This first appeared in the AdNews Annual 2018. To see it in-print first, subscribe here.
Is working in advertising in the blood? This new 'Family Ties' segment takes a look at the dynasties working in adland and puts an historic lens to past agency and client relations. Here, we meet the White family.
Advertising legend Tony White founded his self–titled agency in 1963 before later selling it to Clemenger and subsequently buying it back. Now retired, his sons, CHE Proximity chief creative officer, Ant White, and Jack White, co–founder of production agency, Gen C, are very much carrying on his legacy by working in adland.
Based in Melbourne, the trio have all worked within the Clemenger Group at some point and clients between them range from Nike, Cadbury, Tesla, IAG and Heinz to Swisse, Starbucks, AGL and more.
We catch up with where it all began, speaking with 79–year–old Tony, who fills us in on his cheeky client tales, live ad ups and downs, and how he narrowly missed out on being the agency behind the infamous AAMI jingle.
Tony started his advertising career in Melbourne, aged 18, working at Claude Mooney ad agency in Collins Street before moving onto Tom Moffitt advertising (where he earned paid $12 a week), then the Berry Curry ad shop and Nichols Cumming & Staff Advertising on St Kilda Road.
While at Cummings, Tony recalled working on men’s and women’s clothing brand, Gloweave ‘Shirtmakers since 1944’, and creating live ads with Australian entertainer, comedian and variety performer, Graham Kennedy.
Kennedy was known for transforming live commercials from simple obligations into comedic art form, with one scheduled 20–second ad spot for an aspirin spinning out into 30 minutes of improvised comedy.
At 19, Tony recollected going to Channel Nine to rehearse ads with Kennedy before the live delivery, with the TV star refusing to do any rehearsals.
“I would have to go and supervise the live commercial, but he’d say ‘I’m not rehearsing’, so I had to fill in a false form because the client would go bonkers if they knew he was doing it live without practising,” Tony said.
At age 24, Tony made the bold move to start his own self–titled creative agency, Anthony White, launching it with one cleaning client. It wasn’t long before a “big client at the time”, Moores Store on Chapel Street, called Tony asking to come to his office to meet the executives and staff.
“I said yes and then quickly rang up about 10 of my mates, telling them to get here tomorrow at 10 o’clock, get behind desks, and pretend to work,” Tony said.
“They all came in, pretended to do it and the client was most impressed and gave me the business.”
This wasn’t the first time Tony took a cheeky approach to winning business or to boost current client activity. For one cake company client, he fabricated a ‘Golden Bake Award’, announcing news that it had won the accolade for a second year running.
“The opposition were huge and rang me up asking how to enter, but given there was no such thing I said, ‘oh shit’, and hung up,” he said.
This first appeared in AdNews in print
Commenting on his dad’s advertising days, eldest son Ant said it’s unlikely that such tricks would work in modern day adland.
“We love hearing about the cheeky things dad got up to back in the day, but fake awards and lying about team size are probably not things you can get away with these days,” he said.
“It’s good to hear about pushing the barriers back then and to hear about him pitching for big business, like the Volkswagen account at age 19, and then starting his own business at 24. Jack and I have definitely taken on some of his bold ambition.”
Tony recalled pitching against Clemenger for the big Gas and Fuel Corporation of Victoria account. The client gave three or four agencies a questionnaire to fill in, with the last question asking for results from the last three client campaigns.
“I told them the three campaigns but thought, ‘I can’t tell them the results’ so I rang up my three clients and asked them to come into the office to do a pitch about how successful that campaign was,” Tony said.
“I introduced the marketing managers, they all came in and without much detail just said the campaigns had been bloody terrific. It worked and I picked it up from Clemengers, which was a big bonus to me.”
Ant said his dad has a special way of connecting with clients.
“The clients obviously liked him to go to that extent and it just shows that relationships back then are just as important as they are now,” Ant said.
“However, the pressure to demonstrate results off the back of a campaign is a lot stronger now, and if ads don’t perform, it’s unlikely a marketer would keep you on the books.”
After briefly going into partnership with David Anderson, seeing the agency renamed to Anderson White, it was just six months before Tony bought him out. He then partnered with Don Thompson, who brought major electronics company account, Sanyo, down to Melbourne from Sydney after the Japanese brand relocated its headquarters to Victoria.
“I changed the agency name to Thompson White and he gave me the Sanyo account, which I gave him a commission each year for, for the next three years,” Tony explained.
“Sanyo became my biggest account almost overnight and they spent a fortune [$3–4 million].
Past Southern Comfort ad
“The size of the account aside, Sanyo was one of my favourite clients as they let me do things that I wanted to do and I became such good mates with them that they invited me to Japan twice.”
Tony bought the rights to the song That’s life and asked his friend, Kerrie Biddell, one of Australia’s most distinguished jazz singers, to sing and star in the Sanyo ad. It became a famous campaign in Australia and later in America.
Tony worked on live radio ads before winning clients with bigger budgets, which then meant a healthy dose of TV ads going forward. Clients such as Cadbury–Schweppes, Mazda, Le Specs, Captain Snooze, Jenny Craig and AAMI.
For his first ad campaign with the insurance company, Tony’s colleague, creative Pam Kaplan, came up with an idea for the car to have an accident. He explained how AAMI was very reserved to do it, but he convinced them and it took off.
“We mocked up a shop to be a florist shop and had a lady in it serving and had the car come into the whole shop and go whacko, but we could only do one take. We couldn’t ask for a re–take because you just couldn’t do it,” Tony revealed.
“It was the first crash scene in insurance as they didn’t focus on the negative before then.
“You’re talking about car insurance here, which was unheard of at the time to do anything like a crash.”
AAMI TV ad: Car crashes in TV ads were not the norm
However, hanging onto such a $2 million paying client was short–lived after Kaplan refused to use the new jingle they wanted so they lost the business. Composed by British–born Australian resident, musician Mike Brady, most commonly associated with the Australian rules football anthem Up There Cazaly, Brady’s Lucky You’re with AAMI jingle was not deemed a wise move.
Despite now being known as one of the longest–standing jingles in Australian history, Tony said that even at the time Brady called him to apologise for the embarrassing tune.
He also remembered the time the marketing manager from Cadbury–Schweppes turning up to the office unexpectedly, saying he wanted to appoint the agency. But, there wouldn’t be fees or commission, but a flat fee per client.
“We handled Cherry Ripe for about four or five years and they paid me per month. I never did a commercial for them, but that was the deal. They paid you a retainer,” Tony said.
Tony also recalled coming up with the ‘Southern Comfort that tastes like um’ catch–phrase for TV and billboards, but it wasn’t long before people started to deface the billboards by inserting a C into the text.
“Someone called to tell me about the defaced billboard, but I just said to leave it and hung up,” Tony said. “It got more people talking about it But, I love the fact that you hung up on them. People are going to talk about it, sales took off and they kept it.”
From working with ad man, Harold Mitchell, who was a one–man–media–band back then before launching a media empire, that in its modern day carnation is now Dentsu X, to giving M&C Saatchi’s founding creative director, Tom McFarlane, his first job, Tony’s stories are early tales of the adland that has helped shape today’s landscape.
A Clemenger Group board meeting
While the focus of this feature is on Tony’s kids Ant and Jack, his eldest son Paul started his career at Clemenger BBDO Melbourne. He spent 11 years at the agency before working in brand and marketing roles at Mars and is now marketing director at Vitasoy. Tony’s middle child Misty also has more than 10 years experience in advertising and design agencies including Singleton Ogilvy & Mather and Grey.
So, is advertising in the blood? And is Tony’s career the reason his children ended up in the industry?
Jack, who runs production company Gen C, with clients on the books such as Nike, Swisse, Tesla, Hunter Valley, and William Hill, studied advertising at university and before launching his own venture in 2015, worked at Whybin and Clemenger BBDO.
“When I was age nine, I was asked, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ and my answer was ‘an advertiser’. I didn’t really know what that meant other than dad was in advertising and I thought he was the coolest. Then when I was in high school my other idol and older brother Ant went into advertising, so I guess I was always doomed,” Jack said.
After refusing to sell to David Ogilvy, Tony later decided to sell to Clemenger.
“Peter Clemenger came to my office and had a piece of paper in his hand. He said, ‘Now Tony, I think you’re worth this much’ and looks at his piece of paper and then says, ‘I want to buy 40%’,” Tony revealed.
“That was his biggest mistake ever because I was still in charge. So, he bought 40% and the price was fair, but years later —it was about three or four years later — I bought it back.
“I rang him up and I said ‘Pete, I’m going to buy the agency back’. He said, ‘You can’t do that’. I said, “Pete, mate, I own more than you do. I’m in control’. He said, ‘what are the rules?’ and I said, ‘It’s a bit like buying a house. You have 60 or 90 days’. He said, ‘Righto’ and I paid him back exactly what he gave me.”
Tony didn’t employ anyone in media buying as Harold Mitchell ran that part of a client’s business. However, when Clemenger sought its 40% stake, it wanted to take over all client media buying – something Tony stood firm on.
Eventually, Tony sold the whole agency, which at its peak had 40 staff, to FCB.
“It was the right time to sell. I was in my early 50s and I’d been working since I was 24, and I thought with that sort of money, why not?”
His early retirement was short–lived with Tony setting up White Advertising and Beyond in the late 90s, with its biggest account being Webjet. He then sold this agency three years later.
“I had to do something. Why do you retire? It’s so boring. It’s unbelievable. I was forced into retirement and I hated it. I still do,” he said.
“I’d love to be running my own agency again. I’d love to. I used to go to work at 5.30 in the morning when I first started and do the client reports from the day before, then go back home and hop into bed with my darling wife, then get up and go to work at the normal time so I could see the clients, and then the next morning, write them up again. My day was out running around talking to people because I wrote up all the reports in the morning very early.”
From competition with John Singleton, being amazed at how Kerry Packer was busy enough to warrant two secretaries, and stories of Ant and Jack doodling in the office of a young Grant Rutherford (now The Monkeys Melbourne ECD), White’s stories are numerous.
Not being entirely sure if he encouraged his kids to get into advertising ... there was the time Ant and Jack had to deliver Easter eggs dressed as bunnies to clients. On the question of what he thinks about his sons also working in the industry, put simply: “Fucking idiots.”
“I’m very proud of them. Very proud. Just fantastic what they’ve achieved. By themselves too; nothing to do with me. Nothing,” Tony added.
Ant, who has been at CHE Proximity for three years has also worked at Droga5 and Clemenger BBDO.
“I don’t know why I went down this career path,” Ant said.
“Maybe I was just lazy and just didn’t look around enough, but it was in the family for years, so we knew it.
“The industry looked fun and I guess it was familiar,” he said.
Like his dad, Jack said he struggled working every day working for someone else, feeling so replaceable, and he had always aspired to work for himself.
“Before I’d set up my company I was asking dad quite a bit about why to do it,” Jack revealed.
“I guess it was more around his encouragement and belief in doing it on your own that pushed me.”
From creating TV shows, having a regular ‘Ad Lib’ column in the Sunday Observer, getting the first sponsorship for the Logies, inviting radio and TV reps around for Christmas pool parties and running marketing strategy for the biggest Toyota dealership in Melbourne to help a mate out, the self–professed client man Tony had many strings to his adland bow.
Ant, Tony and Jack
“In those days if you’ve got a good idea which equals a show, you’ve got shoes which are okay, you’ll do well and could quite easily get things on air,” he explained.
“They were starved for information, starved for ideas. In those days, there were three or four stations and they just wanted something new.
“It’s a bit like if you’re a writer for a newspaper and you’ve got a column to write every week, what are you going to put in it?”
Ant said while his dad’s stories paint a picture of a different time, his advice still rings true and plenty transcends through to what his agency does now.
“Like seeing that Christmas carol record he sent clients. We don’t do things as cool as that, but we still — knowing that dad used to send Easter eggs out — make sure that we hand out presents to clients each year,” Ant said.
“I think for me it’s a belief in yourself, to just back yourself, but also not to take it too seriously. We laugh through the stories and things like sending out a Christmas carol to your client as it’s about thinking outside the box, having fun, breaking the mould of it all. That’s what we try and do.”
So does Tony approve of the ads his sons work on?
“Ant will show dad something then dad calls me and says ‘did you see the ad Ant did? But it was a bloody fucking website, it’s not an ad,” Jack said.
Both Jack and Ant agree there’s a lot that people of this day and age could learn from that era about the way people worked, regardless of whether you’ve got your own business or not.
“It was far more personal and they were far ballsier back then,” Ant said.
“They did things — like dad’s rival Tom McFarlane — such as turning the heater up in the room before dad’s agency pitched. That stuff wouldn’t happen today because someone would worry and go, “oh fuck, I’m going to get fired for an occupational health and safety issue.
“You all know each other though, there should be a bit of a sense of humour amongst agencies.”
On the question of Ant would want his new baby Harvey to follow in his footprints, he said: “I want my kids to be happy in whatever they do in life. I’m proud to work in the industry, with great people. I’d be lucky if they felt the same about their profession.”
Wishing you a White Christmas: Tony gets creative with quirky record cover gifts for clients
What they say:
Harold Mitchell, Australian entrepreneur, founder of Mitchell & Partners:
“It was the end of 1975, which had been a very difficult year in Australia, the economy had turned sour with a vengeance. Unemployment and inflation were up and wages had exploded. The Labor Government was on its third treasurer and its third deputy Prime Minister since its election in 1972. And in November, the Whitlam Government was dismissed by the Governor General. It was that November that I had decided to leave a very secure job, and start a media buying service. Madness.
More than 40 years later it’s easy to see that this move to a buying service, and later embracing the digital age, was a pivotal change in advertising, both here and in the world.
"It became the future. It was the right thing to do, but I needed someone else with a vision that I had and the courage to support me. My first client was Tony White and his also fledging advertising company. For this alone, Tony White is a key part of Australian media history as anyone. A true giant of advertising.”
Tom McFarlane, M&C Saatchi founding creative director:
“I was a 19–year–old despatch boy when Tony gave me my first job as a copywriter and I’m still using all the tricks he taught me. His first words were: ‘Mate, your job is to write stuff that sells stuff’. It turned out to be sage advice.
And what I learned about showmanship went into every pitch I ever did at M&C. Like everyone who ever worked for him, I loved Tony, for his generosity, kindness and for being the irrepressible bloody larrikin that he is.”
Grant Rutherford, The Monkeys Melbourne ECD:
“I remember at Thomson White we’d just pitched for some business when I was walking past his office. Stupidly, I stopped at the door. Tony and the partners were in full–drinking–flight. Tony stopped the room. ‘Saw the pitch, you should learn how to fucking draw!’. Cue laughter. Young and stupid I said, ‘When you learn how to fucking walk’. The room went silent. Tony was famously pigeon–toed. Ages later he started laughing. ‘I like the boy’. Needless to say, I love him.”
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