After a successful career in Asia at TBWA Singapore Gary Steele needed a new challenge and moved to NZ where he joined DDB Group New Zealand in 2019. In 2020, he helped DDB achieve a back-to-back win across the region by winning Campaign’s Agency of the Year and then Agency of the year at Axis Awards in NZ as well as Australia’s AWARD, a feat that had yet to be achieved by DDB. In 2021 he was ranked #2 Executive Creative Director in the world on Best Ads global rankings as well as helping to take DDB to the #1 Creatively ranked agency on Best Ads global rankings. To cap off 2021 DDB was crowned Campaign Brief NZ Agency of the Year. CB takes a closer look…
Campaign Brief: As someone who has spent their career developing brand personas, you’ll know how important it is to create a strong identity. Tell us, if you were a fictional character from a famous advertising campaign, who would you be and why?
Gary Steele: That would definitely be the Energizer Bunny or Mr Energizer, depending on where you live. I have endless energy, and that keeps me going. I also get excited by being surrounded by creative people who are trying to make a positive impact for us all. I have high expectations and will not quit until we are there, and when things get tough, I can switch off, reset and go again. Some say it is stupidity that drives me, but I know it is the resilience I have built over time.
CB: In an industry that is constantly changing and evolving, how do you stay creative and innovative?
GS: I always hire people who are smarter than I ever will be. Those minds know way more than I do in any space or field, and I try to learn off them by embracing my inner sponge. They help me push myself and the work forward.
CB: Are there any unusual techniques or methods you personally use to get the juices flowing again when you’re feeling stuck creatively?
GS: My go to is walking away from the problem. I then try and reset and fill my inspiration well with new things. That would be listening to podcasts in the car or sometimes a moment of silence and just let the world in. Once I take a break from the problem and try not to overthink it, something usually pops into my head. It shows, we are always thinking even when we aren’t trying to.
CB: What was the most unexpected source of inspiration for a successful campaign you have worked on?
GS: Back when I was running Standard Chartered Bank, we had the Liverpool sponsorship deal to look after, and we needed a new campaign that would make sense of the largest shirt deal in history at that point in time. We tried numerous ways to solve the campaign but we couldn’t crack it. Then one day we had a group of school students doing a tour around the office we pulled them into a meeting to show them a day in the life of advertising. Our logo was stuck up on a wall surrounded by some shit thinking and this one kid walked over to the wall and stood in front of the logo and said “Stand Red”. It is in the name. Turns out he was right, Stand Red became the platform that tied the sponsorship and the club together and that line is still running today for Liverpool and Standard Chartered.
CB: What’s the most outrageous idea you’ve pitched to a client that actually got approved?
GS: That would be “Sperm Positive: The World’s First HIV Positive Sperm Bank”. It was a tight brief and an even tighter deadline. We had so many ways to solve the problem but one of the creative teams had this amazing idea that we all knew was special. We never expected the client to buy it, fortunately for us they did. Sperm Positive recruited donors and matched them with potential mothers. 37 HIV-positive men enrolled to become sperm donors, and on the 27th January in 2021 we welcomed Amy, the first baby to be born to a HIV Positive Sperm Bank. A total of 7 other babies have been born within the program to date. This is one of those ideas you only have a few times in your career, and it was one I am proud to have been involved with this campaign as it has truly helped change people’s lives.
CB: Chief Creative Officers have that one project that they’re especially proud of. Looking back at your career, which campaign is your shining star and why?
GS: I am lucky as I have had a few ideas that would be my shining stars over my career. If I had to say which one I am proud of right now, it would be our latest piece we are working on called “Correct The Internet”. This initiative was founded by Rebecca Sowden at Team Heroine and was created to highlight the gender bias across the internet and fix it. The inaccurate results that we are being served daily when we ask a non-gendered question is mind blowing, and we had to do something about it. Together, we gathered a group of like-minded people, and created a way to highlight those inaccuracies and report them directly to the search engines through an online tool. It is important to me as a father that when our young children looking for the facts online, they are given them regardless of gender. We are very excited to see that the power of people is working, and we are now starting to see the change come into effect. Recently we have had reports back from users that previously incorrect results they have had received are consistently being delivered correctly, and this is across different regions globally.
CB: What was the most challenging project you’ve worked on? How did you overcome any obstacles you faced?
GS: One of the most exciting and challenging pieces was our recent work for Tourism New Zealand. It was a campaign that was so important to not just the agency but to all Kiwis and we had to do it justice. It involved everyone on our team to have the stamina and conviction to stay true to the idea and make sure that we never wavered. Not an easy task when you have sold a campaign that involved moving away from the traditional sights and a campaign that embraced cultural relevancy at its core and meant that whatever we did we had to not reveal what we were talking about to create intrigue. The campaign itself was so complex with over 18 unique films that revealed just enough and when you explored further you were rewarded with unique content online, outdoor and in social channels, but only if you were curious enough to find it. The matrix of content we had to create meant everything was planned ahead of time and weather restrictions and continuity meant this was a massive effort with a very big team. Luckily I work with amazing people and that meant they made this easier than it could have been and we ended up with a campaign we and hopefully New Zealand can be proud of.
CB: How do you incorporate social and cultural trends into your advertising campaigns? What’s your secret to staying in the loop?
GS: The most important thing to do is listen and let the world in. I do this by just staying on top of what is happening. The main source of inspiration for me is our junior talent we have here at DDB. They are a wealth of knowledge and know things I wish I knew. My secret is listening to them and have them keeping me in the loop to make me look smarter than I actually am.
CB: How do you keep up with the latest technology and platforms to ensure that your advertising campaigns are effective and relevant? Are there any exciting new technologies you’re currently exploring?
GS: The thing about creative people is we are all curious beings. So when anything new or shiny appears we all jump in and have a play. Right now that toy is AI and everyone is having a go in that space including myself. I try to keep up with it but because it is moving at such a speed it is exciting and scary at the same time. The one thing I know is that it all comes down to how the tool is used to make our ideas better, it is not the idea and it never should be. Only a few people out there have managed to find that balance and create impactful work because of it. I am watching them see how they are playing and taking some inspiration from that.
CB: If you could only use one word to describe the industry, what would it be and why?
I mean what other industry would you work in surrounded by smart and talented people who create amazing work. And we get to do this everyday.