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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Steve Elrick
Steve Elrick

steve mousein Steve Elrick

Regional Executive Creative Director
BBH Asia Pacific

“Oh, I love Steve, he’s such a funny guy!” is pretty much what everyone in the ad biz has to say about BBH Asia Pacific’s Regional ECD. Admittedly he is quite the entertainer. He’s also no stranger to success, having picked up a bucketful of accolades over his tenure at places like Ogilvy Singapore and Bates in Hong Kong. Or to controversy as he has been known to openly voice his opinion over some, erm, pretty touchy subjects in this industry.

Having been with BBH for the last 10 years, this John Hegarty protégé, who absolutely doesn’t have a Scottish accent, has been the face of the agency in the region and keeps inspiring his teams to zag when the rest of the world is zigging. ihaveanidea listens very carefully as he takes time from his busy globe trotting schedule to share a few words with us…

ihaveanidea: So how did you end up in Singapore?

Steve: Turned left at Malaysia.

I had to leave Scotland in a hurry. My lawyers tell me to stop talking about it, but I was innocent. Innocent I tell you. How are you even supposed to know when a sheep is underage?

I came from a small Scottish town, quite enjoyed writing and English at school but really couldn’t afford University. The Newspaper where my Brother was a journalist wasn’t recruiting trainees that year so I hit the road on a little ‘adventure’: or ‘getting real work’ as it is known in Scotland.

I ended up doing various jobs for 3 or 4 years. Everything from being a Pipe Swinger (no sex involved only laying pipe for the oil industry) to a Steel Erector (which wasn’t the smartest thing to do as I have a fear of heights ) – and a whole raft of other stuff.

Then one rainy day on the floor of a truck I saw an ad in an old paper for a Communications Studies course. It involved everything from magazine writing, to advertising, to PR. After two years of that vagueness I drifted towards the advertising side and started off as cub Copywriter at small agencies (Morgan Associates Glasgow /Baillie Marshall – Dundee) before ending up at Halls in Edinburgh which was by far the best/biggest Scottish agency at that time; they were competing at the UK level.

The CD ‘Guru’ at the time was this very nice guy, sort of the Neil French of Scotland, called Jim Downie…

ihaveanidea: A Scottish Neil French? Well fancy that…

Steve: (laughs) There’s so much images that comes with any version of Neil French it makes it sound kind of weird… but similar in that they were at the top of the industry and at the top of their game.

So I was at Hall’s for about four years. I then did a placement at Saatchi’s in London but to be honest I just really felt like an even bigger change. I had this friend who was in Hong Kong and he just said “give it a go”, so I sold everything I had and got on a plane.

(The Scots are big travellers. We say it’s because we are windswept and interesting cosmopolitan adventurers. The English usually say: “well, have you seen Scotland”.)
So arrived without a job but started at Bates pretty much a week later.

“Seeing very good Chinese Creatives producing work that really resonates with Chinese people is more important than taking the western model of advertising and trying to emulate that. That’s the worst thing that could happen.”

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

I was there for four years, mostly with a partner called Phil Marchington, (he’s now at McKinney Silver in the States). That was fantastically long hours, grabbing every brief we possibly could. It was pretty crazy times. Lots of work and play. We were these two young guys in an exotic country, having a great time but also really really pushing ourselves with the work, hungry to get noticed. It was fun. And we picked up a few gongs too.

And then, I employed Neil French.

ihaveanidea: …?/

Steve: That’s how I like to tell the story anyway! We ‘employed’ him to be a Director on a job for HK Bank, and that’s how I met him.

We got along well, so he invited me down to Singapore to work at Ogilvy.

So the chance to work alongside French as CD …no brainer. I then stayed for five or four years. (At that time colleagues included Graham Kelly, Eugene Cheong, Andy Greenaway, Craig Smith, Edmund Choe and lots more etc) Lots more work, quite a few more shiny award shaped things and more good times.

But again, I got a little bit restless so I decided to head up to LA for a very brief sojourn at TBWA\ Chiat Day.

ihaveanidea: I was going to ask you about that, why was it so short? Chiat Day in LA isn’t a bad place by most people’s standards.

Steve: Well, I can’t use the molesting a sheep argument again, can I? Mind you…Lee Clow’s beard is rather rugged…… It just didn’t work out really. By the time I got my visa there didn’t really seem to be a lot of work for me to do. I was getting teamed up with the incredibly nice Gerry Gentile, who was off to the NY office half the time, covering as CD there.

So I got bored, and they probably realised that they had this unintelligible Scottish guy sitting around the office getting paid a lot of money to do fuck all. So I think we came to the mutual agreement that it just wasn’t working out. Time to move on. No regrets, no foul.

ihaveanidea: If we started hating everyone that leaves us or fires us we’d end up hating everyone in this industry anyway.

Steve: Yeah, the business is too small and life is far too short of that kind of stuff. Change is good.

After a Chiat sponsored road trip (Mustang…Vegas,,,, all the cliches etc etc) I went back to the UK for a bit and met up with Hegarty in London . So he told me about this opening they had for CD at BBH in Singapore.

I hadn’t intended to go back quite as soon but… At that time only BBH London and Singapore were open, so being one of two BBH Creative Directors in the World was something of a draw as you can imagine!

And then there was the idea of working with the very best in the world. French – Clow – Hegarty. Not bad. Not bad.

“I am not sure if anyone should be saved, it’s adapt or die”

For the final interview I went there and met The Names On The Door. I’d been told “okay, you’ve got two hours with John Bartle, then two hours with Nigel Bogle and then two hours with John Hegarty”. All in one day. It’s a pretty scary process.

We’re (BBH) criticised sometimes for being a bit too rigorous about our hiring process, but I think it was part of the attraction for me. You really get to see the integrity these guys have – it’s their business, it’s their reputation and they won’t open the door to just anyone. So make it through and it’s a bit of an achievement in its own right – - -but then again I’ve drunk the kool-aid

ihaveanidea: well, especially since you didn’t have a job at the time!

Steve: (laughs) That was also a small factor, yes

A lot of creative people like to switch gear every now and again to give themselves a bit of a refresher, which I think is very valuable. There’s nothing worse than being so consumed by the ad business that it becomes all you talk about. The least interesting people in advertising are the people who talk about it all the time.

ihaveanidea: Have you ever had trouble getting clients to understand the ‘no spec work ever, even for a pitch’ rule BBH has? How often did you have to go lenient on that rule in your ten year BBH career?

Steve: There’s been a few misunderstandings about that. The initial thing, and this was definitely a London thing, was ; no speculative creative campaigns for pitches. And there were a lot of very good reasons for that.

Very often, the briefs clients give you for a pitch aren’t the actual briefs, as they’re worried about confidentiality. A lot of the time it becomes just a silly little test. In a weird way I think it’s insulting, they want us to prove to them that we can ‘do advertising’ for their brand. You’d think the body of work that the agency has done before should be proof enough of that.

I think Heg said: “it’s a bit like trying to sign David Beckham then at the interview as him to play keepy-up to prove he can play football. Past records mean nothing. Just keep juggling boy. ”

ihaveanidea: Did you just call Sir John Hegarty “Heg”?

Steve: errr…Well I don’t call him that to his face. We call him Sir John now! No, actually a lot of people do call him Heg. He’s spectaculary amiable, down to earth, gracious and very easy to chat with. Famously so,

French who’s also a big mate of Nigel Bogle, described them in terms like . “Isn’t it funny that some of the best, the really big names in advertising usually turn out to be really nice people? That’s because most of the time they don’t really have much to prove to anyone anymore.”

And that’s Heg. He doesn’t have to justify the sort of work that BBH has done.

Back to your question, it used to be absolutely no creative work for pitches, and part of that was because of BBH’s rationale which was: the best campaigns, and the best creative work comes out of really solid insightful strategy and truly understanding the client’s business. But how much could you really understand about the client’s business in the two to three weeks of the pitch process?

At first we had that rule in Singapore as well. So what we would do was that we would come up bigger ideas around a client’s business and throw some provocative challenges at them. Start to have ideas about what the direction for that brand could be.

“I’d been told “okay, you’ve got two hours with John Bartle, then two hours with Nigel Bogle and then two hours with John Hegarty. It’s a scary process. But You get to see the integrity these guys have – it’s their business, it’s their reputation and they won’t open the door to just anyone.”

Most of the time that would be interesting and provocative enough to keep us to in for the next stage of the pitch, and then, we might start to flesh out develop some creative ideas.

Even for London now, there isn’t the hard and fast rule anymore. We still stay true to it, to the extent that we never start on any creative work before we think we’ve come to a very interesting strategic point of view. There’s no point in doing creative work without a solid foundation.

In fact, this has been the case in a couple of massive recent pitches, such as the global Sprite business. That was double-teamed with the BBH NY and Shanghai offices – coming up with the Big Ideas territories and then blitzing them. We won it.

ihaveanidea: Yeah, I’ve read about that and actually found it weird that the pitches were made in New York and Shanghai when the client’s head office is in Atlanta…

Steve: The rise of Asia! The very final pitch happened in Atlanta, but there were a couple of stages where a lot of the Sprite team came all the way to China. They needed to be reassured that the agency really could handle it.

It’s Global Sprite, but the business in Asia is massive. I think China is the number two market and India the number three market. It was a huge one for us, and we’re pretty happy with it. Our CD Johnny Tan performed like a demon on it.

ihaveanidea: Well it worked, so now roll on the real fun part. Here’s a question that’s sort of related to that, what exactly is your role as the Regional ECD?

Steve: Mostly to create a bit of cultural and working fluidity between the office and departments – and to give me a title to impress my Mum.

Thankfully, we don’t have dozens of agencies around Asia so it’s a huge competitive advantage for us in being able to work seamlessly with each other. A lot of the brands we work on are the same: Axe, Johnny Walker, Mentos, Levi’s , Chupa Chups, Minute Maid (Coke) for instance.

Part of my job is to keep the creative departments in each of the offices humming and working together. Often, we’ll try to get creative teams from Shanghai down in Singapore or Tokyo and vice-versa. They get to work all over the place to really mix things up.

I’m also acting as ECD in the Singapore office (one of 3 Cds) overseeing some brands like Vaseline and Levi’s.

ihaveanidea: I found the Axe spots from Tokyo a few years back with the little soldiers quite refreshing in that respect, it went beyond the “Spray Axe, Get laid” you see everywhere else. Dare I say it was a bit more sophisticated?

Steve: That’s a good example. Graham Kelly led that. A lot of the global work that could have been used in Japan just really didn’t resonate there. The sense of humour didn’t quite work, culturally. Japanese guys would see some of the South American or UK Axe work and find it arrogant and too much in your face.

For instance, Axe in the UK is a little bit more laddish. Spray this on and get lots of these stereotypical gorgeous girls. Whereas in Asia, what guys want is a little bit of an edge to get it on with girls they already like. Axe would give them an edge in the mating game to get the girl – not lots of girls. So the ad you’re talking about was very much for shyer guys who want to make a move as opposed to “spray it on and get fifty amazing women in bikinis running at you.”

ihaveanidea: How do you think agencies should adapt to escape the current mess we find ourselves in? Clients are seriously reviewing the old model and it’s not very likely the agency that’s gonna come out of the recession will be the same as the big monsters we have now. What do you think that new model is going to be like? What’s your magic solution to save everyone?

Steve: First of all I am not sure if anyone should be saved, it’s adapt or die. Second – We have never operated under the old big agency model. Our global network is six agencies, 3 of which are in Asia. The whole black sheep thing is about doing things differently: when people Zig, Zag.

We are also one of the only independent places around, so we control our own destiny and how we react to this ‘economy’ thing.

I think there is going to be a dramatic shake out in the old big monsters .It’s happening already. We are operating pretty efficiently. Our DNA is concentrated groups of really smart people that can create bigger, more universal ideas that stretch across the markets.

In Asia we only have 150 people. 150. Compare that to some other networks in Asia that have close to 9000. Just that as a figure is frightening. So I can see why these times are even scarier for the old networks. Oh dear, what a shame.

ihaveanidea: Do you think places like Crowdspring who were recently used by BBH Labs to come up with a new logo are a genuine threat to our line of work? I’ve seen the stuff they came up with, and while most of it isn’t good at all, some you have to admit are really good. Do you think clients will start considering places like that as an alternative to agencies?

Steve: I am sure they (clients) will. Some will go that route for sure – at least as an experimentation. Though one has to wonder if it will ever be the complete solution to bigger branding and marketing problems. I think it has its uses, but it’s a very small part of the pie. And BBH Labs showed how Agencies can use it for…er good Not Evil! Clients are going to have to be very focused on when they can and can’t use these sources. That said, I really hope they choose my design for the BBH Labs job. It’s a sheep juggling the heads of the English 1966 Soccer Squad.

“There’s nothing worse than being so consumed by the ad business that it becomes all you talk about. I think the least interesting people in advertising are the people who talk about it all the time.”

ihaveanidea: Yeah, you sound like you could use the $1500. Let’s dive into the ever-fascinating scam debate. Your recent ad in Media magazine denouncing the proliferation of scam ads in Asia obviously had a lot of people talking. One of the main critiques being thrown was that it was easy saying that ‘from up there’, having established your name in the business years ago. However a lot of younger creatives just wouldn’t get noticed if they wait for the perfect brief to drop on their desk, so they do scams…How would you solve that dilemma?

Steve: That ad wasn’t supposed to raise the whole ‘scam bad, scam good’ debate that ensued. It was done to say that certainly in these times, has it just gone crazy and out of balance?

To be honest most the CDs I talked to feel the same way, even if they’re doing it. We’ve created this circus that has overtaken most of the real business. The good point you make is that now that we’ve created this, how do young guys break through it and make an impact? And I’m not sure I have a real answer to that.

Personally, I think it’s down to the CD’s again. I would rather see a portfolio that – even though it has some obvious initiative work – also has a lot more substance to it. It might not be award-winning work, but I’d like to see how the guy/girl/haemaphrodite’s brain approaches the bigger clients. It’s really up to CDs to give teams that haven’t got metal attached to their names a chance.

We have just taken on ‘the most creative guy in Asia”. It wasn’t mainly because of the work that won his gongs – it was the other brilliant stuff in his book that hasn’t seen the light of day. And he knows that kind of work (scam) isn’t an option here.

My read on a portfolio: It’s not about what people have done but about what they can do. One thing I fucking hate is looking at a portfolio and the first page is a list of awards. As if it were saying… here’s the proof I’m good. Suspend judgement of the actual work and give me a job. So here’s a big tip to people sending me their books: Do NOT put your awards list at the start.

It is one of the problems, and it’s a self-created one. How do young creative people get themselves noticed without purely doing scam? It might still be a necessity for younger teams in Asia, but surely there needs to be a balance.

“So I sold everything I had, got on a plane, without a job, and arrived in Hong Kong…I got into Bates pretty much in the first week or two.”

The creative ranking tables are one of the things to blame. Senior creative people and even management are rewarded by hitting creative targets and it doesn’t matter what the points are for. So you have a major multinational agencies being feted as the most creative in Asia with that ranking based on say 3 campaigns that never really ran. This isn’t bitterness on my part – it’s a fact.

Young teams are being asked to do award winning ads on anything, instead of award winning ads for their clients.

A while back a team here won Global Print Campaign of the Year (Gunn Report) for Levi’s and we have people in D&AD this year for Axe and Levi’s. I tell them that is really the precious metal.

Look, it’s become ridiculously incestuous. One argument goes is it gives young teams a chance to express themselves. One the one hand true, on the other sweaty hairy bollocks.

There is potentially a reverse to all this, and maybe a bit of a cautionary tale. I know of a few teams that have done spectacularly well doing scam work, tried and often succeed in turning that into bigger and better jobs. But they got found out.

People realised they couldn’t apply creative thinking to real problems. So they become marginalised and known as a ‘scam team’.

And I think Global CDs are more conscious of this now. Maybe a book full of award winning ads that are obviously initiative work won’t be a guarantee to a bigger and better job anymore.

ihaveanidea: How long do you think it’ll take China to become a recognised creative force on the global stage? They won their first gold lion last year, but how long till they start competing in the big leagues?

Steve: I think they’ve come leaps and bounds already. (My that sounds patronising!) As recently as three or four years ago, even on an Asian stage there was very rarely any kind of showing from Chinese agencies. But there’s more and more excellent work coming out of there now.

My worry at this point is we are rating it as how we (westerners) interpret it, and what’s creatively right for the Chinese market right now is not necessarily something that will impress international judges in the short term. There have been a few campaigns; take the Nike stuff from when JWT used to have the account for instance. And the recent Adidas Olympic work was brilliant. Big real stuff that swept up in the shows, deservedly so – that’s the kind of work that should really be representing Asia.

I am not sure if there’s going to be a dramatic wave of Chinese work picking up awards at the international shows soon. I think it’ll get better, but slowly, because I don’t think the agencies themselves are as bothered about making an impression on the world stage. And do they really need to?

Seeing very good Chinese creatives producing work that really resonates with Chinese People is more important than taking the western model of advertising and trying to emulate that. It’s the worst thing that could happen.

There was a little bit of a fear a few years back with the arrival of Singaporean CDs that the classic scam layout was being introduced: “Oh, there’s a logo on the bottom corner, and the quirky punny visual that’s a bit of a puzzle…oh I understand now, that’s a good ad!”

Thankfully they haven’t fallen totally into that trap – and long may it continue.

ihaveanidea: So can you see a trend coming out of there already?

Steve: Definitely. The first trend coming out of China will be pyjamas as street-wear. Walking around Shanghai, it’s amazing to see how many people walk around in pyjamas. And that’s a plug for a photographer mate of mine who works for National Geographic, Justin Guaruglia (I know, his last name sounds like a boney body part) has a book called Planet Shanghai featuring the street pajama chic of Shanghai. Everybody should buy it! (I am sitting doing this interview in a natty pair of Paul Smith Knock-offs.)

Interview by:
Rafik Belmesk
Operations, AKOS

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