local mergers, client wins and resignations and being named Mumbrella’s Agency of the Year - it’s been a big two years for independent, full-service agency Cummins & Partners. Speaking with Zoe Samios, global CEO Sean Cummins opens up about his four offices, further international expansion, selling off his agency, digital advertising and gender diversity.

The past two years for independent full-service agency Cummins & Partners has been marked with a series of highs and lows.

The end of 2014 saw the agency pick up the Vodafone creative account, using the win to open a Sydney office; however, that was followed in 2016 by the closure of its Toronto, Canada office.

Another high came again as the agency was named Mumbrella’s Agency of the Year at the 2016 Mumbrella Awards; however, the year ended with the agency parting ways with Vodafone.

The new year picked up with the agency winning new accounts including Allianz and CSR Sugar, but continued with news of the agency’s Adelaide office merging with local agency, Hybrid.

For outsiders, the interest lies in what is happening with the agency’s Sydney office, with speculation it could close following the company parting ways with Vodafone.

Cummins

Sean Cummins: Global CEO of Cummins & Partners

Sydney: “Pruning the rosebush”

According to Sean Cummins, global CEO at Cummins & Partners, the Sydney agency is simply “pruning the rosebush”.

The agency launched in 2014 to service Vodafone but has since parted ways with the client, with adland now asking if Cummins & Partners will exit the Sydney market as a result.

“I don’t know why people would even assume that. If we were shutting it down, we wouldn’t be denying that we were shutting it down,” he says.

“We resigned Vodafone because we were not outputting what we wanted to output, and they may not have been getting what they wanted out of us. When we resigned Vodafone we did so knowing that would mean pruning the rosebush severely.”

While Cummins is optimistic about the future of the agency, he recognised Sydney’s biggest problem was the decision not to chase other business while it had the Vodafone account.

“We determined that we would not chase for any business for a very long period of time while we bedded down the business, bedded down some of the Vodafone people in our business, and we were very, very dedicated to that piece of business,” he says.

Schreiber, Martin and Cummins opened up Sydney in 2014.

Schreiber, Martin and Cummins opened up Sydney in 2014.

Despite this, Cummins says he has no regrets.

“We know that we were built for bigger things in Sydney, and an agency can’t have a business where 80% of the agency’s revenue is reliant on one client.

“We’re back on the dating scene, after being married for a while, and already we’re showing a lot of popularity or getting a lot of popularity.

“We’re going to a be a force to be reckoned with and I can’t wait for 18 months to spool forward because the core team at the agency, Tom Martin, Julian Schreiber and Dan Ingall, have a chance to really build an agency around them and the clients that we’re getting.

More recently, Cummins & Partners Sydney was appointed to the Allianz roster; however, the agency boss said there was several pitches which Sydney was “primed and ready to go” for.

Cummins, however, declined to reveal the brands which the agency is competing for.

As part of the ongoing changes to the Sydney office, Cummins tells Mumbrella he would split his time going forward between New York and Sydney, to help drive growth.

As for his Melbourne office, Cummins describes it as an “absolute juggernaut.”

“Wonderful people, wonderful culture, and it is always the spiritual mothership,” he says.

“The connection between Sydney and Melbourne is a brother and sister connection, but like any siblings, they go off and do their own things and they’re not reliant on each other other than friendship and love and support,” he adds.

Cummins’ third Australian office, Adelaide, underwent a merger last week, with the agency closing its own office and moving staff into the office of Hybrid with the two agencies forming the new entity, CumminsHybrid.

The Adelaide agency's new logo.

The Adelaide agency’s new logo.

The agency is yet to answer questions about shareholder stakes, as well as the specific number of clients and staff that moved with Cummins & Partners as part of the merger.

While Cummins’ interview took place prior to Mumbrella’s announcement of the merger, Cummins, on the topic of Adelaide, says the agency is doing “really good.”

“Adelaide is a very unique market. It has its own codes and rhythms and we have got people there and have had great clients there, and we want to remain there,” he says.

New York and international growth: “If you don’t have a network you’re screwed.”

In early 2014 Cummins packed his bags and headed to New York.

Now in its fourth year, the NY office is driven by 14 women who work with clients on a project-by-project basis as opposed to long-term contracts.

“Australia’s fantastic and continually a great market, but for my personal growth, I didn’t want to get to my mid 50s never having worked in another market just because I was reasonably well credentialed and successful in Australia,” Cummins says.

The founding partners of Cummins & Partners New York.

The founding partners of Cummins & Partners New York

The agency is currently working across a variety of brands including luxury bag brand Ghurka, project work for Hartford Connecticut and alcohol brand VDKA 6100.

However, Cummins admits the New York market has been a difficult one to crack.

“It’s been a real challenge because in America, if you don’t have a network you’re screwed. I didn’t have a network, so for the last three years I’ve been building mine – they network from the time they’re born.”

He says the agency works “project-by-project,” like most agencies in the US.

And according to Cummins, the agency is competitive, making the final four of the American Airlines pitch last year.

“We didn’t lose on the intellect, but we probably lost on the scale,” he says.

“What that showed me is that we can compete with the best. It’s exciting being an Australian agency doing it on its own, but it’s hard work every day.”

While Cummins & Partners Toronto, a personal project for Cummins, was forced to close last year, he is not ruling out expansion into other markets.

“London would always be a possibility, but we’re never going to open up anywhere else on the globe unless we’re doing so on the back of a client,” he admitted.

“A lot of clients are talking to us at the moment with the desire to show that capability, so when the client comes along, we’ll definitely be servicing businesses in London and in Asia.

While at the time of the close of his Toronto office, Cummins said he would return to the country, he confirms he will not be attempting to re-open in the Canadian market, attributing problems in the market to a lack of independent, “terrible” labour laws, and no-one “rocking the boat.”

Cummins & Partners Canada team prior to closure (L-R): Andrew Shortt, Steve Hajula, Yash Keough, Dave Carey, Sean Cummins, Duc Banh, Marcus Veres (sitting)

Cummins & Partners’ Canada team prior to closure (L-R): Andrew Shortt,
Steve Hajula, Yash Keough, Dave Carey, Sean Cummins, Duc Banh, Marcus Veres (sitting)

The agency boss adds he was “screwed over” by a “derelict partner” which led to Canada becoming an unhappy place.

“That hurt us. It hurt us because we’re a very trusting and open agency and we just got screwed over by a malevolent person. “

Commenting on whether he would sell again, Cummins admits there have been a few approaches.

“I would like to see, and we’ve had some interest in this vein, people see the value in Cummins & Partners as a brand and really take that brand around the world because we have done something not a lot of Aussie agencies have done which is open up in other markets and succeeded.

“We are just an Aussie agency,” he adds.

“We did a lot for the sweat off our own brow and we’re very proud of that. We’ve got a charm and a style which I think is very attractive in a lot of markets and if I was to get involved with an organisation that wanted to take a stake, the prerequisite would be to take this brand elsewhere.”

Digital: online and social are “terrible mediums for advertising”

While some ad agencies are focusing on digital and social content, using long-form storytelling pieces to attract the millennial consumer, Cummins is a traditionalist at heart.

Cummins, who takes pride in his television advertisements, believes digital is “cruel to the art of advertising”.

“Let me just say this, digital and online and a lot of the social media channels are terrible mediums for advertising,” he says.

“They’re not friendly, to the art of advertising as we formerly knew it, where there was a chance to get someone’s attention.”

“Here it’s kind of punch you in the face and what the fuck happened, and it’s brutal and it’s re-targeted and it’s ugly and it’s the worst form of direct marketing of all time.”

“It’s shady and it’s unsubstantiated and no-one since digital began, has ever come to me and said, ‘Oh, I’ve just seen the best digital ad of all time.’”

“We have a chance to emancipate digital if we start being clever about how we actually use all the channels. My god, no one will watch a one minute and 13 seconds film,” he adds.

Digital is

Cummins believes digital is “cruel to the art of advertising”

Cummins went on to say there was no basis for investing large portions of client budgets in digital when there was no effective means of tracking brand awareness.

However, he adds should brands “invade” people’s electronic devices, they needed to do it “really well.”

“We just don’t do it well because we don’t have the artisans, the writing skills and the art directing skills to put the message out there, they’ve all been consigned to the pubs of North Sydney and they’re all crying in their beer about the olden days.

“These are great times, but we’ve got to call bullshit on things that don’t do a good job for the art of advertising, and that’s really what I’m so excited about because I’ve never felt more relevant than I do now.”

When asked about the specialist content agencies, Cummins says they have “skills” but most of them will “have their moment in the sun” and “die off.”

“Just because it looks like it’s advertising doesn’t mean it is advertising”, he explains.

“Everyone’s got the access to produce something that is a reasonable facsimile of what an ad may look like or what a piece of persuasive communication may look like, but there’s no persuasion at all.

“What’s worse is, they do it in a bubble of thinking well that’s the way the world is because we’ve just made it, but if you don’t do anything after seeing that piece of brand content, if it doesn’t compel the consumer to act, it’s failed and it’s bad advertising.”

Creative and media divisions: defining a “one stop shop”

Although his greatest successes lie in the Australian market, such as his work for Jeep, and ‘Best Job in the World’ for Tourism Queensland, Cummins is quick to critique adland as it stands here.

Cummins & Partners' Jeep work featured a man in a counselling session.

Cummins & Partners’ work for Jeep featured a man in a counselling session.

Cummins has always pushed to bring media and creative back together, but he says the realisation of the “flawed system”- collaboration between separate media and creative entities- is taking time.

“We’re happy that we were at the leading edge and we were disruptive at the time, but it is a sorry state of affairs when there are still media people working in advertising who have never met and worked with a creative person and vice versa,” Cummins says.

Cummins claims his agency was one of the first to place media and creative back together in 2010, encouraging people to realise they were all “working on the one brand” to avoid tearing it apart out of self-interest.

As part of his “one stop shop” plan, Cummins hired media expert James Greet at the end of 2015, to affirm the agency’s position in the media market.

James Greet (far right) joined Cummins & Partners to strengthen the agency's media offering.

James Greet (far right) joined Cummins & Partners to strengthen the agency’s media offering

While he says the agency’s “one stop shop offering” has been successful, he admits it takes a long time for people to “change their ways” and return to a single agency offering.

“It’s fantastic, but it takes a long time for people to change their ways and there are some clients out there, regrettably, who want to continue this division and tension between their agency partners. For what end I don’t know because ultimately, very rarely does it provide or result in great work.”

On the topic of full-service agency offering, Cummins says he is hesitant to enter the PR space, describing it as a “discreet, unique relationship business.”

“PR people are relationship people, and if you’re in a category, you find the person that best serves that category. A PR person, unlike probably any other part of the business, doesn’t transcend categories,” he says.

While other agencies promote full-service offerings, Cummins says those who include PR are “selling clients short.”

“It’s a very black art that one and I think it’s amazing art and I’ve got a lot of respect for it. I think they’re true specialists and that’s the one time that I think specialists, that specialisation exists for a very good reason.”

Gender diversity: “Mirror society, don’t mirror you.”

Cummins is no stranger to promoting gender diversity – in 2014 he said his New York office was created primarily to tackle the problem of a lack of female leaders in the industry.

However, Cummins says the Australian ad industry is still very “masculine.”

“I know the business is brutal, but we use words that are very board-like anyway and I wonder whether there’s unfortunately that subconscious male gaze that happens in the industry.

“We use things like campaign, strategy and it’s all very masculine and it seems like, and maybe it’s true of the industry in outcomes, but it seems like a blood sport. It seems like a sport where you kill or be killed.

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Cummins: Australian ad industry still very “masculine.”

“Life is co-ed. Advertising should be co-ed, but the big problem is, people in positions to make hiring tend to hire people that mirror them and you have got to make a conscious effort to stop hiring versions of you and actually cast people for roles that reflect not you and mirror you, but mirror society.

“Mirror society, don’t mirror you.”

Almost 100% of Cummins & Partners New York is women, excluding Cummins himself and there are multiple female leaders in his Australian offices as well.

Kirsty Muddle, chief innovation officer; Faye Collay, head of digital services; Bronwen Gwynn-Jones, managing partner of Adelaide; Hayley Evans, creative analyst director, New York; Michelle Wensor, head of operations; and Chantal Smith, creative in New York are amongst the women management team listed on Cummins & Partners’ website.

However, Cummins says he doesn’t want his push for female creative leaders to “become a thing.”

“If it becomes a thing, it’s a gimmick,” he says.

“We do it genuinely. We do it because we think that’s the right thing to do, not because we think it’s the trendy thing to do.”

“We’ve been very good at being way ahead of our time and I’ve got wonderful women partners and I could not work in a blokey environment. I’d hate it and I could understand why women would too.”

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