Features

How I got here… Cream CEO and founder Brenden Arnold

Having worked with some great ad agency names in Australia and the United Kingdom before going on to have a successful career in Asia, Cream CEO and founder Brenden Arnold recounts his career journey so far

Education

Born in Sydney, Australia, I quit kindergarten aged five.

To her eternal dismay my mother, a seminal story-teller in her own right, re-tells the memory from time-to-time: “I answered the doorbell and there he was looking up at me, all of five. How he crossed that four lane main road I’ll never know. But you know why don’t you? So he didn’t have to nap after his milk and miss out on watching Superman.”

And that was that, I was done with Kindie.

It wasn’t just my beloved Superman show that made me skip the nap, I also enjoyed hanging clothes on the line with mum, riding my bike, digging things up in the garden or probably more to the point not missing out on anything and everything else that could happen while I was in a forced slumber. I also used to pull everything apart and put it all back together again – just to see how things worked.

I was restless and curious.

Dad often tells people how I was always in character, specifically every character of every show I watched on television. I was fully immersed, engrossed in every nuance mouthing the words and pulling facial expressions as if I was there on the other side of the set. Happy Days to Charlie’s Angels, The Bionic Man to Bewitched, I loved them all. My parents adore movies and I absorbed them too.

Brenden, restless and curious event at a young age

I have vivid memories of Michael Parkinson’s (the English talk show host) interviews and Dave Allen’s (the Irish comedian) irreverent sense of humour, sitting on his chair sans fingertip, sipping his whisky and puffing on his cigarette as he delivered the naughty punch lines. Dean Martin and Johnny Carson too. I was hooked on entertainment and storytelling. Even the talk back radio in the kitchen and AM ‘Gold’ in the car – it’s all part of my backstory.

My sister is five years older and as such we were less close in those days, but I always aspired to her avant-garde musical tastes. My brother and I were, as we are today, best friends. Three years my junior, we did everything together. No bike helmets, no watches, we somehow knew how to get back home just before sunset in time for our baths prior to dinner.

My Start

My love of entertainment led me to begin a bachelor of arts degree in media studies, film & TV. This is where craft came to the fore, analysing films and more specifically, print ads, those beautiful old esoteric Benson & Hedges pack campaigns. The abstract constructs, signification, denotation, connotation et. al.

I was sold so I went to the Queensland University of Technology to study marketing and advertising. Doing work experience along the way at Mojo (a classic Australian agency now part of Publicis) fed my hunger to get out of uni and into an agency. Alan Hales, of Exxon Valdez crisis management fame at McCann-Erickson, was my lecturer and his subject ‘Ad Campaigns’ culminated in us students being given a real client with a live brief. Mine was the Australia Day Council whereby my team and I had to create a campaign for Australia Day.

Our campaign was a resounding success. We were interviewed by the news-team at Channel Ten and said network gave our campaign national airplay. This was my first breakthrough moment and I have Craig Rosenthal to thank for a great creative idea and Jaqueline Corbould for her endless support – and colour printer.

Good people really do define the moment.

Approach

Being restless, curious, passionate and entrepreneurial creates opportunities.

David Lester gave me my foot-in the door at Leo Burnett and the gift of hard-nosed retail advertising on what was then Australia’s largest Supermarket, Woolworths. I’ll never forget the discipline of mono product and price fresh food advertising – highly detailed double-page spreads in broadsheets with what seemed like infinite versions of the price of mangoes, for different newspapers in different regions.

I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, but this was no doubt the beginnings of detail in the thought process of planning; being intellectually rigorous and interrogating the problem or brief to the nth degree from all angles.

I quickly made my way to colour print, outdoor and then the Holy Grail – TV. My love affair with the creative side of the business was born, I was hooked and wanted more.

David ever so generously introduced me to the middle ‘B’, Nigel Bogel. I quite honestly knew very little and even less in such company, in the grand new BBH offices on Kingly Street no less, but I was in awe and not afraid to grasp the moment and ask all manner of innocently naïve questions. Nigel ever so graciously gave me over 90 minutes of his time and I’ll never forget it.

I quickly found myself account director on one of the biggest accounts in the United Kingdom, Nescafé, at McCann-Erickson London. We were also managing Kawasaki and Goodyear, and I was on the steepest most exhilarating learning curve of my life. I was in heaven, with direct daily exposure to some of the most engaging and powerful people in British advertising, internally and externally.

Ben Langdon was the young, hard, CEO, fresh from CDP and I’ll never forget being summoned to his office with the head of account management – the day prior to the steering committee meeting in Vevey – to explain why the new Nescafé mnemonic branding device was placed in the top left corner of the end frame. Our answer: “It doesn’t have any one single anchoring point – it rests wherever it best fits within each execution’s end sequence.”

But is was Jerry Greene, chairman and ECD of the Nescafé ‘Love Story’ campaign fame, with whom I learnt about the nuances of story telling. “They’ll never remember what that fizzy pop ad was for, but they’ll remember the one where that happened,” he said.

We shared a passion for film and engaged in discussions about Peter Biskind’s recently published Easy Riders and Raging Bulls and its behind the scenes Hollywood tales (I read it again recently along with the follow-up Down and Dirty Pictures, do yourself a favour and grab a copy). Jerry’s TV pre-production meetings were a masterclass – a well-oiled machine, meticulous with details down to the crusts on the sarnies. And Jerry’s ‘that’ was when the rubber duck popped up between her legs in the bath in that Cappuccino ad.

Highs and lows

An opportunity with BatesAsia to launch Heineken in Vietnam beckoned and a friend from Burnett’s, Dean Bramham, told me: “You’ll love it, Vietnam’s mad – get up here.”

I packed my bags 17 years ago with the attitude what’s the worst that could happen and have made Asia home ever since. I’ve met some truly outstanding people and together we’ve climbed to great heights and weathered monsoons both figuratively and literally.

Having had the privilege to launch Heineken in two Asian markets, Vietnam and Cambodia, and relocate my Heineken team from Hong Kong to Shanghai, I’ve worked with the drinks brand throughout Asia for all but two of my years in Asia – during which time I took a brief detour and launched Budweiser in Vietnam.

Again, people define your success and I couldn’t have asked for more support than I received from Jan Schapink, my first Heineken Amsterdam advertising client. How else could you possibly get the green light to build a full-sized tennis court and stadium in the middle of Lam Son Square in front of the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House, for the launch of the Heineken Vietnam Open in 2002.

I wanted more – to grow my management skills, specifically with P&L responsibility. Matthew Godfrey gave me an MD role at BatesAsia IndoChina: Bates, 141, MindShare. In my second full year I achieved the highest operating margin in all of BatesAsia.

But I was still restless and curious and looking evermore towards change as a means of innovation and growth. An opportunity to launch my first start-up presented itself and I co-founded Vietnam’s first commercial FM radio station and digital engagement platform. We went to air in a state-controlled broadcast media environment and so dawned an uncharted, extreme adventure. It was a truly all-encompassing, mental, physical and emotional rollercoaster and proved to me yet again that success is defined by the calibre of those around you. You really can learn so much about yourself and others when there’s no established constructs nor safety net.

Having learned some along the way, but still as restless, curious and driven as ever, and missing the challenges and culture of ad agencies, I started my second start-up – my own creative agency, Cream. With a desire to be genuinely client-focussed, idea-centric and hands on at the highest level – so began another passionate adventure.

We opened our doors on the pitch win of Tiger Beer and integrated across creative, media, digital, events and activation. We quickly grew to win Heineken and Unilever briefs among others. We’ve won Campaign Agency of the Year Awards and perhaps most auspiciously a silver in 2013 after less than 12 months in operation before winning Mumbrella’s South East Asia Emerging Agency of the Year gong in 2015.

Picking up a Mumbrella Asia Award

Sure it’s all tenacity and resolve or blood sweat and tears, as they say, but one can’t underestimate how much our success is directly proportionate to the calibre of the people we’ve surrounded ourselves with, staff and clients. All fueled by curiosity, restlessness and a passion for more.

Dos & Don’ts

Be restless. Stay curious. That’s fundamental to success. Being passionately entrepreneurial and coming at things differently will drive the creation of your own opportunities – if you don’t ask you don’t get. Embrace change and don’t sit still. But above all else love the business you’re in – love the work – and surround yourself with good people. They will help define your success. Embrace them – listen, learn, nurture and empower – and they’ll thrive. So too will you, your clients, client mix and lest we forget the P&L.

Nigel’s judiciousness resonates: “You must be good and nice, we won’t have one without the other here at BBH.”

Most of the people I’ve mentioned remain friends to this day. Matt and I spasmodically iMessage. Dean, the odd update here and there. David came to visit and stay with us a little while back and I caught up with a happily retired Jan in Amsterdam late last year.

I’ve been restless and curious since the day I quit Kindie, and I still am. But now I’m also enjoying the wonders of inquisitiveness and creativity through the fresh lenses of our two young boys.

But I’m still restless and in the pursuit of accelerated growth in IndoChina. Onwards and upwards.

Brenden Arnold is CEO and founder of the independent agency Cream

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