Adrian Peter Tse
May 24, 2016

From chef to digital creative leader: VML Australia's Aden Hepburn

A passion for cooking, computers, design, and self-teaching are some of the things that helped Aden Hepburn rise up as a creative leader within a digital agency.

Aden Hepburn
Aden Hepburn

The first time someone introduced Aden Hepburn, managing director and ECD at VML Australia, to a “big advertising agency”, he didn’t really know what that was.

“I was always an internet kind of guy,” says Hepburn, who completed his first piece of client work in high school when he was around 15 years old (Year 10). He created a website for a local business in Sydney.

However, web design was something he just did for “fun”. His dream was to become a chef. Choosing hospitality and food-tech as electives at school, Hepburn gave up his weekends helping chefs as a kitchen hand.

“For a while, I thought I was absolutely going to go out and be a chef,” says Hepburn. “That was until about the end of high school when I’d already spent a few years working nights when all my friends were out partying.”

At the same time, the internet was booming. ICQ and MSN Messenger were in vogue and ‘live chat’ was connecting everyone. With that, Hepburn had a change of heart in his career direction. When he couldn’t find a suitable course at university to further his technology skills, he opted for a diploma at a technical college instead. Even now, Hepburn is passionate about learning in a practical setting.

“For me, creativity isn’t something that can be taught: You’re only as good as you are passionate,” he says. Hepburn believes formal education doesn’t set people up for what they will experience in the industry, which he sees as a big issue. “It’s felt with the lack of new talent coming through the ranks,” he adds.

After he finished his diploma, Hepburn got a job at a local web design company, where he says he was most certainly underpaid.

“Only two people from my entire class got a job designing websites after graduating,” he says. “We were just coming out of the dotcom boom and bust.” After two years, when paychecks started bouncing and “excuses ran hot about cash flow”, he left the company and joined a local web agency that “paid real money”. His first client was Australian telco Optus.

Suddenly things were moving fast and the agency merged with a “big advertising agency” called IdeaWorks. Hepburn was 22 years old and remembers his first day at IdeaWorks for three reasons:

  • He didn’t really know what a big ad agency actually was
  • The agency had designer furniture and fancy department names
  • His desk had “interactive” on it—he was the only “digital” person.

From there, he wasn’t just “doing websites” anymore. He was working with the likes of Volkswagen, Woolworths, Westfield and Red Bull. It was also during this time that he says he learnt the toughest lesson of his career: acceptance.

“I grew up as the only digital creative guy in agencies filled with brilliant but traditional storytellers. That was tough,” says Hepburn. “It took the agency 18 months to realise they had a ‘digital’ guy.”

When the agency eventually wised up, though, he was suddenly “involved in everything”. IdeaWorks became part of Y&R Group and Hepburn was introduced to the global CEO of VML, where he was given the chance to launch VML Australia. Hepburn seized the opportunity and continues to lead the digital agency today.

What inspires him about the future is “product and service design” where “a mix of pure ideation, problem solving, experience design and invention” comes together. The other thing is mentoring.

“Mentoring is such an important thing in our industry,” says Hepburn. “It just upsets me there isn’t enough of it. Part of me feels like that’s a generational thing, perhaps some of the big industry legends are moving on. But it’s also time versus ego versus availability to find mentors willing to dedicate the time. Shame on us, really.”

Hepburn in Sydney


What’s your view on creativity and formal education?

I think formal education the way it is today can train you on the tools you’ll need to get a job; the Adobe suite, design and creative process, maybe writing or even some code. But it will never teach you how to be creative. Being creative is something that I think people evolve into. Humans are creative from birth. The question is who can harness it, or wants to evolve it to the point where you can be creative in a commercially productive way—and that all comes back to how passionate you are.

That’s why places like Hyper Island and Award School breed very talented creative people, as they harness students’ passion, energy and raw creativity, with a sustained focus on ideation process combined with the latest tools, to help shape (not create) brilliant thinkers, where only the most passionate make it through. Unfortunately, those educational places are very limited in numbers and are vastly different to typical formal education.

What’s the hardest lesson you had to learn as a creative and what did it teach you?

There are so many lessons along the way. "You’re not always right” is probably one I learnt early on that helped me be a better creative faster. Often there are many correct answers to a brief, so you might not be wrong (the positive way of spinning it), there’s just a better and more compelling answer out there. I think learning how to understand when you didn’t crack it, and pivot quickly to re-imagine where you can take something is a really tough but critical skill to learn. And until you do, it can play on your mind, pull you backwards and stop you from reaching your potential. People around you will notice if you can’t pivot. Don’t get attached!

What’s your advice to young creatives in the industry?

Aspire to understand the business side of the agency, try to become a commercial creative. Anyone can dream up a big idea, or be the first to do something on the cheap, but only very few are commercially minded enough to really understand (or perhaps care) how the whole agency runs. The value that comes with being creative and commercial is the way to the top. And probably the way to getting your award ideas made too.

Don’t let yourself get an ego. There is no time or space for that in agencies these days.

Make sure you truly understand how technology can connect, enhance and amplify ideas. And I don’t mean just understanding how Facebook works, research what it’s API’s can do, how the latest features on YouTube work, what’s possible with HTML5, what new sensors and gadgets are hitting the market. These are the tools to taking your idea to the next level.

Don’t ever let a great idea die. You might not sell the award-winning idea that falls out of that brief first go, but if you truly believe in it, give it time, find your next opportunity, and get the right people around the table to keep it alive. You’ll be rewarded eventually.

Remember, the only thing your agency sells is creative. No matter how good the strategy, technology team, relationships are, at the end of the day, if your creative isn’t exciting, you’ve not nothing to sell. And I don’t mean that as extra pressure on the creative guys, it’s a whole of agency effort. So never be afraid to remind people that making great creative work is everyone’s job, from every department.

Strategists and “suits” are your secret weapons for selling in those big ideas that might scare clients. Use them wisely.

Never underestimate the power of collaboration between teams, agencies and just as importantly, with the big platforms and vendors. This will often open a door for your ideas.


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