After two years in Singapore, Steve Back is back with the goal of making work, like ‘Share a Coke’ and ‘Rhonda’, a norm for Ogilvy. He speaks frankly to Jessica Kennedy about his first impressions of Ogilvy Australia
The son of sheet metal worker, Steve Back had what he describes as a very working-class upbringing.
His parents’ strong work ethic rubbed off on Back – “that’s not to say that I’m not a lazy person”, he caveats. But laziness and Back’s achievements don’t go hand in hand.
After a childhood of relocations – he was born in South Africa, moved to the UK aged nine and arrived in Perth five years later – the father-of-three has moved wherever work takes him and has scooped awards along the way at Cannes, D&AD, The One Show and more. From Sydney to London, London to New Zealand, New Zealand to Sydney, Sydney to Singapore and Singapore to Melbourne, Back is finally back in Oz.
“My wife and the kids love Melbourne, it feels a little bit more relaxed to Sydney,” he says. Not that Back can speak on the city’s charms with any authority – his latest role has kept him busy. So far, he has seen the city from inside cabs, the office and from the air as he jumps on a plane to Sydney.
Back is not complaining. After two tough years as chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather Singapore, he chose to tackle the mammoth and newly-created role of national chief creative officer of Ogilvy Australia.
Ogilvy first asked Back as Melbourne ECD, but he said ‘no’. “I’d get bored,” he explains. “So I said ‘what about a national role?’, and that’s how it came about. There’s a genuine desire for change here. It also felt like a good challenge and, stupidly, I like challenges.”
He has been given a three-year plan to “sort the place out”, and despite what he calls the industry’s “pretty low expectations” of the 550-person Melbourne and Sydney outfit, Back is confident.
“We’re the biggest in the country so there’s no reason why we can’t be the best,” he says.
Back took on the role with an open mind, but immediately noticed a gap between the Sydney and Melbourne offices.
“It feels like we’re starting a little bit further back with Sydney,” he says. The office was responsible for the ‘Share a Coke’ work, which Coke’s global creative and advertising strategy boss Jonathan Mildenhall recently branded the company’s “most successful in decades”.
But that’s simply not enough.
“I mean – that was two years ago,” Back says. “I’m just trying to replicate that and make it the norm, not a one-off.”
Back wants the agencies to create work that is famous – ads that become the topic of conversation between a taxi driver and his passengers – like AAMI’s ‘Rhonda’ campaign (below).
“The residue of fame is probably success in shows, but not necessarily – I think I’ve got to a point in my career where chasing a piece of metal is not the be all and end all,” Back says.
“One thing I observed was that we were being quite executional as opposed to ideas-driven, and I’m keen on making sure we get to platform ideas, rather than just writing a script or doing a press ad.”
For this to happen, Back needs to push Ogilvy’s clients into being comfortable with fame.
“Agencies can fall into a bit of a habit – where you’ve certain clients, there’s an expectation of certain work,” he outlines. “I want to be more optimistic about what we can do, even for some of the tougher clients.”
To make the offices co-exist in a more “harmonious way”, Back wants to establish an Australian creative council for the group to oversee and become a pool of resources for the agencies. But first, Back needs to hire two new ECDs – one for each office – to allow him to step back and tackle the national role. “And then I won’t have a job,” he jokes.
Back is an ideas man, and he likes places where they’re allowed to come freely. “It makes the grind worth it,” he says.
But the feeling you get when he discusses Singapore is that the ideas there didn’t make that ‘grind’ worth it. “By the nature of Singapore as a country, it was a touch conservative, which is an understatement, and I found it a touch constricting in terms of thinking,” he says. “Plus it’s very small.
“I think great work comes out of cultural diversity – and Singapore felt a bit culturally devoid. That’s me being diplomatic.”
The self-confessed “change-monger” has been reinvigorated by the potential posed by Ogilvy Australia. Its diverse client list – which includes Australia Post, IBM, Myer and Carlton Football Club – holds a wealth of opportunity, and in Back’s eyes he has the chance to shake up some categories and make his clients famous.
“It’s not about convincing them to do something brave – it’s just about making sure they feel comfortable that it’s the answer to their problems.”