When Dentsu Y&R handed James Gallagher a less-than-generous contract to renew his employment, he tore it up on the spot. It wasn’t just that the terms were unsatisfactory. After more than a decade in agencies, the Australian was tired of the business he was in, tired of big city life in Tokyo, and had never quite abandoned an early dream of being a hospitality entrepreneur.
Satisfying as the act of defiance was, the reality of needing money soon set in and he scrambled for a job managing a guesthouse in Niseko. In the mid-2000s, the area was in the midst of an investment boom and he subsequently rode the wave as a marketer for a property development company—until the 2008 financial crisis hit. He left his job and he and his wife took a few weeks to reflect on their options, before finally pressing ahead with the idea of starting a seafood business, comprising a restaurant and supply shop, in Hokkaido.
Gallagher thinks there can be an upside for people who find themselves out of work. “Being made redundant, as tough as it is at the time, can be a great opportunity,” he says. Today, Ezo Seafoods is a successful business, and Gallagher says that while in the early days he “missed the prestige” of advertising, he has never seriously considered going back. But he says he has been able to put his experience in the creative field to good use in the seafood business, enjoying an edge over the average restaurateur who has little concept of branding.
"Advertising people, unlike say bankers or accountants, have a peculiar strength in understanding the importance of brands to a business," Gallagher says. "I lived and breathed brands for 10 years so when I started a business, I started with a "brand belief" and built my business around that. It is one of the key reasons for our success and still drives the business today.
"I also benefited from experience working with different types of managers. What I realised is that the job of good managers is constantly responding to problems—with clients, with staff, with suppliers. So I was very prepared mentally for the many problems that would arise, especially in the first year or two. And there were lots."
Advertising today is an even more challenging place to survive in than in Gallagher’s time, with ever-decreasing budgets and margins, and management enthusiasm for so-called ‘rightsizing’ casting a shadow over everyone. Redundancy is a very real prospect in any advertising career, but even if it doesn’t happen, there are many ways to apply agency experience to something more entrepreneurial.
New creative bets
It could mean reassessing what brands need to be successful. When in 2015 Rei Inamoto founded his own company, Inamoto & Co, after nearly 11 years as AKQA’s global creative head, he made a point of not offering any advertising services. Instead, he framed the company as offering “business invention”, essentially using his creative talent to help companies innovate for the future.
To stand out, “the easiest thing for us to do was to say no to advertising gigs”, Inamoto says. “I didn’t think we needed to be another ad agency. It has been the biggest and best decision we made.” He thinks agencies are caught in a cycle of creating short-term promotional work to order, which offers limited satisfaction on a personal level. In his current incarnation, he sees himself as more of a “doctor”, identifying what’s broken in a client and offering some sort of fix. So far, the formula seems to have worked, with clients including Uniqlo, Toyota, ANA and Sotheby’s.
Others take more of an advisory position after leaving advertising, which can then lead to hands-on roles in a new context. Having been part of WPP since the mid-90s, David Mayo is now chief growth officer for GetCraft, a Jakarta-based startup that connects clients with individual creative service providers. He is also a non-executive director of Grace Blue, a specialist search firm, among other things.
Like Inamoto, Mayo also sees agencies as being in a weakened position, largely because they offer to do “anything they’re asked to do, which is distracting them from what made them good in the first place”.
“The more they do, the less use they’re becoming,” he says. “The minute you come down to the lowlands, you’re vulnerable.” But he insists GetCraft is not set up to compete with them, rather to support them as well as working directly with brands. He says he left Ogilvy in a positive frame of mind but with the conviction that the agency had lost its trailblazing spirit and that on a personal level, his time there was up. “I was looking at the future,” he says. “There’s so much more out there that advertising people can do.”
Mayo thinks the “elasticity” of advertising professionals makes them valuable in lots of contexts, and advises: “You must never be just one thing.” But to be successful outside the comfort zone, one must be prepared to build connections with a wide range of people, ideally of course, before resigning or being fired. That doesn’t mean being a “slave to LinkedIn”, but engaging in a natural, human way. “Too many people shut themselves away for fear of mistakes,” he says. “I’ve met a lot of people who have left companies and are having difficulty getting to meet people. But if you’re a glass-half-full person, there will always be coffee and an hour of chat with interesting people” who might be able to help.
Being people-oriented by nature meant numerous opportunities presented themselves when he was thinking of leaving Ogilvy, Mayo says. He is motivated by personal relationships and has a deep reserve of energy for talking and listening to people. If a discussion doesn’t lead to an opportunity, he tries to befriend that person anyway. But having a clear set of principles and understanding personal priorities was important in knowing the right move when he saw it, he says. As a general piece of advice, he stresses the importance of taking the time to seek out “people you like and respect” to work with, rather than rushing into the first new opportunity that comes up.
While Mayo is still in the business of servicing brands, it’s never necessarily too late to cross over to a client role, especially if the move is ideologically driven. Michel Mommejat spent about 20 years in agencies, in France, the UK, Japan and Singapore, before becoming CMO and regional GM of Genesis Healthcare and GeneLife, a Tokyo-based genetic testing company, last year.
For Mommejat, moving to a completely new industry and an operational role was a “big transition” that required a shift in mindset. But he was attracted to what he sees as a sector with high growth potential that also offers the chance to “do something good” for society. He says the diverse scope of work and analysis involved in agency life has helped him get to grips quickly with a new business category and understand its consumers. Working on the operational side of the agency business also helped, and he thinks the agency discipline has helped him distil information and present it with a clarity regular businesspeople often lack.
But taking ownership for the brand has also opened his eyes to agency shortcomings—namely that they move too slowly, aren’t results-oriented enough and struggle to adjust something once it’s in progress. Mommejat has not felt a desire to return to the agency world since leaving—“I’ve started a new chapter”— but says he does miss the intelligence of agency planners. “That’s something you always enjoy,” he says. “Being surrounded by very creative or smart people.”
Matthew Godfrey agrees that advertising is an inspiring industry to work in. But he left a successful career running agencies in 2017 to become CEO of Nutrition Innovation, a Singapore-based startup that supports the production of low-GI (glycemic index) sugar. Startups are a popular move for agency execs: last year, Ogilvy Asia-Pacific chairman Paul Heath left to launch a streaming venture in Brazil; and former McCann creative director Erik Ingvoldstad went into fintech, which appears to have helped him overcome a sense of bitterness about his years spent in advertising.
Godfrey says he left advertising because he did not want to pass up the chance to “fundamentally change world health”. He says he has been able to bring clients and agencies from his past life into the fold as partners.
Asked how he managed the transition, Godfrey says: “Advertising is fundamentally a solutions business. Marketing challenges are defined by clients and the agency needs to then create and execute effective solutions. If you have developed deep expertise in this, the same skillset can be applied to many different forms of business challenges, especially disruptive and innovative businesses like startups… The muscle memory is the same. The only difference is the mindset to jump in and embrace new challenges.”
Trying something new doesn’t have to mean leaving advertising entirely. After the 3/11 earthquake in Japan, Keiko Seto, like many others, took stock of her life. As an art director she had spent 15 years in agencies including Beacon Communications and Saatchi & Saatchi, but she felt she could combine her creative talent, passion for cooking and health to do something more meaningful and personally rewarding. She left advertising feeling exhausted. Then she trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute for a year, and opened a small vegan restaurant called Mique, which serves a maximum of 15 covers per day.
She sees the restaurant, which she runs singlehanded, and its simple but warm aesthetic as an extension of herself. “It’s a very intimate place and I serve food prepared with my own hands and that seems to work for the customers,” she says. “So I guess it’s the opposite to what I was doing in commercial mass communications.”
Yet although she has found happiness as a restaurateur, she has continued to take on ad hoc advertising work, and is preparing to close the premises for three months to take on a major assignment for a beauty brand in New York. She thinks pursuing a new career has enabled her to recharge and enjoy advertising again.
“I never wanted to admit that I missed it, but I’m kind of missing it,” she says. “The teamwork, the level of refinement, and also the ability to have bigger exposure—the impact that mass communications can have… I left the industry without fulfilling what I really wanted to do. So I still have all these ambitions, visions I wanted to achieve. Maybe this is an opportunity for me to fulfil what I left unfinished.”
When she returns, she plans to go back to running her restaurant. She cautions against going purely freelance, which she says many advertising creatives think is their only option if they don’t want the stress of a full-time agency job. She says she has seen people struggle to make ends meet and become isolated. “It’s only good for certain people,” she says.
Still, the trend looks set to continue, and Mayo advises focusing on developing a specific skill as an individual in order to be “portable”, whether in advertising or another sector. “The average Joe needs to think, what am I good at, what am I bringing, why am I here,” he says. That goes for all age groups: advertising is seen to have an ageism problem, but there is nothing to stop a more senior person upgrading their abilities and reinventing themselves elsewhere.
“Clients are always relieved to see a slightly older person,” he says, even if it’s not exactly a case of “thank God you’re here”. He says he refuses to entertain conversations about retirement. “What’s going to happen?” he asks. “You buy a lodge overlooking the lake, put the kettle on, make a cup of tea, and then what?
"Never stop swimming. Just because you get a bit older it doesn’t mean you stop; it means you become a newer version of you. If you’ve got a bit of energy and a bit of confidence in your abilities, you’re halfway there.”
CAREER CHANGE COUNSEL (FROM PEOPLE WHO HAVE DONE IT)
Matthew Godfrey, CEO, Nutrition Innovation:
James Gallagher, owner, Ezo Seafoods:
David Mayo, chief business development officer, GetCraft:
Keiko Seto, owner, Mique:
Michel Mommejat, CMO/APAC GM, Genesis Healthcare and GeneLife: