DTSACMO : Brent Smart

'I'm still trying to beat that damn treehouse.'

New content stream alert.

There’s only so much insight I can provide from the creative side of the fence. The battle to do better work requires us all pulling in the one direction, so I’m going to bring in some client-side perspective from the best in the business.

I’m calling it DTSACMO, as a homage to our industry’s obsession with ridiculous acronyms. And to kick us off is none other than Brent Smart.

Brent is Chief Marketing Office at Telstra, Australia’s biggest telco and second most valuable brand. Previously he spent nearly 6 years as CMO at insurance giant IAG, where he led the creative transformation of the NRMA Insurance brand, picking up over 100 major creative awards and a coveted Grand Effie. He spent 20 years in the agency business, leading New Zealand Agency of the Decade Colenso BBDO and his last ad gig was CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi New York where he worked on some of America’s biggest brands like Cheerios, Tide and Walmart. He hails from Melbourne, which is why he loves AFL and coffee, but now lives in Bondi with his wife and 3 sons who don’t love AFL so much.

Jess, thanks for having me along to your newsletter. Love the name, it’s the Liquid Death of advertising newsletters. As a client, I feel like I’ve infiltrated a creative space, as Thom Yorke once said, what the hell am I doing here I don’t belong here. 

Now, to your questions.

What has the impact of pushing for bigger and better creative work been on your career?

It has made all the difference.

It has given me purpose. Making great work happen feels like a proper challenge and a reason to get up and do it again every day. Because it’s so damn hard to get great work through the corporate machine. Even when you have done everything you can to create the conditions for work to be great, you still need that little bit of magic and luck.

It has also given me credibility. I’ve got a body of work and track record that shows it’s not a one off or a fluke, proving time and again that creativity is a driver of commercial success. By making the work better, I’ve helped declining brands turn around and start growing, from Cheerios to Yellow Pages. NRMA Insurance went from 36th strongest brand in Australia to 5th and we picked up a Grand Effie.

And it’s just more fun.

Was there a ‘penny drop’ moment in your career as a marketer that made you embrace creativity? Or has it always been something innate?

It was there from my early days as a junior suit in agencies. I always hung out with the creatives. I devoured D&AD and One Show annuals and knew all the work. I wanted to prove myself to the senior creatives with good briefs and by selling the work.

Then I moved to New Zealand. Not for the weather. Because much more interesting work was coming from over the ditch. My five years at Colenso was the most influential period in my career and the happiest. I saw up close the power of a creative culture and a group of people all completely aligned that they were there to do great work, together.

And that’s when I had the closest to a “penny drop” moment. It was the Yellow Treehouse. The Yellow Pages business was on its knees in a Google world, this was as far from business as usual as you could get. We came up with a crazy idea. To challenge someone to build something extraordinary using only the Yellow Pages - in this case, a treehouse restaurant. Take the whole advertising budget and use it to build the restaurant, relying on earned media to get everyone talking about it. It was all over the news. It opened to the public and a whole month of lunches and dinners sold out in minutes. It generated millions of dollars in media coverage that far exceeded the original budget. It won an Integrated Lion, one of the first when they were really hard to win. And Yellow Pages stole share of online search from Google in New Zealand, the only place in the world that ever happened. That’s the power of a great idea.

It's still the best thing I’ve ever been a part of and I’m still chasing it, trying to beat that damn treehouse.

How do you motivate the agencies you work with to do better work? And how do you motivate your internal stakeholders to buy it?

It starts with creative ambition.

At Telstra, we want to be the most creative brand from this part of the world. Not the best in our category, we want to be world class. How do you measure that? With more Cannes Lions than any other brand in Asia Pacific. That’s a big ambition for a brand that’s won one bronze Lion in the last 20 years. It’s not because of vanity, it’s a commercial decision; the link between highly creative work and greater effectiveness is irrefutable.

Then, it’s about buying ideas completely. Not saying yes to everything, but when you do say yes, really mean it. Don’t half buy it and then death by a thousand cuts, or test all the interesting bits out of it. It’s about making the call you get paid to make and then holding hands with the agency as we take that creative leap together and asking them what they need from me to make it great. And most of all, it’s about protecting the work inside a corporation that is built to kill it. That’s why I wanted to become a marketer; in my agency days I had put too many great ideas into the hands of marketers who were not equipped or didn’t care enough to protect those ideas inside their companies.

That’s not about keeping ideas hidden away from internal stakeholders. Quite the contrary. It’s about them feeling your conviction. That’s all you have at the start. You don’t have any data to prove it’s going to work, not really, data is looking backwards, not forwards. All you have is belief and conviction. Get them excited, show them the vision, bring them on the journey. Always be merchandising your work internally. But most of all, don’t ask for permission, earn it.

How have you created corporate environments with a healthy appetite for creativity?

It’s really hard to build a creative culture inside a corporate, they’re just not wired that way.

But if you can get close, it is a genuine competitive advantage. 

I believe the key to a creative culture, inside a corporation or anywhere, is to be “hard on the work, kind to the people”.

That tension is really important.

We have all heard about the importance of psychological safety if you want a truly innovative culture. People need to feel it is a safe place to be vulnerable and share their ideas. They need to know you have their back and there are no failures if we had a swing and it didn’t work out, only learnings.

But the culture can’t be too safe. It also needs an edge. You need to be able to have hard conversations about the quality and expectations around the work. There is a great MIT paper from last year titled “Why Innovation Depends on Intellectual Honesty”. It talks about task conflict versus relationship conflict, about expecting disagreement but requiring respect. It is that same tension of being hard on the work but at the same time kind to the people.

That’s how I try to build a creative culture in the teams I lead.

In terms of a healthy appetite for creativity inside corporates, that comes down to one simple thing. Their family and friends noticing the work, talking about the work and liking the work. Makes them feel better about the company and they feel part of something and they want more of it.

The new Telstra work is lovely. With the increasing push to produce shorter content, and in volume, we've begun to lose craft, story, and clarity of messaging. You've overcome that with this campaign. How important is it for marketers to not lose focus on the fundamentals in a changing media landscape?

Thanks for the kind words about our Network campaign.

It’s kind of ironic when you talk about the push for shorter content and volume, when here we made a series of 26 x 15 second films.

The volume is important, it’s a way to show the scale of our network and the ambition of our brand. If we just made 5 of these, it’s not a statement. And that’s the whole point here, say how big and great our network is not in the usual rational and boastful way, but with humility and charm.

In terms of fundamentals, you mentioned two of them that are so important, clarity and craft.

I’m always looking for the simplest way to say things. We can learn a lot from Apple here. Where most marketers say what can we add in, Apple always asks what can we take out. You need to really reduce things down and get out of the way. Here we have a very simple message. That places all around Australia are better on a better mobile network. And because people already believe we have a better network, we don’t need proof points. Just deliver the network superiority message in a way that people are more likely to remember it. No voice over, no line, no call to action, just simple dialogue and then bring up the logo – it feels very confident.

Then there’s the craft. The audience can really feel it when something has had more care put into it – they can’t articulate it, but they can feel it. You need to work with the best people. It was a brilliant move from Bear Meets Eagle on Fire to combine a director like Jeff Low for the comedy with an animation director like Tobias Fouracre for the beautiful stop motion. And then casting local voices from the regions made them even more charming. Thought and care went into every detail and it shows in the end product.

You have to care about how things get made and stop thinking that production is “non-working” money, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, it’s the hardest working budget. As my mate Fernando Machado says, “creativity is a dollar multiplier”.

Huge props to Brent for putting his name to a newsletter titled ‘Death to shit ads’ and dropping some absolute gems in the process. Particularly, the points around ‘buying ideas fully’ and creativity in the corporate world. Ideally, he’ll be the first of many more guest contributors.


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