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Investing in long-term talent relationships can pay dividends, but also talent can turn around and bite you, says Gawen Rudder, principal of The Knowledge Consultancy, Sydney


Over two decades Andre Agassi reaped US$200 million in endorsement deals, and closer to home he featured in a series of Jacobs Creek advertorials for cumminsandpartners. (There was even talk at the time that Mr and Mrs Agassi had bought a 15 percent stake in the agency.) I think I first saw Magda Szubanski back around 2003 as talent on Ted Horton’s quirky Let’s do it, let’s fly Jetstar campaign after then-boss Alan Joyce tapped Dewey Horton to launch the low-cost airline.

Investing in long-term talent relationships with retail brands pays dividends as is evident with Big Red’s decade-long campaign with Curtis Stone for Coles. This contrasts with the apparent on-again-off-again genial Jamie Oliver appearances for Woolworths.

As the ABC Mojo doco last year reminded us, Mo and Jo were past masters of leveraging raw talent to build a brand. Take Tooheys: they showcased sporting teams and familiar faces like yachtsman, the late Ian Kiernan, a top surfer of the day, footy and cricket players, baseballers, lifesavers, rodeo riders and faces at the races. The boys backed up with some outrageous Billy Birmingham radio and individual cameos of artist Ken Done and legendary drinker and batsman Doug Walters, who scored a record 44 not out (number of beers downed flying Sydney-London).

The ongoing Uber Eats campaign is a textbook example of the clever use of revolving talent, perhaps a little like the 14-year ‘I Feel Like a Tooheys’ campaign. Special Group + Glue Society launched the campaign in November 2017 with the likes of Sophie Monk and Naomi Watts. Into the campaign’s second year, we saw the coupling of Lee Lin Chin and Ray Martin. The more recent Kim Kardashian and Magda, and the topical tennis antics in the ‘Tonight I’ll be eating’ episode raises the obvious question – ‘okay, but with almost 50 different TVCs later, how long can the campaign run?’

Then there’s the idea of putting together a collection (or choir) of like-minded talent. Some will remember the 1972 gathering of the party faithful, singing along to Mike Shirley’s jingle of Paul Jones’ brilliantly successful ‘It’s Time’ ALP campaign. The agency was McCann (back when it was Labor-leaning Hansen-Rubensohn McCann-Erickson). A pale imitation of this was created by MDA and Mojo in their forgettable ‘Celebration of the Nation’ mass extravaganza for the 1988 Bicentennial.

Yes, talent can turn around and bite you. Like those drunken, drugged or downright dopey rugby league players, Bali bar bashers and other fallen sports and entertainment personalities, marketers and agencies can be left with egg on their face when dealing with difficult and demanding talent.

Getting Clive James to come back to his beloved Sydney for Telstra was the easy part. Dealing with the great man was a nightmare. Much to the chagrin of the agency copywriter, James completely re-wrote the scripts time and time again, his wonderous verbosity turned 30s into 60s and at the last moment, and on the set, he refused to use the client’s name. That, and he over-stayed his welcome at his 5-star harbourside hotel.

He probably failed because he’d become a powerful brand himself and as an influencer, had little connection with telecommunications. Call it ‘The Vampire Effect.’ They were Clive James ads, not Telstra ads – quietly withdrawn and since forgotten.

Beware also over-exposed talent. We’re talking about you Shane Jacobson, (his bio is longer than this article), that ubiquitous IGA bloke in those truck ads, one-off TV shows, comperes reality programs and in re-run of old movies with Paul Hogan; or Ray Meaghen, that old codger from Home and Away who keeps his agent busy with stuff for a drug-free leg boosters, Go Daddy, Optus and anything else that turns up before he retires.

The Royals (no, not the Melbourne/Sydney indy) are pretty active in the influencer advertising space with over prized Royal Warrants dispensed to over 800 companies and, curiously, tradespeople. Between the Queen, Prince Phillip and Prince Charles, the three have granted permission to advertise the coveted seal of approval to companies from Aston Martin to Yardley, to no less than seven Champagnes (from Bollinger to Veuve), and yes, a local car repairer and panel beater. The latter would prove handy should there be the odd dent in the Land Rover Freelander.

Certain companies such as agencies and PR consultancies are precluded from warrants, so we are not aware of Andrew’s PR people, although there was a veritable race to the bottom of organisations wishing to disassociate themselves from The Hapless Prince.

There is a long list of how successful influencers, like Cate Blanchett, Sam Kekovich, and John Meillon, or Mr Sheen, Louie the Fly and Sid the Seagull. Check out a few classics from yesteryear on YouTube: Orson Wells’ not for Xerox spot (written by John Searle of Murray Evans all those years ago) or one of the Ronnie’s saucy spot for Vulcan heaters and perhaps the Marlboro Man. (Back stories on some of these remarkable talents might well be part of another article). Suffice to say, Leo Burnett transformed a cigarette targeted at women into a macho brand, although the tragic fact is, many of the cowboy talent died of lung cancer.

John Bevins and Paul Fishlock have both written passionate and powerful pieces for various Cancer Councils over the years, and Phillip Adams, Peter Bes and the late Alex Stitt’s 1981 ‘Slip! Slop! Slap!’ campaign for skin cancers has stood the test of time.

But what sticks in my mind is the powerful TVC for the American Cancer Society which stars – if that’s the right word – Yul Brynner, the chrome-domed actor immortalised in The King and I. He was a heavy smoker and lived out his last days stricken with lung cancer. The King however, wreaked revenge on his killers. In the commercial by McCaffery & McCall, New York and aired after his death, he told viewers what he really wanted to leave the world with the plea “Now that I’m gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke, whatever you do, just don’t smoke.”