"It was a leap of faith and failure wasn't an option": Tom McFarlane

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"It was a leap of faith and failure wasn't an option": Tom McFarlane

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Tom McFarlaneThe latest achievement in M&C Saatchi founding creative director Tom McFarlane's decades long career was to be inducted into the AWARD Hall of Fame. He talks to The Communications Council about the early days of M&C Saatchi, what's kept him going all these years, and talking shop with his daughter Mietta, a copywriter at Droga5 in New York.

TCC: If you had been able to choose the Chairman’s Choice, what would have been your pick?

TM: Very hard to go past Graham, and not just because of sheer weight of trophies, but because of the love that went into that work.  It’s obvious that everyone who contributed to the campaign had genuine passion for the task.

TCC: What’s kept you going all these years to keep producing top quality work?

TM: Paranoia. The fear of ‘losing it’.

I’m sure that’s true of many creative pursuits.  Creative people aren’t a particularly self -confident lot, so we need constant approval.

Perhaps that’s why there are so many award shows!

TCC: What were your early days of M&C Saatchi like?

TM: Crazy. Exciting. Organised chaos. Take your pick. We were growing at such a accelerated pace, we were hiring every week - so we found all sorts of people in unorthodox places and threw them in the deep end.  It was sink or swim. Most swam. Some exceptionally well. The naysayers accused us of being a sweatshop, but those doing the hard yards and long hours loved it. It was definitely work hard, play hard – the parties were legendary.

TCC: What was it like being one of the founding employees?

TM: A bit frightening to be honest. We’d all walked away from well paying jobs in good agencies. Tom Dery and I had also uprooted our families from Melbourne to move to Sydney.

It was a leap of faith and failure wasn’t an option. What excited me was that it was a ‘start-up’ – but with arguably the most famous name in advertising on the front door. Via sheer chutzpah, Tom got us on lists we should never have been on, like McDonalds and ANZ, and we were off and running - winning business with audacity, and I’d like to think great work.

TCC: Why M&C Saatchi after all these years?

TM: Prior to M&C Saatchi, my longest tenure had been six years at DDB, so the prospect of 21 years at one agency would have been beyond comprehension back then. But I never needed to go anywhere else because the place just evolved and grew around me. Every six months it was like a new agency.

TCC: What do you think sets the agency apart from the others?

TM: I think because we all grew up together we shared something very special. Being an ‘M&Cer’ was a bit of a tribal thing. You knew pretty quickly if you fitted in or not. Especially back in the 131Macquarie Street days. I remember concernedly asking a guy who’d resigned after a fortnight if there was a problem with our culture.  He replied, “mate this isn’t a culture, it’s more like a cult!”  

I recall being secretly pleased.  

As we grew it got more challenging, but we always tried to look after our own. I think the amount of people who left, but came back, is testament to that.

TCC: Is there a particular campaign that stays with you to this day that you would say is career defining?

TM: Probably two. Interestingly, both are tourism campaigns.

The first, 100% Pure New Zealand, is now in its 18th year. It’s been acknowledged by dozens of Tourism Award shows and it’s contributed many millions to the NZ economy. Like all good campaigns, it was inspired by a brave client.

The second is ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ for Tourism Australia, which was demonised by one self-serving journalist. However, to my delight, it still lives on in the zeitgeist.  

I’m equally proud of both campaigns.

There are many back stories to the Tourism Australia campaign – not the least is that the client is now the Federal Treasurer and the 17-year-old beach girl who posed that supposedly controversial question to the world is now Lara Worthington.  

I’ve never been into one-off ads, much preferring big campaign-able ideas or platforms as they’re now called. To that end, I’ve got to say that CAN for Commbank would also be a defining piece of work. Not coincidentally, I again had brilliant clients. It’s always the way.

TCC: Do you and Mietta ever talk shop?

TM: A little. But less and less so. She’s carved out her own career, and set her own course. In the early days, she’d show me some of her work and maybe seek my opinion – then studiously ignore it. (Hey, who ever listens to their Dad?) I suppose we do talk about the industry at large and how her world of advertising is very different to the one I inhabited at the same age.

TCC: What are the key things you’ve taught Mietta?

TM: I think one real benefit of being the offspring of somebody in the industry is that you have no delusions about it being glamorous. She has been hanging around advertising agencies since she was a kid so she knows it’s hard graft and that you’ve got to deal with rejection almost everyday. As a result I think she’s quite resilient and has a strong work ethic.

TCC: If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

TM: To spend more time with the best people, the talented ones, the hardworking ones, rather than the reprobates. As a young guy you’re naturally drawn to the ratbags and the crazies – but I now know that you can learn bad habits as quickly as you can learn good habits. So hang with the smart guys.  And if you find a great creative director – attach yourself, and don’t let go.

TCC: What have been your biggest challenges along the way?

TM: Again, confidence. What we do is terrifyingly public.

It’s on TV.

It’s full pages in the SMH.

And these days with digital it’s spread ever further.

I think I always needed people to convince me I could do something. Fortunately I had those people encouraging me along the way.  

The question I’m most asked by young, aspiring creative directors is – “how did you plan your career?”  I suspect I disappoint them with the answer. There was never a plan. No satnav. I just took jobs I thought were interesting and got on with it really.

TCC: What do you think is the industry’s biggest challenge?

TM: Attracting talent. When I started there were few other opportunites if you wanted to make a good living from creativity. There weren’t many other industries vying for your signature. Now there are so many new avenues – all equally creative and in many ways more alluring.

TCC: If you hadn’t got into advertising, what would you have done?

TM: I wanted to be a journalist. In fact I was waiting on the outcome of an application for an ABC cadetship when I got my despatch boy’s job. Advertising was going to be a temporary thing. However I think I made the right choice - for me and journalism.

TCC: What do you think the creative director of the future is like?

TM: I’m not sure she’ll be all that much different. And I say ‘she’ quite deliberately, because I believe there will be more female CD’s. The role has changed vastly in my time. You’re no longer the back room guy steering and hopefully inspiring the creative department, you’re also expected to be business savvy, client facing, something of a technologist, as well as a mentor and the saviour, when no other bastard can think of an idea. It’s a challenging job spec.

TCC: What sort of creative do you think you’ve evolved into?

TM: One of the hardest things for young creatives is the lack of life experience. It’s not their fault, it’s just that they haven’t been around long enough to have developed the worldliness needed to respond to a lot of briefs from grown up clients like banks, or telcos or airlines and so on. However, one good thing about age is that it’s an accumulation of experiences, so you usually have some touch point with whatever brief you get. I’ve had young creatives say, "how can you come up with ideas so fast?" and the answer is that at some point over the years I’ve had that very same brief before.

TCC: What further evolution would you like to achieve?

TM: Right now, I’m thinking de-evolution might be the way to go.

Places are now open for the AWARD School 2018 application workshop, taking place in Sydney on October 21 and Melbourne TBC. The workshop is designed to give hopeful AWARD School students the best chance of acceptance. Book here.

AWARD School Application Workshop