Jackie Dickenson on life after advertising
For many years an advertising creative, Jackie Dickenson is well known by many in the industry today through her time spent teaching creative advertising at RMIT, and her work on the history of advertising in Australia. She is an honorary fellow at The University of Melbourne and the author of Behind Glass Doors: The World of Australian Advertising Agencies 1959-1989 and Australian Women in Advertising in the Twentieth Century. Jackie has also written widely on Australian political history.
Interview by Siobhan Fitzgerald
I went to a very academic school, a grammar school, in Reading, west of London. But I was good at art and I came from a background where nobody had ever been to university so I was tentative about doing that. I left school after year 10 and went to the Berkshire College of Art in Maidenhead, then Reading — it had a good record for getting students into the advertising industry. I did my A levels there.
At the end of third year we’d have an exhibition and creative directors would come from London to see it and offer us jobs. Out of 78 people two of us were offered jobs as art directors, and I went briefly to a small agency called Shackle Hamner in Southampton Row, London, then from there to Foote Cone and Belding (FCB) in Baker St, London. We were right next door to DDB, used to share a pub,with them, the Barley Mow, I think, in Dorset Street.
I was about 23 by then—and married. I was working on Cadbury’s, British Airways, London Transport, Dulux, we won a Reader’s Digest award for a Dulux ad. I was partnered with a guy called Rupert Thomson, who’s now one of Britain’s best novelists. I really enjoyed working with him. I read his first ever published short story before I left London and thought, this guy’s really got something.
After a while Rupert and I were sent to Chicago to be trained in the FCB way. It was an amazing experience. Broke my marriage up … but amazing.
We seemed a bit fishy to the Americans, Rupert and I, we were pseudo-punks, kind of out there. This was 1980.
But I didn’t like the big American agency, it was very formulaic. It was next door to the Tribune Tower on the Chicago River. Rupert and I used to go up and down in the lift and one day we went to the top floor and saw this sign—the Creative Director’s name was John O’Toole—and it said, ‘John O’Toole, Creative Director of the World’. And we were like, what the fuck?
I was the only woman in creative at FCB London for a while. There were hundreds of people working there and I was the only woman creative.
After a while it changed, they employed another young art director, and then there was a senior female team who came on, they were terrific, but people were so rude about them, they really were.
Anyway, I eventually decided to come to Australia. My first job in Melbourne was at FCB Spasm. They wrote to Andrew (Cracknell, then Creative Director FCB London and the author of The Real Mad Men) to check me out and he said I was okay so they hired me. I was about five years into my career by then but I was a fairly senior art director—coming from London you had a kudos that you didn’t really deserve, you know.
But the scene here was ordinary, or so it seemed to me. There were some great people here, there really were. But my problem was I’d had these amazing writers over in the UK, Rupert who had studied at Cambridge and, when he left, Mike Court, Oxford-educated, who went on to set up a terrific agency in London, Still Price Court Twivy D’Souza, and it had spoiled me. I didn’t realise how much I’d depended on those writers, working with a really smart copywriter to get the ideas. I suppose I learned how much I owed Rupert and Mike.
In London creatives were treated differently from here. We were the kings, you know, we were paid better and protected.
Mike and I did a shoot in NY for British Airways and were treated like gods. On Cadbury we’d have 6 months to make a commercial, developing ideas. Here I’d have 6 days. And everything was done on much tighter budgets, better in a way, more hands on but it was a bit of a culture shock for me, I was used to swanning in to shoots at the last moment and nodding my approval, and it was not like that here, far more hands on! Now I see the benefit—at least you get stuff made—but I was just feeling “no we haven’t looked into it deeply enough”.
So I reckon it took me 2 or 3 years to adjust, and by then I’d decided that I was a better writer than a lot of the writers I was working with. I wasn’t finding art direction intellectually stimulating enough. I took a job at Scali, McCabe, Sloves, because I admired the work of Ed McCabe and Bill Shannon was in charge there, he was committed to great work.
When Scalis merged with Abbot Mead Vickers, David Abbott paid us a visit. I pretended not to be impressed, but I was like, oooh...
We move around a lot in advertising, don’t we? I ended up at Lintas, working on Honda and other things, the agency did a few good things and won a few awards, but we were working ridiculously long hours, I’d eat my dinner in the agency night after night. Computers were coming in, and it was all shifting, we were all learning. We had to type our own scripts now, whereas we’d always had a secretary to type them up previously.
Our CD was a lovely man, He’d been ill previously, and the illness came back. We were in the building on the corner, opposite Clems, and we went to Barbarinos, the restaurant under Clems, and he told me that it wasn’t looking good for him.
He told me, “You don’t want to keep doing this, Jackie. You’re too smart for this. Don’t waste your life on advertising”.
And I suppose I thought back to the pressures my parents had been put under by my school to persuade me to stay on for sixth form. And I thought about my wonderful history teacher and the high hopes she’d had for me, and I thought, perhaps this is the time.
You have a choice in advertising, you go on and take it really seriously and go into management, or you get out.
The bit that I always liked was the creative bit. I’m too much of a lefty to take the business part of it seriously. I mean I was active on the left of British Labour, before I went into advertising. I kind of knew I’d have to find something else to do.
I didn’t leave straight away, I did a continuing education subject at Melbourne University, then went on to do my BA, then my PhD. I did it all part time while working full time, it took me years. It was a bit of an odd transition.
I don’t think people in advertising realise how critical people in academia are of advertising.
But I found a lot of the skills I learnt in advertising helped me in academia. We’re so used to homing in on things so tightly, so I was just able to do that. I’m gobsmacked when I mark things and I talk to students about structure and they don’t get it and I think, but it’s just so obvious! Working as a copywriter in advertising makes you a natural editor anyway, you can’t help it.
From 1997 to 2006 I taught in the Advertising Course at RMIT. I became really focussed on D&AD.
I mean I’m British obviously, but I just wanted students to have that exposure, so we wouldn’t just be seen as parochial. I think I got pretty good at that, we had some great successes.
But I don’t think you were taught properly, I’m sorry, I don’t. I think you had some ok classes, but I think you weren’t taught to think, which is what an undergraduate degree should be about, learning to think. Part of it is that you’re not always taught by trained academics. The other problem is it’s such a small country, you don’t have the resources, there aren’t the Australian case studies to use, only American and British case studies.
So around 2004, 2005, I started to think about how to build a case about Australian advertising from a critical perspective. I started work on an article that was eventually published in Advertising and Society Review in the US, exploring the resources that you draw on when you develop an idea.
I went around and interviewed creatives, looking at how they used the past in their ideas. Matt Lawson took part in it, Ant Keogh…
The problem with the way advertising is perceived by society and academia generally is that you focus on the text, but you never really think about—
Who are the people putting this together, what world views are they bringing to the production of these texts?
They don’t just appear, they appear out of the sorts of agency environments we’ve been talking about, where you’ve got a bunch of young people drinking too much and partying. So I started thinking about that.
Doing my post-doc at Melbourne, I applied for a small university grant and got it—so I set up a workshop with the industry and got like 20 people involved, Ron Mather, Jack Vaughan, Bill Shannon, and others, and I gradually just built the project, along with the historian Robert Crawford (author of advertising history book But What There’s More). We worked together well. Then in 2011 we applied for funding from the ARC and got it, so we were able to take it from there.
The book is called Behind Glass Doors: the world of Australian advertising 1959-1989. We interviewed 120 people who worked in the industry from the 1950s to today, looking at the impact of globalisation on the Australian industry.
Things aren’t so different in academia and advertising. If you like to solve problems, come up with ideas and write, I think it’s kind of the same. I guess my benchmark for whether I’m happy or not, is whether I get into that zone, and time just goes. I did that in advertising, and I do that now.