Sean Cummins and the Australian ad invasion

On a chilly mid-February morning, Sean Cummins was having breakfast at the coffee shop of SoHo’s Crosby Street Hotel. “To own the future,” he said, “you need to focus on two things — women and mobile phones.”

Sean_Cummins_ColThis, in a nutshell, is Cummins’ plan. He may be a newbie in the American advertising landscape, but back home in Australia, he’s a heavyweight.

In 1997, Cummins built Cummins & Partners, which was acquired by Sapient and became SapientNitro. He is also the creator of the “Best Job In The World” campaign for Tourism Australia, one of the most awarded campaigns of all time with three Grand Prix and five Gold Lions at the Cannes International Advertising Festival. In 2012, he relaunched Cummins & Partners. And last fall, he opened a new shop with the same name in New York with his eyes set on the U.S., its phones and its ladies.

“We’ve been hearing only one voice. It’s too dominated by middle-aged white men,” he said. “I am really enthusiastic for women to be a part of the management and ownership team here; it’s not a gimmick.”

To that end, he has assembled what he calls his “dream team,” including Tiffany Coletti Titolo from Translation, who joins as president, Arwa Mahdawi, from Contagious, as his chief innovation and strategy officer and Mireille Giuliano, the former president of LVMH, as the chairwoman of Cummins & Partners New York.

In addition to this coterie of powerful women, Cummins will also rely on his uniquely Australian skill-set. “Because Australia is a much smaller market, we are more resourceful and have experience across multiple categories — it’s a total fallacy that you can’t be a master of a lot of things,” he said. “We are straightforward, quality thinkers and don’t just bamboozle clients with jargon and buzzwords.”

Gone are the days of Paul Hogan slipping another “shrimp on the barbie.” “Crocodile Dundee” — replete with stereotypes of Australians as the good-natured rednecks from Down Under —  may have defined Australia for an entire generation of Americans. But in the intervening 30 years, Australian advertising has quietly made its own mark on the world.

Take, for example, “Dumb Ways to Die.” The McCann Melbourne PSA to promote rail safety for Melbourne Metro became an international viral sensation almost immediately after being posted online in 2012. Australia was ranked third in the world in the 2015 rankings for advertising by ad insight provider WARC. A full 17 campaigns in the top 100 originated Down Under. With a relatively easy immigration process to the U.S. (the E-3 visa is solely reserved for Australians in specialty occupations), Australians have now come to occupy a significant portion of the American advertising industry as well.

One reason is that they’re just so darn easy to get along with. Just ask them. “Our directness and transparency allows us to cut through situations and lets us solve problems quicker,” said Sophie Kelly, CEO of the Barbarian Group and herself an Aussie. “We can deal with a multitude of problems, fill a lot of roles in a team and don’t feel uncomfortable when we have to multitask.”

Peter Levitan, business development and strategy consultant for agencies, also points to a creative streak — and a willingness to experiment.

“For them, the idea dominates, and then the media follows — they are not as dependent on traditional media as we are,” he said. “In our quest for quantitative proof, we’re leading with media buys and then tailoring the ideas around them. We don’t mate media and creative.”

Merging media and creative into a cohesive whole was also a key goal for Cummins himself, when he relaunched Cummins & Partners in 2012.

“When I came back to the industry, my main ambition was to merge creative and media back together. That exploded in the Australian market, because business cannot be done in silos,” he said, adding that he would bring this perspective to the U.S. market.

It won’t be a cakewalk: there is a preponderance of specialist agencies in the U.S., from digital shops to PR agencies, and media agencies to social media agencies. Differentiating will be Cummins’ first big challenge.

“Americans are very deep in their knowledge but very specific,” he said. “There’s a lot of specialists here, whereas in Australia, we have broad experience. I don’t know if specializing in anything is a good thing.”

David Droga first charted these waters with the success of his Droga5, one of the most innovative agencies to have set shop here in the last decade. Ann Billock, partner at marketing management consulting firm Ark Advisors, pointed at the bandwagon effect triggered by Droga’s success, at least among creative agencies.

“These national perceptions tend to stick. When analytics started, for example, the Irish permeated that sector, and now it’s all Indians,” she said. “Droga indeed started a wave of Australians coming to the industry in not only the creative, but also at very high level.”

But for Cummins, the similarities with Droga end there.

“I think any similarities end with the fact that we’re both Australian and we’re both in the advertising industry,” he said. “I really admire David — he’s a great businessman and a great raconteur. But do I want to copy him? No.”

Mark Pollard, who has shuttled from Saatchi & Saatchi to Big Spaceship to Leo Burnett in just the four years he has been in the States, advises some caution, though. “Not all traits translate,” he said.

Cummins & Partners already has Pernot Ricard’s champagne brand and Heidi Klum’s new lingerie line on board, both set to unveil new campaigns in the upcoming weeks. But even if he hits roadblocks, Cummins is unperturbed.

“I’m here on a bit of an organic adventure. If no one wants me, no one thinks that we can offer anything that they can’t get anywhere else, we can go off, “ he said. “I’d consider it another learning experience.”

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