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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Emmet Wright

Creative Director at Chemistry on playing dress-up to get a job, understanding real people’s lives and the struggle to get more Irish work the global recognition it deserves

5 Minutes with… Emmet Wright

Emmet Wright has worked at Dublin creative agency Chemistry for its entire 18-year history, working his way up to become Creative Director alongside co-founder Mike Garner. The agency are in a strong position right now, having just returned from Kinsale Sharks Festival with the title of Irish Agency of the Year. Emmet’s honest about the state of the Irish advertising industry and the challenges it should be facing up to, from the competitive talent pool to the challenges to enter into the industry. A former teacher, he’s also spoken out on the inadequacies of the country’s education system in creating the kind of workforce the future requires.

Curious to hear more of his opinions, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Emmet to chat about the many issues he’s interested in.

LBB> You just got back from judging at Kinsale Sharks, one of Ireland’s biggest advertising festivals. What were your impressions of it this year?

EW> We were awarded the Irish Agency of the Year, so my impressions are pretty good! Best advertising festival in the world! 

I wasn’t there for the weekend, I was just there for the judging from Tuesday to Friday afternoon. So I didn’t get to see any of the talks, but the festival attracted really good speakers like Rosie Arnold and Robert Senior.

The other members of my jury were brilliant - creative professionals who really cared about what they were doing. It was nice to come across people pursuing great ideas and great work and talking about it and arguing about it.

Overall there’s a desire to do things differently at the festival. I got to go to the short film and music video awards and I think that’s good for Kinsale. Video is really important now and the lines are blurred between advertising, content and video. Increasing the relevance of that category is really smart. 

I saw a film called ‘Get Staffed’ [directed by Big Red Button] and a music video by Ilya Naishuller from Great Guns and they left a lasting impression. You get a shot in the arm from watching stuff like that. 

LBB> Not many people grow up thinking they want to become a creative director at an advertising agency. How did you find your way into your career?

EW> It was a very roundabout route. I didn’t know there was a course called advertising. I come from an era of career misguidance where your career misguidance teacher would ask you some questions at the end of school. They’d ask you what you’re interested in. I was interested in languages. I liked French, Irish and English so the career guidance teacher said ‘do you want to be a teacher?’ At the age of 18 the answer is: ‘No way! Like you?’ Like a lot of people I was funnelled into a catch-all degree like business, so I ended up studying economics. 

I left college not knowing what it was I was qualified to do. I lived in Berlin, Budapest, came back to Ireland. I worked in lots of different dreadful jobs. I became a teacher for a short period of time and then was a waiter for five years. It was during my last year working in a restaurant that I decided I needed to find something else to do. I really liked being a waiter. I almost became a restaurant manager. I still didn’t realise it was advertising I was supposed to be doing. And a lot of people still think I shouldn’t be doing that!

I found there was a masters in advertising at the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and that was it. I did a course run by ICAD called Upstarts, which is a brilliant idea. We went around to agencies and each week we’d get a brief from a different agency. By the end of that course I had something like a portfolio to show agencies. I was probably still a strange proposition because I’d done so many different things when I’d left college.

The next part was getting the job - which at the end of the ‘90s in Ireland was pretty hard. I was sending CVs to creative directors and I got nothing back except some telling me I had no future in this and that I should give up. I decided I’ve got to get in front of as many people as possible. I dressed up as a cycle courier. If you turned up at agencies as a cycle courier with a package with the creative director’s name on, there was a good chance that would go straight to him or her. I’d write ‘urgent’ all over it, so there was nobody weeding out this stuff.

I’d turn up with one trouser leg rolled up, a rollie hanging off my lip and a bad attitude, throw the thing on the desk and say, ‘make sure that gets to the creative director’. Grunt a little, thank you and walk out.

As a result of that I got more people seeing it, including Mike Garner and Ray Sheerin, who went on to set up Chemistry. And that was it.

LBB> Teaching and waiting tables are both quite formative jobs. Did you take any lessons from those into your new career in advertising?

EW> I was a very bad teacher. I still think that anyone who is a good teacher should be fantastically well rewarded. It’s such a difficult job. I always say to myself if I get stressed at work: ‘this isn’t half as stressful as being a teacher’. For the most part when you’re sitting in client meetings there aren’t 30 people behind your back making armpit fart noises or trying to eat a packet of Monster Munch under their desk.

I loved being a waiter. It was a really tough choice for me to become a junior writer or a restaurant manager. Even though I’d lived abroad, working in a restaurant gives you a good insight into how the world is put together. You learn that if you really like something there’s no harm in selling it. Also, if you do that properly, there’s a reward. And how important it is to present something properly. It showed me how challenging the world of work can be and how seriously you have to take it sometimes. I worked with really great people and I just realised I love working in a team.

Sometimes you need to do something that’s beyond what you know to give you perspective. It gives you the ability to read rooms and understand what motivates people. So much of a creative’s job these days is meetings and presentations. 

LBB> A lot of the work Chemistry has been celebrated for, such as your work for the Irish Examiner, has relied on very clear copywriting. Is that a type of communication you have a particular soft spot for?

EW> We’re in the business of making complex things very easy to understand, but also very appealing. There’s a quote I really like from Piyush Pandey [Executive Chairman and Creative Director, South Asia at Ogilvy & Mather India]: “Creativity, be it science or art, is a constant search for fresher and better ways to lead and enjoy life.” I think that from our point of view that is how to translate that into communications. Sometimes that’s an amazing image and sometimes it’s an incredible piece of copy, or both. I probably feel extra comfortable with a copy piece because that’s my background. A lot of advertising that I remember is advertising copy lines. 

Maybe I also feel a bit like words shouldn’t be forgotten about. We live in such a visual culture now. The idea is driven by a visual experience we all live. Emojis are a classic example. No words necessary. But sometimes it’s as well to do something different. One of the pieces of work we all picked out this year on the jury in Kinsale was Nike ‘Time is Precious’. That’s just white copy against a black background. It’s a written piece; a great idea, well put together. Everyone in the room, art director, film director or copywriter, all responded to that.

LBB> You’ve written about the importance of emotional intelligence and empathy. What’s the key to achieving that?

EW> I wrote about that in the context of education. Particularly in Ireland our education system is trying to adapt to a system that is less about learning by rote to write a response to an exam and more about a broader sense of what it is to learn. Probably like a lot of countries, we’re trying to adapt our education system to counter that. 

Emotional intelligence and empathy particularly applied to anyone who wants to work in our business. It starts with education. People who feel they can question what they’re learning. Agencies can obviously try to recruit people on that basis. I think they’ve always been pretty good at that. I think creative industries have a real lead in that way - being a bit more open than, say, the consultancy firms. Because of the way agencies hire people they may be more able to recruit from a wider base than just the quality of a degree.

You just need to keep reminding yourself of the need for empathy and emotional intelligence. When you start working in advertising, you ask yourself all these questions that you wouldn’t ask as a consumer. An ordinary person doesn’t think ‘I wonder how many car dealerships there are that sell that car brand, where they are located and what their phone numbers are’. The questions you ask yourselves are about how something makes you feel, what it’s motivating in you. I think a little bit of empathy and intelligence is lost when you forget about yourself as a person, a consumer, and what question you’d like answered.

LBB> You’ve spoken about a “race to the bottom” afflicting advertising. How can agencies, working with their clients, combat that trend?

EW> I always think the idea of the client being at fault is a bit of a cop out. It’s the easy answer. Sometimes it’s true but sometimes it covers up what’s really happening. In lots of ways the responsibility lies with agencies to make the case for strong creative work. The way they can primarily do that is by producing great creative work, even if it’s just to present. 

We’re lucky because a lot of our clients came to us because one of the things we’re well known for in the Irish market is creativity, so we’ve attracted lots of clients who are expecting that.

For 18 years we’ve had to produce great work, argue for great work, push for great work and then clients began to push the work themselves. Then you’ve got both partners in the relationship believing in strong creative work. There isn’t this distinction between us wanting creative work but the client not letting us. That’s always a really tragic thing to hear. It’s very rare that you will meet somebody in your working life that doesn’t like a good idea. People don’t reject work because it’s creative.

LBB> But they might reject it if it sounds too expensive...

EW> To use the Nike example again, there’s a budget that’s apt for producing a piece of work. Agencies are wise to the idea that the solution to every brief can’t be an expensive 60-second film. That’s not the only game in town. And the definition of creativity is so broad. So that Nike ad, the amount they needed to produce that idea wasn’t huge. That wasn’t a primary concern, I imagine, when they came up with that idea. They came up with an idea that was executed in that way, that was maybe more of a low-budget solution than most Nike work. 

We also awarded the Finish ad ‘I Love Doing Dishes’ that, I’m guessing, had quite a bit of production money behind it. It’s fantastic. In lots of ways that was my favourite piece of advertising in the whole festival. That was obviously a piece of work that required that budget to produce properly and agencies just need to be able to argue that to realise this fantastic idea they need the budget. It’s a difficult conversation to have. Clients are all being squeezed but they’re employing agencies to think of what is the best solution. If that requires investment then they need to be able to go to the client and ask for this.

I do question how so many solutions these days are a slice-of-life or just holding a mirror up to the audience. Saying, ‘this is you, isn’t it?’ It’s valid in some cases, but where’s our part in this? Does that mean we can’t add value? Agencies have to motivate themselves by saying: ‘good ideas can come from anywhere but the best ideas still come from us’. You’re going to do it best if you’re putting heart and soul into it, and if that’s really just representing something else, I wonder how much you’re going to get out of it.

LBB> You’ve been at Chemistry for the agency’s whole 18-year history. How has it evolved in that time?

EW> When I came to Chemistry it was eight people. From the start, because of the people involved in it, it was creatively driven. The aim was to create an agency that was - all those words that I don’t even know mean anything now -  a hot shop or boutique. That’s what we might have been for the first few years. We were different. We built our reputation on creativity and then over the years that became a much broader offer. We would attract and retain clients now as much on the basis of strategic thinking and breadth of offering, working all the way across formats. And we’ve grown. We’re probably mid-sized now by Irish standards.

Culturally we haven’t changed. Mike and I gave a talk at Offset this year. We were both really dreading it but what really came across 18 years of our work is that our culture hasn’t changed. It’s really been about creating the opportunity and environment for people to do good creative work, encouraging them by selling that in and really standing behind it. We’ve never had and never want big divisions between the different disciplines.

We’re also independent. We’re part of WPP but that evolved over time, meaning we could choose who we want to work with in terms of media agencies, production, digital agencies. We don’t have a network tie. So we can choose who we think is best to work with.

LBB> You’re the only Irish agency ever to have won a Gold Lion at Cannes, in 2006 for your work for the National Newspapers of Ireland. What will have to change in the Irish advertising industry for that to become the first of many?

EW> It’s getting a bit lonely. Maybe it’s time for it to get a companion. It’s still a big achievement for an Irish agency. I wish I didn’t have to use those words, but it seems to be a bit of an ongoing issue. It’s hard to know. I look back on that piece of work and still think it’s very good. I’m not denigrating the achievement, but maybe there were reasons for it at the time. Maybe it played to a strength of ours - the quality of communication. 

Probably, as well, international juries sometimes award work that confirms what they already thought about the place that the work comes from. [Winning] Dutch work used to always be really sexy and Scandinavian work would be outrageous but very human. That was the written word on a page with some humour and personality. Maybe that’s what helped us. 

It’s an ongoing topic in Irish agencies. It’s a really tough nut to crack. When we won that, Cannes was not really on the radar for Irish agencies at all. Nor was it something that Irish clients would talk about. That has changed. Agencies are putting a lot more investment in, in terms of delegates and entries, and they’re not seeing a huge amount of reward, unfortunately.

The Irish Examiner work won four silvers in Kinsale, being judged by four international jurors from the UK and US. That work required no explanation or contextualising. The jurors understood it. In Cannes, a juror might look at this as a national newspaper which they’ve never heard of from an agency that’s not obviously part of a network, from a market they know little of, and it’s one piece. 

Agencies are trying to become much more aware that we need to have people talking about Irish work on a consistent basis, rather than depending on this one [award] entry. Not calling into question the way judging is done in Cannes, but I suspect people are only seeing it for the first time there. I know a lot of agencies put work into building expectation for the work, trying to get work visible and seen by people, so that the first time they see it isn’t in an award setting.

LBB> Looking at your website, fair internships are clearly a passion of yours at Chemistry. Why is it even a point of discussion in 2017 that people entering an industry should be paid and treated fairly?

EW> There are the cynical reasons and the more practical reasons. I think it’s a throwback to the days of if you really want to do this you’ll live in a bedsit and take a part-time job. And that was one way of agencies working out if someone was dedicated. But the reality is if the industry takes that attitude people will just look elsewhere. People don’t want to work for nothing these days. I don’t think that’s a measure of how much they want to do something. 

I was a risky proposition, pretending to be a cycle courier. I was paid from the word go. I had a six-month trial. I worked three nights a week in the restaurant to keep going but I’ve never worked for nothing. I think if I’d had to I would have kept working in the restaurant. So the fact I was paid from the word go got me in the business. 

There’s also a bit of exploitation going on. People possibly think they don’t have to pay people. And I don’t think that’s limited to our industry. 

The other thing is the competition that advertising faces now to attract the brightest and most creative. We are not doing ourselves any favours in this because, do the best talents want to work in advertising? You’d hope the answer is yes. It’s still an industry that represents something aspirational. It’s still a job people want to make a success of. That’s everyone’s responsibility in advertising - not to put ourselves down or make it out that we are victims, nor that we are so arrogant that we don’t connect with the real world.

The bottom line is: pay them. Who wants to work for nothing? Who feels that they should have to? It’s not like people have fewer things to spend their money on now. By not paying people agencies are not making it easy for themselves. They’re cutting their own throats. They’ll only get particular kinds of people in and it gives a bad view of what the industry’s about.

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Genre: Strategy/Insight