Toronto & Everybody is an interview series with creatives who have worked in Toronto and in other cities. We seek out the similarities and differences between cultures, industries, and people, to see how people’s experiences abroad can help us improve and grow in our work and lives here in Toronto.
I spoke with Alex Newman about his experience working as an art director for ad agencies in Toronto and now Sydney, what cultural differences he’s observed, how clients differ on either side of the Pacific, and how to keep up your career momentum when you move so far away.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do?
I’m a senior art director at DDB Sydney. I work primarily on airlines and travel, although I’ve begun to spread out into different industries like fast food – I now work on McDonald’s which is quite fun.
I started as a digital designer at BBDO in Toronto which was fantastic, did that for a year. Entered the Young Lions competition in that first year and ended up winning, which took me and my copywriting partner Patrice to New York City. We worked there for about two years, and then moved back to Toronto, ‘cause Toronto is home. I worked at JWT Toronto for about five years before making the move down to Australia.
Wow. Can I ask why you chose to go so far away from home?
[Laughing] That’s become the question my parents constantly ask me. “Have we done something wrong that made you want to go the furthest you could possibly get from us?” But that couldn’t be further from the truth to be honest.
I was down here on an Air Canada project shooting in Sydney. It was bridging an aboriginal musician from Canada with the aboriginal musicians of Australia, for him to get new inspiration and new sounds for his repertoire. A little aside, it’s incredible how much similarity there is between the indigenous cultures even though they’re never met. The smoke ceremonies and their belief systems, they way they pass on stories and how stories are related to their history. It was almost creepy in a sense, like there’s no way these two civilizations could’ve ever communicated hundreds of years ago, and yet they share so much in common.
So I looked around at Sydney and I thought, my god this is so much like Canada, but there’s little tweaks and little differences that just make it kind of fit me better. And plus it was warm.
Yeah that helps!
We were in the middle of winter up in Canada (it’s Australia’s summer during that time). I was turning 30 that year, and my life wasn’t where I really wanted it to be. Y’know, when you’re at an agency for about five years, you’ve basically touched every brand and milked it for all it’s creativity and it’s time to move on. At that age you can get a working holiday visa in most commonwealth nations, so I’m like, it’s either now or never. I basically folded up my life in a week, and moved down here on a whim without a job.
The distance is the only thing about this place that makes it difficult. The time zones, being able to keep in touch with people at home… it’s not like if there’s an emergency I can just fly home on a whim, it’s a trek.
Oh, I’ve done it. I was in Melbourne a while ago and that 26 hour flight nearly killed me. It’s so rough.
I’m sick right now because of the flight back from Canada just two weeks ago. It’s taxing.
Having moved to a new country and not really knowing anybody in Sydney, how did you find getting in to the ad industry there?
I underestimated the amount of difficulty I’d have trying to break back into the industry. I remember being a young designer coming out of university – I was unemployed for seven months trying to find work – and it’s because nobody knows you, you have no footprint in the industry. So when you come in, all of your history doesn’t matter, they’re just like who the heck are you? I thankfully got in touch with a really good recruitment agency here in Sydney. They helped me freelance and all of my business came through them. There were some scary moments – y’know, if you go a month without work as a freelancer you’re like “Am I gonna make rent this month? I dunno!”
In the long run – I think I knew it deep down inside but I didn’t believe myself until I moved here – moving this far, you take a step back in your career. You’re stunted a little bit, because you don’t have the momentum that you had in your home country. All the connections that you had made over the last few years, they can’t do anything for you, so you have to start from ground zero again. So that was a bit of a learning for me. It’s tough, getting back up again and trying to establish yourself.
So how do you feel now? You’ve been there about two years?
Yeah, I’m finally getting my foot in. The first year was still a bit unknown, I was still struggling. This year, I feel like I now know the production companies, I now know the producers, I know creatives that have cycled in and cycled out through different agencies, so I now have a network that I can call on if I need something. But it takes about two years to cultivate that.
Having done the freelance life and the agency life in Sydney, do you find there are many differences in how creatives work down under, compared to Canada?
I mean, creativity is creativity across the board in our industry. You either have an amazing idea or you don’t. I find the creative process down here, at least from my limited knowledge of experiencing it only in Sydney, is a little more “cowboy shotgun” style; it’s a little less organized and a bit more chaotic. And I think that’s sort of in the industry across the board because our timelines are so short, budgets have shrunk and everybody is becoming as scrappy as they can to get ideas done. It feels a little more “mad men” these days down here than it did in Toronto.
People have said to me before, the ad industry in Australia is about ten years behind the ad industry in Canada. And they’re right in some respects – they have the slowest internet I’ve ever experienced – it has some growing to do. Here we’re a little more influenced by Asia, and tend to be a bit more conservative than what I’ve experienced in Toronto.
New Zealand funny enough does incredible work, which is interesting because they have like almost no money to work with. So people in Australia really admire how the Kiwis get stuff done.
So you’re saying the ad industry there is ten years behind – would you say that’s true of what clients expect as well? Are they asking for things people over here asked for ten years ago?
I mean, the saying down here is that Sydney is like the corporate centre, it’s kind of the New York of this region. New York has the bigger budgets, anything can happen, but at the same time there’s a lot of hesitation to make amazing work. It’s hard to get really good work out of a place like New York. We have some of the biggest clients in Sydney in our office, and some of them take risks. McDonald’s is one that’s really interested in taking some risks and do some awesome creative work. But the larger ones tend to be more corporately structured and risk-averse. Purely by just numbers of people on their side, the more people you get in a room having an opinion about something, it just becomes a little more watered down.
I’m surprised to hear you say that you find it’s hard to get good ideas out of Sydney and you’re comparing it to New York, ‘cause from my perspective as a Torontonian, New York gets all the cool stuff, and Toronto and Canada get the lame, “redo this for Canada”. But you’re saying that’s not the case?
It’s all about perception to be honest, because we have a ton of stuff that comes in from North America where we have to “Australianize” it. I thought we’d be making original content but anything that has a fir tree in it people are like “Oh that’s not Australia”, so we have to reshoot things to have Australian trees in it. So there’s that angle, but then I think in terms of the region, because we have the most amount of money, and the most opportunity to create amazing work, it does tend to come out, it’s just… I guess the ratio of the amount of agencies working from that great stuff, versus how much is actually made, is lower than say, what would happen in Auckland, where there’s fewer agencies and fewer clients, but the ratio of good work to work overall is much higher.
Is there anything that you’ve observed or learned working in Sydney that you think Toronto would benefit from or adapt? Or vice versa.
I mean I’ve only worked at large multinationals – my next move would probably be to something smaller just to get that sense – so I have a bit of “multinational glasses” on at the moment, but I think both markets could do with less talking and more doing, and I do think this is a symptom of large agencies. I dunno about you but I’ve been in boardrooms where there’s fifteen people talking about the idea that you’ve come up with and adding on their opinion because they think they have to, and sometimes you need to say, y’know what, fuck it, I’m just gonna make it, and everybody can have their say after the fact. It’s much easier to have opinions on something that’s speculative and hasn’t been made yet, versus something that is created and then the feedback can be decisive, “well we could improve that in this way”, as opposed to just general “oh well maybe it could be like this”. I find both markets struggle with that, and I think that is a symptom of large agencies.
Probably, I think you’re right. I’ve definitely observed that myself.
For instance, my copywriting partner and I just launched a project called Pet Me which uses artificial intelligence and the influence of Instagram famous dogs to help rescues get adopted. It’s such a fun little project and I’m working with a developer in Toronto on it, and my copywriter is from Brazil, so it’s been sort of this global effort of Brazil, Toronto, Sydney, working to create this thing. The way we did it was we took it offline and actually got our own client and developed and built it and then brought it to the agency and said: it’s done. And at that point our CCO could either say “oh I like it” or “nah I don’t wanna deal with this”. I think what’s nice about this market is that the creative directors just want things to get made, and so even though it can get caught up in that sort of washing machine of comments, if you just get something done and it’s good and you believe in the idea, then they’re willing to support you on it.
That’s good to hear.
Yeah, I think that’s something that Toronto could probably learn a bit from, ‘cause I hadn’t experienced that there.
So then aside from the hurdle of networking and actually getting to know the industry when you first arrived, once you got into the work it was pretty familiar and what you were used to?
Oh yeah very much so. I mean every market sort of has their own little quirks. Interestingly enough, everybody asks me here if I have been to Award School.
Yeah – there are these things that are market specific that I just didn’t expect. I didn’t know what Award School was, but they hold it in high esteem. They don’t really care about a Bachelor of Design, but in Toronto that’s a thing.
Is it learning how to do work to win awards?
Essentially. It’s sort of a crash course in creative. It’s 12 weeks long, so it’s not like a university degree or college certificate by any means. The training required to get into the industry here I haven’t seen to be a scrupulous as North America, and since I wasn’t in that I just wasn’t known. So like if I’m not in Spikes Asia, which is an awards show in the Asia-Pacific region, it’s like “who are you?” And I’m like “oh well I have a Cannes Lion and a London International Award” and they’re like “meh”. [laughing]
That’s funny, I mean coming from Toronto culture where awards are great and they can certainly get you places, hearing that this is a culture in Australia where you basically have to win an award to even start working in the industry, that sounds so difficult.
Yeah, the regional awards are more visible and that’s the thing, if you’re not in the regional award circuit then you’re not really known and you won’t make it to the master circuit – it’s almost like qualifying. It’s fascinating, whole different ecosystem.
So can you basically not get a job as a creative without winning an award? ‘Cause over here you certainly can.
No you can, and there’s several people at my agency who aren’t on the awards circuit and still make incredible work, it’s not a necessity. I think in the industry globally, if you win awards you’re going to be better off, in terms of getting that top tier agency or bonus or what have you. Everywhere I’ve worked my performance has been based on whether I win awards or not. At JWT, DDB – it’s the metric of success.
It’s a funny relationship because, on one hand the entire business functions on the sort of the day to day, what pays the bills, but the awards help the agencies credentials. It’s interesting, ‘cause in both cases where awards have been a metric of success, they’ve never been intrinsic to my job title, it’s always well, you do awards in your spare time or it’s your extra curricular, even though it’s directly tied to your success in this industry. It’s almost like this weird oxymoron objective, where it’s like, “you have to do this but you can’t be seen doing it”. You need to be seen doing the multi-page banner ads for the local bank.
I know you won a Cannes Lion early in your career – can you tell us how that went down and impacted your career?
It was the Young Lions 2011. I entered it just for fun for me and my writer, who I wasn’t even working with at the time, and I still have the email I sent her, “hey you want to win a free trip to France lol”. We won the qualifying round in Canada, and then won the global round in the cyber category in Cannes – that’s the first time Canada’s ever won. That feeling of being sought after in the industry, there’s nothing like it, ‘cause all of a sudden everybody wants to know you, they’re hunting you down. In your first year of advertising you have to be scrappy and sort of beg people to take you on and trust you. So it went from being a few months unemployed leading up to [my job at] BBDO, to having the global chief talent officer trying to slip me her business card under a table and it’s like… it is mind boggling how it can transform your life.
Once you have a taste of that you kind of want to get back to it, and I know many creatives who every year want to try and pump something award worthy out. But I’ve been noticing after being in the industry for almost a decade now that you sort of go through cycles, and they tend to fall into three year patterns where you have a killer year, and then two years you kind of recuperate, come up with new ideas, craft them, and the third year again is another hit. So I think if I have any advice for people chasing the awards circuit, don’t be anxious that you have to have something award worthy every single year. Some years you just need a breather, ‘cause creativity’s taxing, it takes a lot out of you, and chasing awards is exhausting, especially if you’re doing it in your spare time like agencies want you to do.
But from that I’ve never actually hit that high again. I mean, me and my creative partners I’ve worked with have had a couple silvers, bronze, even a couple Pencils, but we hadn’t quite his that pinnacle again yet so I’m hoping in the next little while I can give it one more jab, before I start relaxing for another two years. It’s tough, it’s so tough, but it can transform your career, and whether your agency believes in it or not, whether it’s a metric of your performance, the industry sees it as success. And if that’s what the whole industry sees, then it can take you anywhere. It’s literally the keys to every agency, every city, as a creative.
Now that you’re competing from Australia, a different market, what differences do you find with that compared to competing with North America and Europe?
Canada sort of has that direct competition with the US most the time. Europe isn’t really in our scope, they do good work but Europe sort of competes with itself as a region. In this case, the Asian ads are so different from what we do, we don’t really see them as a competitive point. So we’re kind of in our own silo, quietly competing against the US. There is still this mentality here that America’s pretty awesome and they hold it in high regard. They’re very patriotic here, to the point of Americans in America. Canada’s patriotism has grown over the last couple years, but here it’s really solid. And it’s almost like the more Aussie your ads are, the more culturally accepted they are. We’re the only market in the world that changed the name of McDonald’s to Macca’s, ‘cause that’s the nickname Aussie’s use. That name is so prolific in this culture that McDonald’s changed their name.
A little aside on that, there’s so many cultural references that I’m still naive to here. Even though our cultures are very similar, there’s so many inside jokes that Australians have as a nation, that I’m sometimes not privy to. For instance I was in an audio record last week with my Brazilian writer making ads for Australia and New Zealand, and we’re trying to distinguish between an Aussie and Kiwi accent and trying to find the midrange between the two. We couldn’t do it for the life of us! I turned to the audio tech asking, “Is that right?” and he was like, “Nooo”. We must’ve gone through fifteen rounds where the client was like, that sounds too Kiwi or that’s too Aussie, and we’re like, we don’t know! They sound the same! That was another adjustment point for doing creative in this region, ‘cause there are some things we just don’t know. Somebody will say, “remember that scene from that TV show that everybody knows” and we’re like… no? It’s just a cultural thing. Just like Americans don’t know what those Canadian Heritage Minute commercials were.
Does that make the experience of working in Australia more interesting for you personally? You wanted to leave Canada for kind of an adventure right, and this is part of it?
It totally is, and getting to learn these sort of curious insights and cultural cornerstones, it feels like I’m getting closer to the people because I’m having to learn all of this. So whenever I’m out or if I’m in Canada or somewhere else and I come across an Aussie, I’ll have all these references, “oh yeah it’s like that moment in that show” and they’ll be like “oh yeah I know what you’re talking about!” It just bridges a cultural gap. I’ve sort’ve been studying them.
Would you move back to Toronto?
Yes, I would. Yes. I’d have to fight my urge to stay with the beach, that’s the only thing that would be a struggle. I mean, to be able to get on a bicycle and go to turquoise water is everything to me down here. I was back in Toronto this last time – it’s funny, the city’s growing and maturing and you can’t really see the progress ‘cause you’re in it, but when you step out of it and come back, Toronto is frigging pumping. From the outsiders point of view, the economy is doing well, it’s growing like mad, the industry is on fire. And there’s this energy and this drive that Toronto has that’s quite infectious. I had this experience before when I lived there, and clearly it was building and mounting but, only when I stepped away and came back it was like, wow this city is really growing into its own, it’s emerging, it’s becoming a powerhouse. That’s where good work is getting made. So yeah I would, one day I think I will definitely return to Toronto. It’s where my family is, it’s where home is. Like I said the hardest thing about being down here is that it’s so far away. Industry aside you wanna be close to your family as they get older. But I’m not done with Australia, I probably have a few more years in me yet.
Would you go anywhere else to work before coming back to Toronto?
I would, yeah. I’m turning 32 this year, I think I need to start setting roots down somewhere, and the roots would probably be in Toronto. I think I have maybe another 5 or 6 years of skipping around the world. Like I said New Zealand work is amazing so if an opportunity came up there I wouldn’t be adverse to it, even though it is a smaller market. Asia, Japan is weird, I love it. I’m not done, there’s so many places to live, our industry is huge.
Yeah it’s true, that’s one of the great things about working in this industry, you can go anywhere.
Yeah, you really can, you have to be ready to sort of start at the beginning again a little bit, but you’ll find your footing.