Brett Howlett On The Spot

As the top creative at M&C Saatchi in New York, Brett Howlett admits that the 10-year-old network has been slow to build a substantial U.S. presence. And with the New York office’s largest client in review, he has his work cut out for him in the second half. But he’ll get help from all 14 offices to defend the global account, run from London. Howlett, 44, joined the independent agency in September from IPG’s Deutsch, where he worked on Bank of America. He began his career at a graphics shop in Melbourne, Australia, until the lure of a more “exciting” life in advertising caught his attention. —

Q: Is there something distinctively British about the culture of your agency?

A: It’s not just British, it’s Australian. The Australian attitude is, if you want to get something done, don’t wait to find someone with that task on their business card—roll up your sleeves and get the job done. The British aspect is that we don’t need to organize another meeting to get something done—very non-American. Many agencies here will organize a meeting at the drop of a hat.

M&C has yet to make its mark in the U.S. Why is that?

The main problem has been that we were a travel-client-heavy agency in the beginning, starting with British Airways. The agency all but died after 9/11 [when] everything travel-related stopped…. It turned into a satellite agency. So in January, we decided to position ourselves as M&C Saatchi North America in conjunction with the L.A. office. We share resources with them and with our Sydney office. We’re trying to operate as more of a network.

Even after 10 years, many perceive the agency to be still living in the shadow of Saatchi. Will that ever change?

Maurice and Charles made the decision to keep the name Saatchi. It will eventually be defined by how smart it is and its work in this market. We’ve had a London-centric view as an agency here for too long.

Even domestic agencies have a hard time exporting their brands within the U.S. Do you think it’s that much harder for a non-American shop like M&C Saatchi?

No. It’s not about exporting a product. It’s about knowing the market you’re in.

Why did British Airways go into review?

I can’t talk about British Airways. But I feel very positive about the future.

What do you think of JetBlue and its ads?

JetBlue has done extraordinarily well. They come across as being very single-minded. No frills but very comfortable. The way they communicate that is very effective.

Tell me how you came up with the new British Airways campaign.

One good thing about advertising is that it is strategic. It’s not like standing in front of a piece of art and having everyone tell you different things about how they see it. It’s far less subjective than art. [British Airways] wanted to find a way of adding value to what they offer. So it’s not just cheap seats; it’s not just, “Wow, man, we could afford to go just for the weekend to London.” It’s, “I want to go with them because they know London better than anyone else.”

How many airlines will go out of business during the next year?

It’ll be interesting to see whether this market will allow any of them to go out of business. When Australian Airlines was going under, they just went under. It was like, “OK, bye.” Here, they keep seeming to go under, but then they never do.

What is the difference between British and American advertising?

The difference is between the spirit of just trying something and first running it up the flagpole. The power of ROI and research-driven solutions is more a part of the American agency fabric. It’s as much an indication of the marketplace as the culture.

Can you name the last campaign that made you think, “I wish I had done that”?

The original Hewlett-Packard spots that showed a thief being dragged through the streets of Paris by a cursor. It was just incredibly smart. The other is [Honda’s] “Cog.”

How do you get past a creative block?

I just keep going. They say you should go for a walk, refresh your head. Drink. [Laughter] Drinking’s probably the worst thing.

What’s on your nightstand?

Diary by Chuck Palahniuk, which I just finished. A book called Everything You Never Wanted Your Children to Know About Sex and Were Afraid They’d Ask, which is a great book and something we all should have been given when we were young. Having a 10-year-old, it’s about that time. And then [a Buddhist] Little Book of Wisdom, believe it or not.

Are you a Buddhist?

No. If I were anything, I’d be a Buddhist.

What’s the most important lesson you learned from your parents?

That money isn’t everything. They were both very blue-collar workers and managed to make the money they had go impossibly far.

M&C Saatchi is not exactly a force in New York. So what attracted you?

It was all possibility. The opportunity to grow something with a pretty solid base.

What would you like to be able to say about M&C Saatchi New York a year from today?

That we are that perfect balance of a small, nimble, creative agency in a global network.

What will it take for M&C Saatchi New York to be as big a force in the U.S. as in London?

New business. Everything is in the right place; we just need to get our name out there.