We began the interview - the first time - with your 1970s comic, Iron Outlaw. You told me that you were only 20 when you wrote it.
I wasn't always a creative guy. I actually studied a Diploma of Commerce at Swinburne. There, I spent most of my time hanging out with the Design and Film students. They were far more 'interesting' than the Accounting students - they dressed well and understood my humour. I ended up friends with one of the Design Department guys; Greg McAlpine. (I also married one of the Design Department girls). Greg and I had this idea to do an Australian super hero comic strip. It was the time of the Vietnam War and we felt our culture was being invaded by everything American - films, music, TV, food, clothing styles and comics. To oppose the war in Vietnam, you had to firstly oppose America. After many fun nights of drinking and laughing, Iron Outlaw was born: a good old Aussie boy who worked at the Malvern Council by day but transformed into a golden boomerang-toting superhero after hours. His foes were the twisted political figures of the time - like Sir Henry Bolte became Humpo, the hunchback of St. Paul's. We used local icons and local identities. We celebrated and lampooned everything Australian and people seemed to love it! The comic strip ran for just over a year. It made me just famous enough to get a job in advertising. That is all I had wanted to do since hanging out in the Art Faculty at Swinburne - to be one of them. And that's where I've been ever since - although it has been a diverse road.
You were referred by Mimmo Cozzolino, who, in the same period, had a similar playful and investigative interest in local identity and 'being Australian'. You also worked with him on Symbols of Australia. Apart from a Vietnam era, anti-American motivation, why were these records - if we call Iron Outlaw and Symbols of Australia cultural records - important?
It's very hard to be part of the now. We tend to live in the past or in search of the future. When I was doing Iron Outlaw I was very much a part of the now culture - riding the crest of the wave. We were all reflecting the world around us as it was happening. It wasn't retrospective or predictive - just the instant. When you look back on that body of work now it is a perfect indicator of the time it was created in. You can see the struggles and the influences that were tugging on the work. I'm very proud to have achieved that. There was change going on and we were the instigators of change - not just observers. We were the change!
Did this then form part of your advertising voice?
I have always searched for the vernacular way of saying things. Tried to localise or ground my communications in the Australian context. I was working in the era of 'Anyhow have a Winfield' and 'Meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars' - they all came after Mimmo's All Australian Graffiti and Iron Outlaw by the way! Even today, there is merit in being Aussie. This is a special country made up of a unique combination of special people. It doesn't make sense to ignore all of that. In fact, we should celebrate more!
This is beginning to touch on your ideas on the contemporary creative, or the decline of it, that we discussed in the original interview.
Being creative is a tough thing these days. Purchase Departments have tried to commoditise the creative process, breaking it down into bits and attempting to put fixed prices on it. How many hours does it take to have a brilliant idea? Five seconds to five weeks. Who can tell? We also have online offers of fixed priced design. Clients who believe the Indesign program actually designs advertising in much the same way PowerPoint creates a slide show. This all leads to the creation of content, only without creative elements that offer context and engagement. Content is a waste of money if it not placed in context. The rise of outgoing call centres has also had a profound effect. There was a time when we would create an ad that would generate an inbound call from a converted potential customer. Then some bright spark had the big idea of saving the money spent on the advertising and simply cold calling people. This has led to a brand massacre - companies who engage in this activity lack brand personality and no resulting brand trust. Their brand personality is no bigger than the poor pressured salesman on the end of the phone. Ideas generate engagement. Engagement generates trust. You can't sell a thing to a person who doesn't trust you! It will slowly turn around again and companies will go in search of brand trust. Then we will enter a new creative nirvana - I hope!
So you foresee a shift in the future - what does this mean for the business of design and advertising?
Advertising is the spoken word, whether it is written or verbalised. A headline on a press ad is someone speaking to you. It has a tone and context. Design is purely visual. Advertising is selling something via all mediums other than face to face - that is done in shops. Unfortunately the word 'advertising' has become synonymous with 'an expensive pastime'. The word has also been diluted by specialist communicators talking about online media, social media, telly marketing, event marketing, sponsorship marketing and so on. They are all forms of advertising! In the future we will see a convergence back to a single notion of advertising - communication that builds brands while presenting a sales pitch. A focus on the verbal message and not the medium it is being spoken in.
With more of an international approach?
The internet is shrinking the world to Marshall McLuhan's predicted 'global village'. Within that village there will be single global messages. Parochial idiosyncrasies will be pushed aside. Maybe individuals around the globe will start doing what Mimmo and I did all those years ago - try and fight off the inevitable globalisation!
You can read an in depth interview about Iron Outlaw here.
Photography property of Fysh Rutherford and Double Days.