Creative Interview: Graham FinkPN11 news
Graham Fink, Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy & Mather China and host of Portfolio Night 10 Beijing and Shanghai, has one of the most interesting careers in the business and he’s just getting started in Asia. Recruited to Ogilvy in early 2011, Graham has tackled the challenge of a new market with gusto, seeking and celebrating young local talent, adding a blend of expat talent into the mix and learning what works best for Chinese clients and consumers. Will his creative mission in China be successful? Well, his track record speaks for itself. While in London, Graham became London’s top Creative Director after cleverly breaking into Collett, Dickenson and Pearce (CDP) as a student, studying under and working for Paul Weiland, building M&C Saatchi’s creative team to acclaimed success and earning the position of the youngest President ever of D&AD. That doesn’t include what he does in his spare time or his long list of awards. Graham is also a film director, an award-winning photographer, and founder of thefinktank. He was the 2011 UK Creative Circle President’s Award winner and has won multiple D&AD Pencils, Gold and Bronze Lions at Cannes, the Epica D’or and a myriad of awards at Campaign’s Big Awards. This work catapulted him to the top of the 2010 world creative rankings in The Gunn Report for Print. He is also famous for world-renowned work on Land Rover, Hamlet and British Airways’ ‘FACE’ commercial. In short, Graham is the man, and we are glad to have him captaining the Portfolio Night 10 China ship.
Portfolio Night: Did you always know you wanted to be in advertising, or what were your childhood career aspirations?
Graham: I very nearly joined the Navy. My dad was in the Navy, before he became a butler, so it really appealed to me. I was also interested in Music and Art, so eventually I went to Art School and a few years later someone told me about this career called “Advertising.” It sounded amazing.
Portfolio Night: Describe the moment you broke into the biz; did you fall in by happy coincidence or deliberately by choice?
Graham: Getting a job was almost impossible. After about 118 interviews, I went to the best agency in the world: Collett, Dickenson and Pearce. They were doing the most amazing work. My copywriter and I turned up to see the Creative Director, who liked our book but he said they didn’t take on students. They were looking for a more senior team with a lot more experience, he told us. The next day we returned, having dyed our hair white, painted wrinkles on our faces and clutching a couple of walking sticks. We said to the receptionist, “Tell the Creative Director that two old men have come to see him.” The story went round like wildfire, they all thought it was hilarious and the next day they hired us.
Portfolio Night: Talk about your early years in the industry. What were your favorite projects or campaigns? Are there any anecdotes that stand out in memory?
Graham: The advertising world then was full of great characters and stories. There was a lot of fun going on. I remember Tony Kaye started his directing career. He didn’t have money to set up fancy offices, so he famously walked around Soho clutching a layout pad. He called his production company “Wandering Jew.” He took out ads in every national newspaper saying that he was the most important British film director since Alfred Hitchcock. Later, he took a plastic blow up E.T. doll (the Spielberg variety) everywhere he went, and occasionally sent E.T. off to production meetings on his own in a cab. Someone at the other end used to take him out of the cab and prop him up on a seat in the meeting.
It was a fun time but we also worked very hard. Only the very best work was bought by our Creative Directors and in those days, once that happened, the clients nearly always approved it. Well, we did also have Frank Lowe — possibly the greatest ever account man in the world– who could sell any piece of work.
Portfolio Night: Who is or was your biggest mentor?
Graham: I had a few, from Paul Arden to Tim Mellors, Tony Kaye, Neil Godfrey, Peter Saville, and the list goes on…
Portfolio Night: Tell me about your days at Paul Weiland. What coolest thing you worked on there?
Graham: Paul was a great ad man. He had written some of the best and funniest ads in British advertising and had directed half of them, too, following very much in the path of Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone, The Commitments). Paul made some of the best and funniest commercials in the UK in the 80’s and 90’s, and gave me a lot of help in my early days directing.
I remember doing one spot for PPP, a private health insurance company. I wanted to shoot the whole commercial in X-ray, which was then impossible to do as a moving image. So I went to Heathrow airport and we put all these objects through the X-ray machine hundreds of times at every possible angle to create a database of images… the most unusual one being the skeleton of a man! Jon Hollis at Smoke and Mirrors (post house) then spent weeks putting the whole thing together to make it look as though it was all moving. We even created the effect of focus pulls. It was pretty incredible at the time and won a lot of awards.
Portfolio Night: Being the youngest ever President of D&AD is an incredible honor. What did this mean to you?
Graham: I was very proud to be voted in as President by my peers. I worked so hard not to let everyone down. One thing I introduced was the Art Direction category at D&AD, which is still going today. Another thing I did was to get a few famous names of people outside of advertising to sit on the juries. People like Damian Hirst on music videos (he had directed a few that year), Gilbert and George to judge illustration, and Will Self to sit on the copy jury. Some of the more conservative members of D&AD were outraged, but I didn’t really care. My point was that we all look to some of these people and their work for inspiration for our ideas. So why not include them?
The story became famous and made people outside the business aware of D&AD, and as a result, it raised all the sponsorship money we needed to keep going. In the end, Damian and the others decided not to do it, but I still think it was a good idea.
Portfolio Night: What inspired thefinktank? How does it live on today?
Graham: Thefinktank was, of course, based on my name as no one else could use it. I thought it was funny, especially as everyone used to take the piss out of my name when I was a kid. So it was kind of getting my own back. It was memorable though. It really only exists today as theartschool, which I am trying to do in China. This was an event we used to run every few months, where I invited anyone who wanted to come along for an afternoon of fun, talks, give out briefs and do book crits. We had some amazing speakers; I once got Gary Oldman to talk for three hours about his life and films, and also worked with Francis Ford Coppola. It was fantastic.
Portfolio Night: What are the highlights of your years at M&C Saatchi?
Graham: Building a great creative department and eventually becoming one of the most awarded agencies in London. To top it all off, the press ads I did for Dixons with Simon Dicketts topped the Gunn report in 2010 for most award print campaign in the world. Funny thing was that when I arrived at M&C, no one wanted to work on it!
Portfolio Night: What brought you to Ogilvy in China? What interested you about the market and opportunity there, and ultimately enticed you to leave London?
Graham: I was very happy at M&C Saatchi, but the phone rang one day and a headhunter told me about this job in Shanghai, overseeing 17 offices in China. It seemed a crazy idea at the time, and the fact I knew very little about place all appealed to me. I’m always telling people to get out of their comfort zone, so I decided to get out of mine. To date, I have no regrets.
Portfolio Night: Now that you are there, what are the most surprising things about the industry in China? What is the best thing about it?
Graham: I am surprised by how much the Chinese look up to Western brands. They have a big appeal. There are luxury brands stores in all the big cities, and Chinese people are prepared to pay extra money for them. This is interesting as local wages are not that high. A lot of shopping is done online, however, and people spend twice as much time there as they do in the USA.
I’m also surprised how rational most of the advertising is. Chinese consumers want to know what everything does and how it works, what’s in it for them and what not. But this is at the expense of perhaps more interesting, witty advertising with more emotional messages (although there recently seems to be a swing in that general direction).
But I believe that advertising is a means of educating people, too. Ogilvy has a very big reputation here, so I think we have a duty to put work out there that challenges people and makes them sit up and take notice. I’m always very aware that what we do has the power to change people’s behaviors, and thus change culture.
Portfolio Night: What are your goals for Ogilvy China in the next six months to a year?
Graham: I look after a number of offices here, but Shanghai and Beijing are the main focus right now. I’m making a lot of changes, especially in Shanghai, both to the restructuring of the agency and also around hiring new people. It’s about getting the right balance of expats and local talent. I want us to produce great work on famous brands, and work that will get people in China talking. Work like the CokeHands poster, which took a lot of seeking on my part, as I had to call every school in Hong Kong to find the young designer, Jonathan Mak, who designed CokeHands (he also created the Steve Jobs tribute design last fall).
Portfolio Night: Tell me a bit about the work and clients in China and your goals for both.
Graham: We have a great range of clients. Some are international, some are local. There are a lot of opportunities here to produce great work if we earn the trust from our clients. Local clients want highly creative work, but sometimes it’s a matter of helping them understand how to get it.
Advertising here is pretty new compared to the rest of the world. There is a different set of problems here. China being so vast is one of them. What works in the North of the country may not work in the South, East or West. The audience is less sophisticated. They tell me local clients are very tough, but I’ve seen equally tough clients in London. It’s a case of being patient and earning great working relationships with them. I’m optimistic that we can produce work that will trouble juries in Cannes in the next few years.
Portfolio Night: Across all disciplines, careers and specific jobs, what is the coolest project or campaign you ever worked on?
Graham: Sony Playstation. I produced a poster that was basically a microscopic shot of blood. If you looked closely at the image, you could see that the blood cells were in the shapes of circles, crosses, triangles and squares. It won a lot of awards. The best thing about it though was it was MY BLOOD. I went to the hospital and they took an armful of the red stuff, and I then retouched in the symbols. I always say I give blood for my work. In this case it was literally true.
Portfolio Night: What is the gadget you cannot live without?
Graham: My Lego watch.