Ben Welsh: DDB Australia's creative connoisseur

Paige Murphy
By Paige Murphy | 21 February 2020

This first appeared in the AdNews February edition. Subscribe here for your copy.

The ’80s was a decadent era for advertising. Pre-global financial crisis there was more cash to splash, long lunches and flashy cars.

The lifestyle — and more importantly, the Porsches — were enough to entice a young Ben Welsh into adland. Thirty years later, he’s still here.

Welsh has gained a reputation for being one of Australia’s top creatives and he owes this career path to his wife, Kirsten. If she hadn’t been working at Clemenger during the ’80s, it’s very likely Welsh might have become a winemaker.

Since then, he has worked his way up from McCann to DDB Melbourne, followed by M&C Saatchi, where he was for nearly 20 years, and back to DDB. Last year, he was elevated from chief creative officer of DDB Sydney to the national role, which expanded his remit to both Sydney and Melbourne.

His work has been highly celebrated around the world, scoring awards at Cannes, D&AD, The Effies, AdFest, OneShow and Caples. This wasn’t the adulthood he had imagined for himself as a child though.

Born in London, Welsh spent his childhood in the UK capital before a family move saw him spend his teen years in northern England’s Lake District.

“The Lake District was beautiful growing up there,” he says. “There was not a lot to do and it rained a lot, which meant you got up to a lot of things you probably shouldn’t do.

“Things I shouldn’t have done was steal lead from a roof and sell it to make money; let off a firework rocket in the bathroom having thought we’d removed all the gunpowder from it but we hadn’t; nearly shoot my father’s foot off with a shotgun. There were many things. I suppose being curious is something that was always there.”

Growing up, it was careers in science and medical fields that interested him most. Working in advertising or a creative field had never really crossed his mind.

He went from wanting to become a vet, and then a doctor, before deciding on marine biology. But he soon found out that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

“You have dreams of the Great Barrier Reef, working with dolphins, studying turtles,” he says.

“I found the reality was being knee-deep in mud digging up clams, which was quite interesting because they shouldn’t have been there. They were only there because the water was warm and it shouldn’t be because of the power station. But that wasn’t what I had in mind.”

He enrolled in a master’s degree in entomology at the University of Cambridge, which he failed but the silver lining was meeting the woman that would become his future wife.

Wine not
Welsh’s first foray into copywriting stems back to working in a wine store in the UK. During his time working in the bottle shop, he was asked to write descriptions for each of the wines to help customers decide on what to buy.

“I remember one of my first headlines was for Louis Roederer rosé champagne. It was £17.99 and I wrote on the bin card, ‘Better than your first orgasm',” he says.

“It worked brilliantly because people would be walking down the aisle and they’d see the sign, chuckle and say things like, ‘I can’t remember mine,’ but I got their attention.”

ben-cannes.jpgBen Welsh at Cannes Lions in 2005

His love of wine sent him on his way to Australia where he worked at the Mount Mary vineyard in the Yarra Valley for 10 weeks. Afterwards, he became a wine sales representative which he found “depressing”.

Unsure of what to do with his life, Welsh spent his time in awe of the world Kirsten was working in.

“I used to pick her up from work and people had Porsches, they had fun, they didn’t work too hard and I thought, ‘I’d like to do that’,” he says.

He still loved wine though and couldn’t decide between the two. He let fate decide instead.

“I applied for copy school and also a winemaking degree in South Australia,” he says.

“I decided whatever gets approved first, I will do. I got into copy school before the other degree so that was the beginning.”

Rising up the ranks
A partial white lie told by the head of TV at McCann saw Welsh score his first job. She had them believe he was about to be snapped up by Ted Horton so they should hire him because he was a star they shouldn’t miss out on. She wasn’t wrong about how talented he was though.

Welsh says he was lucky to be a junior during the recession that hit in the ’90s. Cheaper than his mid-level and senior peers, he believes it propelled him into opportunities he may not have had otherwise.

Eventually some of his senior team made the move to DDB Melbourne and asked him to join. There he met the Toms — Tom Dery and Tom McFarlane. Welsh recalls Dery having “the nicest hands in advertising!"

The Toms soon left to head up Maurice and Charles Saatchi’s newer agency. In 1997, they recruited Welsh to join them at M&C Saatchi. He would go on to spend the largest portion of his career there.

Over the course of 19 years, he rose up the ranks to become creative chairman of Asia for the business and went from working with a team of 40 people to 400 when he left in 2016.

Welsh cites McFarlane as one of the biggest influences on his career, alongside Kirsten and fellow adman Fysh Rutherford. Some of his best advice has been influenced by his learnings from working with McFarlane.

“When you’re presenting work, you’re imagining the idea out there in the market; you’re imagining people interacting with it,” he says.

“You’re imagining the impact of that work, but that work will never happen if you can’t convince the person you’re selling it to that it should happen.

“That doesn’t matter whether you’re a creative team showing it to your creative director. It’s absolutely critical when you’re selling it to the client — and I think this is the one thing Tom McFarlane is particularly good at — he didn’t really imagine the idea outside the room too much. He would sell it to the person on the other side of the table.”

Learn and lead
Aside from being a top-notch creative, Welsh’s wisdom and leadership style are widely recognised across the industry. He is also a keen learner. Constantly absorbing ideas and information from those around him, he is packed full of good advice.

“No matter how clear it is in your head, it doesn’t mean anyone else is seeing what you’re seeing, and that’s a constant frustration,” he says.

“I get excited about potential as much as I do about when you realise the potential, and I think that’s way too soon because you have to get it to be great before you can get truly excited. I’m looking at it, ‘Oh, this could be amazing.’ You never stop learning.

“Another piece of advice my father taught me is it’s your job to make everyone want to go to work on a Monday morning. If you just think about that, you need to create an environment where people want to be there and then everything else follows.”

tara-ben---office-variant.jpgDDB Sydney chief creative officer Tara Ford with Ben Welsh

This mantra is clear in his role with DDB Australia. Succession planning and promotions appear to be at the heart of DDB’s creative department.

Since being elevated to his national role, Welsh’s creative team have jumped up the ladder with him. This includes Tara Ford, one of his most coveted hires, who recently took on Welsh’s previous role as chief creative officer of DDB Sydney.

Ford is another of the nation’s top creatives but she is one of only a handful of females who sit in a senior creative leadership role in Australia.

Welsh admits his interest to work with her stemmed back to when he was at M&C Saatchi.

“I’d always wanted to hire Tara,” he says.

“I remember ringing her up at M&C Saatchi to see if she was interested in moving to Sydney. She wasn’t, so that was disappointing.”

Finally, he managed to scoop her up as executive creative director of DDB Sydney. He says the pair work well together, complementing each other’s attributes and skill sets. It was Ford who made him aware of the “unconscious bias” that occurs when women aren’t working in creative roles.

“She pointed out that you get a completely different view of the world if you have women looking at it,” he says. “This should have been obvious but because all the suits are women, nearly all the clients are women. Women in advertising are omnipresent but they’re not there in creative.

“Tara brought a point of view that was necessary.”

Moving forward, he is giving Ford her own space in Sydney to lead as he works between both offices.

Meanwhile, when he isn’t writing for his wine blog Wine Under 20, Life Over 50, he has learned to take on an important role mentoring his team. So how would he describe his new role?

“I think it is chief coach as much as anything else, and therefore you coach people accordingly and you have to let people do things,” he says.

“I think the danger in pushing people forward is you push yourself back, but you need to do it because they’re the future.

“You can’t do things for them because then they’re not doing it themselves, but at the same time, you don’t want them to make mistakes. We’re all coaches, we’re all teachers. I still actually write ads — I probably shouldn’t — but you move from doing that to actually pushing people forward. I really believe in that.” 

In their words..

Tom McFarlane
Ben is a contradiction.
Whilst undeniably creative, he is an improbable ad guy.
Ample proof lies in the words chosen to describe him, by three of his former creative colleagues in a quick ring around.
There was no a hint of the usual clichés. Instead I got descriptors like – considerate, romantic, fey, gentlemanly, debonair, wise, emotional, sensitive, witty.
Reading this list I can’t help but wonder how he and I got on so well, for so long. But Ben is definitely different.
That’s why we all love him.
And that’s why he is so good at what he does.
He is a beautiful writer, because he writes from the heart.
His ideas are formed from a life that is never orthodox. (Just ask him about his carport)
While I didn’t realise it at the time, it was my lucky day when this posh sounding, pommy, Cambridge educated microbiologist walked into my office at JWT in St Kilda Road, wanting to ‘get into advertising.’
It was to be the beginning of a wonderful, mutually rewarding relationship that has spanned two cities, two agencies and M&C
outposts all around the world.
Ben was my very first creative hire at the fledgling M&C Saatchi Sydney office, when I convinced him to leave DDB Melbourne and venture north.
It was another lucky day, because without Ben, M&C Saatchi wouldn’t be the agency it is today.
Ironically, he left us two decades later to be Chief Creative Officer at DDB, where he has done an outstanding job.
I’m immensely proud of Ben.
And I miss him hugely.
Fortunately, The Dolphin is just across the street from my Greenhouse office and (sort of) on his way home – so we will still meet often for a quick beer.
And he still makes me laugh in his inimitable Ben Welsh way.
I hope he always will.

IAG CMO Brent Smart
I have to thank Ben Welsh for my current job. We did an NRMA campaign together nearly 20 years ago at M&C, it featured an INXS song and it was the last time NRMA had used Help (until I bought it back last year). When I say together, I mean he came up with it and I was just the suit who sold it. When I was interviewing to be CMO here, my history with that ad helped clinch the deal, everyone at IAG still loved it after all that time. And that's what makes Ben special. He can come up with the big, enduring brand ideas that live on 20 years later. A dying art in our business. As it seems is the charm and humility of the man himself.

Exit Films executive producer Leah Churchill-Brown
I have worked with Ben since Telstra was Telecom. I loved that he was recruited by Tom McFarlane from Mt Mary Vineyard. No traditional working through the ranks for him. And he had a Jack Russell.

What is not to like about working with Ben? He has strong opinions but is open to discussion. He is a collaborator who acknowledges talent in the team he has built around him. Inclusiveness and respect are inherent in his approach to everyone that he meets. He knows a good idea; he loves to write (to which his wine blog is testament) and is at his best when creating a project and working with people who do as well.

Henri’s Hands is still one of my favourite projects that he made with Garth Davis. Above all it’s the story/concept/that drives Ben. From an industry peer review perspective DDB being voted agency of the year 2018 encapsulates Ben’s abilities. The reason we all do what we do is as much because of the people we do it with as it is about doing good work. When you work with Ben, he owns this ethos and that’s why he is so good to work alongside.

Johannes Leonardo creative director Jono Flannery
I had the pleasure of working with Ben for five years at M&C Saatchi Sydney. I remember being incredibly intimidated by his intelligence, but never by his demeanour. In five years, I never saw him break a sweat or raise his voice. This was even more impressive considering some of the ideas I put in front of him. I was often tempted to see if I could ever make him lose it. Just to see if it was possible. He has an amazing ability to distil an idea down to its simplest form. Not many people can tell you what your own idea is better than you. This is something I’ve tried, with limited success, to replicate and I can only imagine comes with a long career at the creative coalface. On top of this, he’s a genuinely nice bloke, particularly given the amount of pressure that comes with the jobs he’s had. I’d love to work for him again one day.

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