Described by Britain’s Campaign magazine as a “unicorn” in the communications industry, Matt has overseen some of the most innovative and recognizable creative projects in advertising today. His career has spanned numerous agencies, specialties and countries, including Australia, the UK and US. Having spent three years at DDB earlier in his career, Matt rejoined DDB Australia in 2006 as National Creative Director and Vice Chairman. He then joined DDB New York in 2010 as Chief Creative Officer up until mid 2014, where he transitioned over to JWT as Worldwide CCO which is the position he retains today.
During his seven-year career with DDB, the agency has been named Campaign Brief Agency of the Year, Australian Creative Hotshop, Adnews Agency of the Year, B&T Agency of the Year, Spikes Network of the Year, and Campaign magazine Network of the Year. DDB New York is currently Creativity magazine’s “2013 Agency to Watch”.
WHAT COURSE DID YOU STUDY AFTER HIGH SCHOOL, AND WHAT ARE THREE THINGS YOU BENEFITED MOST AND THREE THINGS YOU BENEFITED LEAST AFTER COMPLETING IT?
I studied Graphic Design, majoring in Advertising at Curtin University. And, whilst I was probably one of the better students, I certainly wasn’t the best. It was only after I finished studying that I realized that being the top student didn’t really matter. Being the most driven student was the important thing. I think I always “wanted it” more than anyone else. Ultimately, that’s what’s made the difference in my career.
Three years of study also taught me a lot about craft. I got to understand (and love) typography. I learnt about photography; shooting and developing my own photographs. And I minored in Illustration, which really helped round out my skills. The only thing they could have done better was to provide access to the industry. Only during AWARD School (which I did in the 3rd year of my degree) did I get to see what the job was really like. I met real, working creatives. And learnt so much from just talking to them.
AS A STUDENT, DID YOU HAVE A DEFINING MOMENT OF KNOWING THAT PURSUING A LIFE AS A CREATIVE WAS YOUR CALLING? IF SO, WHAT WAS IT?
I’m one of the lucky ones; I knew what I wanted to do from the age of 13. For me, it was always about advertising. I think I have Darren Stevens from Bewitched to thank for that.
What “big idea” driven design have you seen that truly resonated and created a reaction within you?
For me, the entire Japanese brand MUJI is an incredible design idea. MUJI is all about simplicity – but a simplicity achieved through a complexity of thought and design. In its deliberate pursuit of the pure and the ordinary, it achieves the extraordinary.
WHAT HAVE BEEN THE REAL HIGHS AND LOWS IN YOUR EARLY CREATIVE CAREER?
One of the biggest lows of my career was followed by one of the biggest highs. I was working at JMA/Ogilvy & Mather in Perth, after about 3 years in the industry. JMA/Ogilvy & Mather was the reigning Agency of the Year at the time, so I couldn’t have been happier. I was working on great accounts, had a great partner, and was doing great work. But, one afternoon, out of the blue, I was called into the Managing Director’s office and let go. I won’t lie, I was extremely upset. I cried to my parents that night. I thought I’d done everything right so I couldn’t understand why I’d been fired.
Cut to three weeks later at the PADC Awards, Perth’s big advertising show. After winning a few awards during the night, one of my TV spots went on to win Best of Show. It was one of the most exciting moments of my career, sandwiched right up against one of the worst. Luckily, that very night, I was offered a job at an award-winning Sydney agency. Only a few weeks later, it was announced that JMA/Ogilvy & Mather was going into bankruptcy. I later found out that management had actually fired some of their favorite people first so that they would be guaranteed their final paycheck. Those that stayed on until the end were caught up in legal wranglings with the now bankrupt company.
The entire incident taught me a lot. I’ve been fired again since. But I’ve learnt not to take it personally. It’s just business.
WHAT PRACTICAL ACTION STEPS CAN YOU SUGGEST TO YOUNG DESIGNERS STARTING OUT IN THE INDUSTRY ABOUT IMPROVING THEIR SKILL SET?
Don’t stop studying just because you’ve graduated. You have to keep learning and growing. Enroll in short courses. Go to museums and exhibitions. Read books. And gather stuff. Links, pictures, magazines; whatever it is that catches your eye. I have a folder on my computer called “Interesting Stuff”. It’s where I keep ideas, photos, ads, typography; anything that excites me visually. I’m constantly diving back in there for reference and inspiration.
WHEN HIRING A DESIGNER, WHAT ARE THE MANDATORIES AND ALSO OUTSTANDING QUALITIES YOU LOOK FOR WHEN VIEWING THEIR PORTFOLIO?
I have a very simple hiring philosophy. You must be talented and nice. You can be the most talented person in the world, but if you’re an asshole, you’re not getting in the door. In terms of the talent part, though, I get inspired when I see a portfolio that shows me something new. I don’t want to see someone who just does a good job at reproducing the design vernacular du jour. I’m also interested in your influences; that tells me a lot about your taste level.
WHEN INTERVIEWING A DESIGNER, WHAT MAIN CHARACTERISTICS ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?
The main thing I look for is passion. Passion trumps talent every time. (Although you have to have talent, too.) You have to truly love what you do. People who genuinely love what they do always have personal projects bubbling away. That’s what I look for. Are you designing your own typeface on the side, do you have a photography tumblr, are you illustrating your own book?
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY FOR STUDENTS TO GET IN TOUCH WITH CREATIVE DIRECTORS AND GET NOTICED?
The best way to get my attention is send me a link to a beautiful portfolio site. Not too much, because I don’t have the time. But not so little that I can’t get a sense of who you are. And if you send me an email, send me an email. Don’t send me a generic form letter that just substitutes my name for someone else’s. Take the time to write to me personally. It makes a difference.
FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE, WHAT IS THE CREATIVE PROCESS YOU FOLLOW THAT ALLOWS YOU TO EFFECTIVELY PROBLEM SOLVE CLIENT BRIEFS?
For me, design is about story telling. And the story is usually within the brief. But I always pay close attention to what the client is saying, not just what’s written in their brief. It’s often in the nuances of how they describe what they’re looking for that you will find the answer. Clients struggle to buy work just because it’s “elegant” or “cool”. When you present back your ideas, don’t just show the work, tell them the story.
WHAT IS THE ONE BOOK THAT CHANGED YOUR LIFE THE MOST?
Tibor by Tibor Kalman is one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read. I love his work, but I also love his thought process.
CAN YOU IMPART SOME FINAL WORDS OF WISDOM TO DESIGN STUDENTS AND GRADUATES FINDING IT DIFFICULT TO GET A JOB IN THE INDUSTRY?
My first job in the industry was completely different to what I set out to find. I graduated from University planning to be an Art Director. But I struggled to find a job. I interviewed for about 4 months with no luck. Everyone loved my work, but there were no openings. Finally, I saw an ad for an agency looking to hire a Senior Copywriter. I wasn’t a Copywriter, and I certainty wasn’t senior. But I knew I had good ideas in my book so I thought “what the hell”; go for it. I got that job and I’ve been a Copywriter ever since.
It’s not like all my skills as an Art Director went away, I still used them everyday. I just had a different title on my business card. You need to be open. The important thing is that you find an opportunity that lets you do what you love, even it’s not what you thought you were looking for.
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