Despite winning 22 awards this year, Adam & Eve/DDB’s Anthony Nelson (pictured above, left) and Mike Sutherland shy away from the limelight. The Campaign Big Awards trophies they picked up just days before Campaign visits them are strewn casually on their desks. And they weren’t keen when our photographer asked to include a few of their Cannes Lions trophies in the shoot.
It’s a breath of fresh air. Nelson and Sutherland are executive creative directors who don’t have big egos, despite being behind two of the biggest campaigns of the year. First was "Project 84", a chilling idea for the male-suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably, which, in partnership with ITV, installed hooded sculptures at the top of the broadcaster’s building to signal the number of men who end their lives every week. More recently, for John Lewis’ Christmas ad, they took the department store down a different path by using a celebrity in "The boy and the piano", documenting Elton John’s career in reverse.
Even when the pair talk about "Project 84", they credit the client Simon Gunning straight away, saying that the success came down to how he worked with them. "He had a very clear brief and he wanted something to get people talking, and having a small budget made us think differently," Nelson says. "He realised that in order to get any cut-through we needed to do something that was radically different," Sutherland adds.
That’s exactly what the creative duo helped the charity do, so much so that the government has appointed a suicide prevention minister.
Do Nelson and Sutherland think their humble nature is setting the path for a new wave of creative leadership? "The industry as a whole is changing," Nelson says. "Those characters just aren’t there any more. Rick [Brim, chief creative officer at Adam & Eve/DDB] is a big personality but he is the nicest person you’ll ever meet – that’s the thing, he’s a very caring guy, inside and outside work. He’s very sympathetic.
"It’s tricky to work under someone [with a big ego] too – always feeling like you’re going to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing, it’s not the way to encourage the best out of people. It doesn’t mean you’re weak or soft, it’s just a different mentality, a different way of helping people."
Sutherland adds that this extends to directors, whereas 10 to 15 years ago, he says, they would "scream and shout" at agencies and have tantrums. "You just can’t behave like that," he explains. "Now, some of the directors we work with are very hands-on, they’ll come over and say: ‘Are you happy with that? What do you think?’ [The industry is] much better for it."
The duo has been working together for 21 years since day one, teaming up at Doncaster College in 1997. "We’ve never worked with anyone else, not even trying other partners while we were at college, which is encouraged," Nelson says.
They moved to London in 1998 and joined Saatchi & Saatchi. A few months in, David Droga became executive creative director, which Nelson and Sutherland say was "the best thing that ever happened to us", because he gave the pair the opportunity to work on good briefs. Droga took away hierarchy among the creative teams and "opened the whole department so that everyone could work on everything".
After a two-year stint at Publicis New York from 2002, the pair moved back to London to work at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO for 10 years, where they created award-winning work for Snickers, Guinness and Currys PC World. Then came Adam & Eve/DDB in 2016, where this year they were appointed executive creative directors.
Droga has influenced the pair greatly, teaching them to "treat people the way you want to be treated", give everyone a chance to work on all briefs because "creatives are only happy if they have at least one piece of good work", and spend more time with teams to give feedback on their work but also learn about their personal lives.
Sutherland recalls that Droga would encourage them to walk around the Saatchi & Saatchi office with their work to get a range of opinions. "It’s that sort of learning that we encourage here," he says.
For the future of the industry, Nelson and Sutherland are all for moving away from the "white-male heavy" creative departments, but also for hiring people from industries outside advertising, such as artists and writers.
The appointment of their quiet yet strong leadership signals an ad agency landscape that has already begun changing.