Sean Cummins

7 April 2016

Sean Cummins is this year's inductee into the AdNews Advertising Hall of Fame. Sean Cummins is the founder of independent full-service agency Cummins&Partners, named AdNews Agency of the Year for 2013. The advertising heavyweight re-entered the industry in 2011 with business partner Jason Ross following a stint of client-side gardening leave on the board of the Hawthorn Football Club after the sale of his agency, the first Cummins&Partners, to SapientNitro in 2009. One of the country's most recognisable ad men, Cummins started his career at George Patterson before heading to Publicis Mojo, first as national creative director and later as New Zealand chief executive.

Cummins now joins last year's inductee Whybin\TBWA chairman Scott Whybin, Clemenger BBDO executive chairman Robert Morgan, Droga5 founder David Droga and Harold Mitchell and other esteemed industry figures in the AdNews Advertising Hall of Fame.

“I’m a Frankenstein,” Sean Cummins tells me when we talk ahead of the Hall of Fame announcement. “A Frankenstein of all the really interesting people who were good teachers and good mentors who bothered to say something to me. I’m just carrying the DNA of all these great people from Jim Kiernan, Mike Dornau, Bruce Stainsby and Cesare Leonardi and Rod Curtis.”

A somewhat divisive figure in the Australian market, Cummins’ ego is often said to precede him, but he is philosophical and humble about the Hall of Fame accolade.

“I’m a collaborator so when you’re honouring me, you’re honouring all the people I’ve collaborated with and been mentored by,” he goes on to say.

“It’s a fascinating moment to be honoured in the Hall of Fame because I think it’s probably 20 years too early for me. It’s this existential thing where you go, ‘Have I really done everything? Am I deserving of that? I’m not sure. Does it mean I’m at the nadir of my existence?’ The reality is I think it’s bloody great, I’m incredibly flattered. I’m feeling a little bit unworthy.”

He may indeed have another 20 years ahead of him, but what he’s achieved in the last decade is well worthy of recognition. He built a feted independent Australian agency, sold it for millions and within the space of four years has built another successful global independent agency network.
The drive behind that comes from a wildly passionate love affair with advertising that goes way back to his youth when he became “besotted” with TV ads. For Cummins advertising is his “calling” and he’s been vocal in recent years about the what a travesty it is that the industry has lost its pride and is shying away from calling itself ‘advertising’ by hiding behind terms such as “branded content’.

“This business is a calling. I never had a screenplay burning a hole in my pocket, nothing on the sidelines. I love advertising… You will never get bored in advertising and if you do, you’re doing it wrong,” he proclaims.

He quickly became hooked on the advertising world and the people in it after a family friend let him spend time at his agency Pope, Kiernan and Black (founder of AWARD School Ray Black). A short-lived stint at George Patterson in Sydney was followed by a more successful stint in 1985 at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample in Melbourne (which merged into Saatchi&Saatchi in the 80s). It was here he got to work on the Toyota account when it was launching the ‘Oh what a feeling’ tagline that is still used in Australia 30 years later. From that and a longer stint at Melbourne’s Leonardi and Curtis, Cummins found an enduring passion for big ideas and long-lasting campaigns.

“Long running campaigns when an idea is more than just an execution have always turned me on. Working on a campaign like ‘Oh, What a Feeling’ taught me so much about creating architecture for a brand to create a long-lasting dialogue with the consumer.

“That had a profound impact on me and it probably explains why many years later I was able to do campaigns like ‘I Bought a Jeep’ and the ‘Don’t Hold Back’ campaign because it’s very much about finding that centre of gravity for the brand and sticking with it relentlessly.”

As you’d expect there is an immense pride from Cummins about the campaigns he feels have defined his career. Working on Toyota, the RSCPA ‘All things great and small’ campaign that emerged from Leonardi and Curtis, a piece of brand work that is still going strong. Then there’s the ‘You’ll love every piece of Victoria’ work for Tourism Victoria that came out of Mojo in 1993 when he was there and ran for 22 years “until the premier of Victoria decided he’s a better advertising person than I am and decided to end the campaign,” he says, with just a tinge of resentment.

‘I bought a Jeep’, the campaign Cummins&Partners developed for the car brand five years ago could mirror that kind of longevity and be around for the next 15 years, he reckons, such is his faith and belief in enduring ideas and his confidence in the work produced by Cummins&Partners globally.

All is not well, however in the world of Advertising that Cummins loves.

“I always believe that our job is to create equity for a brand so they have something where you don’t have to go back to square one every time. If you can build on the equity then you’ve got a chance to do something really profound.

“Unfortunately, the difference is most people are looking for that quick win, that quick award, that quick bit of creative so they can cash in on it and go somewhere else for more money and do the whole thing again.”

Cummins is no doubt confident in his own talents, and that of his agency, and despite an awards chest that could be envied by most, he doesn’t believe that awards are the great measure of success they are held up to be. A world with fewer or even none at all would suit him – there’s no apology that we are talking because he is the recipient of the AdNews Hall of Fame award, or that two years ago his agency was named the AdNews Agency of the Year and its work has won countless other awards globally.

“I don’t have to win awards to think I’m doing a good job. What I’m most concerned about is that people have something more valuable than an award. So many award shows are like FIFA and eventually they’re going to be found out. There has always been a lot of corruption, work that shouldn’t win. I would love it if there were no more awards because that’s when the real talent would step up and the motivation would shift from winning awards to doing work that makes your clients famous. I think we’ve forgotten to instil those values into our creative people.”

“The whole point of advertising is not to be fashionable but we’ve gotten to this trend where it’s trying not to be advertising. We don’t have to be popular, we don’t have to be liked. We have to be heard but [right now] it’s kind of all feathers and no meat, I’m not seeing a lot of good insights or a lot of good thinking.”

Cummins&Partners, the agency which began four years ago as CumminsRoss, has always aimed to fuse creative and media back together. It’s an idea he is still dedicated to. Now global, with offices in Melbourne, Sydney, New York Adelaide and Toronto, Cummins won’t be drawn on any kind of financials except to say it is profitable, in the top three agencies in Australia and “doing very well.”

“I’ll leave that for people to speculate. We’re not beholden to anybody and that makes us an incredibly different dynamic. If we want to spend the next five years losing money in New York, who cares, it’s our money. What we’ve done in five years is nothing short of incredible.”

His first agency CumminsNitro was sold to Sapient back in 2009 for a figure allegedly closing in on $35 million - an offer he “couldn’t refuse”. Second time around he has learned lessons and fixed things he got wrong the first time around. One major aspect of that is the partners he chooses. Having more of them and being more generous with equity. And by equity he means “real equity, not phantom stuff, not bullshit profit schemes”. It’s not a case of building something to sell it this time around, but that’s not to say that he won’t ever sell.

“The mind-set of the agency is not to grow, grow, grow and then sell. We are an independent and it’s becoming more and more valuable to be an independent than ever before. Independent thinking is sorely missing in this industry because everyone is beholden [to networks]. I’d never say never but that’s not the motivation.”

After netting something in the region of $35m, and having the luxury for one of his shops to work at a loss of five years if he wanted to, his coffers are clearly fully lined. So does Cummins even need to work?

“It’s an interesting question, because what is need? The answer is yes, I need to work, but not because of the money. My life hasn’t been one long-charmed existence. I’ve got some personal challenges to overcome in terms of my onward journey as a human being, but work gives you purpose. It gives you relevance. And everyone in life no matter whether you’re Rupert Murdoch or whether you’re Sean Cummins, you want to stay relevant.

“Anyone can tell you that when someone retires or takes the foot off the pedal or decides to just chuck it all in because they’ve had a bad day or a bad week or even a bad year that they slowly lose their relevance. And when you lose your relevance, you lose yourself.” No chance of that for now.

Welcome to the Hall of Fame Mr Cummins.
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