On Monday, May 3, 1993, young headhunter, Esther Clerehan, began her own recruiting business for creatives. She had $400 in the bank and a Motorola phone she had borrowed $1,200 to buy.That business turned 25 today…
Clerehan had quit her job as general manager of industry recruitment firm, Apple International, three days before she began Clerehan Pty Ltd. Adland was caught in the throes of the recession Australia had to have, and she had reasoned that a small and nimble recruiter would survive.
Instead, she began to thrive. Clerehan’s business is older now than M&C Saatchi, Glue Society, BMF and The Monkeys. And Clerehan is an advisor and at times agony aunt, to ad people at all levels in the industry, whether she is representing them or not. She has a substantial network across Twitter, Linked In, Facebook and Instagram. She shares with them a mix of opinions, job listings, anything AFL – and her signature martini portraiture.
Clerehan had moved to Sydney from Melbourne during the bicentennial boom of 1988 to run Apple International, the top recruitment company in the industry at the time, owned by the iconic grand dame of headhunters, the late Claire Worthington. Five years later, she knew the industry inside and out and had developed the skills she needed to become a force in the industry. She gathers industry info as if she were a magnet, and this bore fruit within her first week in business. Young Andy Flemming needed a job and a visa renewal. Clerehan placed him at Bates Singapore on first interview.
“I am proud to be Esther’s first placement. What she saw in me, I’m not entirely sure. I’d been literally living in Mojo’s Cremorne office, I was existing on Findus product stolen from the Mojo freezers and had a portfolio filled with very little real work but plenty of enthusiasm. Within just a few days, Esther had negotiated a job for me in Singapore via Hong Kong. I have no idea how she did it, but that’s what she does and has been doing for a quarter of a century. She sees creative potential first, fee second. She’s utterly unique and without her, the Australian industry would be without many of its biggest names. Looking back, I owe Esther far more than my career. Without her I never would have worked in Asia. I never would have met my wife and my two children simply wouldn’t exist so, you know, thank you for everything!” [Andy Flemming, group creative director, M&C Saatchi Australia]
More placements followed. By the end of her first month, Clerehan had delivered another writer to Bates, and placed Matt Eastwood as a midweight in DDB Sydney with art director, Jacqui Dolan. She has always worked solo and never had plans to expand. “I really admire those recruiters who have grown their business. I love what I do and prefer to concentrate on that, rather than managing a larger group.”
For the last decade and a half, her office has been at home, but Clerehan Pty Ltd began in a space above a puppet maker in an old terrace house on George Street overlooking the Quay, sharing it with the über famous graphic design sisters, Leuver, Leuver, Leuver and Leuver. When the rent was hiked up due to the upcoming Sydney Olympics, Esther shared spaces with Kimble Rendall’s Flat Rock production company and then Michael Cook’s Film Business before she realised that a “small and nimble recruiter” worked best out and about. Clerehan prefers face-to-face meetings. She doesn’t just match up books to briefs. She also works in two cities. “I moved to Sydney from Melbourne in 1988 to run Apple, and Melbourne still thinks I just popped up the road to get milk.”
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that she has helped to shape the advertising industry. She has placed many of the industry’s creative high flyers in their first real leadership roles.
A few words about Esther:
Jeff Goodby, co-chairman, Goodby Silverstein & Partners San Francisco says: “Esther sees our industry with the unique perspective of someone who’s worked for decades with leading creative people and heads of agencies, while also swimming the ocean of changing tastes. She’s seen it all. She’s a coach, an agent, and a savvy business strategist. But more importantly she has shaped creativity in Australia and beyond with the people she has championed, the work she has helped bring to life, and the invaluable advice she has given to so many of us. The advertising she has brought to the world will be influential for generations. It’s not an overstatement to say that she’s a national treasure.”
Warren Brown, co-founder, Gutthink and Partners Sydney, says: “Esther Clerehan, or to me, just ‘Clerehan’, is someone who values honesty and integrity above everything else. I can only say this as I was the beneficiary of those qualities for two decades, as she helped me find the right people to build the creative reputation of BMF. She is without doubt the ‘Dorothy Parker’ of advertising due to her wit, intelligence and opinions. Her only flaw is she loves the Swans, I think she would have made a much better Hawk. Is this enough? I could go on…”
June Laffey, chief creative officer, McCann Healthcare New York, says: “I was Esther’s first trifecta. The third time was lucky – as she placed me at CJB, and that began my long career in health comms. I love what I do as we have the power to enrich empower and even save lives. And it all started with Esther knowing how much I WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE and spotting that right opportunity.”
Tara Ford, executive creative director, DDB Sydney, says: “She’s the matriarch of the advertising industry in Australia. One of the few constants I’ve seen throughout my career. And so much more than a recruiter. She thinks about talent, the people and the industry as a whole. She sees the bigger picture, and she cares.”
Justin Drape, chief creative officer & co-founder, The Monkeys, says: “Esther is all class when it comes to understanding creative folks. She genuinely cares about people, their careers and her vision. Esther’s loyalty and transparency hold a lot more value than what is written on an invoice. She has nurtured and placed some of the brightest minds in our industry and her influence extends into the best agencies around the world. So, while her success over the last 25 years is a fantastic achievement, it’s certainly not a surprise.”
Tom McFarlane, founding creative director, M&C Saatchi: “Let’s forget about her success, to simply survive in this business for 25 years, you’ve really got to love it.
And Esther does. With a passion. She cares about our careers, our ethics, she’s there for those who trip up and she gives generously of her time and wisdom to every nervous junior seeking their first job. We’re lucky to have her around.”
Highlights. There have been many. Here are a few:
- Working closely with fledgling start-ups like M&C Saatchi, BMF and The Monkeys.
- Placing 26yo David Droga at Saatchi Asia as Regional ECD.
- Placing Wieden & Kennedy’s first international creative hire (Ned McNeilage & Linda Knight) in 1994.
- Still lecturing AWARD School in 2018. Clerehan’s first lecture was in 1993. She has been invited more often than any other industry leader.
- Chairing the RMIT Program Advisory Committee since 2016. Twice they’ve held Pitch Night on her birthday and she still flew to Melbourne to attend.
- A stint as an acerbic feature columnist on the back cover of B&T.
- Being the first recruiter to sit on the AWARD Committee (2016 – current).
- Speaking at the inaugural Australasian 3% conference as well as the AWARD creative leadership course.
- Co-creating the AWARD School 30 year Droga prize in 2017, which culminated in Tom Lawrence winning a trip to New York and being offered a job at D5.
- Appearing on the front page of the SMH for dining out a lot (“Hehe, 1994!”).
- Sydney Swans winning AFL premierships in 2005 and 2012.
Looking Back: Twenty-five changes in twenty-five years
- Mobile phones (Clerehan was the first person among her friends to have one in 1993)
- The internet
- Websites replacing portfolios
- Website folios segregated by campaigns not by media
- Email replacing couriers
- LinkedIn profiles replacing CVs
- More and more women in creative leadership roles
- The rise of award shows and explosions of categories: In 1993 Australia had won a single Cannes Grand Prix (1979)
- HR departments
- Internal recruiters
- Titular upgrades of CDs to Creative Chairs, CCOs and ECDs
- Creative and media’s divorce: the end of accreditation in 1997
- Introduction of GST in 2000
- Digital is assumed
- Integration is a thing
- Big data is a thing
- Content is a thing
- Consultancies are a thing
- Personal brands are a thing
- YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat are all things
- The closures of Mojo, George Patterson & the Campaign Palace
- The removal of borders for expats to move overseas, especially to the US
- Movements changing the industry like #MeToo and #FreeTheBid
- North Sydney and St Kilda Road abdicating their role as adland’s epicentres
- Pyrmont/Barangaroo and Richmond/Cremorne becoming the new agency hubs
- The closures of the Bayswater Brasserie, The Sebel Hotel and Mario’s
Last November, Esther marked another incredible milestone: 40 years since she began her career as the office junior at Ogilvy Melbourne, the day after her final school exam.
Esther has now been a headhunter for over 30 years; longer than her mentor, recruiting doyenne, Claire Worthington. Worthington died in 2000 after running Apple for 23 years.
“My father worked until he was 93. I doubt I’ll be able to do the same as Dad but I’d like to give it a red hot go.”