Within the space of a few months, Saatchi & Saatchi brought in Tony Granger, a South African, from Bozell/New York to run its creative department in London; Grey London's then chief executive, Garry Lace, raided Mojo Partners in Australia to recruit Dave Alberts as his agency's creative saviour and Ogilvy & Mather finally nailed its seven-month-long creative vacancy by persuading the New Zealander Malcolm Poynton (with a few years in London already under his belt) to quit Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney for the UK.
The arrival of each was attended by a fanfare from their employers, yet their hiring was also greeted with a degree of discomfort in the industry.
For a market that has always considered itself pre-eminent for creative excellence, the idea that three of our biggest agencies needed to bring in overseas talent to shore up and overhaul their creative departments raised inevitable questions. Are the UK's creatives being adequately trained to manage departments? Is managing a creative department quite a different job, requiring very different skills, from being a great creative practitioner? Were these agency vacancies simply tough challenges that too few homegrown talents cared to rise to? Or has the UK really got something to learn from the way creative departments are run overseas?
In truth, all three recruits have yet to establish themselves among the greatest names in UK advertising, although, in fairness, all have joined agencies that have been through periods of turmoil and change.
Now, though, a year on - give or take a month or two - the creative invaders from the southern hemisphere have had time to reflect on the UK advertising environment into which they have been placed and form opinions. What do they really think of the UK ad industry now they're on the inside?
Dave Alberts Chairman, Grey London
Being asked this question for the 23rd time since my arrival, it reminds me of an interview with Jerry Seinfeld as he disembarked from his Qantas jet in my hometown. "Tell me, Jerry, what do you think of Melbourne?" Looking around, Seinfeld answered: "You have a beautiful tarmac." The more I am asked the question "what do you think of UK advertising", the more I realise there is a fine line between the ever-present desire to be recognised for greatness and a distinct lack of self-confidence.
Yet no wonder the industry is having doubts. At a recent conference, no fewer than three different speakers stood up and claimed advertising as we know it is dead. Call me naive (call me Australian, for that matter), but when I look at some of the work I have seen since I have been here, there is still life in the old industry yet. If ever there was a demonstration of the power of advertising, the success of 118 118 is it. Not only did it work, it worked in every medium known to mankind.It's famous and famous for the right reason. Mother's Coca-Cola campaign is the best Coke has done for years.
Finally, somebody has been confident enough to go back and do a real "real thing" commercial - the Honda campaign, as simple and effective as Union Carbide's "Watch the birdie".
All these are wonderful advertising ideas based on simple product or brand truths, as powerful today as ideas have ever been. And that's why our industry is by no means dead. Yet one client I spoke with, who has recently arrived to these shores, commented he was surrounded with some of the most intelligent people in the world, people who could write encyclopedias on the "theory of doing nothing".
He wished he could find more people who believed in getting on and doing something. And this, I agree, is the biggest challenge the industry faces.
Too many people talking and not enough people doing. Too many people worrying about what other industry people are thinking, not enough fresh thinking (I once gave a chief executive I worked with a pair of blinkers and ear plugs for Christmas and was convinced he became ten times a better adman as a result).
So what do I think of the UK industry? I think you've got beautiful tarmac and that great ideas will always take off.
Tony Granger Executive creative director, Saatchi & Saatchi
As I was crammed on a pavement outside our local the other day, enjoying a warm pint in the almost-spring sunshine, I noticed a joke scrawled on a blackboard that made me smile. The definition of a cynic: "A man who, when he sees flowers, looks for the funeral."
It's been almost a year since I arrived as a Johnny Foreigner. It was quite a culture shock to be confronted by cynicism in all its glory. After a while, though, I began to understand that it drives the humour and very persona of local culture. I have actually begun to enjoy it and love it.
The talent in London has blown me away. There are some very smart, articulate and inspiring people here. This is the only place where creatives don't need to search for great ads in award reels to be inspired. All they have to do is go home and turn on the TV. They are bound to see two or three that will make them jealous and want to get into work the next day to try harder.
More importantly, though, is that the punters are also being exposed to these spots. It works wonderfully in research. We have often been in a situation where consumers have chosen the radical ideas rather than the stuff that plays it safe.
From what I can see, the biggest difference between US and British work is that in the States you have to be direct. Big humour works well; it can almost be slapstick. In the UK, on the other hand, the ad can be a journey. A discovery that resolves in the last five seconds. The humour can be more intellectual, far more dry. The UK vignette thing just wouldn't go down there at all. And, on the other hand, the US in-your-face humour just doesn't go down here.
The past year at Saatchi & Saatchi was about building a partnership with Kevin Dundas and together reconstructing and re-inventing the way we work.
It was about creating a more multicultural, collaborative environment, free from politics, where great ideas flourish, no matter where they come from. It was also about getting the right team in place. People who want continually to prove themselves, who are hungry and passionate with fire in their eyes.
It's in place. The heavy lifting is done. The team is working together wonderfully. We're focused on creating big ideas that transform our clients businesses and brands. It's been a fantastic journey so far. And that's exactly why I came to London in the first place - to work in the most exciting and progressive ad industry on the planet.
Malcolm Poynton Executive creative director, Ogilvy & Mather London
The UK advertising scene has always had a unique pulling power over creatives, myself included. There's an unmatched legacy of past achievement, a concern for high standards reflected in institutions such as D&AD and Creative Circle, a feeling of greater creative freedom than elsewhere and a confidence that encourages you to strive for great work. Returning here after two years in Australia, I'd say that some of these qualities have held up, while others are under threat.
One continuing advantage of the UK market compared with the US and elsewhere is the role of planning. It's used here more to thrash out the strategy and positioning, rather than merely used to stake out a general territory within which creatives can "play". Planning brings a rigour to the way we work here and it shows in the end product.
I'm encouraged that the industry has become more willing to work with media other than television and print. Time spent in a smaller market shows you the idiocy of dwelling on distinctions between above and below the line when you consider what marketers actually need.
However, this has generated a new set of problems. I worry that budgets have remained flat, or even been reduced, while expectations of what can be achieved with those budgets has increased. You cannot indefinitely stretch the same money across more and more channels. Tighter cost control at every level, plus increased attention from the procurement brigade, has highlighted this situation.
At the same time, I think the industry's status within client companies has been allowed to slip, as has marketing's as a whole. Where are the board-level marketing directors? We desperately need champions of effective creativity within our client organisations as well as within our own.
That means helping them to argue their (our) case. We can only do this by demonstrating an understanding of their total business needs, instead of being content to churn out "creative-by-the-yard".
We also have to address the structural implications of these changes within our own organisations. I've chosen to flatten the structure of the creative department at O&M (as we've done across Ogilvy), adding creative partners to share client-facing responsibilities and moving away from the old, rigid pyramid approach. The industry as a whole could usefully rethink its attitude to hierarchy, given the mobility of its employees and the reduced security we can offer them these days.
On a personal level, I'm thrilled to be back and confident that we, as an industry, are equal to whatever challenges are thrown at us. After all, if the English can finally learn how to play rugby, everything's possible.