Gift of the Gabberer: Cam Blackley

Gift of the Gabberer: Cam Blackley

Interview by Siobhan Fitzgerald

Like most advertising meetings, my introduction to Cam was over a drink or ten. Sitting in a Woolloomollo pub I told him about my idea to start Gabberish, and he was supportive, contributing his own creative therapy on the spot. Like me, Cam likes a drink, but unlike me he’s made some iconic beer ads. So it seemed fitting that he’s my go-to for the Booze issue’s Gift of the Gabberer.

SF: When and where did you get your start in advertising?
CB: First real job was at Grey in Melbourne. I won a copywriting competition in a newspaper (I was finishing Advertising at RMIT at the time). The gig ended up being writing catalogs but i was just happy to get a foot in the door.

SF: What was the social culture like then?
CB: I was on like 14k a year so it was maximised with dollar pots, the kindness of strangers and raiding fridges. I don’t remember too much inter-agency fraternizing.

SF: Do you think it's changed over the years?
CB: That’s a tricky one because you move through life stages. I’m more inclined to have a couple of drinks at the end of the week and get home by 6/6:30. But I hear stories and live vicariously through those water cooler tales.

The faces have changed but the behaviour follows the same story arc.

SF: Why do you think alcohol plays such a prominent role in the Australian advertising industry?
CB: We sit in the trenches together. Share highs and extreme lows, so boozing releases a pressure valve. It allows people to bond. Open up about shit. Alter their states to think differently.

I’m not singing the praises of extreme boozing but in an industry that demands a lot mentally it’s a relaxant for the times you’re wound up like a two bob watch. I mean stressed. 

SF: Is a fully stocked open bar necessarily a good thing to have on hand in an agency?
CB: It suits me now that I have a bit more discipline as a dad but I've also been victim to the temptation to hit it every day in years gone by. Especially when we had the VB account, the pressure was to deliver in an era of Carlton Draught brilliance. Chuck my mum dying on top of that and…well, it wasn’t pretty. Here’s the thing… we are creative emotional beings who work in a world where everything is being over sanitized, the edges are being polished off and the state is in our faces.

It’s not that you need the bar fridge to be creative but the bar fridge is part of the fabric of our fragile creative worlds and we need the comfort of knowing it’s there whether we use it or not.

SF: Booze can be great for bonding, but it can lead to some pretty unprofessional behaviour too. How can agencies create an environment that's fun and also safe and respectful?
CB: That’s really up to the senior leaders in the business to keep an eye on and to set the standards, even quietly policing where appropriate. I think it’s pretty evident when someone needs a cab or is edging towards embarrassing themselves. Nurturing a deeper culture of respect across the board in all facets of agency life will have a knock on effect to moments where drinks are on the cards.

SF: Over-consumption of alcohol is a key contributor to deaths across Australia, but also notably to deaths in our industry. Should we be attempting to create a healthier workplace culture?
CB: I’d be a fool to say no. But I'm keeping the bar fridge.

Advertising is full of highs and lows. First class travel should be celebrated with champagne.

Advertising is full of highs and lows. First class travel should be celebrated with champagne.

SF: We drink because it’s fun, but we also use it to deal with stress. The recent Mentally Healthy study into creative industry found that 56% of respondents showed signs of depression. What changes can we make to improve the mental health of our industry and reduce our dependence on alcohol? 
CB: You can’t be creative and stress free, they just don’t go together unless you don’t care about standards.

I think giving people permission to fail, to let them know nobody nails it 100% of the time, to help your staff see the bigger picture and get as much time doing other things as working, is a good start to improve mental health.

SF: Australian agencies still tend to be very Anglo-celtic, and with few women in leadership positions  A social culture revolving around drinking has the potential to socially and professionally ostracise those who can’t go out and get pissed. How do we ensure non drinkers or occasional drinkers aren’t left out?
CB: At M&C we organise stuff in business hours, where people paint or make. Maybe that helps because it’s not an evening thing - the focus isn’t who’s round it is - even though many kick on after.

The other point to make is popping out for a drink for me isn’t about sharing intel for the few, or deals that work against creating an inclusive culture; if anything it’s to talk about things outside of agency life.

SF: How do you get the balance of work and play right?
CB: It takes work. And I think the drinking comes because the balance isn’t right. We don’t have a lot of free time so some people like to power through a few as fast as possible.

SF: What's your own relationship with booze like?
CB: Bingey. I go off it and on it.

I take a few months off each year. I feel great but I also like the camaraderie of drinking so I’m not apologetic about reacquainting myself with beverages.

During the week I’m pretty dry but weekends are my unwind and I like to do that with beer, mostly. Culturally Northern Europeans drank, told stories, passed out and repeat. I feel like it’s hard wired. Whether that’s good or not is beside the point because it’s instinct.

SF: You've made some iconic beer ads in your time, but many say the great beer ads are in our past. Why has it become so hard to make a good beer ad?
CB: There’s an aversion to bloke culture now. That’s fine but when you try and make ads for everybody you end up making ads for nobody. So, I put it down to lazy marketers failing to clearly define who they are talking to and nailing an insight/idea that resonates with them and alienates others. Great work always annoys someone out there. That’s part one. Part two is regulators and the threat of banning alcohol advertising which has booze companies a bit gun shy.

VB Real, by Cam with Matty Burton via Droga 5.

SF: What's your favourite booze ad of all time?
CB: I like the most interesting man in the world of Dos Equis. I wish I made that and wrote the line “I don’t always drink beer but when i do i prefer Dos Equis”. Smart.

SF: Drink of choice?
CB: Hawke’s Patio Pale Ale at the moment but I also like italian reds, russian vodka, cuban rum and french champagne. I’m non discriminatory.

SF: And finally, what's your activity of choice when you don't feel like drinking?
CB: I gently weep until March 1.



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