Surviving 50 years in advertising

Mike Preston has worked in advertising for five decades. He shares with Mumbrella his lessons, learnings and losses, across a career that's spanned two countries, various agencies, multiple recessions and a schizophrenia diagnosis in his immediate family.

This article was going to be about what I learnt in 50 years of working in advertising, but with the world heading toward economic recession, I have written about what I have
learnt working and surviving three world recessions and a number of financial shocks.

To set the scene, I began my career in December 1969 in London. There was a cultural and social revolution in the UK, the baby boomers were young and were beginning to
change the world. The UK advertising industry had been influenced by the creative revolution started on Madison Avenue by Bill Bernbach.

Against this backdrop, I started my first job was as a junior art director at an agency called Vernons. The agency may not shine bright in the history of advertising, but its
creative director Tony Brignull certainly does. Tony was on his way to becoming one of the industry’s most highly regarded and awarded copywriters. I learnt a lot from Tony
and from the amazing art directors and copywriters in his creative team.

A few years later I had the opportunity to join Euro as an art director in Robin White’s creative department. Robin, who went on to be one of the founders of WCRS, ran the agency with the same intensity as a daily newspaper -even though we operated under constant tight deadlines, there was no excuse for coming-up with a crap idea. It was during this time I learnt that freaking out about a lack of time, was just wasting time rather than trusting that I would come up with an idea. Whether it was a good or a great idea was another thing.

My career was going well, winning awards and having fun. Then Ted Heath and his Conservative Government at the time decided to take on the National Union of Mineworkers resulting in a strike. It was winter, stocks of coal at power stations were low to conserve electricity and the Government introduced a ‘Three-day Week’ to commercial users of electricity.

This meant that organisations such as Euro, were limited to three specified days a week and a set number of hours per day to operate.

Huge fines were handed out for non-compliance. Other unions such as the rail union joined the action and soon it wasn’t just the trains that ground to a halt.

As companies looked at ways of cutting costs, it was their advertising budget that was amongst the first of the casualties. The management at Euro took a long-term view that the crisis would end and the agency was in position to take advantage of the market upswing, so took the decision to not make anyone on the staff redundant.

The Government buckled under the pressure, the strike ended and Euro was ready.

For a number of well-known brands that had made the decision to stop advertising through the strike, even though it only lasted months, they lost market share and in some cases were never heard of again.

Some years later my family had relocated to Australia and I was enjoying life in Sydney having been hired by Paul Jones at McCann Erickson. After a spell at FCB I moved to Schofield
Sherbon Baker (SSB) to work alongside Simon Connolly as an art director then joint creative director.

Two days after my birthday on the 19 October, 1987, the Wall Street stock market crashed. On ‘Black Monday’ the Dow lost 22.6% of its value or $500bn and the following day, the Australian market traded worse with the All Ordinaries shedding one-quarter of its value.

In hindsight, it might not have been the best time to be working at agency that had been haemorrhaging business and a was sporting tarnished reputation, but it turned out to be the perfect time.

Simon and myself formed a close relationship with the MD, and set a clear direction and goals for the agency. With David Sherbon managing the group, we started winning business, winning local and international awards and took the agency out of the red and into the black, repairing the agency’s reputation along the way.

In 1997 the industry took a big hit when Allan Fels, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) abolished the Media Accreditation system because in layman’s terms it was giving them a strangle hold on media buying.

Former ACCC chair Allan Fells

I was running a creative group at George Patterson at the time and had been appalled in a new business pitch when the MD offered “The creative for free…if you give us the media”. He was happy to undervalue the creative work because the agency was doing extremely well on the back of the media. In the long run, not such a great decision.

From the late 1990s, I began to notice that many agencies struggled to adapt to changes. The days of just a handful of media channels, TV, print, radio and outdoor in
the form of billboards were gone. Media fragmentation was allowing the consumer to be in control of what they viewed. The structure of above-the-line (advertising) and below-the-line (other marketing) was gone.

Those who accepted change and moved to effect further change were starting to become the real change agents in the sector.

I moved to Clemenger BBDO and through doing a number of community engagement campaigns became fascinated with human attitudes and behaviour. I am very proud to have worked on the ‘Tosser’ campaign for the EPA.

A more recent iteration of the Tosser campaign:

While at Clemenger, my daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia after her first psychotic episode in January, 2000. It gave me a real and raw understanding of the complexities of mental health illness and the stigma faced by those with a mental illness.

It awakened a passion in me to help change the way that mental health was discussed and supported in the community. The first advertising campaign was for the Schizophrenia Fellowship highlighting the recently released early warning signs of schizophrenia. Sarah’s illness was a major shock in our family’s life and it lead to a change.

When I left Clemenger I planned to retire, then decided to look for a new challenge and a new horizon.

We moved to NSW’s second biggest city, Newcastle. I had been in the role of creative director at Peach a few months when on the 8 June, 2007 a huge storm hit the Hunter Region and the Pasha Bulker run aground at Nobbys Beach.

It wasn’t the only storm to hit in 2007. A financial crisis trigged by the housing bubble in the US caused the collapse of Lehman Brothers and in what is now known at the GFC, brought many key financial institutions and businesses to the brink of collapse around the globe requiring huge government bailouts. In Australia, the Federal and State Governments stimulus pumped billions of dollars into the economy.

At Peach, the Government’s stimulus gave the agency an opportunity to present ideas for a TV campaign to promote the NSW Government schools stimulus program. The
Minister liked the campaign and we worked on the first home buyers grant campaign. We also won, in a competitive pitch, the Federal Government’s home insulation campaign.

Although the ‘Pink batts’ campaign was rightly cancelled due to the tragic deaths of four installers, Government work was a lifeline for the agency.

Eventually I’d had enough of constantly pitching for business and formed the belief that the pitch process didn’t deliver the most effective creative ideas to a client.

A year later I resigned from Peach and started my own consultancy Creatives Co-op so I could devote more time to collaborating with clients to develop campaigns on mental health issues.

It was through this work that I first collaborated with Luke Kellett and Sarah Cook and the team at Newcastle-based creative agency Headjam on a mental health project.

We found that we shared values about the type and quality of work we wanted to produce and discussions lead to me becoming executive creative director and a partner at Headjam in August 2014.

With a team of 13 people, we continue to develop campaigns, and community engagement projects, branding and digital executions for clients across the nation in four areas – health, education, arts and community. Unlike many companies in our industry during the current crisis we are committed to keeping our team intact. We believe it’s the right thing to do.

Headjam’s pitch on Gruen to ban Halloween:

Gruen – The Pitch 2019 from Headjam on Vimeo.

So what can I share about my learnings from five decades in advertising?

The constant is change. Although I recognise that this crisis is unlike any other in my time, I do believe that businesses that can think beyond the immediate threat will emerge and can help others to do the same.

Mike Preston is the Executive Creative Director of Headjam.


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.