‘The laziest eight year show ever’: Wil Anderson talks about the return of Gruen

The ABC’s panel show Gruen returns next week after a two-year hiatus, to take another look under the bonnet of the ad industry. Host Wil Anderson spoke to Mumbrella’s Alex Hayes about keeping the DNA, managing conflicts of interest, pet food and why the show should be about, and not for, the ad industry.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 11.39.06 amThe Gruen franchise has been loved and hated by the advertising industry almost in equal measures.

But it’s not something that fazes host and executive producer Wil Anderson, who has a message for them: “Just for the record, advertising industry: If we’re going to see 3,000 advertising messages a day just by walking around our lives, I think it’s fair we can have one show for ten episodes a year that reveals some of the secrets behind that.”

After two years off the air Gruen is back with comedian Anderson at the helm, with panellists Russel Howcroft and Todd Sampson once again at his side.

While the show was started eight years ago it has been on a self-imposed two year hiatus, while Anderson concentrated on his stand up, former Y&R Group boss Howcroft was helping get Network Ten back into shape and Sampson, who recently stepped back from the CEO role at Leo Burnett, did his Redesign My Brain series for the ABC, along with new roles on the Qantas and Fairfax boards.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 11.45.03 amAsked about its relative endurance in an era when many franchises rise and fall in half its run, Anderson said: “It’s been the laziest eight year show ever. We’ve been going for eight years and haven’t even reached 100 shows.

“I think the one thing about this show that’s always worked well is that none of us ever thinks about any of those things. When it was conceived we thought it was something that would be lucky to do eight episodes, never mind it being this successful. It’s a passion project for everyone involved in it.”

Asked how it will rate, he quips: “We’ve been away for two years, who knows if anyone will watch our show? If they don’t we could always replace Russel or Todd with a cat and make it Cats Who Argue About Advertising.”

But why is it that the Australian public seem so fascinated by the marketing industry?

“What I love is that something simple tells us a lot about who we are,” says Anderson. “We’ve never covered pet food, it’s a massive industry and an absolute case study of advertisers appealing to our emotions.

“I have to stop my dog from eating its own vomit in the back yard, but he’s supposed to be pampered with gourmet carrots and roast beef?”

GRUEN-NATION neil lawrenceA lot has changed since the show started in 2007, including the departures of the three founding producers from the then Zapruder’s Other Films: John Casimir, Andrew Denton and Anita Jacoby.

So is there a challenge with keeping a show which has been variously known as The Gruen Transfer, Gruen Sweat, Gruen Nation and Gruen Planet over its run, true to its roots, now it is simply Gruen?

“You won’t notice a major difference from the outside,” says Anderson. “There’s little things. I was really keen to call the show Gruen, as that’s the mission statement for the show. Whatever we look at, whether it’s sport or it’s politics, it’s always been that perspective of why we buy what we buy, how we’re being sold to and what it tells us about us as human beings.

“That to me is Gruen’s central approach.”

He also points to the team behind the show, including a posse of experienced writers – many of whom started with the show eight years ago – have honed their craft on other projects between series.



Anderson adds: “In the old days Jon Casimir was the creator of the show, and Jon and I did a lot of it back and forwards in our heads, and a lot of it was the vision of Jon on paper before we went into the show.

Casimir is now head of entertainment at the ABC.

“What we’ve done is try and replace that with the six or eight voices in the room and create a Gruen voice – the voice of the show is not my voice, Todd’s or Russel’s, it’s a Gruen voice.

“The perspective hopefully when you see me hosting the show is a whole bunch of brilliant people in an office. That’s reflective of my approach and where it is in its evolution.”

Industry perspective

Gruen hasn’t been to the taste of all in the marketing fraternity, with the likes of Clemenger Group discouraging staff from taking part in things like The Pitch, where agencies are challenged to create an ad to a tough brief, or as panellists.

This season has seen the Gruen team take a slightly different tack to get bigger agencies competing in The Pitch, which Anderson admitted had been a challenge, with intra-agency competition between different offices being tried for the first time.

But does Anderson care about the critics?

“At the end of the day we’re not making the show for the ad industry, so if they fully approved of the show we wouldn’t be making the show for the Australian public we should be making. The show is around advertising, marketing and selling but it’s certainly not a show for the advertising industry.”

“The truth of it is, you’ve got to look at the ongoing success of the people who’ve been willing to go on TV and reveal their secrets, it’s been great for every one of them. If I’m going to an ad agency and I see someone on TV explaining how it’s done, it does not in any way deter me from hiring them, in fact that’s exactly what I want them to do.

“I don’t ever think that stuff gives it away, people still go to restaurants even though there are cooking shows on every second show. They’re not saying ‘Oh, I see how they make that now’.

“And just for the record, advertising industry: If we’re going to see 3,000 advertising messages a day just by walking around our lives, I think it’s fair we can have one show for ten episodes a year that maybe reveals some of the secrets behind that stuff.”

Does Anderson think there is a greater interest from the Australian public in the ‘dark arts’ of marketing because of Gruen? If anything, he says, it’s been a boon for the industry.

“I think Gruen has been very good for the advertising inndustry. I don’t know if it’s been good for the industry in itself, but for the image of the industry – the amount of times people come up to me and tell me they’re studying advertising and marketing because of the show.

“It has a much more positive image because of the show, there’s no doubt about that.

“When somebody says to me they’re studying advertising and marketing because they love Gruen, I say to them you may have missed the point of the show – did you start making meth after you watched Breaking Bad?

“It’s always been as much a celebration about what’s good about advertising as well as what’s bad about it. If people debate those things openly and honestly, the public’s in a good position to make up their own minds at the end of it.”

Will Howcroft and Sampson have to pull more punches?

Along with Anderson, the show has made stars of two admen, Russel Howcroft and Todd Sampson. In the last few years both of them have stepped back from day-to-day agency life for what could be termed – somewhat ironically – more commercial roles, Howcroft with Ten as general manager, Melbourne, and Sampson as a board director at two of the country’s most discussed companies, Qantas and Fairfax.

Is there a danger the duo could be too commercially conflicted now to talk openly and critically about advertising?

On Howcroft, Anderson quips: “You obviously haven’t seen the show as he’s never been critical of the industry in eight years.”

But he adds his new role sees him set to talk more about the evolution away from traditional TV ads and more around integration and broadcasters working with advertisers.

“Over the years both of them have had various conflicts, it’s the nature of having two heavy hitters from the industry,” says Anderson.

“We try to tailor those things and put them up front where we can and there are only rare occasions where they have had to pull punches on the show, and if it happens we have a little debrief and it doesn’t happen again for another couple of years.”

But he admits those conflicts do have a bearing on the topics they choose to discuss: “Todd’s on the board of Qantas now, they’ve had a good turnaround financially – we did a big piece on Qantas when they were having all the troubles, we discussed all that.

“On that journey they’ve come out very positively, that’s a story we might cover on the show traditionally. But maybe this year we’ll go ‘Todd’s on the Qantas board and it feels like a gimme we might give that one a miss’, as we do try to throw them things they can speak openly on.

“So if it came down to a thing between those two that would be a gut call, but I have full confidence they would speak openly even if they declare their interest first.”

Gruen PlanetWith neither man on the frontline of advertising any more, Anderson said the producers had looked to expand the roster of guest panellists to take in different areas of expertise from the industry.

He said around 16 people had tried out for the current series in several trial shows, with three or four set to make their debuts during the ten week run.

The end?

Finally there’s the question that seems to come around with every new series – will this one actually be the last?

Anderson is so well prepared for it he gives two answers, rather cryptically.

“We go into every season assuming that it is the last. That has been the case in every single season we’ve done from the start,” he says.

“When we finished two years ago, we had some slight nods, we played one of my ads and we had one or two other things we’d been fiddling with for a while we finished up, and we said if that’s it we’d be pretty happy with how it was.

“If we’re looking at the ideas board, then I would never say let’s leave something for the next season if we can do it now, because we never know what will happen.

“But the two most successful versions of the show we’ve done have been our Olympics one – Gruen Sweat – and politics one – Gruen Nation. Next year we have both.”

Alex Hayes is the editor of Mumbrella


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