Gift of the Gabberer:
Emma Hill is the newly appointed ECD at M&C Saatchi Melbourne. Most recently she was CD and Managing Partner at The Shannon Group, but Hill has also run her own shop (The Charles Grenfell Group) and held the roles of both ECD and Group CD at Clemenger BBDO Melbourne. In her time there she won numerous awards across shows including Cannes, D&AD, Clio, The One Show, NY Festivals, AWARD, AdFest and MADC. We caught up over coffee to talk awards.
Interview by Siobhan Fitzgerald
S: You spent years as an awards-driven creative and creative director before moving to an agency that had a different kind of focus. What happened to bring about this change?
E: I’ve talked with friends and close adverting mates about how almost from the minute I knew we were pregnant, my perception of what I did and who I was in advertising started to change. I don’t know if I can thank Mother Nature for that, but it was almost like I softened about a lot of the hard-arsed things about advertising.
The ruthlessness, the politics, the whole obsession with awards started to equalise.
The importance and energy of ideas and creativity was definitely still there, in fact it probably got stronger. But more and more, metal seemed less important.
Still, for young creatives coming through, there’s this period in your career when awards are your currency. But as you work your way through, you start to see balance is also good to have: awards are important, but so is feeling good about who you are, where you’re working, how you’re working and who you’re working with. If it’s only ever just about awards, you could have an awesome shelf, but not a really fulfilling career.
S: When you talk about obsession what do you mean?
E: I mean the pressure that I used to put on myself, which started the minute a brief landed, and I’d think “We’ve got to win something with this”.
Every single brief I saw as an opportunity. It was my own head-space, no one ever told us that was what had to happen, but also, it was pretty much innate in the culture.
But that’s why Clems continues to be such a creative force, because the bar there is so high.
S: Of course by saying, if I’m going to win an award, you’re also saying, how do I do a really original piece of work. Is that not a great thing to be aspiring to?
E: It is a great thing to aspire to, because it means you’re already thinking about how to create a really unique idea. But along with that, you also have to aspire to create an idea that’s on brief, on brand, builds on the brand’s platform, is on budget, resonates with the target, and will be effective - I mean there’s all that stuff your idea has to do as well. If you can do all that, and win an award, then snaps to you. Happy client, happy ECD, off to France with you.
S: How would you come at a brief from a pure award focus?
E: I think you naturally start to think about everything you’ve seen awarded in the category before. You’re right across shows, the best work in the world and what’s winning what. And your mind goes straight there, “that won last year, judges liked this last show” —and then with a head full of what’s won before you, you start from there. There’s nothing wrong with aiming high – but aiming only to win an award can distract you from what’s right there in front of you; the strategy, the client’s business problem, the proposition, the thing the idea has to achieve.
You have to use your award-winning motivation wisely and responsibly. Don’t get all Thanos on it.
S: What are the favourite pieces of work you’ve created, and were they awarded?
E: I loved all the work we did for Just Jeans. We were creating ideas every couple of weeks, with a brave client who was willing to cut through. It was a well-oiled, fast fashion machine. While a new idea was in pre-production, the last one was in post and we were all working on the next concept. There were a few awards in that time, but it wasn’t a highly awarded piece of business. It was just great fun and forced you to be creative very quickly.
I also really loved working on Libra. Again, there was a really great client willing to talk about periods in edgy and unexpected ways, vaginas plus blood, that’s such a great brief. Again, it was only awarded occasionally, but it was always the brand everyone wanted a crack at.
S: So they’re not the be all and end all for measuring good work.
E: You know I don’t think so. Awards are a great measure of what our peers think of our work.
As an industry we really like to celebrate ourselves hey? Agencies pay a lot of money so we can all get munted and give each other trophies.
And there’s no denying they’re awesome nights – especially if you win. But great work is also measured in other ways – like effectiveness, the change great ideas can create, the relationship they can help you build with clients, the love or loyalty people can have for a brand. If you’re making ideas that are doing all that, and winning creative awards, that’s the shit. It’s harder than ever I reckon.
S: Did it used to be easier?
E: I don’t know if I’ve ever felt it was easy, but I definitely feel like ideas used to happen in a freer flowing way. I think client and agency relationships felt more connected, more collaborative. There was less suspicion – on both sides. Everything is much tougher now for brands, marketers, agencies – we’re all under much more pressure. You can sense it presenting, with everyone around the table assessing an idea immediately against all the things it has to achieve. It’s hard for ideas to flow and breathe under the instant weight of massive expectation.
S: And it’s a bit more complicated now isn’t it—FMCG used to be where all the money was and that was where you could have lots of fun, but now a lot of briefs are around changing behaviour.
E: Ultimately everything we do is about changing something about consumers. You know, changing their mind, their buying habits, their choices, changing how they feel about a brand or how they want to be in the world if we get a bit more socially good about it. Which is a great job to have, and a cool responsibility. But you know, getting someone to buy a different kind of cheese is very different from getting them to stop texting while they drive.
S: We do like to be acknowledged and applauded in this industry. We’re not sitting there writing poetry that nobody’s going to see, we’re putting ourselves out there, waiting for approval.
E: That’s true. And ultimately that’s what awards are, approval from our own industry. But approval is also what we’re looking for in our everyday. When we’re working on first ideas, we’re looking for approval from our teammate or partner, presenting to our CD we need approval, then approval from the suit, the GAD, the first level of client, the second, the third, the CEO, the research group, the director we want to shoot it, then the target.
S; We’re looking for constant reassurance.
E: Our neediness is fuckin’ exhausting, isn’t it?
S: I guess the other side of that is for creatives who don’t have awards. How should they reflect on themselves?
If you’re working hard, talented, prolific and you’re creating and making ideas that are resonating and effective then damn it, feel good about yourself.
You’re doing a lot right. This bizz is tough enough without beating yourself up about whether you’ve won a metal animal.
S: When you’re running a creative department do you look for a balance of those skills?
E: I think it’s important to have creatives you can rely on for everything and every kind of opportunity that gets thrown at you. The big, shiny opportune moments of creative magic and metal, plus the deeper, trickier to navigate, strategic stuff. Ideally you want a department full of brilliant brains that can work across anything and everything, rather than specific teams who are only suited to particular kinds of briefs. That can create imbalance and ill feeling.
S: When hiring a creative, are awards a good way of judging how well they will perform?
E: I reckon as a CD you get to the point when you can pretty quickly separate the awards from the creative. It doesn’t take long to pick how strategic a new creative team are in the first couple of briefs—how much they understand a business problem, a client’s problem, how well they can answer a brief and how creatively they do it. It becomes pretty obvious. Intelligent, clever teams are intelligent and clever all the time.
Teams who come to you with a Gold for a Charity condom you buy at a Cat Shelter, they’re maybe not going to be as reliable as you would like.
S: Do you think the significance placed on awards by our industry is appropriate?
E: I think there are probably too many award shows. But maybe that’s just because we love winning them so much. Maybe we’ve created our own monster? As I’ve said, I think they’re important, but I think being a fully rounded creative is more important.
S: You’re about to commence a role as ECD at M&C Saatchi Melbourne. What will your focus be there, and how will awards factor into it?
E: I’m really looking forward to getting in there, to meeting everyone. I feel like my role will be to go in and understand the culture, the clients, the people. Before everything else, when your culture is strong and balanced, your leaders are fully aligned, and leading, everyone’s focused on the same goals, on great work, on great client relationships, and it’s a great place for people to be every day, then all that other stuff will come. Cam (Blackley, M&C Saatchi CCO) is all over that too. He’s very much of the mindset that awards come with getting everyone and everything else right.
S: How do you create a good culture in an agency?
E: I think a great agency culture is an idea-driven culture, not a process-driven one. A culture of courage, with the freedom to imagine, talk, share and experiment. People need to feel empowered, trusted, inspired, respected and rewarded. Across the board. Everyone needs to know, understand and yes, meet expectations. Awards are all a part of that. But not the all.