Mike Sutherland and Ant Nelson
new wave creatives
Clients taking risks, contrasting skillsets and creating purposeful work: Decoding Ant and Mike
The adam&eveDDB ECDs reveal their working styles and ethos, reflect on their rise through the industry and relish in difference
26 January 2023
There are many misconceptions to working as a creative pair - the main one is that partners are so in sync that they're constantly finishing each other's sentences and thinking alike. While adam&eveDDB's ECDs Ant Nelson and Mike Sutherland have proven their compatibility having worked with each other since graduating at advertising college, they are also strikingly and remarkably different. And it's that difference that makes the dynamic work.
But through mutual respect and understanding of each other's strengths, they know how to bounce off each other and respond to briefs. Since joining the agency in 2016, after spending a decade creating award-winning work at AMV BBDO, they have gone on to make more industry-acclaimed spots. Their "Project 84" spot for male-suicide charity Campaign Against Living Miserably scooped up two gold and four silver Lions at Cannes two years ago and served to reverse public opinion on suicide by exposing the reality of people living with suicidal thoughts. The hard-hitting work also led to their promotion in helping run the agency's creative department. And it's a role they take seriously.
We caught up with the pair to find out about their early introductions to the industry, the power of applying creativity to everything they do and why bravery is so important in adland.
Creative Salon: What do you understand by creativity?
Mike Sutherland: Creativity means a lot of different things, depending on the circumstances but it always requires an overall view of using creative or lateral thinking to solve a challenge. This can encompass all sorts and be applied to anything. Advertising is what we do every day; but creativity lives in everything you do and everything around you. It refers to unusual and original ways of tackling something and solving that through creative thinking.
Ant Nelson: Creativity isn't just one thing. It's strange working in advertising clusters where ‘creatives’ are supposedly the only ones who are creative; that’s utter nonsense. Everyone in every aspect of their life is creative. I play with my two-year-old in the morning and am creative with the toys and garden stones. You're as creative there as when you're sat in front of a piece of paper trying to solve a brief every moment.
CS: What role did creativity play in your childhoods?
Ant: I was brought up in a tiny village in Yorkshire, in the middle of nowhere, where there was very little to do. You had to be quite creative, just to keep yourself entertained for 17 years. There was nothing around except stunning backdrops. When there's not a great deal of stimulation around, you have to make your own. One of the reasons I got into advertising was because I loved art and illustration.
Mike: I was definitely born a creative person as opposed to an academic person. Since I could walk, all I would do was draw and make characters up. My parents have hundreds of my scrapbooks filled with illustrations. I wasn't very interested in school. In my maths lessons, I would constantly doodle. My brain is very selective; I can remember specific details but with anything technical or legal, my brain just switches off.
CS: Did you both have a set idea of what you want to bring to the creative industries?
Ant: I knew I wanted to get into advertising way before I even went to advertising college. Because of my early exposure to the industry, I knew all the awards that I aspired to win like the D&AD’s yellow pencil - which we've luckily won a few times.
Mike: My main goal was just to get a job in advertising. I couldn't believe people got paid to do really cool and interesting things. Once I got that, my main goal was to keep it. I still can’t believe people pay me to come up with brilliant, weird, bonkers ideas. I've always been in love with advertising and that hasn't changed. I still pinch myself when I’m on-set or we’re filming something incredible.
CS: Any particular people who inspired or helped shape your journeys?
Ant: A relative of mine worked in the industry in Leeds and whenever we visited him, I was fascinated by the interesting things he showed me. He worked on Wrigley's and has every single chewing gum flavour or different pairs of jeans because of the accounts he worked on. I was so impressed I followed him into advertising. We've worked with some incredible ECDs – the likes of David Droga, Richard Flintham, Andy McLeod and amazing creatives at Fallon - who all directed our careers and shared guidance.
Mike: I try to be influenced by every single person; to steal little bits that they say or do. You learn just as much from people who are great as you do from people who are bad at what they do.
CS: What challenges did you come across within the industry?
Mike: I was born in South Africa but we both went to college together in Doncaster; it was always a bit of a pipedream to break into the glamorous world of advertising. We were fortunate to get a placement at Saatchi & Saatchi. We walked in a little shy and unsure of ourselves; particularly because most entrants had studied at Oxbridge and we hadn't. Despite this, people didn't seem to care about our backgrounds, it was all about the strength of our ideas, our enthusiasm and cultivating our creative thinking.
Ant: We set up the First Bite scheme (at adam&eveDDB) a few years ago to make entering the advertising industry easier for those who haven't been formally trained. It gives people with different backgrounds a chance to learn how to respond to a brief and write ideas. All responses are submitted anonymously so anybody can get on the scheme if their ideas stack up.
We give away six-month placements after the First Bite scheme; it's an opportunity to find out about the agency across departments - and there is scope for us to hire teams if they perform well and show willingness.
CS: How do you work as a creative pair?
Ant: We have very similar tastes. If our time is stretched, we split our responsibilities and come together later to review each other’s work. I can almost guarantee that the ideas Mike chooses are the ones I would have; there’s real unity between us.
Mike: We're different people and that helps. Where Ant is organized, I’m chaotic and scatter-brained. Our different personality traits feed into our creative work. Sometimes working as polar opposites means you can create brilliant work that individually we wouldn’t have reached.
Ant: Respect is another crucial aspect; you need respect if you have different opinions. It paves the way for better communication and means you see things from another perspective.
CS: Are there any particular conditions that you require for nurturing your creativity?
Ant: Peace and quiet. We always write our best work when we have our own office. There's an ongoing debate for open plan offices but there is huge value in closing the door, going away and not being on call or answerable to others. Both of us are extremely easily distracted to the point where I'd rather be sitting, looking at a brick wall. Even music can be too distracting sometimes.
Mike: Feed your brain; look at as many pictures or magazines as you can. Even if it doesn't help you instantaneously, it might inspire ideas later.
CS: Tell us about your creative solving process.
Ant: The older we get, the more important it is to fully understand the business problem we’re solving. When we were younger, we’d look at a brief and write directly to that. But now, we encourage more scrutinisation of the client’s business model to understand what we’re actually working to solve.
Mike: I always try to take a negative and turn it into a positive. Sometimes you get feedback on something that kills the idea. But stopping to react and embed the feedback into the work can often make it really good.
Ant: We try to look at every piece of work previously produced by the brand, to avoid copying what's gone before. We’ll even go as far as intentionally doing the opposite.
Mike: That's how we worked on the Curry's PC World Christmas ads with Jeff Goldblum (2017). The concept came from looking at the brand’s previous Christmas campaigns – which were very sweet and saccharine – and realising no one was doing anything funny, so we went for that.
CS: How do you commit to yourselves creatively?
Mike: I do things that stop me thinking about work. I run and stay active; because my brain is constantly on. I’ll wake up in the night and email myself 12 times. We've been told throughout our careers to put our pens down and go for a five-minute walk whenever we’re stuck and then come back to it. It really helps creativity and gives your brain a chance to regenerate to kick off again.
Ant: I’m the opposite to Mike - there’s a huge misconception around people having ideas in the shower. I've never had an advertising idea there in my entire life; why would I be thinking about a brief in the shower? As soon as I walk out of the office doors, I don’t think about advertising –all my downtime is taken up by my two-year-old.
CS: Do you have a favourite piece of work that you've created over the years?
Ant: Our "Project 84" for CALM was probably the most significant piece of work we’ve done. We weren’t just selling a product but considering how suicide affects people's lives to highlight the charity’s work. The campaign needed to actually resonate with people and it was a really satisfying project to work on.
Mike: I agree; it’s great working on varied briefs but projects that have a direct effect on people's lives and contribute to changing laws and reducing deaths motivate us and make us proud.
CS: What would you say excites you most about the advertising industry today?
Ant: The same thing that excited us 25 years back when we first entered the industry - the opportunity to build a brand from pretty much nothing to something great. It's the business of selling products but you can still have impact in the world by doing things well. AdamandEveDDB holds several charity accounts like the Red Cross and working on them is really rewarding. The industry has changed hugely throughout our careers - there's more channels to reach people and more outlets to get your message out but the same opportunities to influence people still exist.
Mike: The blank page of new brief always excites me - there's a million different ways to respond. As creative directors, I enjoy helping teams get that answer. The journey of how you approach a brief is still the same despite all the tech and digital developments of today; it's a process of experimenting and testing effectiveness. Every day is different in adland - part of the fun is not knowing what will be thrown at you and that continues to keep me creatively stimulated.
CS: What are the biggest challenges you facing today as creative leaders?
Ant: Time is one that we struggle with most. To be leaders of anything, you need time to sit with teams; sit with work; sit with clients; and sit with briefs. Everyone is so time-short and it’s a problem. I'd love to have three hours a day to sit down with the junior teams and map things out so they can learn properly. Carving out time to impart my knowledge is tricky to do.
Mike: It’s also difficult finding talent, and then nurturing and protecting them. That falls into the time thing as well. I want to give them the same opportunities we had when we started out. Working with great creatives helps steer careers and encourages creatives to do their best work. We have an open structure here and try to give everybody equal opportunity to respond to good briefs. When we started out, it was rare for junior teams to get a brief but that's changing; our First Bite graduates get good briefs the minute they come into the building. We want everyone to have a fair shot at working on everything and want people to fall in love with the creative journey.
Mike: People make work better; we had the privilege of working with David Droga at Saatchi’s who encouraged us to take our work into all the creatives down the corridor. He promised us that by the time we'd got to the end, our work would be better. And he was right; people provide feedback when they look at your work. It's advice we embed into our jobs as ECDs; and we continue to show our work to other teams for feedback.
Ant: Getting varied opinions on work is vital. Droga would ask the agency cleaners what they thought of his work, which I think is brilliant. Advertising is about selling products so it’s got to resonate with people regardless of who they are.
CS: What do you think the industry can do to raise its creative standards across the board?
Mike: We need to take more risks and strive to not play it safe. We're in the industry of standing out and getting people's attention. You have to think differently. CALM’s CEO Simon Gunning understood this perfectly; with the "Project84" campaign he essentially wanted us to be borderline illegal. But he knew it would get people talking about suicide and draw them in. It was scary but the risk paid off. Too many brands play it safe but getting people talking for the right reasons is vital.
Ant: Safe is dangerous. To raise the bar creatively, we have to be more creative. If we're all swimming in this same pool, then we'll never get noticed; we need to go above and beyond to make the industry better. If you're not intentionally bold, your creative thinking will never see the light of day. It all comes down to the bravery of the client and how much risk they're prepared to take.
CS: Any standout lessons you’ve gained throughout your careers that could help people following in your footsteps?
Ant: Treat people how you want to be treated. The industry is stressful enough and people can lose sight or easily forget that. Things get heated on-set where everything is under pressure, so treating people respectfully should be the base. I aim to give everyone an equal opportunity; mostly, people take it with both hands and run with it.
Mike: Leave your ego at the front door; there’s no need for it in our line of work. The nicer you are to people, the better work they will create and it will make for a nicer environment. Even David Droga, as CCO at Saatchi & Saatchi, would make time for a one-on-one chat with the most junior teams in the building; he was such a nice and normal person without an ego.
CS: Imagine advertising was banned. What would you both do with the rest of your lives?
Mike: I would retrain as an architect and try to design and make houses.
Ant: I'd probably end up building Mike's designs. I'm quite hands-on when it comes to DIY, so the idea of buying a property and doing it from scratch appeals. Advertising is fleeting; you create something and it's out in the world for a few weeks, before it’s gone. Architecture or property is hopefully there for generations and I bet there's something quite fulfilling about that.