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5 Minutes with… Ryan Fitzgerald



Special Melbourne’s ECD tells LBB’s Esther Faith Lew why the agency succeeds in creating surprising engagements for clients

5 Minutes with… Ryan Fitzgerald

It’s empowering… terrifying… addictive. Those are the key components that make up the magic of creativity for Special Melbourne’s ECD Ryan Fitzgerald. “Creativity itself, that spark of an idea, the feeling when it all clicks, that’ll always be magic,” says Ryan.

Inspiration comes in a bittersweet package that can cause the sweats and the angst, but it can also trigger the most awesome ideas. Nothing gets Ryan more “rilled up than the pangs of jealousy brought on by a great piece of work, he shares, and it elicits a response that is both self-battering and self-motivating. “I would think ‘I wish I’d done that’, or even ‘how did they convince them to do that’. It’s a feeling that reminds me what’s possible and pokes me in the chest to dig a little deeper.”

His emotive response may be intense but Ryan is guided by a balanced perspective of not sweating the small stuff, and he applies that in his work and in his personal life. He has two importance pieces of advice that he has always remembered, and they have kept him “creatively honest”. “They are: ‘keep strong opinions, loosely held’ and ‘it’s better to be interesting than to be right’. As creatives, we deal in human engagement and both of these posits help me navigate the ever changing landscape that we play in.  

“The first is about the importance of conviction, whilst never letting pride get in the way of a better solution. The second makes the point that if what we’re saying is too convenient and agreeable, the audience simply agree and move on—you’ve managed to make a point so right that it’s totally forgettable. A little tension is the key.”

Ryan’s ad land journey has been defined by a “haphazard web of interactions and experiences”. But he acknowledges their importance and the influence of people in his life. “From the pluckiest of juniors to absolute legends in the industry; from the weird, borderline surreal shoot situations to the incredible conversations or meetings—each experience brought with it a nugget of knowledge, a lesson or an observation. I guess what I really took from that was to be present and to open your ears more than your mouth.”

Enriched with these valuable takeaways, Ryan is focused on creating work that enables Special to become “renowned as the home of ideas that stimulate the healthy industry jealousy that pushes us all forward”. 

LBB> What’s your definition of a successful campaign?

Ryan> As an industry we deal in human engagement and these days it’s harder than ever to get people to engage. Our audiences actively avoid advertising and are packing a finely tuned BS radar—we’ve (rightfully) got to earn the right to occupy a fraction of their mental real estate. So that’s got to be your baseline metric for success. Make someone care, even just a little bit. 

LBB> What were some of the significant campaigns you have worked on that were meaningful to you and why?

Ryan> Campaigns, good or bad, are all a moment in time and in that, they each carry some level of meaning, but the most significant to me would have to be Dundee and Earth’s Black Box. 

Dundee, was a monster of a campaign, but outside of the noise and tourism business that the campaign generated, it was the opportunity to sell my home country from the other side of the world that made that project truly special. Topping it all off with a Logie was pretty perfect, too. 

Earth’s Black Box, was an incredible project to be a part of, too. Obviously it’s a crucially important message and something I’m personally passionate about, but above all it demonstrated the power of an idea. The way the world picked up the story and ran with it was remarkable. The way it universally resonated was a reminder of what’s possible when you have a simple, powerful message.

LBB> What has been the significant milestones and achievements in your career and why?

Ryan> The most significant career decision I ever made was taking the opportunity to work in different places both locally and overseas. This decision exposed me to incredible people, different ways of doing things and different opportunities. Above all, it flipped me upside down and placed me firmly out of my comfort zone. A place where you learn a lot about yourself.

Advertising folks are lucky, in that we have a fully transferable skill. My advice to every creative I speak to is: exploit that skill for all that it is worth. Let it take you around the world. At best it’ll shape your trajectory, at worst you’ll collect experiences and be all the better for it. 

LBB> How did your tenure with Droga5 in New York hone your creative perspectives? What are the transferable insights and experience that have played well into your new role?

Ryan> Droga5 was a wild ride, in the best possible way. The place was packed to the gills with intelligent and talented people yet there was no ego or entitlement to speak of—crazy, I know. The learning curve was steep, but people, David in particular, was generous with their insight and knowledge. It made for an advertising learning environment like no other. 

There’s a lot that I’ve taken with me from that experience, but there’s definitely a couple that float to the top:

  • Surround yourself with good people and give them the freedom to bring their whole selves to work,
  • Retain a healthy level of naivety for “what’s possible”. There’s always someone there to tell you ‘it can’t be done’ and thankfully, someone else to prove them wrong.
  • Treat every idea like the individual that it is. There’s no ‘way to do things’, no standard sell or approach, each idea needs its own process to bring it into the world.

LBB> Special Australia’s partner & CSO Rebecca Stambanis says she gained the partner in crime she has been waiting for. What big heist are you both planning?

Ryan> No heists here! Our powers shall only be used for good. Bec is a super talent as is the newest addition to the Special Melbourne family, MD, Sarah Raine. We’ve each got different experiences and expertise but share an ambition for the agency—it’s an exciting combination. Above all, we’re passionate about the work, our people and share the same healthy distrust for how things have “always been”. We’re looking forward to questioning some things together and making some noise in the process.

LBB> What led you to Special and how does the agency culture align with your work beliefs or values?

Ryan> As an outsider I’d always respected what Special was doing: the quality of the work, the group of talented humans and clients they had attracted, as well as the unique approach to global expansion, these were all things that spoke for themselves. 

Beyond that, it was the conversations with the leadership team that really drew me to the agency. The level of insight and humanity in every interaction blew me away and demonstrated that the agency’s values of Open, Brave and Kind are far more than just a philosophy painted on the walls, they’re ingrained in the people and the place.

LBB> In joining a growing Melbourne leadership team with a country-wide focus, how do you see your priorities and goals shaping up?

Ryan> We’re in a period of growth and we want to continue that, but our independence affords us the ability to grow at a healthy, sustainable rate. There’s no 20% global remit here. The focus for us is how do we continue to grow whilst having genuinely creatively driven client relationships that allow us to do work that matters and keeps our panache, our soul and our culture intact. This starts with honest conversations, saying ‘no’ more than we say ‘yes’, and results in partners who have creativity built into the fabric of their businesses in the same way we do. 

Our national model means that we can create bespoke teams for each client. We look to bring together people who make sense from a philosophical, experience, capability or passion POV, not just a logistical one. 

LBB> As Special ramps up its resources in digital and innovation, how have you been aligning tech and creativity in your work for clients? 

Ryan> Once upon a time, in an agency far, far away, the brief everyone wanted to get their hands on was the McDonald’s Fries outdoor brief. The sole ambition? Brutally simple, chef’s kiss-inducing classic outdoor. Nowadays, that’s just not the case, the landscape for a creative is so much more exciting than that. Simplicity will always be the key, but there are infinite opportunities to take ideas into completely new environments. 

That’s what’s guiding our approach to innovation. It’s not a complicated model, but it doesn’t have to be. We’re asking ourselves, ‘what—and who—do we and our clients need to connect with people in the right place, at the right time, with the right shape of story.

Allowing concept to define the medium is baked into the Special process. From ambushing the live broadcast coverage of the Australian Open with Uber Eats to bed sheets from Bonds that unlock AR experiences, we’re constantly looking for meaningful and surprising ways to engage.

LBB> Joining Special Australia at a time of new business wins such as ANZ bank, Bonds and Netflix, could you share with us how they have been instrumental in allowing Special to showcase its creative prowess? 

Ryan> Over the last two years, Special Melbourne has gone from startup to grown-up, dodging the awkward in-between teenage years. Our clients have been fundamental to this trajectory and each one entered the building with a mutual understanding and appreciation for the power of creativity. 

Clients like ANZ, Bonds and Netflix all appreciate the value that creativity can add to a brand. This implicit understanding from such iconic brands—combined with the scale of their platforms—lays the groundwork for creativity at a remarkable scale. 

LBB> Based on the above examples of significant campaigns, what were the challenges and opportunities of their respective markets and industries?

Ryan> In news to no one: the world is a particularly hairy place at the moment. Off the back of a global pandemic there’s a host of factors causing political, financial, and environmental instability. The knock-on effect for the wider population means each of our clients—and their customers—has their own complex and nuanced set of circumstances that need navigating. 

If history has taught us anything, this is not the time to abandon creativity. It is the time to double down on it. 

Facing such headwinds, ANZ could have rushed to rational, tactical messaging. Instead they committed to the brand’s tone and had a higher order conversation about their new offering. The For Financial Wellbeing campaign plays with the world of overly dramatic advertising to show just how attainable financial wellbeing truly is.

LBB> Rebecca Stambanis also says you have a “keen business acumen and strategic mind that will be invaluable”. What were the instances in your career that brought out examples of those traits?

Ryan> I think it was Bernbach who said ‘creativity is that last legal way of gaining advantage over the competition’. Truly understanding that was a turning point for me. I stopped trying to sell the client my ideas and began framing ideas as utilities, a necessity for their business. 

Not only did this breed a relationship of trust between agency and client, it made the work better. Every idea had a reason for being. They stopped being viewed as ‘gutsy’ and became ‘smart’. 

As creatives, we need to stop viewing ourselves as artists slash salespeople and come to the table more as communication experts. Learning to speak the business supercharges ideas and gives ideas the ability to change a business.

LBB> Looking forward, can you give a sneak peek into what exciting developments we can expect at Special?

Ryan> Every agency I’ve ever been at there’s always a chorus of ‘you should have been here five years ago…five years ago it was amazing…” I’m genuinely excited because that’s simply not the case at Special Melbourne. The time is now.

There’s an energy in the building that is truly infectious and just fun to be around. We’re pulling together new offerings and capabilities and there’s a pipeline of work across each of our offices that will hopefully result in a little bit of good jealousy going out in the world. 

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Special Group Melbourne, Wed, 02 Nov 2022 07:04:20 GMT