Gift of the Gabberer: Seamus Higgins
Interview by Siobhan Fitzgerald
Back in 2011 when I worked with Seamus he was ‘just’ a creative and we bonded over our weird Irish names. Since then he’s hit advertising superstardom on the back of 2018’s most awarded campaign, the Palau Pledge. This interview took place as Seamus was getting ready to head to the UK to judge Creativity for Good at D&AD.
SF: We’ll start with environmental responsibility, and the Palau Pledge. How did this project come about?
SH: This happened while I was an ECD at Havas (now Host/Havas). One of the Palau Legacy Project clients reached out to us, having worked with a couple of our CDs before, plus another of the clients knew our CEO at the time, Ant Gregorio.
So it all kicked off in the spirit of mutual respect and trust, and that proved to be the backbone of the future relationship. You simply can’t pull off work like this without this type of partnership.
The story of the how the project itself kicked off is incredible. It was all instigated by an amazing group of women, who just happened to be in Palau at the same time. They witnessed firsthand the strain that mass tourism was exerting on the Palauan environment and culture, and despite their incredibly diverse backgrounds, got together to do something about it. These women are Laura Clarke (UK), Nicolle Fagan (USA), Jennifer Koskelin-Gibbons (Palau), Nanae Singeo (Japan), and the First Lady of Palau, Debbie Remengesau. They are an inspirational team.
SF: What sort of impact is the Palau Pledge having on the island?
SH: The impact has been huge, on a number of levels, but it’s still really only the beginning of the journey.
The long term vision is to set up a sustainable tourism and business model in Palau, that the rest of the world can follow and localise.
To do that, we need to ensure that the environmental, societal and business impacts are irrefutably quantifiable. This takes a hell of a lot of rigour and can only be accurately measured over time. And it has to to be done with leading experts. For instance, they are currently working under the guidance of the UNWTO (World Tourism Organisation) to pioneer new data sets to gauge the impacts of mass tourism.
But the short term implications for the country have been huge. The Pledge itself has been universally accepted by tourists, and embraced by locals.
Behaviours are genuinely shifting. And the international recognition has been helping to further establish them as a pioneering environmental destination, which in itself attracts more environmentally conscious visitors. For instance, recently at ITB Berlin, the world’s leading travel trade show, they were awarded the top green destination award globally, in recognition of their leadership and innovation in responsible and sustainable tourism. Winning the inaugural Sustainable Development Goals Lion Grand Prix at Cannes didn’t hurt either.
This translated into Cannes Lions donating all the entry fees from the category to Palau to continue developing the program. This amounted to over AU$500,000.
SF: A lot of brands talk the talk, but with the Palau Pledge you successfully encouraged people to change their behaviour. Does this give you hope for new ways of approaching other environmental and waste issues?
SH: Absolutely. The Palau Pledge proved that to get people to change their behaviour, you have to truly connect with them on a human level. We worked really hard to know them as people, not a target audience. Once we understood why they were coming to Palau, and how they saw themselves, we were able to appeal to the good in them.
We never tried to wag an accusatory finger at them. That approach has failed for as long as environmentalists have been campaigning. We understood them as people.
We empowered them with knowledge. And ultimately, we asked them to make a decision in a way that was impossible for them to ignore.
SF: By its very nature, advertising encourages consumerism and has played no small role in contributing to waste issues and global warming. Do you think we, along with our clients, could now play a key role in turning things around?
SH: As a collective marketing and communications industry, we have incredible powers. We can shift perceptions, influence behaviours, connect and empower people and communities. But to quote Spiderman’s uncle, “with great power, comes great responsibility”. We can’t ignore our collective responsibility to future generations.
The first step is for us as an industry to acknowledge that responsibility, and the role that we can play by partnering with our clients, to increase the demand for more sustainable products.
We can work with them to close the gap between environmental and financial sustainability, by stoking that demand. This shift in consumer awareness is already happening, we need to tap into it and help make it mainstream. That’s really the only way that we can drive change at the scale required.
SF: Can a consumer society be environmentally friendly?
SH: I am an optimist, so yes, I believe so. I don’t believe we will ever be anything other than a consumer society, so we can’t change that.
But I do believe that we can shift the way we consume, and what we consume.
Like I mention above, that relies on us as an industry, partnering with our clients to stoke the demand for sustainably, and ethically produced products. It relies on fueling the growing awareness that we have a responsibility to future generations to leave them a world they can live in.
SF: How should we as advertisers weigh up our responsibilities to our clients, and those to the environment?
SH: The key is to understand that those two are not mutually exclusive. Ultimately clients need to shape their business to meet the expectations of the customers they seek. Millenials and Gen Z combine growing spending power with an environmental and social conscience. These are the audiences our clients are competing for. So it’s our responsibility as agencies to help our clients connect with them as brands that share those values.
I met a planner a few years ago, who said if she could get her clients to do one thing that would transform their business, it would be “to love their customers”.
I thought that was genius. It would mean that everything we did for them would be for their good, not just for their today, but their tomorrow.
SF: In recent years our industry has begun to take on more responsibility regarding the kinds of images it portrays. But still today, unless they’re making a point of it, most ads continue to reflect a very beautiful-young-white-person image. Is Australia behind the rest of the world when it comes to showing a broader spectrum of humanity? And is this down to clients or the agency?
SH: I don’t think Australia lags behind the rest of the world. But that’s not a good thing. The rest of the world is not doing very well. The lack of diversity in our advertising is a global problem. But it’s one that extends beyond agencies and clients, to a lack of diversity amongst the decision makers in our societies. Too often, they represent a privileged minority, and our industry reflects that. What can we in agency-land do about this?
We need to turn the unconsciously biased into consciously unbiased.
We have to lean into the problem continuously, because we’re always starting from behind. We have to talk about it frankly. As a great example, if you haven’t had a listen to Ant Melder’s brilliant new podcast, The Brown Riot, then you need to.
And we have to get better at hiring from outside of our bubbles, by creating more accessible pathways into our industry. Creativity and society is enriched by the bringing together of diverse world views.
SF: You're now VP and CCO APAC at R/GA. What responsibilities do you feel in such a senior position?
SH: R/GA is an incredible agency. Since its inception in the 70’s, it has re-invented itself every nine years. I have joined at an extremely exciting time, as it seeks to define its next era, in the most dynamic region in the world. This role gives me the opportunity to help shape the success of this new chapter, and that naturally comes with a hell of a lot of responsibility. But I find this responsibility to be liberating. I equate it with unlimited opportunity. I’m honoured to be empowered to lead it in the way I believe is right, to set a vision and culture that will help these talented people do the best work of their careers.
SF: You're also a father. How do you balance the responsibilities of a creative leadership role with those of being a father?
SH: Yes, I’m the very proud dad of two six year olds, a three year old, and a one year old—three girls and a boy. I will say that my life has never been busier.
And I’m not going to lie and say that it’s easy balancing the responsibility of being a dad and a creative leader.
It’s really tough to get right, and I accept that I’m not always going to be able to in the short term. But I do make sure that in the long term things even out. In the long term, the most important role in my life is being a dad.
There are a few things that help. Time management is critical. As a creative specifically, I’ve always found that I’ve been better able to manage my own time as a leader. And I believe passionately in setting a culture that embraces a better long term balance for my team too. Another thing I work really hard on is to live in the moment. When I’m with my family, I’m enjoying my time with them, not stressing about what needs to happen on Monday.
While I met my wife, Leanne, in advertising (she was a very good planner), when we had the twins, she decided to become a stay at home mum. We’re both grateful that we’re able to do that. If at any point this changes, then I’ll support her in whatever she wants to do, just like she’s supported me. My wife is truly incredible, and I would never have taken on a role like this without us agreeing as a team that it was something we wanted to take on.
I know that the harder I work, the harder she has to work.
SF: Do you ever miss the days of being ‘just’ a creative?
SH: At the moment, no. What I always loved the most about being a creative, was working with talented people to solve problems, and to craft the fuck out of those solutions, whatever they ended up being. I still do that.
As a creative, I was jealous of every brief going. I had ‘problem’ FOMO. I wanted to work on everything. As I became a creative leader, I loved the chance to be across more work than I could as a creative.
And I discovered how much I loved working with people to help them be better than they thought they could be. As my creative leadership remit expanded, I relished the challenge of making those moments I had to shape the work with teams to be lighter in touch, but heavier in impact. As a leader that’s critical, especially at a regional level.
Personally, I also believe that knowing that I can step in and actually do it myself, makes me better at guiding people to do it.
SF: The advertising industry can be tough, and the Mentally Healthy 2018 study found that 61% of people in creative industry showed some sign of depression compared to an average of 36% for the rest of the population. Do you think it's possible to alleviate some of the pressure on creative departments while maintaining a high creative standard?
SH: As agency leaders, it is part of our job to help look after the mental wellbeing of our teams. I’m hugely passionate about this. And I do believe that we can foster supportive, empowering and caring cultures, while driving world class work. Empathy is key. And so is making sure your teams know what it is they’re fighting for every day. It’s not just about what the agency is getting out of the deal.
We also need to openly acknowledge that what we do is not easy. If our agencies aren’t piling on the pressure to be better, then we are doing it to ourselves.
To be honest I think that pressure is necessary to drive us forward. We will always be consumed by a passion to redefine the boundaries of what we do. But we have to be collectively better at accepting and dealing with the pressure. Recently, there have been a lot of brave people out there who’ve been open about the struggles they personally faced with depression and other mental health issues in our industry. This frankness and openness is essential if we are to tackle the problem together.
Our industry is under great strain too. We are going through a period of rapid disruption as media landscapes and client needs shift dramatically, but our agencies are changing too slowly, or not changing at all. Our industry remuneration model is a case in point. We charge based on time, not the value of our thinking. So as less and less money goes into marketing departments, we have less and less time to produce the level of work that we aspire to. That’s a pressure cooker.
SF: The success of the Palau Pledge has propelled your career forward. What would you say to those creatives who sometimes despair of ever bringing that career-changing (and even world-changing) idea to life?
SH: I think the most important thing for ambitious creatives to know is that these opportunities are rare. And a lot of things need to fall into place for them to not only happen, but to be recognised as powerful by your peers.
But here is what I would say. When those opportunities come, you have to be ready for them.
Ready to identify them. Ready to solve their problems in a way that nobody else has yet. Ready to craft them to life in a way that is absolutely perfect for the execution. Ready to find and empower the best partners. Ready to get the most out of yourself and your team. Ready to keep fighting.
And when it fails, ready to start all over again. And how do you get that ready? You try fucking hard every day. You see every brief and every challenging client as an opportunity to hone your skills. You seek out the best in, and out of, the business to learn from. You keep pushing your craft. And you accept that the best work out there is rare, because it’s fucking hard to do. Nothing great is ever easy.
SF: You’ve just started your new role at R/GA so I imagine you're in the process of figuring this next question out. What would your ideal creative department of the future look like?
SH: That is a great question, and it’s what we’re looking at right now in R/GA. This is not just for creative leaders to ponder. It’s for today’s creatives who still want a job in the future to really think about too.
In my personal opinion, the concept of a ‘creative department’ is a legacy of traditional advertising and is holding us back as an industry. I would even challenge the term ‘departments’. Departments tend to breed silos.
The agency of the future will have a much more fluid, horizontal structure. It will be composed of a more diverse spread of multi-disciplined problem solvers, and multi-skilled makers.
Teams will be assembled based on solving the client’s problems in the most creative, efficient and effective way possible.
Channels will continue to come and go. Technology will continue to disrupt our industry and how we connect brands and people. But if you look at us as the curators and creators of brand experiences, wherever and however they occur, there will always be a need for our skills. This future structure, or lack there of, is about the liberation of creativity and it’s fucking exciting.
So the question you have to ask yourself as a creative today, is ‘how am I going to make myself indispensable to the agency of the future?’ And once you’ve done that, please give R/GA a shout, because we’re looking for you now.