Interview with John Singleton by Mark Roeder
John Singleton is one of those rare image-makers, who himself has a larger-than-life image. In fact, if you have lived in Australia during the past 30 years or so, you would have been touched by his work and his presence.
‘Touched’ is the word. For there is something very physical about John Singleton. You get the feeling this man has an enormous capacity for translating his ideas into physical reality. And when you listen very closely to his voice, behind the oft-maligned ‘ockerish’ tones there is a sort of challenging quality there – like a subliminal message urging you to take action. Perhaps that’s why he mixes so readily with the mega-rich and powerful. He reminds them of what can be done.
It’s worth emphasising again this coaching ability of John Singleton, because few people realise just how big an impact he has made on developing advertising talent in this country. The list of people he has employed or worked with over the years reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of Australian advertising. Not to mention the ‘stars’ he has helped create in his commercials, from Jeanne Little to Ita Buttrose.
But there’s something else. Something not immediately apparent. For John Singleton is, above all, a creative psychologist. That is, he not only intuitively understands what makes people tick, he actually uses this knowledge to make people see things differently. To create new visions and desires for people.
It makes him a very potent salesman. And make no mistake about it, to Singleton, advertising is, and always has been, about ‘S-E-L-L-I-N-G’.
“What does it matter how many awards a commercial wins? If it doesn’t sell products, it’s just a well produced waste of money!” Singleton says.
Of course, he did leave his favourite craft of advertising for nine years. During this time he was a TV and radio star, circus promoter, consultant, writer, football promoter and subject (or victim) of more than his fair share of newspaper headlines.
But now he’s back, and this time the front door has ‘John Singleton Advertising’ on it. In just eighteen months the agency has gained $26 million in billings, and was recently voted by an independent poll of marketing directors as the best performing, most creative and highest impact medium-sized agency in Australia. No other agency won every category.
“You might say the Whizz Kid has become the veteran,” Singleton smiles, with a glimmer of déjà vu in his eyes. “It’s good to be back. This advertising is a bloody great game, you know.”
What is the biggest change he has noticed in the industry this time around?
“I’ll tell you… nowadays advertising people are much more scientific, much more exacting about wasting their clients’ money. For example, the media experts tell us that now instead of ‘reach’ and ‘frequency’, there are TARPS, and so on… So you get all these ads being produced with all this research and scientific jargon to tell you how effective they are… and when they go to air, no products get moved off the shelves! Meanwhile, Mr Creative Heavyweight collects his FACTS awards and earns a bigger salary. Fair dinkum, it’s crazy!
“As for the competition, about the only other agency I respect is MOJO. Mo and Jo are geniuses… I’ve worked with Alan Morris, who is such a good writer, but it’s been one of my greatest regrets I’ve not had a chance to work with Allan Johnston.”
Of course, Singleton and MOJO have something very important in common, in that they were the first people to create advertising that actually ‘celebrated’ the Australian condition, and resisted making ads that looked and sounded as if they were made half way between America and Europe.
However, unlike MOJO, who made great use of musical lyrics, Singleton’s early work in particular relied on extraordinarily direct propositions – aimed straight at the consumer’s heart and hip pocket nerve. Lines like “Where do you get it?” and “I wouldn’t do these commercials if they weren’t genuine”, are indelibly etched in the book of All-time Great Australian advertising lines. Indeed, they also echo Singleton’s own propensity for offering a challenge.