Lalita Salgaokar is a rising advertising writer in New York. Creative Class is a recurring column in which she interviews senior creatives about their professional journey, the state of the industry and how to develop a creative voice.
After studying graphic design in Perth, Australia, and graduating with the intention of being an art director, Matt Eastwood managed to convince an agency that he was a copywriter with an art background. After working in Australia, England and North America, he’s now the global CCO of J.Walter Thompson. Matt enters his New York office, bright and early to chat about life and advertising.
You mentioned at the 3% Conference that you dressed in a suit very early in your career, for the job you wanted—that of an executive creative director. Please elaborate.
I had always said I wanted to be an executive creative director, by the time I was 30. Which was probably overly ambitious, but I had set that goal.
Dressing up like that really changed the way the company perceived me. When you’re so deliberate about something like that, people call you out and give you a hard time. I had lost count of the amount of times people would go, "Hmm, job interview?" But eventually it made sense. They thought of me as the kind of a person they could take to pitch meetings. It’s funny that such a small thing makes such a big difference, but it really does. Of course now I wear jeans and it doesn’t matter anymore.
So how did it go when you entered meetings better dressed than the clients?
Well, I wasn’t that well-dressed. But I knew there was this other thing that was a big part of running an agency, which was presenting. So I did a presentation skills workshop, which was a three day intensive course on how to present better. It’s the most important thing I did in my career. I learned how to command a room, how to share ideas in a way that’s motivating to clients and so on. I’ve never felt intimidated by presenting to clients.
Did you always go in to present after that?
Yes. Although it wasn’t expected while I worked in London. It was very odd. This was 10 years ago, but the creatives didn’t present to client, it was all account people. So when I got there, I was so willing to go to clients and present that Campaign UK wrote an article about how strange it was that this young guy was capable of standing up in front of clients and commanding an agency. I thought it was not that weird at all. But it was unusual at the time.
Have you gotten some good mentorship in your career? If yes, did you seek it yourself and how did it benefit you?
It’s something I’ve always sought out. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with some incredible leaders in the industry. My last job before I became an ECD was working under Bob Isherwood, who was the former global chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi. Bob was still living in Sydney at the time. He was the first example of a global citizen, passionate about creativity. He taught me a lot about leadership.
The first time I ran an agency, M&C SaatchI in Melbourne, I was 29 years old. I looked so young. My first boss, then the partner at M&C Saatchi in Australia, helped me through it and taught me everything I needed to know. Then, I worked in London and my first project was pitching a new piece of business with Maurice Saatchi, and it was surreal. I’ve been really lucky and I’ve always sought out mentorship from people that I’ve admired in the industry.
And how did you go about it? You saw work that you liked, and you spoke to people who made it?
Yeah, I found out that most people, when you call them up and talk about how you admire their work, are happy to see you. People get scared about approaching someone. I’ve never had that fear. It helped me when I first came to New York. I came here not knowing anyone. I just thought I'll call whoever I want, and so I did.
And you were an ECD at this point?
Yes. I was an ECD. But, my first job in New York was as the chief creative officer of M&C Saatchi. Even after that, I would call famous creatives and writers in New York to ask them to speak at the agency, and they would normally say yes. I believe that talking yourself out of something is a waste of time. You might as well ask.
You have a strong hiring mantra of avoiding assholes. What if the said asshole is a serial award-winning creative?
I think awards and great work are the main reasons that people hire someone who is a negative force. And I don’t think it’s worth the disruption it causes within the agency and the kind of divide it creates between creative and account. It’s just not worth the pain to get the result. I think you can get it in so many other ways. Great work can come out by being nice to people, and I’ve always tried to do that. I’ve been able to do a lot of award-winning work in that way, so I think it’s just unnecessary.
As the global CCO, you see work from all over the world. What separates markets in your opinion?
I’m very interested in the cultural nuances of the different markets. I’m lucky that I sit across a lot of global clients. Also, I’m very lucky to have lived in three different continents. That helps in understanding people. I travel a lot now so I get to meet a lot different people. We generally look for commonality in terms of a creative idea across the globe and then allow room for the differences. That’s the challenge, and that’s particularly true while working on a global campaign.
I do a lot of work in emerging markets. I’ll come up with a campaign in English and someone in Brazil will say there’s literally no word in Portuguese for that. So, you can’t translate it, you’ll have to turn it into something else. And that’s an interesting and fun challenge.
Do you get to do any of the work at your level? If not, how do you keep the creativity alive?
I sort of made a deliberate decision that I wanted to see some of the work. The job is different now, but at any given time I have one or two global projects that I’m working on.
If we’ve got four different countries working on a campaign, then they really need someone to oversee it who isn’t connected to any of that, so it tends to be me. I don’t think I’m sitting writing scripts very often, although I did that recently in London working on a big global campaign. I had an idea and I just sat down and wrote the script.
I realize that I can’t do that every day because there are too many other things to do. But it’s still nice to keep that alive.
A bunch of ECDs in the NY office report to you. What is the one quality that makes a really talented creative into a really good ECD?
I’m really clear on what it takes to make that leap, and I think it takes passion. Talent is important and clearly you have to have talent to lead an agency, but I don’t think you have to be the most talented creative person in the world to do it. Sometimes, the best creatives don’t make great creative leaders. Leadership qualities are slightly different.
Sometimes great creatives and great writers can have neuroses, and that’s what makes them brilliant. And those skills don’t necessarily translate into being a leader of an agency.
I look for people who are sort of passionate beyond reason. People who are really driven to be successful. I run a program here at JWT called ‘Future Leaders’ which is all about helping and training creative directors when they’re just about to become executive creative directors or chief creative officers.
There’s so much stuff that you never learn in a classroom when you study advertising. No one teaches you how to performance manage somebody, no one teaches you about finance. My program here tries to get creatives comfortable in that space so that they can truly lead.
How do you train these future leaders?
It’s a two-and-a-half-day workshop. Usually about 30 of us get together. And I speak, we’ll have HR speaking about performance management, we’ll have a former global chief creative officer come in and talk about the different aspects of leadership.
This program helps because people learn things from each other. Sometimes,it’s just to realize that maybe you don’t want to be the leader of the agency. It’s not for everybody and it’s not what everyone enjoys.
Some creatives get to this point and realize that what they really like is sitting in their office and writing ads. And if that’s all you like, then you’re not going to be able to do that as much as a creative director.
The older you get as a creative, there’s a pressure to be an ECD or a CCO, and you sort of feel that pressure to do it. And if you don’t want to do it, it’s recognizing that knowing that there are plenty of other ways to be successful.
There’s ageism in our industry where, after a certain age, you’re automatically deemed irrelevant. Do you agree?
There’s ageism but it’s easy to flip it if you prove your worth. Also, it’s less here in the United States than it is in Australia, for instance. There are not many older creative directors running agencies in Australia. In my department, I had 3 people over the age of 60, which I thought was fantastic. Particularly now that we’re at a time where the population is ageing, you have to [have] all kinds of people. To have that kind of insight is fantastic.
It does worry me. I’m not 50 yet, but I wonder what’s going to happen when I hit that point. I think you can still stay relevant. And clients in the end do respect experience as long as you’re delivering contemporary work.
You’ve worked all over the world, from Australia and London to now New York. What’s your favorite thing about the city you call home?
New York is definitely home now. I’ve been here 11 years. And I think it’s weird when you have that moment when you realize that somewhere new is your home. It’s that trip, while approaching JFK when you first see the skyline of Manhattan and you go, "Oh I’m home at last." And I love Manhattan and New York because it’s so international. Everyone is here with a mission. People come here with a dream. They don’t just randomly end up in New York. The whole population tends to be more driven and more passionate about what they want to achieve.I love being surrounded by all that.
Now I get so many emails that I am like an embassy for almost every Australian who decides to move to New York. There’s a lot of Australians here, and I think it’s just the same passion people come for.
Tell us your favorite career highlight.
I moved to London to run M&C Saatchi. When they announced the news of my appointment, we went out for a celebratory dinner with the partners. I remember Maurice Saatchi standing up and making a toast to me. In my head, I’m like, "Oh my God." In that moment, he was acknowledging me and making me the leader of his agency. It was an amazing feeling. I’ll always cherish that memory.