Gift of the Gabberer: Ant Keogh
By Siobhan Fitzgerald
Ant Keogh was recently named the most awarded chief creative officer of 2017 by The Drum’s Big Won rankings, so it might seem counterintuitive to be talking to him about rejection. But in the process of creating some of the world’s best work (Graham, the Big Ad, Hello Beer, to name a few) he has experienced his fair share of setbacks.
Ant isn’t your average creative director. He is thoughtful and collaborative, and he’s as comfortable wielding a paintbrush or holding his guitar as he is wearing a creative director’s hat (usually a flat cap, sometimes baseball).
He’s also my boss. We sat down over a couple of drinks on a Friday afternoon to talk about rejection, resilience, and how there’s always another idea out there.
S: When I talk about rejection and advertising, what do you think of?
A: The biggest learning curve in some ways is learning to be rejected. And there’s both good and bad rejection. I think the first point is that everyone thinks their ideas are awesome. Even people who aren’t in the industry, they have a bias towards their own ideas. When you’re a junior you’ve got to learn to get over that. You notice when you’re with juniors or award school students or whatever, their biggest struggle is that they hold onto their ideas. You have to get over the idea that your ideas are so precious, and you have to learn that there’s always another one.
S: Do you think then that when CDs are very hands on it can affect their judgement?
A: It’s hard for anyone to be objective about their own ideas. I guess that’s why they have CDs, so there’s someone that’s removed. When the CD starts working on it, the danger is that they get caught up in their own ideas.
The second biggest learning curve is to remove yourself.
I try to see the idea just like someone walking up to it for the first time. Because the problem is, what you do as a creative is you start to think that someone else knows the brief like you do, like they have the context. But the thing you learn is that when you walk up to an idea in a train station and see three words on a page, it’s with no context. So it’s a good practice to step back, and think: would someone understand this? And if you can’t do that just show other people. Show your mum or whatever. Think, “does that makes sense?”
I think the biggest problem people have is not so much creativity but communication. I reckon most young people, but also the rest of us, screw up through not being clear in our communication. We get better at communication as we go into our career.
I think I’ve gotten better at the communication part of it, not necessarily become more creative.
S: How did you deal with rejection when you first started out?
A: I hooked up with a guy and we went around (to different agencies) and we got rejected as you do, but to be honest we fairly quickly got a job at little a little agency. I was made redundant from that job a year later. So that was a big moment. It was hard but I didn’t take it super personally because the whole agency was starting to lose traction, and 6 months later it didn’t exist anymore.
S: I guess that what makes rejection feel more painful sometimes—there’s always the fear of redundancy.
A: Yeah I guess, we’re all sort of freelancers in a way I think.
S: Have you had experiences where rejection has really hurt?
A: The biggest one that affected me, I call it my lost album. After the Big Ad, a few years later, I spent about a year doing various campaigns for Carlton Draught—let’s say about five months doing one ad that ended up dying in research, so that was awful. And I really liked the ads.
Then I did another campaign, I just sort of got up, dusted myself off, did another five months and got to research, got through research, it was about to get made, with Will Ferrell in it—then he ended up pulling out. So we tried all these other actors, but there weren’t many that were right for it, so that died a slow death just as it was getting close to completion.
And then finally the next one—by now we’ve wasted nearly a year or something—it got all the way to completion. It had gone all the way through research, another 6 months, and then the week before they were going to launch the CEO at Fosters changed, and he HATED them. And his wife hated them, and his family probably hated them and his friends probably hated them and then he pulled them just before they were going on TV.
They eventually went online, this series of ads about how people are compelled to go and drink beer with this guy singing about the Carlton Draught tingle. But they were musical and designed to be heard over and over on TV. So online I felt like they didn't really get a chance.
I remember feeling, I’d put my heart and soul into those and I was taking it really personally. It was all the time spent, then it was like, I’d written the songs, I’d played the songs myself to the client on my guitar, and sort of really put myself into it.
It was really hard. I sort of had to stop myself working on it for a while after that. It had sort of almost broken me.
S: So rejection can make you feel shit, but it can also lead to greater creativity, don’t you think?
A: I’ve definitely had times when something’s been rejected, and I may have hated it at the time but it’s led to something bigger. Like with the Big Ad—Grant (Rutherford) and I went in and presented another version of that ad first, and it was a much more specific piss-take of airline advertising, like a Qantas ad. They rejected that, but they kind of liked the general area, so 24 hours later we went back with one that talked more about a genre of big ads instead. Not only did they then accept the ad but I think it was better for the fact that it was more general—although I would normally say that being specific is better. But in this instance it made it more universal.
S: Have you seen that happen in other jobs that you’ve come across over the years?
A: I’m guessing that over 95% of the time if something’s rejected it dies, and we just have to accept it. But there is a grey area where just parts of the ads are rejected and then it’s trying to figure out if the ad should live or die. And then occasionally the client will make it better. Either they see something that’s wrong and they twist it around to make it more true, and that makes it better, or sometimes, us just rethinking it makes it stronger through the rigour of having to rewrite it. But my sense is that when you write something, it’s usually fully formed and you mess with it and it falls to pieces. That’s why so much advertising is mediocre, because it’s been medalled with. Like really, we should all be rejecting work a lot more in some ways, we tend to let things live and they end up being mortally wounded by the time they appear in public.
S: So the first thing that’s most important is getting it right before layering on the creativity?
A: Yes that’s right, I mean that’s the fundamental. You know I often think from planners that I don’t want some highfalutin strategy I just want the truth—like it’s just on a bedrock of truth, rather than on some clever strategy that’s not really true. We exaggerate and extrapolate so if we do that on the wrong footing we just end up everywhere. And then you can get a sense of falseness creeping in.
S: How do you assess work, when creatives bring you their ideas?
A: When something’s brilliant it’s kind of easy. But most of the time you’re dealing in the grey area. When you’re dealing with scripts that are 5, 6, 7 out of 10, to know which one of those is the best can be really difficult. Sometimes it can get muddy, or it can get really subjective. Or it just depends on the objective, as to what’s better. More the strategic objective than “oh that’s so creative”. When you become a CD you feel responsible for the work.
S: Have you got any advice for someone moving into a CD role?
A: (pauses) I don’t even know if I’m doing it right. I think most creative directors, I hear a lot of stories about creative directors just being “yes, no, yes, no”, throwing stuff into the bin. I tend to analyse things and try to explain why something does or doesn’t work. But you can get a bit caught up in that I guess, sometimes it’s better just to say (yes or no).
S: Well that teaches people, you’re mentoring people. That’s how they learn.
A: Yeah. I’m trying to think how other creative directors have been like with me. James (McGrath) wouldn’t over-explain anything but he wasn’t super harsh either. I just used to sort of know by the look on his face.
S: We can tell, with you. It’s if there’s nothing said (it’s a no) or there’s a yes straight away.
A: Well as I said the trick is, most stuff you see is probably in the middle. And maybe you can make it better but it’s hard. Sometimes you can, but 90% of the time I feel like it just won’t be better. Like it’s some structural thing that’s just inherent in the script that’s just not fresh enough or something. I mean every script’s different. Like there’ll be a way to make it work but it won’t be good. It’s hard to tinker with something. It does tend to come pretty fully formed I feel.
S: Especially if you’ve got more senior creatives I guess, maybe junior ones you have to prise the exeuction out a bit more.
A: I tend to like seeing something close to the finished form.
I think a lot of young creatives these days, they’re taught to not execute. They’re taught to tell you the idea.
But particularly with something like television, there’s the idea but a lot of it is the execution. Like the dialogue or something that makes it great. I mean sometimes not, you can probably say a lot of things are just the idea. But there are plenty of amazing television ads out there and the idea is not that great. It’s literally how they make it—it’s in the detail.
S: When you started off as a CD did you find it difficult to move into that role, to tell people when their ideas weren’t right?
A: Working with creatives has been the favourite part of my job, since I became a CD. Sitting and figuring out how to make something better. That’s not the bit I found hard about being a CD, it’s all the management stuff I found hard. The mentoring and stuff is the good bit. I mean I don’t like rejecting anyone’s stuff, no I don’t likes doing that, but I do like working with people on stuff, cause I’m quite a technician myself so I like being able to help there.
Some people like the power of being a CD I think, but I don’t really like that. I just got old enough to be a CD. Actually I put off being a CD for years.
S: It’s hard to have a long career in this industry. Have you seen many people drop out over the years?
A: I remember hearing about a creative director going and starting a Baker’s Delight. That always stuck in my head. But yeah I guess people get into related creative industries and go and write books and make films, that sort of thing.
S: How have you stayed sane enough to have a long career?
A: I always had another creative thing on the side because I did find the not-getting-anything-made thing would drive you nuts after a while. So it was always good to go and do a painting because I didn’t have to get it approved. I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder telling me how to change it. It was good relief.
I think when I was at Y&R I didn’t make anything for a year one time. So you know when you’ve got a year of not making anything it’s good to have something else to back you up.
I’ve been painting since I was a kid. I get a sort of a kick out of it. I do some art then I feel good for a number of hours or days or whatever, it’s kind of like, giving me a hit.
S: There were rumours you were talking about leaving the ad industry for a while? Is that true?
A: I knew I wouldn’t be leaving the ad industry, I just wanted to work a bit differently. I didn’t want only to do that. I wanted a bit more time to explore some of that other stuff. But all those fun creative things tend to not pay.
S: So is your day off spent doing that? (Ant works 4 days a week.)
A: Well, theoretically. It’s only just started but yeah, that’s what it’s for.
S: That’s interesting, maybe part-time work is how people can have a career with longevity in this industry. You can’t go hell for leather forever.
A: Well I’d done it for 20 something years. I have had periods off, 9 months one time and 4 months another. But it’s pretty hard, it’s only cause I’m so senior that I’ve been able to do it. The other way is to not have a family, or to be unencumbered enough to have time for other stuff. Or you know the freelance route, I’ve never done that but it’s always sort of played on my mind, when I was younger, whether I should be doing it.
S: What’s the biggest difference you see in yourself as a creative between your younger self—when you first started out—and now?
When I first started out I got a lot angrier about everything that would go wrong. And as I got older I started to step back from that and not get caught up when details got changed.
I guess it’s perspective isn’t it. One thing I learnt was—often jobs would go through a sort of pattern. There’s this pattern they’d follow where they would go off track.
Like you’d have this straight line from your idea to what you wanted to have made, and as it was getting made the job would start veering off.
So when we were in the middle of shooting it there’d be bits that were wrong. But then I started to have faith that we’d bring them back. We had a pretty good team so we’d generally get our jobs back on track by the end. It’d be in the editing room, it would be that late, because we’d shoot it two ways.
You know, you’d go “Mr Client I know you want it to be purple and we want it to be red, so can we shoot it both ways?” And in the edit room you’d show them the red and they’d go “oh yeah red’s much better”. And you go thank Christ, because it’s incredible tension to have the job wrong at that point.
You leave the fight til the right moment. And we’d often come back or like 90% back. It wasn’t often it’d be like really ruined.
S: That seems like such an important skill to learn, to keep the job on track. That’s where most ads fall down.
A: I think if you don’t have the right people to get it back then it does end up out there in the wilderness. It’s picking the moment to have the conversation and the battle so to speak. It doesn’t always work, it’s high risk. But yeah, how I’ve changed. I don’t get as antsy. I used to get really annoyed. I still get annoyed but I don’t take it quite so personally.
S: Does that also come back to, there’s always another idea?
A: Yes and maybe a better idea. Although I do find that often by the time the idea has gone the rounds of everyone talking about it, I get bored of an idea. So often by the time it gets rejected I’m bored of it anyway. So there probably is a better idea anyway.