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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Anthony Austin

BBH London’s new ECD on helping brands to help people, Black Sheep Studios and the virtues of cynicism

5 Minutes with… Anthony Austin

Since the agency's founding 35 years ago, very few people have held the title of Executive Creative Director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty London. In July this year Nick Gill passed the role to his two deputies, Ian Heartfield and Anthony Austin, so he could work as a creative director free of executive responsibilities. On a list that also includes Sir John Hegarty, Bruce Crouch and John O'Keeffe, they are the joint fifth and sixth ECDs at BBH.

Anthony's background is an indication of how the creative agency is changing. He’s never been a creative, progressing instead through the ranks of in-house production within agencies, first at St Luke’s and Mother before launching Black Sheep Studios at BBH in 2015.

LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Anthony to find out how he ended up here, his vision for the agency and what makes him tick.

LBB> Your career has mostly been on the production side but within creative agencies. How did you get on that track?

AA> I’ve been in agencies my whole career. I started out as a sort of mood film editor at St Luke’s. I was very unqualified for the job, but my CV obviously said otherwise because they told me I was overqualified. I promised them I was definitely not. I’d never had a proper job before, certainly not as an editor!

I was going into this amazing environment. St Luke’s back ten or 12 years ago was this amazing agency that I’d seen a documentary on TV about when I was at university. And they were independently owned, everyone had an equal say and everyone was a shareholder in the business. It was kind of a hippie vibe. And very of that era when we had ball pools in meeting rooms. A very creative environment and loads of really amazing people that went on to do brilliant things were there, like Dave Buonaguidi and Kate Stanners. It was a great proving ground and taught me the value of creativity and all those things. As an editor I was very much doing my own thing but within that brilliant environment. I’ve always enjoyed being amongst it and being part of that process. 

The mood film editing, which is sort of a forgotten bit of most agencies, is actually kind of amazing. I’ve always loved film. I spent my university years watching movies so I got really good at reference and thinking ‘that reminds me of something else’, which is the art of mood films. You have to find the clip that most fits.

LBB> It’s great that you found an application for all the time you spent on the sofa as a student...

AA> It’s the most useful bit! I lived in France for a year during my degree and I spent that year basically watching films. That proved to be the most useful piece towards my future career - the bit where I was slobbing out! I was using that knowledge to find ways to communicate ideas and tell stories.

Then I decided I wanted to get more into directing and wanted to make films. [St Luke’s] were very good to me and indulged me in that. I had a lot of fun playing around with cameras and made lots of silly, fun stuff because all of the kit was there so I might as well have used it. The creatives and I would often make silly films for fun. Occasionally they did alright and got seen by people. In the end I ended up making content for clients like Ikea.

Then when I joined Mother I said to Robert [Saville] ‘I don’t want to be a mood film editor. I want to be a director.’ He said ‘fine.’ 

Over the years at Mother we got a really good team there and the production company grew up with us as we went along. We learnt an enormous amount doing it, going through some hard learnt lessons, in terms of what makes a good idea and how to execute that. But also winning jobs. We really had to earn the work that we got there. It wasn’t handed to us.

LBB> How did you apply that experience to Black Sheep Studios when you started it up as BBH’s in-house production company?

AA> I think initially they were thinking it should be a volume production business that services clients increasingly wanting cheaper, quicker [content] - all of those things that people talk about. I was very clear that in order for it to be successful it had to be a creative function of the business. It can’t be just a production one. The way to get to cheaper and quicker is by changing how you execute the idea rather than trying to stretch out a budget to cover. That’s where gaps appear. You can’t make a really expensive script for cheap. You have to change the way you execute the idea. I think one of the reasons that Black Sheep Studios has been successful is that we have creativity at the heart of what we do. 

LBB> There's been a lot of conversation around in-house production for a number of years now and the investigation from the US Department of Justice and the recent ANA report has intensified the debate. What are your thoughts on the grievances parts of the industry have with agencies' in-house production companies - practices such as agencies bidding on but also awarding production work?

AA> It makes no sense. And it’s not fair on the production companies. It muddies the waters in ways that we don’t want. 

We’ve always been very open about what we do. Ultimately we just want to make brilliant work. It really is as simple as that. And this is not about profit. It’s just about finding the best solution. We also would love to have a more open dialogue, when it comes to Black Sheep Studios, with the APA and production companies. 

We set ourselves a few ground rules. And it relieves us from most of the accusations that get pointed at in-house production. We never pitch against other production companies because the aim is to bring production talent earlier into the creative process. You can’t do that three times, so you can’t triple bid. Therefore, we’re never competing against people. It’s either at Black Sheep Studios or it’s with a production company. 

We’re not competing for the same kind of work, in my view. The production industry has been servicing advertising and making commercials for years and they’re very good at it and we don’t need to come in and do the same thing they’re doing. The work we’re trying to do, tonally, is a bit different. It’s either more for social or it’s more in the entertainment space. If something is a 30-second TV commercial we tend to say it’s best if we pitch it out. 

We never mandate that creatives have to work with us. It’s always a choice. And we don’t have any in-house talent. I got to realise at Mother that when creatives come in, if the choice is only between two people, they’re going to get pretty fed up working with those two. So we always build the talent around the job. We go out and talk to freelance directors and production companies who are open to different types of work. 

That collaborative approach to the work has led to us being more open to different types of partnerships. That’s really exciting for us. If you’re building the team around the work then bringing in a production company’s skill to do certain parts of it is enormously useful. Agencies have always been good at that. 

In Black Sheep Studios we try and bring everyone in at the beginning of the process, as opposed to waiting until it’s their turn to take it on. The more you can inform the idea, the more you can make the money work better. And you’re not fixing problems that have been seeded earlier in the process. 
 
LBB> So is it fair to say your love for filmmaking was what led you to your career, rather than any love for advertising?

AA> I never meant to end up in advertising. I wanted to be an editor. And it just happened that my first job as an editor was in an advertising agency. I felt lucky to have fallen into it. I love the craft of filmmaking. I also do love advertising, particularly film, but print as well. I appreciate the craft in the medium. 

When Ian and I first got put together as Deputy ECDs we went out for a couple of beers and asked each other what our favourite piece of work was. We both had the same one - Guinness, Surfer. Advertising has always been, for me, a cool thing. As a kid I enjoyed the ad breaks as much as the shows, but I never really expected to end up in it.

I think as a result of being on the periphery of the main advertising business throughout my career I’ve developed a healthy disrespect for advertising in general. I think that’s important. Cynicism is a good thing. Agencies need to retain a bit of cynicism on behalf of their clients because a lot of clients get caught up in their own mythology and if they communicate that directly it sounds terrible to consumers. Look at how that Pepsi ad was made. They had no filter. They had no one telling them ‘this is crazy.’

LBB> How do you feel about your new role, heading up creative more generally, having focused on production throughout your career?

AA> Ian and I try and share the responsibilities. We’re both very busy on our own accounts but when it comes to running the department we share stuff and stick together. I’ve got more experience running a department and a business, but he understands what it’s like to be a creative working in a department like that. That’s also useful.

It’s enormously exciting. When we got the Deputy ECD job we had a conversation with Pelle  [Sjoenell], our Global CCO, and he said that the thing about the advertising industry is that no one really knows what they’re doing anymore. So you really can make it up as you go along.

LBB> How do you compare to Ian? Is it a yin-and-yang partnership or are you similar?

AA> Personality-wise, he’s much more introverted than I am. He likes to think before he speaks and I think while I speak, start blurting stuff out and then get my head around it. We are quite different in personality. But we also agree on most things that we want to do. It feels very natural. We get on well and we’re mates, but we also know the direction we want to take the agency.

LBB> Your recent campaigns for Absolut and Tesco have been really successful in getting people talking about broader issues (LGBT rights and the tampon tax, respectively). Although their tone and approaches are each completely different, do you think there's a thread that runs through those pieces of work?

AA> I’m enormously proud of Absolut. They have a legitimacy to be able to talk about LGBT issues because they have a lot of history. When the brand first launched in the States it did it through Studio 54. It didn’t do a brand campaign, it just attached itself to that scene. That’s really important, to find what a brand can legitimately talk about and use that opportunity to talk about it. I think purpose is important for brands these days. But also brands are able to talk about the positive things in life that you don’t hear from politics, you don’t see in the news, you don’t see in other forms of media that tend to be more partisan or angry. Brands can be angry, but they also can talk more positively and be a positive force. 

I read about this brilliant thing that Airbnb did. In Charlottesville they refused the alt-right their houses. They found out they were going to be staying there and shut it down. It’s risky for a brand to polarise its audience. People complain a lot about platforms not being able to censor or remove really nasty stuff from the platform. But a platform like Airbnb taking a stand and saying ‘no’. They stand for anyone being able to stay in their properties. They’re open. And to do something positive about that was very cool.

Similarly with Tesco, the nation’s biggest grocer. There’s probably some stat that a strategist here could tell you about how many feminine hygiene products they sell, but I’d wager it’s a big proportion. So to be able to do something to help that is amazing. And that’s something that came from us. We went to Tesco and said ‘we’d love you to do this for your customers’ and they were into it. It’s not an ad campaign at all.

As a theme for our work, we’d like all of our clients to be able to do things that in some way help people. The reason Home [Black Sheep Studios’ short film made with Somesuch] was supported by the UN was because they wanted to get people to reassess their opinion on refugees prior to a big vote in the Security Council. So it essentially was a piece of communication about refugees, designed primarily from a storytelling perspective, but it was designed to make you empathise with refugees. The ability that we have in communication to be able to do something cool like that is something we’d definitely like to do more of. 

LBB> It's been over two years since BBH brought you on board to run Black Sheep Studios. How has the studio developed since then?

AA> It grew up as a content production company within BBH and continues to do so. But Black Sheep Studios is also the umbrella for BBH’s entertainment output, globally - joining up our offices in LA, Singapore, Mumbai, Shanghai. All the offices who want to move into the world of entertainment use Black Sheep Studios as the brand under which they operate, if you like.

Through Home we’ve got a piece of work that both gets plaudits both on the film and advertising side. That gives us a lot of legitimacy in that space and demonstrates what we want to do perfectly. It was an amazing stroke of luck. We’re now in development on a couple of feature films, pitching TV ideas to our clients. We’ve got a couple of live briefs on that. We’re making music videos and short films. So it’s using Black Sheep Studios’ ability to make stuff here as a way of doing different types of work beyond traditional advertising media. That, for me, is where I see Black Sheep Studios moving in the future. 

LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about the ad industry right now?

AA> For me it’s the move towards entertainment. As brands become more confident to be able to move into that space it’ll open up so many exciting things for all of us to be able to do. There are two things that the talent within the ad industry can offer the entertainment industry: One of them is obviously creativity. I’m never going to underestimate how good the talent we have in BBH and the industry for coming up with good ideas and smart thinking. But also the ability to manage the needs of a client and the needs of an audience. If something is too overtly client branded, too heavy handed, then an audience will immediately reject it. And vice-versa. If something goes against what the client stands for or doesn’t have legitimacy to be there, then it won’t work the other way.

What agencies have always been brilliant at, particularly in strategy, is to be able to negotiate both sides of that coin and find a way through that is a natural place for the brand to exist, but also something that’s very entertaining and that audiences will accept. If we can get to that, that’s where we can legitimately move into an industry and feel like we should be a part of it. That, for me, is enormously exciting.

LBB> And the most frustrating thing?

AA> The change in the industry, for me, is an exciting thing. You’ve got to stay on your toes and adapt. What frustrates me is when you get the sense that people can’t or won’t change. ‘Things have been going fine for a while, so let’s just stick with that.’ I find that inertia frustrating. I love it when I talk to people who are open minded and excited about new ways of doing stuff and new opportunities. Those are the most exciting conversations that I have.

LBB> Outside of work, what do you find energising?

AA> I’ve got a family. A wife and three daughters and one of the things that’s kept me relatively sane is I’m good at not thinking about work when I’m not at work. I get to go home and just hang out with my kids.

We went on holiday recently. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the shop Decathlon? I love that shop. It’s got really cheap, entry-level stuff in pretty much every sport. I went in there and bought an inflatable canoe, some climbing rope and two harnesses for climbing trees, so we spent the whole holiday clambering up trees. It was really fun. I bought this amazing mask and snorkel that goes over your whole face and the top bit goes over your head. You know how we put a man on the moon before we invented suitcases with wheels? This thing is one of those. You put it on, it covers your whole face and you can breathe and it’s comfortable and easy. It was brilliant playing with that. Fucking rad! So I basically spend a lot of time trying to rope my kids into doing stuff I really want to do. 

I’m one of these people who’s massively mediocre at most things. When it comes to outdoorsy sporty things I’m jack of all trades. I know how to bowl a cricket ball. Not very well, but I can do it. I’ve had a bit of a go at most sports, so I can pretty much hold my own, but I’m not that good at anything.

LBB> So, basically, you’re quite fickle?

AA> That’s exactly it! I just have a very short attention span so I buy new gadgets and then get bored with them and buy something else.

I’ve just bought a projector for my house, which I’ve got set up at the moment. We’ve got a big sheet. It’s really fun at the moment but it’s only because the TV’s broken. Once the TV’s back in I’ll be told to take the sheet down.