On the Spot: Ross Sutherland

Born in New Zealand, Sutherland cut his teeth in Asia, landing in the U.S. in 1983. His dry wit is still peppered with colloquialisms from his home town of Auckland. He worked at Hal Riney and D’Arcy Masius Ben ton & Bowles, but made his mark during two tours at Ogilvy & Mather with elegant work for Jaguar. In 1999, Jim Ferguson recruited him to Young & Rubicam as a group creative director overseeing Sony and AT&T. Outside of work, Suther land, 51, says he enjoys doing “nothing.” —Interviewed by Andrew McMains

Q. Who had the greatest influence on your career?
A. David Ogilvy. I spent a lot of time with him over the years.

Q. And what did you learn from him?
A. To find out what it is that con sumers want to hear, not what clients want to say.

Q. What’s the dumbest thing a client ever said to you?
A. Years ago, I was showing a client an estimate for printing. I said, “So, it’s four-color printing.” And he said, “No. Wait a minute. Stop. I don’t care how much it costs, I want all the colors.”

Q. How come you tend to gravitate toward big agencies?
A. They have more muscle, deeper resources. There are times, though, I’ve been in big agencies that are fast becoming small agencies.

Q. You’ve worked at big agencies and have been successful at it.
A. I don’t know if I was successful at D’Arcy, because a steady diet of, like, groceries to advertise gets you down. It’s a pretty good agency, actually, financially. It’s just that they adver tise a lot of products you don’t even want to touch, let alone use. You know?

Q. Who’s your favorite ad character?
A. Actually, I like Hal Riney.

Q. That’s not what I meant, but …
A. Oh … and Charlie the Tuna! Well, Hal will be pleased that he has taken on the mantle of a character.

Q. Why did you leave Hal Riney?
A. Green card. Because Hal stole the agency back, or away, from Ogilvy & Mather, and Ogilvy & Mather was the sponsor of my green card. So I was left in San Francisco with my plonker in my hand. That’s how come I ended up in New York.

Q. Who’s the most underrated shop?
A. Probably us. You know, I really believe that. The perception is that we’re floundering, that we’re not particularly creative. And I think we’ve got a really good reel, and we’ve done a lot of pretty high-profile work we don’t get much credit for. The biggest gap between perception and reality is ours.

Q. Is the perception true at all?
A. There’s always a modicum of truth in perception. Reality and perception probably lag each other by about a year and a half. A few years ago the work was terrible. Ferg and every body who works for Ferg have made an enormous difference to the quality of the ideas. Production was always pretty good, but it was beautifully produced nothing. Now it’s really good fucking campaigns. But most people think we do schlock.

Q. What’s Jim like as a boss?
A. The best, absolutely the best. Lots of help when you need it, autonomy, very supportive. Could do with a haircut. No, I love Jim. That’s why I came here. He doesn’t take every thing too seriously. He knows what he’s talking about. And you never leave his office going, “Gee, I wonder what he meant.”

Q. Tell me something about him that would surprise me.
A. Here’s the career-ending ques tion! He loves Broadway musicals. He is obsessed with them.

Q. What are your impressions of Martin Sorrell?
A. Martin’s as smart as a whip. It’s not easy to make Martin laugh, although the last conversation I had with him was about Monty Python. So that’s encouraging, isn’t it?

Q. What was the dumbest decision you ever made?
A. There are so many. Probably going back to Ogilvy & Mather. Not because it’s a horrible agency, but I should have known from past experience, you really can’t go back.

Q. Do you have a personal motto?
A. I do. And it comes from—not to sound all hairy and Scottish—the Sutherland clan motto. It translates as, “You can kill us, but you can’t bend us.” [Smiling] I’m not the most flexible person.