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Deep Dive 8 Nov 2021 - 10 min read

Advertising Hall of Fame: Sarah Barclay, Faie Davis first two Australian women inductees ever with tales of inventing Singapore Girl, blokes doing feminine hygiene, badly; Warren Brown reveals a fateful moment with Brad Pitt

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne

Advertising legends Faie Davis, Warren Brown and Sarah Barclay: "Be brave, bold, honest, think on your feet – and change the system from within."

Advertising legends Faie Davis and Sarah Barclay have been inducted to the AWARD Advertising Hall of Fame, the first two women ever to have made the list. Even an agency – The Campaign Palace – was inducted before a woman made the hallowed halls. Joining them on the list of greats is Warren Brown, founder of BMF. The three have stories to tell spanning six decades, from co-creating Singapore Girl and Not Happy Jan, unleashing tampon ads with blood, not blue liquid, to winning the AFL account when the boss told them not to bother trying – and entering the Australian vernacular with the results. Plus how unleashing the oldest toad in the pond stunk out a Levi's shoot, but led to a beautiful friendship with Brad Pitt.

What you need to know:

  • Faie Davis was a co-creator of the iconic Singapore Girl – though she admits it probably wouldn’t fly today – and the first female board director in the 1970s at Ogilvy & Mather. She spent years in Asia and then in the US with Ogilvy San Francisco before returning to Australia to launch her own agency, DDI Adworks. From the late 1960s, she gave the mad men a run for their money.
  • Sarah Barclay had a big hand in iconic Australian ads from the late 80s to early 2000s, including Antz Pantz and Not Happy Jan, before heading to the US to run P&G for JWT, taking in BBDO and Saatchis along the way, while "taking the piss" out of "pastel pink" US tampon ads and annoying "the church and the right wing" for kicks – and a shedload of awards.
  • Warren Brown, the B in BMF, cut his teeth in London, becoming one of the most awarded creatives in the UK before returning to the Campaign Palace and then co-founding his own agency, which became a creative powerhouse. Losing 20 per cent of his brain to a stroke leaves him more creative instinct than most – and Brown has relearned the ability to tell a ripping yarn.
  • The three unpack their greatest ads, closest scrapes and what drives them – with some powerfully simple words of wisdom for those that still want to make great ads.

Faie Davis: Gave the mad men a run for their money

Faie Davis, now 80 but sharp as a tack, was a co-creator of the iconic Singapore Girl – though she admits it probably wouldn’t fly today – and the first female board director in the 1970s at Ogilvy & Mather. Davis was the first woman in Australia to establish her own ad agency, DDI Adworks, in the 80s with brands from Ella Baché and Louis Vuitton jumping on board. And in the 90s she convinced the Sydney Swans to take their kit off for a sunscreen ad with the immortal line “protect your largest organ”. Suffice to say it delivered significant sales lift.

Here’s a tiny fraction of what she got up to.

The French connection

There was once a rumour circulating at Batey Advertising that Davis had eloped to Paris with a photographer, and that shooting an ad for Singapore Airlines in London had been a ruse – that there never was a London campaign.

The rumour was half right, says Davis.

“The no campaign part is true. We had employed a very famous photographer, one of the top three in the world, and he had come all the way to Singapore to shoot a campaign on a live plane, which cost a million dollars a day to do back then.

“Unfortunately, when I went to London to collect all the work the photographer, meant to be meeting me at the airport, didn't show. His assistant came instead, to tell me he'd been unfortunately detained in Paris.

“I said, ‘oh well, I’ll see you in the morning and collect the pictures’. The assistant looked decidedly glum.”

The next morning, it turned out that only half the frame on all the reels had come out. “The assistant tried to blame the damage on the x-ray machine. But he’d failed to synchronise the shutter with the flash on one side, so we only got half the frame.”

The upshot was that Davis had to try and reshoot the campaign with no money, no photographer and no plane - in the middle of 1970s London, oil-starved on a three day week, without the boss finding out.

“The reason [the agency] thought I’d absconded with the photographer was that every time they tried to reach me, they had realised the photographer I was meant to be meeting was in Paris. So they immediately assumed that I was in Paris being romantic.”

Finding a plane in 24 hours

Scurrilous rumour was the least of Davis' worries. While her local agent was “swarming with photographers that realised I needed something shooting in a clandestine way before anyone found out”, finding a plane was a different challenge.

“But then this wonderful woman came in and said, ‘I believe you have a bit of a problem Faie. I know you’ve been seeing lots of lovely photographers. My photographer’s name is Johnny and I know he’s not your sort of photographer – but I can get you a plane.’”

The woman had connections at the J. Arthur Rank studio in Soho.

“So we built the plane out of parts in the studio in Frith Street and shot it with a photographer whose work looks like Helmut Newton’s, certainly not like Sarah Moon, a photographer we were emulating at the time. But that was the trade-off and it worked.”

Did she get away with it?

“I got away with it with the client. Of course I didn’t get away with it with Ian Batey.”

Protect your largest organ

By 1976, Davis was the first female board member at Ogilvy in Australia. After some years at Ogilvy’s San Francisco office, she returned to Australia to set up her own agency, DDI Adworks in 1987, running DDI Filmworks in parallel and directing may of her clients ads. The roster included Ella Baché and New Woman magazine.

But Davis thinks a campaign for a sunscreen brand was her most memorable – it involved getting the Sydney Swans to take their kit off and “judicious” placement of the product.

“I’ve got a son who is a professional fisherman. Being a bloke, he didn’t seem to look after his skin very well, and to try and get him to use sunscreen was impossible,” says Davis. But a new factor 50 presented an opportunity.

“I thought it would be excellent to try and aim that at men so that women would buy it for them. And for some unbelievable reason, I decided to use the Swans and take their clothes off. And the line was ‘Protect your largest organ’, because nobody in those days knew that the largest organ of your body was your skin,” says Davis. “So they stripped down and held judiciously paced mock-ups of the product in front of them.”

Davis was allowed to choose the members for the ad by “sitting in the stand with binoculars and saying ‘number two, number six,’ and so they all came flooding to the studio.”

Some were a little pale. “So I had this make-up artist who had to try and tint the skin of these boys so they all looked exactly the same shade. It was the funniest shoot I have ever been on, as their private parts were sort of shifted to the left and to the right to accommodate this woman with a little sponge,” says Davis.

The ad became a poster. “It sold out and my son has never stopped using it since. A lot of sportspeople have used it. In fact, it upped the ante of selling to males to look after their skin – I can’t remember what the percentage was, but it was absolutely phenomenal.”

Be brave, be original and be honest. Without those three things as the basis on which to build whatever you want to build, then it becomes vacuous.

Faie Davis

Driving diversity since 1987

Davis launched DDI Adworks aiming to create ads that weren’t skewed by a male dominated industry, by hiring a diverse set of thinkers – and lots of women.

“I felt that the skew on female products … luxury goods, fashion, skin care, all of those sorts of things, weren't being looked at in the way in which would be accepted by women because they were written by men.” Especially when it came to feminine hygiene. “It was just so ludicrous. I was sitting at meetings sometimes and watching men discussing personal feminine hygiene and thinking, ‘why are they even trying to bother? They don't even know what it's all about.’

“I thought this has got to change. It wasn’t so much about hiring female people, but trying to get the industry to look at a different way of communicating with women – more relatable and always based on an emotional premise, because no one's bored into buying anything and nobody buys anything unless they have an emotional need first. So like-minded souls came to see me because they wanted to be part of this.”

Davis’ advice for women – or anyone – advice on how to get ahead in advertising, it is “do your homework on how you feel about the people you are approaching, so that if you do get knocked back, you’ve done your homework as to why you want to be there and what you can bring to the table.”

“I found that if you do your homework first and you really have some sort of affinity with the place that you want to go to work there, and the people that you want to work with, you've got a much better chance of being accepted.”

Her tips for industry leaders and emerging talent?

“Just three things, which was what we all tried to live by at my agency: Be brave, be original and be honest. Without those three things as the basis on which to build whatever you want to build, then it becomes vacuous.”

I wish I'd invested in a research agency a long time ago because everyone defaults to the researchers. Of course, you can research an idea out of being a gold nugget to a piece of shit.

Sarah Barclay

Sarah Barclay: Gave blood, not blue water

Sarah Barclay, the creator of Not Happy Jan and Holeproof Antz Pantz is another of Australia’s greatest creative exports, with talent that took her to New York with BBDO, Saatchi & Saatchi and JWT – although never as chief creative officer. Instead, at the latter, Barclay watched ten blokes get the gig ahead of her.

She thinks more women would rise to top creative roles if more women were doing the hiring.

“While I was there, which was ten years, there were ten different CCOs, all of whom were male and all of whom lasted maybe a year or 14 months,” says Barclay.

Not that she was desperate to be a CCO. “But I certainly would have liked to have been able to decline the offer. But it was men hiring themselves.”

But Barclay did have the Big Man on her side – literally.

“I was invited to the Saatchi Creative Board meeting, which was held in Rome. “And not only were we invited to the Castel Sant'Angelo, all candles and beautiful food for 20 of us, we also got a private viewing of the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican – because we had the Papal account.”

I can't believe people are still working out that a creative idea is actually what's going to make people interested and look at their product or service. It's been that way forever. We had effectiveness back then – it was effective if the product or the service sold. It's not like it's a light bulb moment. It's always been that people will take notice of something that interests them or intrigues them.

Sarah Barclay

Dragging tampon ads into the third millennium

Barclay has a full appreciation for Faie Davis’ horror at the male take on feminine hygiene products, given she did the hard yards on P&G while at JWT, becoming the scourge of brand managers that thought tampon ads should feature floral palettes and blue water.

“I was laughing [at Davis’ comment] because some of my finest work has been done for feminine hygiene, across my three decades in the industry. One of the ads we did in Australia had a woman mopping up what looked like it could be water – or blood – on the floor, as she dumped a man’s body down a shoot. That was for Libra Fleur, to show how good the absorption was,” says Barclay.

“I remember showing some of the Americans – because I worked on U by Kotex in the US – and they were just aghast that anything like that could happen on television. They were still doing blue liquid and women twirling white skirts. Which we had a lovely time taking the piss out of and did some amazing work that was very well awarded – and dragged the American market kicking and screaming into the 2000s.”

Barclay says that was aided and abetted by a brave client, who helped design the packs, “which were black – this is the land of pastel pink turned on its head. And he said, ‘Sarah, I want you to piss off the right wing and maybe the church.’ I said, ‘I’m your girl, let me at it.’ And we did.”

I think the problem with advertising that I can see that has changed over the years is that the economists, the money men have won. And I think people are much more risk averse.

Sarah Barclay

Prior to the US, Barclay had already made her name in Australia – with ads that entered the vernacular in Not Happy Jan in 2000 via Clems Melbourne, and 11 years earlier with Antz Pants with the Campaign Palace.

She says the latter was pre-GCI and involved “taping ants to some fishing line in a triangle with an ‘ant wrangler’ sitting under the bed, underneath Tonya Bird, the fabulous woman in it, trying to make the ants that we threw onto Tonya follow the little triangle of fishing wire with… dead glued ants. There was no member of the RSPCA there,” says Barclay.

These days, Barclay is trying to rebalance karma by working with animal rescue organisation Wires, amongst other things. “I’m giving back after I killed those five ants.”

She may yet be drawn out of her “perhaps permanent” sabbatical, and for Mi3’s money, would make a formidable politician.

“I think we need a revolution across the world in so many disciplines. It is incredulous to me that we have such ineffectual people leading the country and representing us. The people in power do not represent me at all, and I’m sure many people are like-minded,” says Barclay. “As with our industry, I think we just have to speak up and overturn the system, however we can.”

In the meantime, she offers the following advice for leaders and emerging advertising talent: “Be bold, be brave and be truthful to yourself. Don’t shy away from what you believe in, even if you are told we can’t take risks. We just have to change the system from within.”

I had a bit of a rumble going on, but I was about 100 meters from the set, so I though, ‘I’m pretty safe, no one's going to hear anything out here. It echoed across the set. The Brazilian model screamed. Brad stopped mid-shot. It broke up the whole set. The producer was screaming.

Warren Brown

Warren Brown: Took risks that occasionally backfired, sometimes paid off

Warren Brown sold his panel van and headed off to London in 1980 with little formal ad training. Down to his last £30 and surviving solely on Guinness and chips, he finally landed a job. Brown then became – at one stage – the most awarded creative in the UK and one of the world's best creatives, full stop.

Returning to Australia he spent three years with The Campaign Palace before co-founding BMF, which still operates today under Enero ownership. Brown’s body of work includes kicking huge goals for the AFL – an account he retained for the Palace based on ignoring his boss and winning an Aussie Rules Premiership (at under-15s level) – and for Australian beef and lamb. Both are world renowned, as are his stories, including the time he became best mates with Brad Pitt after dropping an air biscuit so loud it killed a Levi’s shoot.

Brown says he started his own agency because it was a culture shock coming back to Australia and finding so few women creatives employed by agencies – compared to the “buzzing” Soho of the eighties. Thus BMF was born. But his stories are distinctly blokier than the other two inductees.

An ill wind, a warm friendship

“I was doing a Levi’s ad down near the Mexican border,” he says of what has since become known as the Pitt ice breaker. “It was down near the Edwards Base, where all the top guns and jets are. And there’s this really crappy bar down there called Irma’s. All the pilots would go there and we’d drink lots of beer, play pool and eat beans. And so Brad’s scene the next morning was kissing a Brazilian sort of thing. I thought, I don’t have to get up too early to watch Brad kiss a model.

“So I slept in a bit and got up and walked across to the set. I had a bit of a rumble going on, but I was about 100 meters from the set, so I though, ‘I’m pretty safe, no one's going to hear anything out here.’”

He wasn’t safe.

“It deafened. It echoed right across the set. The Brazilian screamed, Brad stopped mid shot, and it broke up the whole set – the producer was screaming.”

But it was the start of a friendship.

“I went up to apologise to Brad afterwards. He said, ‘I was a bit nervous about doing this ad. But when I heard you fart, I’m home.’ He’s just a country boy, and we got on fabulously well after that – we used to fly around in private planes,” says Brown. “I’ve done so many stupid things in my life that went wrong – that’s just a quick one.”

But as all three inductees say, taking risks – even if they literally backfire – is what separates the great for the good, along with making your own luck. Brown’s work for the AFL, a client he kept for the Campaign Palace, bears that out.

I’d like to see that: Winning the AFL, meeting heroes

“The CEO of the Campaign Palace said ‘don’t waste your time with the AFL, they’re a waste of space, they haven’t got any money.’ And I said, ‘well, I’ll pitch for it’. And he said, ‘no, don’t bother.’ So I thought, ‘well, I’ll do it anyway.’

Brown wrote a script and sent it down to Melbourne. “They said, ‘all right, we may as well throw it in, but forget it, it will never come to anything’.”

It did come to something. The idea was ‘I’d like to see that’, with the idea of the world’s elite athletes marvelling at Aussie Rules and its players’ skill, power and endurance.

“They pitched about 12 agencies, and my script won. And then nothing happened for a while.”

Then came a stroke of luck. Carl Lewis, the world’s fastest man, was in Melbourne. “They said, why don’t you shoot one of those?” So he did.

“I had Carl Lewis, but we didn’t have a director, didn’t have anything, basically. So I thought ‘oh well’ and just did a backdrop, had it painted down in Melbourne and flew down and I filmed it with Carl Lewis the next morning,” says Brown. “He had his shirt off, looked really good, said a few lines and he was okay. And the paint was still wet on the backdrop.”

Nothing much happened until a few months later.

“In the end, they said ‘we need some more of those stars. What other stars do you want to use?’ So I just starting writing down all the superstars that I wanted to meet – all the best people."

Because Carl Lewis had done it, the best sports stars on the planet agreed – including John McEnroe, Evander Holyfield and Ian Wright.

"So I rolled my backdrop into a big tube and carted it around America, the UK and everywhere and directed all these ads and put it together – and it all just dropped into place. So I did the ad, it ran, and then the next day and within hours, I think it was one of the opposition MPs, said '[Paul Keating a Prime Minister?] I’d like to see that’." 

And it sort of went into the vernacular within hours. People still use it – and that was in 1994.”

Meanwhile AFL attendance soared (read this article for the full story of what Brown's campaigns achieved).

Craft is absolutely critical. If you've got something really good, you can do an ordinary job and still get by. But you really do help it a lot with the right level of craft. And when I say craft, I mean editing. Don't keep chucking more stuff at it. Just edit, edit, edit. The craft is to edit as much as you possibly can and leaving the idea to breathe and blossom.

Warren Brown

Craft nuggets, don't let 'experts' kill them

Brown hopes the story convinces people in advertising today not to give up. But he urges everyone – and anyone – to hone their craft.

“Craft is absolutely critical. If you've got something really good, you can do an ordinary job and still get by. But you really do help it a lot with the right level of craft. And when I say craft, I mean craft is editing. Don't keep chucking more stuff at it. Just edit, edit, edit. The craft is to edit as much as you possibly can and leaving the idea to breathe and blossom.”

Meanwhile, Brown urges marketers and their supply chain to respect the “primacy” of the creative nugget instead of paying an army of researchers and latterly, scientists, to figure out what makes up creative effectiveness. He thinks that is over-complicating things.

“The industry changed because everybody become really good and smarter at everything else. So everyone thought they had the nugget. Media and everyone else … everyone has become experts in every single department … But it’s a very simple business. You just need a really good idea that’s relevant, interesting, arouses a bit of curiosity and embrace every department of risk in it, because that will help you push it and make it interesting – and people will stick with it,” says Brown. “That's what I believe anyway.”

He thinks advertising will ultimately have to remember that truth.

“It will change. We can't get bored with watching crap for much longer.”

To those trying to get ahead in advertising, Brown offers the following advice:

“These days, it's almost a week at a time, anything’s going to change on you. So I think you have to be quick on your feet. You have to react quickly and don’t get too distracted on something. If you have a conviction or confidence to pursue something, hold onto that. That's good. That keeps you going, basically.”

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