There are many who can write a more intimate or authoritative account of my hero choice: Graham Fink. After all, he’s not exactly a stranger in the industry. An iconic creative talent who blurs the lines between advertising and art. Well-known in many areas – a multi-media artist who draws with the movement of his eyes, a photographer who brings beauty to what other people disregard as rubbish, a director who established his own production company and, of course, the creative driving force behind some of the world’s most fruitful advertising agencies.
Responsible for one of the most iconic ads of all time, with the BA ad that opens with hundreds of swimmers walking out of the sea in the formation of lips, to the sound of a remix of The Flower Duet.
Or, the classic Silk Cut ads which pushed advertising standard boundaries, while romanticising the product using emotive imagery, like baby shears being fed purple silk by a mother shear.
And the very clever blood cells seen through a microscope in the shape of circles, triangles, squares, and x’s, identifying gamers without a strapline or logo in sight.
All great ads and fantastic creative endeavours. But this is not my reason for choosing Graham as my ad hero.
For me, it’s more personal. Some people take a while to figure out what they want to do in their career and it’s fair to say I started mine without direction. Working in a specialist marketing sector, with some fantastic people (including my future wife), but in a role I didn’t find fulfilling. Ready for change, naively I thought I could walk my book of ads selling servers and IT software through the gates of M&C Saatchi and be taken seriously. I was spat out on to the streets twenty minutes later. It occurred to me I needed to do something drastic to be able to answer the feedback thrown at me. So, swapping my secure job for a blank sheet of paper and a marker pen, my mission was to learn the craft and find my own path.
The process takes months, as you are swept into agency limbo with all the other lost souls trying to find their way into the industry. The learning curve of highs and lows loop like a roller-coaster and can take you to dark and depressing places, but amongst this darkness shone a light – Graham’s FinkTank Art School. ‘theartschool’ was a series of talks and workshops from industry legends and professionals, open for wannabe creatives, at some top locations, and it was completely free.
Theartschool was my first contact with Graham. He stood tall in front of the group – somehow managing to pull off a garment decorated with an embroidered dragon – and introduced himself to the room. Through these talks we learned about the beauty in failure, the simplicity of ideas, the language of art direction. His advice was to draw a hundred ads a day, unthink rules, be unique and playful.
For Graham to take the time to host events like this, and believe in young people, is frankly heroic. The effect cannot be underestimated. As well as inspiring a new generation, this was also a place to connect, ask questions, get re-energised and motivated.
The perspective of the advertising industry is often viewed in a negative way: a fickle, self-consumed, dog-eat-dog world. People like Graham, who are prepared to sacrifice their time and to give a leg up to those in need, throw that view out of the window.
One session from theartschool coincidentally presented an opportunity for a placement at M&C Saatchi – this was at the time Graham had just taken on the ECD role there. The task was to create a poster for TFL, aimed to increase the number of people cycling in London. A few days after submitting my work, I got a call from Graham inviting me in for a chat. I literally floated out of the meeting having been offered my first ever placement.
After Graham took the role of CCO at Ogilvy in Shanghai, he continued to bring on young talent. I loved seeing the story behind the successful ‘share a Coke’ campaign, (I recommend taking the time to check out his TedTalk, below). The crux of it is, after Steve Job’s death, an iconic graphic spread across social media and adorned the covers of newspapers, it was the famous Apple logo, except the bite was replaced by a profile of Steve Jobs’ face. The only clue was a footnote, ‘Designed by a Hong Kong student’ and Graham simply had to find the person responsible. After a huge effort ‘Jonathan Mak’ was tracked down: a Graphic Design student half way through his degree. What happened next with Graham’s help, became the most awarded piece of advertising in Coca-Cola’s history, even winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, and Jonathan becoming the youngest to do so.
For me, it’s Graham’s passion to push beyond boundries that sets him apart, and is testament to the great work he does believing in the raw talents of young people. The title of his famous BA ad was ‘Bringing people together’: this is what he did with theartschool, and as one of the thousands of people he helped along their journey, I am most definitely better off for knowing him.
Jonathan Sant is creative director of integrated creative agency Cubo.