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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Brian Howlett
Brian Howlett
brianhowlettinside Brian HowlettCreative Director / Partner
Axmith McIntyre Wicht
ihaveanidea: How did your career lead you to become partner and creative director at AMW?

Howlett: I started at a mid-size independent shop here in Toronto in 1987 (McLauchlan Mohr Massey) and got to work with senior people right away. So it was an amazing opportunity right out of the gate. Two years later an offer came to work in Hong Kong with a big shop – Dentsu, Young & Rubicam. It wasn’t any great plan of mine to work overseas, but without thinking a whole lot about it, I took it. I was young and thought, ‘what the hell’. It was a really intense learning experience. Because I was an ‘expat’, even though I was still junior I was given a chance to work on huge accounts. We did a lot of commercials, moreso than you’d do in North America, so I very quickly learned a lot about production and post production. But it was tough as a writer: unlike Singapore, which has a real appreciation of English, Hong Kong isn’t the place to work on the craft of writing. It’s a very visually-oriented market.

I came back to Canada when I hit 30, which was my plan all along. I didn’t have my next job lined up but when I got back home Terry Bell at Saatchi Toronto offered me a job. A year later, I was transferred to Saatchi Los Angeles, again more by fluke than by design, and then came back to Toronto in 1993 to work with Axmith. As soon as I got back to a mid-size shop, after working at the multinationals, I knew that was where I wanted to be. The big shops are so layered. I never even met a media person at Saatchi L.A., yet media and creative go hand in hand. Here at AMW you don’t have to try and collaborate: it’s built into the shop’s DNA.

“Many shows seem to have dubious value. To me, CA and the One Show are still it. Go into most creatives’ offices, check their bookshelf. Those are the annuals you’ll see.”

ihaveanidea: Awards you’ve won?

Howlett: Like others in the business for a long enough period of time, I’ve got Cannes, CA, One Show, Clios, New York Art Directors, NY Festivals, LIAA, OBIEs, and the Canadian shows on my resume. (The show that seems impossible to win, for some reason, is the Andy’s.) And yes, I’m not too embarrassed to admit we have entered shows like the Summit Awards, Creativity and Mobius. But our awards budget is tiny compared to big shops and I’m really discriminating these days. Many shows seem to have dubious value. To me, CA and the One Show are still it. Go into most creatives’ offices, check their bookshelf. Those are the annuals you’ll see.

ihaveanidea: As a creative director you are still actively working in creative and winning awards. Is it hard wearing both hats?

Howlett: I could never imagine not working on ads. It’s one reason I would never consider being a creative director at a huge agency. A friend of mine recently told me he has to wait three or four months to even get an appointment with a certain creative director in town. That’s out of control — this business just shouldn’t be that complicated.

ihaveanidea: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced as a creative director?

Howlett: Good question. I think the bigger challenge is as an owner. Being a Creative Director, cheering on those around you, and working on your own ads, that stuff is what I’ve been doing all along anyway. But worrying about new business, and trying to grow an enterprise, well — no one’s taught you how to do that.

ihaveanidea: AMW is often fighting for accounts against the big agencies and winning. How do you manage? Why?

Howlett: We do find ourselves going up against the big shops. It can be intimidating, knowing the resources they can throw at a pitch. And the showbiz factor is back, so you really do have to put on a performance. I think we’re getting better at the dog & pony aspect of things. And learning to understand what each client is looking for – not just on the surface of things, but really looking for – when they put a piece of business up for grabs.

“This contest that Labatt is co-sponsoring is a novel way for them to stay connected with the very audience they’re trying to reach. At the end of the day, the relationship is working because we’re listening, and not allowing ourselves to get complacent.”

ihaveanidea: Out of all the agencies serving business for Labatt, you have held to your account the longest. How do you balance your client/agency relationship with such a big client?

Howlett: Having a long history with Labatt serves us well. They trust the knowledge we bring to bear. But we’re always looking for new ways to tackle the issue of responsible use, and prepared to push for new thinking. For instance, this contest that Labatt is co-sponsoring is a novel way for them to stay connected with the very audience they’re trying to reach. At the end of the day, the relationship is working because we’re listening, and not allowing ourselves to get complacent.

ihaveanidea: You have lead Canada’s most successful responsible drinking campaign and you have actually managed to use humor in a PSA in order to talk to the target market in their language. This is not an easy thing to convince a large company like Labatt, especially when dealing with a serious topic such as responsible drinking. How did you achieve this?

Howlett: Young people told us they wanted to be spoken to in this manner, and fortunately for us, Labatt is taking their advice. But it wasn’t a slam dunk in the beginning. Al Scornaienchi, Partner/Director of Client Services, pushed as hard as anyone to sell our approach. And it’s a lot easier selling creative when the whole agency is behind it.

ihaveanidea: If you were in the middle of London, in a pub, having a beer and talking to a Brit creative, how would you describe AMW to them? What is unique about the agency?

Howlett: Arnold Wicht and John McIntyre have worked together here, first as a creative team and now as owners, for 25 years. Al and I have been around for almost 10 years. That brings stability, and I think you can sense it in the place. But you know, every agency I’ve worked at has its little song and dance about what makes them unique. Some even trademark a name they give their ‘process’. It’s voodoo. An agency is just a bunch of people, isn’t it? You either like and respect those people, or you don’t.

ihaveanidea: By tradition, AMW has been a teacher agency, always taking in interns and teaching them the ways of the advertising world. Have you had good experiences with interns/juniors? Do you think they have?

Howlett: Put it this way, I’ve never had a bad experience with an intern. How can you lose when you’re getting enthusiasm, energy, and a different perspective on things?

ihaveanidea: What do you think the next 5 years have in store for AMW?

Howlett: I’ll tell you in 5 years.

Interview by:
Ignacio Oreamuno
President
ihaveanidea

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