BMF’s Executive Planning Director on her many passions, the agency’s recent successes and her hopes for the year ahead
Christina Aventi has a contagious fascination with branding and marketing. That much is clear to anyone who’s seen her analyse commercials on advertising-focused comedy panel show Gruen. It’s clear to anyone who’s watched her acceptance speech from the 2017 Effie Awards, where BMF won Effective Agency of the Year, and it’s clear to anyone who’s taken a moment to appreciate the strategic insights that drove some of BMF’s most successful campaigns since she became the agency’s Executive Planning Director in 2015.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Christina to indulge her nerdy passion for the industry she works in and find out what else motivates her.
LBB> How did you end up as a planner? Was advertising an interest of yours growing up? Or did you learn to love it?
CA> Embarrassingly I dug advertising, media and communications in general. The love for it was almost a hobby. I bloody loved a good yarn. Even better if told in 30 seconds. And I like all kinds of stories, stitched together from little scraps of info. I love the backstory and engine room of advertising, the insights – I really dig people watching and I’m very adept at stickybeaking discreetly. If I could sit on a park bench all day and listen in on others’ chat, I would. But advertising is better at paying a Sydney mortgage.
The thing was advertising was really competitive and revered when I was a kid. I was this five-foot nothing, little Italo-Aussie who grew up in the inner west of Sydney (when it wasn’t cool) and basically thought the road might be too hard, too white, too north of the bridge for me. But I still hoped I could be the little Italian that could.
I dabbled in media trying to earn credit and make contacts. Made a couple of terrible short films for Tropfest and did community radio for three years at 2RSR and then 2SER. That was oodles of fun.
At Radio Skid Row in Marrickville, my mates and I hosted an oestrogen-fuelled program called ‘Eufemism’. My life is actually a string of really bad puns, egged on by my Italian folks who complimented my ‘turn of phrase’. English was their second language. I loved radio. We wrote. We indulged our passions, our love for our favourite indie bands like You Am I and TISM, and whilst the bar for creativity wasn’t high, live radio kinda made you fit. Even if it was only for the five kids, mainly friends, who tuned in. It wasn’t advertising per se but it had all the necessary ingredients: the writing, the production, and I hoped it was seen as a point of difference in amongst the privately-schooled double degrees trying to get into madvertising.
From there I still wasn’t sure I could ‘crack’ advertising, so I went to ‘second’ uni: Unilever – as a marketing grad. Within 18 months I was brave enough to ask the group account director at Lowe Lintas for a gig. And from there I’ve always felt at home amongst the motley crew that advertising attracts.
LBB> You’ve been at BMF for nearly 13 years now. What have been the major changes and biggest moments in that time?
CA> In some ways BMF has changed a lot. And not at all.
In some ways I feel like the BMF today is truer to itself than it was some 10 years ago. More grown up but still with a mischievous streak.
We were this indie startup courtesy of Warren [Brown] and Matt [Melhuish] taking on the global networks, earning every project and client, day in day out – not a product of legacy.
We demonstrated how to earn media with cheeky provocation before others did, mostly borne of necessity given the modest budgets we worked with. We hustled, we were gutsy, our Lamb work for Australia Day became an event in its own right and our work for beer was lauded the world over. On the inside, it was a family – hard-working, free of politics and egos – mostly.
And in 2010 we were awarded B&T Agency of the Decade. It was an epic moment.
Up to that point we were an underdog and now we were the big dog. It was a turning point and we grew off the back of it.
But a few years later, I think we had growing pains and were adjusting to a strange kind of puberty.
Who we were, what made us great, who did we want to be when we grow up? We tried a few things, changed our vision, experimented a little and maybe got a little lost. That’s easy to say in hindsight. And then we had to find ourselves again.
About four years ago, we got back to our roots. Thankfully there was a breadcrumb trail that we followed back to where it all started. There was always something we hadn’t defined about our breed of populist yet fresh ideas – and that was long ideas. Ideas that outlived us, that we’d sometimes have to hand over to other agencies to breathe new life into them.
But they were so good that they weren’t reinvented, just reinterpreted. And that was a moment. Add to that ALDI hitting its straps, rebooting ‘culcha’ and finding people who fit to make for all kinds of long – staff who stay, long partnerships with clients and the like. We’re not a ‘fling’ kinda agency.
LBB> BMF was named Effective Agency of the Year at the Effie Awards last year. What did that represent for the agency?
CA> They mightn’t be the sexiest awards, more geekdom than Cannes bling, but this is a big deal for us. In BMF’s proud history we have never won it. And it is a few years in the making. We started to win big in 2016 and set the bar higher last year.
The thing about the Effies, that makes it so important to us, is it awards every single fingerprint on that piece of work – the roadies not just the rock stars – from the doers, production to creative to strategy to traffic to our brave clients and back again.
BMF is made up of a patchwork of makers so this ‘team’ award fits the bill. I know that sounds like an Episode of Glee. And a bad one. But through the haze of earnestness, it’s true.
It also highlights the fact that every brief gets top billing given the range of campaigns awarded (10 awards, four different clients), we always hunt down the opportunity. There’s no ‘shit’ brief at BMF, no class system.
The industry seemed to respond too, because of the quality of the work that was deemed effective. Even at our worst, we’re usually better than most agencies’ ‘great’. Average is our enemy. We had a few peers give us some high fives and props on the night because it paves the way to push creativity as a commercial imperative.
On a final but important note, it has given birth to a new celebration ritual, sparking a love for industrial-sized confetti cannons that exploded when we were crowned. There’s nothing like bathing in a shower of gold and silver ticker tape. It was nice to feel like a grown up ‘effective’ agency but go back to feeling five again amongst the glitter.
LBB> Strategically, what do you think has been the key to creating such creative advertising for your clients?
CA> ‘Chattergy’, where we keep clients close to the process to get buy-in but still enough space to be pleasantly surprised when they see the solution.
Like-minds and hearts. We have a head start. The clients we attract want standout work so they buy into our way. They’d be disappointed if we gave them something that reeked of the familiar.
‘Strativity’, blurred boundaries and going wide with our hunches.
Strativity is about that strat-creative blend – we work closely with creative. We muse at our hunch phase – we are big on territories and sketches and doodles. The hunch framing is important – if you write directly into a brief, you start committing and the pathways in your head that argue for that particular thread in your brief get embedded. That’s a trap. Hunches and ‘terries’ are key to being flexible, going beyond first thoughts, detoxing of the obvious and then being able to pivot around problems with freshly-picked insights…each brief is strategy from scratch, not network paint-by-numbers. As Jen Speirs says (our brill CD here), ‘it’s hard to know where strategy ends and creative begins… it’s that blended’.
Science to minimise the perception of risk.
Lastly, there are a few beliefs that inform all of the above – we see ourselves as being in the memory business. We trade in attention of less than 10 seconds, so we are big on neuroscience and how to get to the more intentional mode with our work (called System 2 Thinking…crap name, needs a rebrand but the theory’s good). We salivate over that nerdy stuff because it helps the cause of fighting the familiar – we know that the brain is a lazy beast. To steer the brain out of auto mode into more active transmission, you need to introduce something out of the ordinary. And voilà…you can argue for disruption. That’s just an example and, yes, it’s logical but it’s good to have the science to back it up. This brain and behavioural science geekery is really key to understanding communications and experiences. We make a commitment to being students, if not experts, in it.
LBB> You said at the Effies: “…strategy is just fucking PowerPoint without creativity”. How do you make sure strategy is best serving the creative department?
CA> All of the above applies here – particularly the strativity bit. Process, blending, getting involved early but quality of insight and models aside, it’s an attitude that makes the difference.
I firmly believe that. Models help, yes, especially as tools that help make sense of the chaos of creativity, but attitude is key.
We have an incredible crew of strategists who are makers, who want to see the fruits of their labour… sparking something at the very least. Not strategy for strategy’s sake; it needs to be workable for the creative. It’s also the briefing, the culture of asides around the formal brief, chattergy - we live the verb bit, not just brief as a noun.
After all, strategy that lives in a holding pattern we have a disregard for. We need to start seeing solutions for it to be a decent strategy – we’re catalysts. Otherwise it might be smart but useless.
It’s that desire to want to be creatives’ go-to partner, valuing their respect that drives us. There is no higher, harder earned compliment than from a creative for us.
LBB> Can we talk about gay crumpets
? That campaign was awesome! Why do you think that struck such a chord with people?
CA> First of all, props to the team (Dave, Dantie and Em) for such a timely campaign in the lead up to the Australian same-sex marriage plebiscite.
It’s probably important to set the context with the brief – extend the usage and seasonality of crumpets, beyond toasted with honey and winter. A smart marketing brief to increase volume.
The solution went beyond crumpet food porn to crumpet inspired self-expression. The team sniffed out an opportunity to liberate the crumpet from its limited honey-soaked destiny. I mean, who can’t relate to a crumpet? It’s the oddest bakery item, the holes, texture, the taste. It’s a misfit that lives on the fringe of bakery. An inbetweener. And so the team liberated Billy Crumpet, Peter Allen-style, and got him to dance to the beat of his own bacon. It’s gloriously camp and timeless. And worked. Smashed avo on a crumpet is like, a thing.
LBB> I love the tone of your ALDI work - so dry and understated. Dave’s Pie Review is a recent favourite. What were the strategic decisions behind those campaigns?
CA> The master campaign was all about demonstrating why ALDI’s prices are so low – ALDI cuts prices not quality – explaining the story behind the price tag. Aussies just don’t have that heritage of home brand due to our duopoly, so there’s a lot of catching up to do with understanding the model built around cutting unnecessary cost.
That framing of Good Different to help explain the model was key – making a virtue of barriers and seeming weaknesses. Unapologetic. Celebrated. It’s a tool for the business, not simply an endline. The dry wit is key to being able to pull this off.
There’s also a point about inside-out comms. By inside I mean the business model (not usually the stuff that pricks up your ears). It’s kinda ‘push’ comms, not ‘pull’. You don’t’ tend to start with consumer insight, it’s more brand-out. So tone helps to warm the punters up to even bothering to take it in – the pay-off, the reward. Otherwise it just won’t be interesting. It becomes a navel-gazing exercise that appeals to staff alone. Props to the team (Hugh, Alex and Tobes) for getting that balance right.
The liberated shopper whose intense solo dance with trolley
(that rivals Napoleon Dynamite’s epic dance scene to Jamiroquai) ends on a key pain point – the coin you need to unlock the trolley.
All the proof points were picked by strategy for their ability to really shift perception of ALDI away from discount and compromise.
LBB> What does your typical day look like?
CA> It’s chaos wrapped in glitter. I am a working mamma and as a result a good day is making sure I get to dress myself for work as well as the kids for school. If I navigate through the logistics challenge smoothly, I get to enjoy a quick coffee (consumed scalding hot or lukewarm depending…) and rush to work, park my Kia in the teeniest of spots with like a nine-point turn (five if I’m lucky). Then head to our office, meet, collaborate, free range, with some crazy, brill people to come up with some hunches around a problem. I love the bounce, the muse…perhaps to a fault. Throw in a couple of client meetings, a mini drama and a bit of corridor chat too.
In amongst all of that I have to negotiate with a shadow of imposter syndrome, either my own or someone else’s. We all suffer a bit of it don’t we?
LBB> With the departure of Cam Blackley as ECD, there are some big boots to fill. What sort of creative leader are you hoping to take over the position? Any hints?
CA> Yes they are a pair of big custom adidas to fill. We need a ‘minestrone’ of a leader - a sum of many unique parts.
Short of cloning him, we’re hoping for similar DNA. The kind of high standards where even a whiff of an average brief sends that person into anaphylactic shock. A pragmatism that kicks in when needed but one that knows that point of compromise that creeps up on you ever so silently – at our worst we still want to be damn good.
A love of pure ideas, of craft and of the art and science behind all of it. A person who knows how to fight well. Decency. Fairness.
Self-aware but not self-focused…a healthy ego but able to transcend it. Someone who is fed by “thanks for helping me land that” more than landing their own ideas. An appreciation for data and knowledge that mutates into wisdom and wonder. A leader whose presence is felt even if they are not there. And a bloody good sense of humour. Too intense and Steve and I will combust. And someone who can boogie. Any genre will do. Shuffle, tap, twerk, whatevs, because sometimes it is the only way to let loose.
LBB> You’re a regular guest on Gruen, where normal people tune in to watch people talk about advertising. That’s not something that many countries have! What have you learnt from that experience?
CA> Hmm…this is hard. It’s a really popular program (top two for its timeslot) on the ABC, which has no advertising, so it has taught me a lot about the definition of irony.
On the one hand, people skip ads on all kinds of screens but are interested in the inner workings, spin and tactics that are baked into communications. Or so you’d deduce from its ratings. But the thing about Gruen is it’d be nothing without Will Anderson’s repartee, comedy and commentary. The ads just help provide a springboard.
Apart from tha,t it kinda reinforces that people are OK with advertising, and like brands, and understand they are being marketed to. They are actually happy to play along. What they hate is when you pretend to be something you’re not or promise something you don’t deliver, whether a product feature or a brand purpose. Just be unapologetically who you are as a brand - authentic - and the test for that is how you act when no-one is watching you, not when they are.
LBB> What are your passions outside of advertising? Any nerdy obsessions?
CA> Words, phrases and origins. I’m obsessing over why ‘100 per cent’ is the saying du jour. It’s kinda replaced ‘for sure’, ‘for real’, ‘totally’. And I’m not sure when it started and when it will end and who started it. And it is really plaguing me. 100 per cent.
My kids. My mini humans are big into Lego and Geocaching
. The latter like retro Pokemon Go in the wild. I love the hunting for treasure with them, getting frustrated with them, deciphering clues and just hanging. Being part of the Geocaching community guides them to some good values.
I’m a sucker for the commercialisation of slow, simple living and the pursuit of happiness, in any language. I know people are profiting from my restlessness and I can’t help myself. There’s something about the framing of and phonetic beat of something like ‘Ikigai’ that makes it sound so much better than ‘purpose’.
Risotto and rosé. I have an upcoming risotto-off with fellow planners where we will be judging for the creamiest, most silky (not stodgy) risotto. Risotto demands your full attention and you have to answer to it and eat it when IT is ready. The mantecato bit is key. The constant tending to it…it’s both terror and therapy to make. As for rosé, I’ve been a closet rosé lover for years but it’s only recently become permissible to drink in public, so I am taking every chance while it lasts. Because I’m not sure it will.
LBB> As we stand on the brink of a new year, what are your hopes for 2018?
CA> That Napolean Dynamite 2 is finally released.
Because I reckon what the world needs right now is more Napoleon Dynamite. Pronto!