Bob Isherwood On The Spot

Chair of the TV and radio jury for this week’s Clio Awards in Miami, Isherwood says he judges ads on originality, relevance and emotional connection. Saatchi & Saatchi’s worldwide creative director has won his share of honors, including Australia’s first gold Lion at Cannes for cinema and an induction into the Clio Hall of Fame (the Clios are owned by Adweek parent VNU). Isherwood, 63, started out as an auto mechanic, at age 13, eventually becoming a graphic designer before segueing into advertising. A native of Australia, he’s worked in Sydney, London and, now, New York.

Q. How did your Clios jury experience this year compare to other judging experiences?

A. A few years back, I was one of the judges with David Droga and Pablo del Campo [of Del Campo Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi in Buenos Aires] and Ami Hasan [of Hasan & Partners in Helsinki]. And all of us swore we would never judge the Clios again—simply because they had one jury for everything. We were staggering from room to room as we judged everything from radio to direct mail. It was a nightmare. This year I was back. And last year David Droga was back. And Ami Hassan was on my jury this year. So that’s testimony to the road the Clios have traveled and how important they’ve become in the international arena.

How did the debate go?

I can’t recall much heated debate. It was interesting; it was one of the best juries I’ve served on. There seemed to be a consistent backlash across the jury on funny ads that just have a product bolted onto the end of them. People have had enough of them. I think the other big news, what came through, were big ideas that were aimed at the public, not just an ad jury—stuff that you’ve seen on air as opposed to those ads that run in the middle of the night.

How was the overall quality of work?

The quality was pretty high. We didn’t think it was very high in the public-service category. And that may represent some creative attention moving away from pro bono and the low-risk product categories, focusing [instead] on bigger ideas for bigger clients.

What inspired you to get into advertising?

Being a motor mechanic. Getting out from under a car became pretty much an imperative. There are two ways of looking at it: You could say I left school at 13. Or that I started school when I went to art school at 16.

What was your first ad?

I started with Young & Rubicam in London when I was 25. My first ad was for posters that went on the trains for Cadbury Fruit & Nut. The line was, “Be a Fruit & Nut case.”

Who had the greatest influence on your career?

Steve Frankfurt. He was creative director of Young & Rubicam in New York, and he came to London a couple of times. Doyle Dane at the time had difficulty, because the philosophy was based on “Every product has something unique about it.” [But] products were becoming more generic. Steve Frankfurt had a different thing—”borrowed interest.” He did amazing campaigns for Johnson & Johnson—”It’s a dirty world.” And the Excedrin headache series. He showed you can be really creative on big packaged-goods accounts.

What was the last ad that made you think, “I wish I’d done that”?

I would like to have done Honda “Cog.” I think it’s groundbreaking. It’s one of those ads that you will look back in 10 years’ time and still reference it. I’d like to have done John West “Bear” for the same reasons.

What the most disappointing creative trend you’ve seen lately?

I don’t really buy into creative-trend theory. What changes with creativity is the means we have to deliver it. And there’s always the risk with the [new] tools that the medium can overtake the message. You end up with work that looks smart but is of little substance. I’m a strong believer in the power of simple ideas, which I think is why the work from Latin America and Asia has done so well in award shows. When you don’t have a lot of money, you’re forced to rely on simplicity.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the business?

Try and work with really good people. To the point of actually picking up your stuff and going to work with people who may not be just down the street. The other thing is, I believe perseverance is a greater attribute than talent. When I was at art school, I was there with people infinitely more talented, but they didn’t persevere. And for me there was no option—I had nowhere else to go.

What is your dream assignment?

Having the ability to do things that are profound, world-changing. I get a lot of pleasure out of our Innovation in Communication award. And we’ve worked for two years with the guide-dog institute in the U.K. to get a new method that helps blind people see.

Who is one person you’re dying to work with?

My partner, Kevin Roberts, is my true partner. He was my client many years ago [at P&G]. He’s a very inspirational guy. We’re a really good team.

What’s your most recent creative coup?

To be the No. 1 network at Cannes by a double margin was pretty cool.

What’s your biggest fear?

Fear itself. I’m afraid of being afraid. I used to do a lot of long-distance, short-handed sailing, and part of that psychology is to push yourself to do things you’re frightened of.

Give me three words to describe yourself.

Inquisitive, restless and, I hope, fair.