Gift of the Gabberer: Ant White
By Siobhan Fitzgerald
If there was a competition for kicking ass in advertising (which, let’s face it, there kinda is), Ant would be winning it. Ant and I went to uni together, but I hadn’t seen him in the 13 years since—now at only 34 he is CCO of CHE Proximity. Under his creative leadership CHE has gone from flying below the radar to winning over 100 international awards and being named the 2018 OneClub ADC Australian Agency of the Year, B&T Agency of the Year, Mumbrella Agency of the year, Ad News Agency of the Year… this list goes on. We caught up in the CHE office in Prahan, Melbourne.
S: It’s been 13 years since we last saw each other. Can you tell me a bit about your life since then?
A: Just before we finished uni I jumped the gun to try to get a job. I thought, there’s gonna be a flood of students so I’d may as well start now. I made a list of the top agencies I wanted to work at, and Clemenger BBDO was on top of the list, so we sent them a pack. It was a nude photo, a life sized, nude photo of Russ (art director Russel Fox) and I, and our folio was covering our dicks. It said, wanna see the rest? Luckily Emma Hill (then Clemenger BBDO Melbourne ECD) thought it was funny. Imagine doing that now, I wouldn’t give that person a job! We sort of forgot about it when we went in for our interview, we walked in confidently and then saw the poster laid out in the creative department in front of like 20 people who probably all thought we were gross.
We ended up working there for a few years under Emma, she was amazing. She’s a really great mentor, really good writer, made you embrace your weird, or the thing that made your idea weird, she’d push it.
The first thing we made we did in our first week (a Christmas TVC for M&Ms). The client loved it, we made it and we were like “fuck this is easy”. Ha! It was probably the easiest, most streamlined process I’ve had in my career.
From Clems we got a call from BBDO New York—so we went to New York, Russ and I. We were only at BBDO for 18 months, because it’s quite hard there. Luckily we made some work because you can sort of get lost. We didn’t know the people next to us in the office, we’d have meetings on the phone with the account people upstairs. But we made some work for Starbucks, a couple of campaigns, and we won the American Red Cross in a pitch.
Then I went to Droga and Russ went home. I did about 2 years at Droga, working on Newcastle Brown Ale, and did a Prudential campaign that won a Titanium Lion—it was great there. I worked with David and Ted quite closely, they had a sense of humour and worked hard, we all worked hard. In America you start work at ten am, then you work til about ten, you work lots of weekends but it’s worth it because it’s fun and you’re making great work. There were 150 people there at the time (there are over 700 now), you’d all have dinner together, it was sort of like a family. And everyone was there to make the best work of their career—you learnt how to push an idea. You’d take David an idea and he’d make it better every time. He’d always make it the craziest version of whatever it was, even if it couldn’t be done. And then after that I went to Strawberry Frog.
I’ve made my career by two rules. One: where can I make the best work, which has always been part of it. And two, where can I have the greatest impact.
At Droga I knew I could make the best work. And I knew if I stuck around I’d be made creative director, but I’d be under so many layers there. And I knew I’d be going back to Australia soon.
So I thought, do I stay here and keep making the work and working for the best in the business, or do I go somewhere else and start running my own department. So whether it was the right decision or not, I left Droga and went to Strawberry Frog, where I was creative director and ran a team of 12 people. But the agency didn’t share the ambition that I did, so I went to co:collective with Ty Montague. He’d written a great book about story-doing, and I loved the thought of that—it’s not about brands just telling a story but living their purpose. I ran the YouTube account there, YouTube America. And was awesome to work with a bunch of people so much smarter than me at YouTube, but it wasn’t going to last forever. I was thinking about a move back to Australia, so when Howie (CHE Proximity CEO Chris Howatson) called me up and said “come to CHE” I thought, well they’re not known for creative, but maybe that’s why I can have an impact. Howie and I had worked together at Clemenger Melbourne and I knew he’d support me in terms of backing the work.
It didn’t really feel like a gamble, it felt like a partnership.
We’d done great work together in the past and he’d set up the place so amazingly over the past five years, building it out and growing its reputation amongst clients. It was a healthy business. I came to the Sydney office, which was quite under the radar. It was sort of like starting from scratch. I had a lot of coffees and breakfasts and lunches trying to sell creatives on what I wanted it to be. I had the ambition, but I didn’t have a piece of work to back it yet. We needed to create something to set the tone of what we wanted it to be.
We did it eventually with the Cochlear Hearing Test In Disguise, and we’ve been gradually doing the work that is setting the standard here internally of where we want to be. We picked up something across 6 clients at Cannes this year, which is great, but we’re still like, that’s good but you know, what’s next?
In some ways this agency was built in reverse. The foundations of data were built into its foundations and now creative can utilise all this amazing stuff. We’ve built an amazing team, which isn’t easy—you’ve got to find the right people. You look at someone’s book and it’s not all “who’s got the shiniest awards”. I mean everyone’s got to have a level of talent, but they’ve got to be good people. At least now when I go for a coffee or lunch with someone I’m not out of breath by the end of it!
S: You went from Creative to CD to ECD to CCO in a few short years—what’s that been like and how different are those roles?
A: Being a creative director is totally different from being a creative. I always loved sitting with everyone, with the suits and planners and figuring out how to sell in an idea, so maybe it was sort of a natural transition for me. But you can’t keep doing what you’ve always done, taking on a new position. I’m still learning every day, from everyone around me.
The biggest thing now is people management. Knowing who to put together as a team and how to orchestrate them and keep their energy up. This place is nuts, there are so many different roles of speciality, from data scientists, to editors to writers to designers to media. So the challenge is, how do you bring together an agency that creates the type of work that’s breaking boundaries. How do you bring together a team that’s not just an art director and a copywriter, but a tech guy and a data specialist and media and creative. We’re making things that can transform a whole business. Ideas that are creative at their core, but then they go into the data team and the media team, until finally they come back into creative to do the comms. This is the kind of orchestration that is needed by creative directors now.
S: Is there a competitive culture at CHE?
A: It’s an open culture, we put all of our work up on the walls. That way you get people making comments, making things better. It means everyone feels a part of the work when it’s sold in, and also feels a little bit jealous. So sometimes we’ll have two teams on a job even though that’s not where it started, or a third wheel jumping in too because they made it better, so they can see it through. And everyone feels passionate about it.
The best teams will help another team get something up, but will be equally as jealous if they see the next best thing going out of the agency without their name on it. Then they strive to beat it, but they also feel proud of the agency. It’s not like a locked doors competition, it’s a healthier competition where you collaborate but you can also feel a bit jealous of the person sitting next to you.
S: Do you find you get better results with different teams competing on jobs, or one team going hard on a job?
A: If there’s a really good brief in I feel like it’s fair to give everyone an opportunity on it. It’s a bit more hit and miss, and it’s harder for me, because then I’ve got to review with everyone. It’s normally a better approach to have one team you know are right for the brief, maybe with a junior team to throw in some random stuff too—but if it’s a great opportunity it’s only fair that everyone has a shot.
I wouldn’t have been as lucky or successful as quickly if I hadn’t been given the chance to compete. At Clems I’d work against every team on a brief and sometimes get something up. Droga taught me to be a bit more collaborative. You’d go off and think to yourself and then come back and work together, with David orchestrating. But you wouldn’t put your name on work if it wasn’t your work. It does get a bit tricky—I’ve seen teams with amazing folios that I wouldn’t necessarily hire. They haven’t necessarily done the work, they’ve written a bit of copy for it, or made a small contribution, and that’s where it gets a bit tricky, when you’re collaborative.
S: What if anything would you fix about the industry?
A: Awards are driving a trend towards “do something that’s never been done before”.
It’s not a good lens to look at work through, constantly saying “what’s new”. What’s impactful, what’s right and what’s well-crafted are all so important.
We should always be breaking new barriers in terms of what’s possible, because we’ve got more tools at our disposal now, people looking on their phones at more immersive experiences. But just coming up with something techy for the sake of it shouldn’t be what we’re chasing. All advertising comes from inspiration from somewhere, everything creative has been done before.
Maybe the best lens to look at it through is relevance, being relevant. We can influence things, add to conversation, which is amazing. But then sometimes it’s ok to just be funny, too.