Siimon Reynolds has long been an icon in the Australian advertising firmament and came to major prominence when, at the unprecedented age of 21, he was appointed creative director of advertising firm, Grey. The following year he created the famous and controversial Grim Reaper ads for AIDS awareness – the ads for which he is still best known. He went on to found his own communications agency, Love, as well as marketing services company Photon (both of which he has now left).
In more recent years Siimon has been acting as chairman of OMG (Online Marketing Group), consulting, writing another book and enjoying life in LA. He has recently published his sixth book, Why People Fail: The 16 obstacles to success and how you can overcome them. He talks to Career FAQs about his meteoric rise to the top of the advertising tree and how he got there.
I first got interested in the world of advertising at the age of 15, when my mum suggested that I would be good at it, and I did work experience at an agency that was very prominent at the time. When I got in and saw all these people playing darts and walking around in jeans and T-shirts, I thought ‘Wow, this is the industry for me!’ After a couple of years, I also reached the conclusion that I didn’t want to go to university. So I thought, what’s a career where you can make money, but not have to go to uni? For me there was stockbroking, real estate or advertising. I spent a lot of time looking at each of those three fields, and I decided that the one I would love the most was advertising.
I think she saw me more on the account service side because she thought I’d be good with people, and that was initially the area I thought I’d be interested in too. But once you get in an agency you see that the creative people have a lot more fun, and so I quickly shifted to the more creative side.
When I was around 17 I placed an ad in B&T Magazine to try and get a job. I got a couple of job offers, and even while I was doing my HSC I was working four days a week writing brochures in a marketing company. Then two weeks after the HSC, I started work in a little agency in Kings Cross, and went from there.
I placed two ads. The first used all of David Ogilvy’s techniques, and no one replied, and then in desperation I did a wilder ad, and I think the headline was, ‘Simon Reynolds may have exploded a myth, but he’s about to become a legend.’ So luckily a few people responded to that, which was pretty good.
FYI David Ogilvy was a notable advertising executive, often called ‘The Father of Advertising’.
Absolutely. There are two fundamental mistakes people make when they’re looking for a job in advertising – or any job for that matter. The first is they apply in a very boring way, and no one takes any notice of their application. And the second is that they don’t persist, and the lack of staying in touch with employers is the primary reason that people don’t make it into advertising. Someone may not have a job for you now, but they may have one in a week – but no one ever stays around or keeps persisting to find out if that’s true.
It’s all about establishing relationships. Merely meeting someone is establishing a relationship. Every time people come in to me saying they’d like a job as a writer, I say, ‘I don’t have a job for you now, but stay in touch’ – it’s always the best thing to do. Only one in every 30 people would come back to you again, even though I explain why that’s the only way they’re likely to ever get a job with me or any other ad agency – they just don’t do it. And what happens? They don’t get jobs and have to move into another industry.
I’m chairman of a company called OMG (Online Marketing Group), which has 32 000 active websites in Australia. So it’s a big company, with Fairfax as a 49 per cent partner. Working on the book, which is on the science of success and how some people make it and some people don’t, kept me busy for a while. And while I’m in Los Angeles I work on a little company I’ve got an interest in, helping out with the marketing there. So I do a bit of this and that, I do a bit of marketing consulting for people, entrepreneurs and companies.
I basically get up in the morning, try and do my meditation, do 10 minutes mental rehearsal, then I do 10 or 20 minutes reading, have breakfast, do 30 minutes of emails, then work on my projects during the day, and try to go to the gym. Evenings I spend with friends. I don’t work mega-long hours, but I certainly work a full day.
I’d get in about 7:30am and leave about 6:30pm, and it’s much more intense because it’s a lot more deadline-oriented, and you feel like an air traffic controller. One plane’s on the way but you can see the other three coming in. Also, your time is not entirely your own because you have clients, and you’ve got to respond to those clients. From that point of view it’s quite frenetic, and there are a lot of short time spans you’ve got to work within. Maybe three-quarters of the day would be meetings, and the rest would be working by yourself on creative and just thinking and doing new business.
What I liked was time to do creative work, which was only about an hour a day, which is pretty crazy. But also when you or your agency have come up with a big idea and it actually comes off. There are so many ways, times, situations, when people say ‘no’ to you in advertising – the agency says no to your work, the client says no to your work, the public says no to your work by not buying the product, sometimes the manufacturing company says no to your work because they can’t afford to make it – so when something gets up and gets in the press because it’s good, that’s really satisfying.
The main downside is the enormous amount of stuff not going through – sometimes the people approving your work don’t know nearly as much as you might about advertising, and sometimes politics get in the way of approving your work. But your happiness is often centred around your work and getting good work through. I think advertising is a terrific career if you’re doing high-quality work that you and the agency can be proud of, and it’s a pretty average, soul-destroying career if you’re doing poor work.
The first one is persistence, because it’s hard to get in and hard to master, and it’s hard to rise to the top. So at every level – beginning, middle and senior – you’ve got to be up against yourself, practising, getting better. Most people who have 20 years of experience in advertising really only have two years experience, then they repeat themselves for the next 18 years. They don’t necessarily grow at the same rate they did when they got in. So it’s really important to be alert. Be persistent, but be alert throughout your career, not just at the start.
Also model yourself on the best agencies around the world – how they think, what they do, even how they dress. Don’t just judge yourself on Australian standards. And finally, don’t just learn advertising, but learn marketing. Learn the client side, learn business. Become a business advisor, not just an ad creator.
It’s easy. Hardly anyone in advertising, let’s say in the creative department, reads the Financial Review, for example. Therefore, when it comes to talking about business, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know the industry, they don’t know the people, they don’t read any management books, they don’t know all the companies in the world. Let’s say I’m doing an ad for a food company – well I should know what other food companies in the world are doing in their marketing. Most people in advertising don’t know any of these things, so they’re not business advisors, they’re just ad creators. People need to lift their knowledge base so they can be listened to by the chairman, not just by the marketing director.
Number one is it has to be different. It can’t just look like every other resume. It has to have energy and life and humanity to it, it can’t just be a cold document. So whether you send in your resume with a pizza, or whether there’s some kind of gift with it, or whether it’s done as a DVD – it just needs to be a bit different to separate it from the rest. Qualifications aren’t enough, the world’s full of unemployed people with university degrees – that’s not what gets you a job. What gets you a job is standing out and looking good.
It had a lot of positive effects, in that agencies sacked a lot of senior people and employed juniors because they’re cheaper, so there were good opportunities for getting into the industry from that point of view. And second of all, companies who are in trouble look for alternatives. So if someone comes in and makes a good case, then they can possibly get an opportunity that they might not have had when life is comfortable inside that agency.
Of course, on the negative side, we all know that they cut a lot of staff and didn’t want to employ many people. But I will say this – those kind of statistics are macrostatistics, they don’t affect the individual. When you’re going for a job, you have to assume that you’re bigger than the statistics. Don’t worry about the economy, just worry about the interview going well, and you can still make it. People defeat themselves by assuming they can’t get a job, but that’s absolutely untrue. I got my last job in advertising in the second-last recession – so I know what it takes to get a job in hard times.
There’s always a place for good people, but you’ve got to excite people with a possibility, you’ve got to instil inside the person interviewing you that ‘Ah, this is what I was like when I was young – keen, driven – the future of the industry.’
Well all industries fragment over time, and the media and advertising industry is no different. All of a sudden we have many more options from a media point of view, so this complexity at first spooks people. They say, ‘I don’t know about online things’. But the truth is that as long as you read, say, 15 books on it a year, which is pretty easy to do, you’ll know more than 99 per cent of people do on the subject. So it’s easy, even though there’s all this new media – Twitter, Facebook, etc – you can become an expert on it in comparison to everyone else.
So that’s the first thing. Yes, there’s the complexity, but it’s easy to understand. The second thing is that communication is always the same. It’s still all about selling. It’s like you’re sitting down with someone and you’re convincing them to buy your product, but in this case it’s in an online ad or a Twitter page. You’ve just got to remember that no matter what medium you use, you’ve just got to be persuasive, you’ve got to be liked, and you’ve got to make sense.
One is, don’t give up. The second is, become an expert. And the third is, learn time management. There are so many people in the industry who are intelligent but don’t get much done during the day because their time management technique is so poor.