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PwC's Russel Howcroft, ABC nail Mojo documentary. Now to the Creativity Commission to save the future

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

23 September 2019 6min read

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

23 September 2019 6min read

Every CMO, agency, media and tech boss should misappropriate an edict from former Prime Minister Bob Hawke for a compelling ABC documentary covering the legendary, culture-jamming Australian advertising agency Mojo. When Australia took out the 1983 America’s Cup, Hawke said any boss who sacked anyone for taking the day off "was a bum". Same goes for this enlightening Mojo documentary for any industry boss who begrudges their talent for taking an hour off to watch it. Yes, it’s that good. And important.

"95 per cent of five-year olds display high levels of creativity. By the time they leave school it’s under 20 per cent. We actually teach it out of people."

- Russel Howcroft, Chief Creative Officer, PwC

PwC’s chief creative officer Russel Howcroft has his critics – too obsessed about advertising, they say. Too enraptured by ideas and creativity over hard business transformation. Too passionate.

After viewing a pre-launch screening last week of the Howcroft-hatched ABC Mojo documentary, I say whatever (and hats off to Network Ten’s Michael Stanford too, who was a co-conspirator with Howcroft on this one). 

At a time when marketing and advertising – including digital supremos and technologists - are in trench warfare on business credibility, cultural relevance and societal fractures, this is perhaps Australia’s best case for how advertising, done brilliantly, can influence culture, society and economics. The MLA’s Australia Day Lamb series, from the now Accenture-owned Monkeys, is probably as close as we’ll get in the current environment. 

As much as the advertising and marketing industry excels at king-hitting itself, Howcroft passed on some statistics from the ABC: Gruen, a show only about advertising and marketing, has three of the top five rating episodes ever on the public broadcaster, after Kath & Kim. And it’s in Season 11. Howcroft also happens to front that with industry peers.

But here’s the reality. Even if the knockers say Mojo, like Mad Men, was of a bygone era and the industry’s new talent must fixate on data, technology, personalisation and efficiencies over effectiveness and cultural impact, Mojo’s phase in Australian advertising and marketing history holds deep lessons of context and possibility for all. If we could just stop the mindless social media scrolling for an hour and watch and discuss. History holds lessons. 

“I do maybe get a little carried away in that I think they [Mo and Jo] gave us our confidence and that led to the Sydney Olympics ceremony which allowed us to express our Australianness to the world,” Howcroft told a small gathering of Mojo family members, ABC colleagues and industry identities, including former Foxtel CEO Peter Tonagh and former adman and current media and investment board director, Hamish McLennan.

“I genuinely believe Mo and Jo played a massive role in helping us mature as a country, culturally and socially. And yeah, they’re ad guys. They created massive impact and the really good ones, they really do shape society.”


“This is the STEM to STEAM discussion. The A is for arts. In China, that’s already happened from kindergarten to high school.

- Russel Howcroft, Chief Creative Officer, PwC

The pitch to the ABC, says Howcroft, was pretty simple. The two most important cultural voices in Australia “since the invasion” were Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. After that, the documentary sets out to prove the next two were Alan ‘Mo’ Morris and Allan ‘Jo’ Johnston. “Good on the ABC for saying yes to that idea,” says Howcroft.       

Mojo, the documentary, debuts on the ABC and iView on October 1. The industry should drive this thing far and wide. We can’t do any worse than the excuse for inane, shallow, agenda-ridden rubble that we call industry debate today. 


What’s next? Howcroft wants a Creativity Commission

Last year at his National Press Club address, Howcroft called for the creation of a Creativity Commission to build competitiveness and capability, much like the Australian Sports Commission and the Productivity Commission. Indonesia, he says, has a minister for the creative economy, the UK is pushing headlong into the same agenda and China has incorporated creative curriculum through its entire school system to shift from “STEM” competitiveness (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) to “STEAM” – the ‘A’ incorporates the Arts.



Quick question: Is Russel Howcroft right that Australian innovation has suffered due to lack of investment in the creative economy?

As AI bites, the future of work is creative thinking

Howcroft says like it or not, a material chunk of future jobs will be from a broad sweep of the creative industries. “The reason for that is because jobs increasingly are going to be taken by machine learning and AI,” he says. “Even white-collar jobs. There’s real concern around what people are going to do and it’s something which lots of other countries are already addressing. Right now in Indonesia there is a minister for the creative economy. In November last year they actually had the world’s first global conference on the creative economy. If you look at Britain, they’ve always invested in their creative economy because they realise that it's not just a thing about their culture but something that they can export around the world – their creative capabilities. It was fascinating to see the British government at Cannes this year.”

There’s another stat Howcroft raises: Australia is the 15th largest economy in the world but ranked  23rd globally for innovation. “We’ve got highest turnover rate for CEOs, our global competitiveness ranking is at the worst it’s been in a couple of decades and we’ve got a decline in risk taking and a decline in capital going into growth. It’s not all that good.”

Howcroft also notes the world’s first feature-length film was the Ned Kelly story, which filled country tents but then was “basically killed at birth”.

“We need to recognise that creativity is a core driver of our future growth,” says Howcroft. “It’s not something that’s just out there in the sandpit.” Nor is it about ads or advertising, as Howcroft quickly qualifies. ‘If it’s not for us, it’s for our children. The future of work is going to have a high degree of creativity. It’s going to be required by everyone.

"Gruen has three of the top five rating episodes ever on the ABC, after Kath & Kim, and it's about advertising."

- Russel Howcroft, Chief Creative Officer, PwC

What does a Creativity Commission do and look like?

At a “practical level”, Howcroft says a Creativity Commission has to support the growth of the creative economy.

“One of the things it ought to do and maybe the first thing, is to develop a policy paper around creativity in education,” he says. “This is the STEM to STEAM discussion. In China, that’s already happened from kindergarten to high school. We need to make it part of the curriculum – 95 per cent of five-year olds display high levels of creativity. By the time they leave school it’s under 20 per cent. We actually teach it out of people.”

Howcroft says a loosely formed group called the Creative Economy Alliance is working on launching a draft manifesto. From there discussions will advance with business and government. Victoria already has a Creative State Advisory Board and Howcroft says “weirdly, it needs to be institutionalised. I hope there will be general industry momentum behind the idea. It’s critical for economics and culture.”

Standby. In the meantime, watch Mojo.

Let’s go. What do you think?

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

23 September 2019 6min read