It’s not every day that you wake up to the news that you’ve just won a Cannes Gold Lion for an ad that you came up with. Especially when that news arrives to you while you’re sitting in Perth, from a time-zone on the other side of the planet. Maya Halilovic, writer at Meerkats, then JWT London (now Wunderman Thompson), then Meerkats again, gives her take on a whirlwind couple of weeks.

EDGE: Many young creatives and designers in the Perth PADC dream of going over to the UK or America and ‘making it big’. What was your personal experience of this, and what were the pros and cons of heading off when you did?

HALILOVIC: First off, how good is The Cure’s ‘Disintegration’? I always forget that album exists and then I find it again and I’m like ugh. Yes. Sooth my broody emo soul. My experience of heading over to the UK was pretty extreme, but I guess it makes for a good story. I had just been fired from my first agency job – my boss at the time said I just didn’t have the personality for this industry. I went home and cried. Then I just hit this kind of weird emo Bridget Jones phase pretty hard, eating Doritos and crying to The Smiths for about three days. It wasn’t great. For context: I basically finished dead last in Award School and was a pretty average student, so I already kind of felt like I was on borrowed time career-wise.

Then in the throes of reapplying for my old job at Officeworks and hating the world, I won a D&AD New Blood pencil. It was kind of insane, to go from feeling like advertising’s Quasimodo to receiving four job offers by the end of the week.

D&AD (being the amazing organisation they are) offered to pay for my flights and accommodation to head over to London to take this New Blood workshop. That was probably when it really felt like things had changed – it was like this real moment where suddenly this amazing world of creativity wasn’t just something that happened over there, far away and only to far-away people. So when I went over I just started speaking to everyone and putting my book in front of anyone who seemed like they’d be nice to work for.

Then I got a call back. A major network agency was interested, and when could I move over? I rushed my visa, put down a deposit on a flat in Brixton and weeks later was on a plane. Only when I got there that same agency called to say the role had fallen through. There had been some admin errors and just, y’know, these things happen.

So I worked in café for about 3 or 4 months to pay my rent, whilst trying to get my feet in any door at any agency (note: Christmas is not an ideal time for this to happen). Things got pretty dark. I got to know the healthcare system and several kinds of anti-depressants pretty well. For about 4 months all I did was make coffee, read a lot (like, A LOT) of Lord of The Rings and eat Tesco’s home-brand pizza.

Though it sounds terrible (it was) I really feel like this stage was a good thing retrospectively. When I finally got the chance at JWT, I wasn’t taking any risks – I knew I didn’t have the advertising pedigree of my peers, or their kind of natural wit and humour, but I knew I could work harder. So that’s what I did, partly to prove something and partly not to end up at the employment centre again. 

Can you talk a little bit about your experience of jumping from a small Perth independent like Meerkats to a multi-national network agency like JWT? Do you remember what the shift was like?

I remember being stunned that there was a job and a role for everything. In Perth you’re so used to wearing so many hats and having to play so many roles, I was genuinely surprised when all I had to do was write. I do feel like this perhaps makes some London creatives a little lazy. Perth is a great city to cut your teeth because you really have to fight and graft and you have this ‘do it myself then’ mentality you just don’t get if you start your career in a bigger city, over there you’re just looking for the guy you have hand it over to next.

I was also blown away by the resource. Like no idea was too big. Want to create a Netflix series? Sure, here’s a contact. Change the way people use Spotify? There’s a rep on the phone. Spray paint 5 elephants pink? Wait right there.

Insanity.

In your experience, what is the creative difference between a large agency network and Perth agencies in terms of award potential and culture?

At larger agencies there’s a very pronounced constant underlying push to win awards. You’re expected to constantly be creating proactive award work on top of your workload, and then alongside your workload if your idea gets up. Awards are treated like sales targets, so there’s also a lot of existing internal infrastructure to help you get the funding or resources you need to make proactive work, and there’s very real incentives for doing well and very real consequences for not doing enough.

Culture-wise, once again, these huge accolades don’t feel like they’re happening too far away people in your phone screen. They’re happening to your roommates, co-workers and your friend’s ex’s, so you’re in this mindset of like ‘if I could juuuuuust reach out a little further I could grab it’. It feels like anything could just be around the corner at any given time. I think that’s a real motivator for everyone.    

Can you talk a bit about the actual process of coming up with this ad, the nuts-and-bolts part of actually coming up with the idea and then getting it signed off by a client? What about the case study, PR strategy and other awards collateral?

I really wish this was a slightly more romantic story. I was actually trying to create some reactive World Cup work for KitKat and I was struggling, so I started trawling through the World Cup hashtag on twitter when I found someone post something like:

‘Violence increases around football, look after each other out there.’

And I remembered my girlfriend at the time saying the NHS in Wales really struggles whenever the rugby is on, so I decided to do a little research. Found a study from not too long ago, then remembered that iconic Wayne Rooney ad for Nike from like 2003 (the one where he’s shirtless and just has the flag painted on) and thought, ‘Oh this could be something’. I scribbled something down and showed it to my Art Director, Jo Taylor, who immediately jumped and helped bring it to life. We made a deck and sent it to the CD we felt would be best-placed to push the idea, and then sent it to our ECD.

Funnily enough, the client was actually on holiday. We couldn’t reach him for about a week, but we knew we had to launch something for that first kick-off match or we’d miss the boat. We all agreed we’d continue ahead with production whilst the Account team continued to try and get a hold of him or begin looking for alternatives. By the time we had the final image ready to go, he finally picked up the phone and was so stunned he approved it then and there.

From there we had to get it into media, which sucks when you have no money and no media plan. Both the Producer, Art Director and myself were phoning nearly every newspaper in England trying to get anything we could. There are definitely many strange iterations of that iconic image you probably haven’t seen, cropped and squeezed for tiny press spaces.

Our other hurdle to overcome was that a lot of the places that offered us bonus media spaces didn’t want to run the ad once they saw it. I think we had a fair few papers and billboard sites turn us down in the end.

But eventually lightning struck, and The Evening Standard said they had an available half-page spot on their Match Day edition, but we had to get the print-ready files to them in 3 hours. Nothing was print ready. The fact it ran that day is testament to the incredible producer, designers and re-touchers on the team. There was never a strategy behind this. It was just a manic team of people pushing forward with something and reacting to every set-back and every step forward as it happened, and that carried into our awards entries. Everything on this project was manic, all of the time.

Having won one of the biggest awards in the world, how has your personal view of awards and the work it takes to win one changed? What’s it meant to you on a personal and professional level?

Oh, it’s great, someone always hands me a beer whenever I walk into a room, people get up for me on crowded trains and my landlord said I didn’t have to keep paying rent if I didn’t feel like it. In fact, he’s paying me now. 

My views on awards were and are that you should just make the kind of work you want to see in the world, and if you win an award off the back of that, then great, and if you didn’t then at least you changed something (arguably better). 

In terms of the kind of work it takes to win one, Cannes always surprises me but you can generally get a sense of what’s going to do well and go where.

The obvious question, but the one everyone will probably ask you now, what’s your advice for young Perth creatives hoping to follow in your footsteps in terms of a Cannes Gold Lion?

Don’t follow in my footsteps. They have been riddled with twice as much painful failure as success. 

I’d say don’t aim for Cannes. I once received a brief that was just titled ‘Win at Cannes’. I can honestly tell you that all the ideas put forward sucked and were never made.

So, don’t aim for Cannes, aim to make some genuinely cool shit and Cannes will happen.

Also, be bigger than Cannes. Egg a politician.

See more of Maya’s work at her site here.

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