Leo Premutico: Find your Gawen

Leo Premutico: Find your Gawen

By Aussie expat Leo Premutico, Founder and Creative Chairman of Johannes Leonardo, New York.


If you’re lucky you will find someone who believes in you more than you believe in yourself.

Advertising is one of those professions where initially there’s not a lot of hard evidence for whether you’re up to the task. And growing up on the outskirts of western Sydney didn’t spoil you with loads of examples of people turning their creativity into a career.

As a young creative your confidence is out there desperately seeking validation. Depending on who you come across, depending if someone shares the same taste – sometimes you get that validation, sometimes you don’t.

But the believe-in-you part is different. That isn’t about your present output. That’s when someone, without you giving them a viable reason, makes you feel that you have what it takes to succeed. When someone instills in you the belief to will your passion into existence.

My first taste of it was interviewing for the AFA. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I met Gawen Rudder. Or rather he met an overly-enthusiastic, overly-nervous, twenty-year-old. He sat on a panel along with a dozen other agency heads as we, the batch of newly graduated students, made a case for why we deserved to be one of the few selected for a nine-month long traineeship.

The group of us who eventually made the cut would meet every few weeks. Gawen had a way of turning Australian advertising history into folklore. Somehow it made the career we were embarking on feel much more vital than hyping up a packaged good or promoting a limited time discount. No this stuff could get a country singing, weeping, slapping on some sunscreen or clacking in a belt buckle.

After meetings with Gawen the advertising gods always felt within reach. He had an account background but the creative work was always what drove him. He was a statesman but often acted like the least experienced person in the room so others felt free to share their full-selves. No one made more time for up-and-coming talent and no one had more love for Australian advertising.

Then just as I had secured my first official creative gig. Just as my confidence was beginning to brew. I was asked into an office and fired. Funny how confidence comes crumbling down much quicker than it builds.

I remember two moments after this. Vividly. One was chugging into my parent’s driveway. Sat in my VW running through ways to explain what had happened. The other was sitting on the steps of the AFA. Sunlit. Early afternoon. Next to Gawen. Just his presence was reassuring enough. But he volunteered to introduce me to Matthew Melhuish and Warren Brown. A few weeks later there I was, tucked away beside Warren at the only available desk in their burgeoning young agency, BMF.

Thanks to Gawen I had another shot. And I wasn’t going to waste this one.

Growing up with both pairs of Nonna & Nonno around the corner, Gawen represents something that has always been important to me. Through-lines between the past, the present and the future. My dad. My grandfather. My goalkeeper coach. They all offered them in spades.

We are in an industry that reveres the new. But as we chase new forms of relevancy we often make the mistake of dismissing the past as irrelevant.

Gawen Rudder passed away February 22 after a battle with melanoma.

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to have had a long and sprawling conversation with him. As they often were with Gawen. This one was about him though. What made him the person I had so admired. The courageous kid. The passion for history. The maker of art. And yes of course that love for advertising.

As a student they try teach you the job of advertising. However it’s only when you’ve graduated that you realize what a futile task that was. The speed of change. The constant reinvention. The human quotient. All render it nearly impossible to prepare for.

What the industry can’t offer in a textbook though it does offer in the form of people. Generous humans there to guide you as you have the real-world experience.

I’m just one of the many Gawen influenced. For some he bent their trajectory. Then for others like me he was a main character in their story.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming an industry hell bent on the new has nothing to learn from the past.

Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. One thing they have in common though is they operate at a level bigger than education. They offer reassurance. They make everything feel less urgent. They gift you with perspective.

As I write this, my nine-year-old is next to me. He chirps up and asks “what kind of teacher was he?” Kids have a damned way of asking the pertinent questions don’t they?

The kind that stump you for a while…

“What kind of teach we was he?”

“One I wish I could spend more time with.”

Thank you Gawen.

Not for believing in me. But for believing in me when I had nothing to believe in.

Your grad, always.