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How I got here… Rob Sherlock, ADK group chief creative officer

His father told him to become an accountant, but ADK group CCO Rob Sherlock had his eye on travelling the world and working in his beloved advertising industry at the same time – taking in Europe, America, South Africa, Asia and New Zealand along the way

Education

Failure is success only launchpad.I was born in Birmingham in the United Kingdom. I failed the 11-plus exam to get into grammar school and so was relegated to a tier-two education and a probable career path that included blocked toilets and electricity.

At the very beginning in Birmingham

But when I was aged 12, my family emigrated to South Africa during the middle of apartheid – the most divisive class segregation system of the century. I was also an English schoolboy thrown into an Afrikaans system, a somewhat brutal introduction to the harsh realities of life.

After developing a speech impediment and an ability to run fast, two things then happened that prepared me for a future in advertising: Dale Carnegie and Shotokan Karate.

Without going into the brilliance of the 1927 book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie taught me the skills of thinking on my feet and creating real stories based on truth and personal experience.

Meanwhile, Shotokan Karate training is divided into three parts: kihon (basics), kata (forms or patterns of moves) and kumite (sparring). It was the perfect preparation for what was to come.

My Start

Luck has everything to do with it. Scraping (and scrapping) through high school, I reluctantly enrolled at university to become a chartered accountant. My father’s imposed career choice on me.

After two years as an articled clerk at Peat Marwick Mitchell (now KPMG) my boss strongly encouraged me to consider a “more suitable future”. A girlfriend referred me to her ex-husband, a creative director, on the basis that I was good on my feet and could “make things up”.

I wrote a copy test and was hired as a trainee copywriter at Lindsay Smithers FCB Johannesburg by the late Jim Haines, an icon of South African advertising.

In the space of three years I won awards and accelerated my career faster than I have to this day – working on Toyota, Avis and South African Breweries. I think most people who succeed in our business have an inborn and innate core of passion and purpose. Luckily I was one of those who stumbled, unknowingly, into a place that I truly loved.

Approach

When everything is fine, change. When everything is fine, it’s time to move on. You can learn from your history, but you shouldn’t live in it.  

Advertising should never be comfortable, it’s not a rinse and repeat job. And it’s certainly not a corporate sofa.

Escaping the political suffocation of South Africa, I eventually ended up in London with the delusional thought that I could walk into a job in what was one of the toughest and most creative advertising markets in the world.

The 1980s in London

Notwithstanding a terrible apartheid accent, an ‘unusual portfolio’ and months of door knocking, I somehow landed a job at JWT London – the self proclaimed University of Advertising.

Great mentors (like Jeremy Bullmore) and great leaders (like Allen Thomas) steered me into understanding the responsibility, craft and power of our business. After three formative years I needed to move on again – JWT kindly offered me a choice of Detroit in the United States, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia or Wellington in New Zealand. She’ll be right.

New Zealand when mullet haircuts were in

Joining JWT New Zealand as the creative director was a great lesson in humility and possibility. I became an adopted Kiwi, a father and a far better leader. There’s something about the character of the country that’s pervasive in the clients and the creativity.

Many of the All Blacks guiding principles help define this environment:

‘Sweep the Sheds’ (Never be too big to do the small things that need to be done).

‘Pass the Ball’ (leaders create leaders);

‘Embrace Expectations’ (aim for the highest cloud);

‘Train to Win’ (practice under pressure);

In the ensuing years I worked with some brilliant people and a couple of tough mentors. Once I was fired three times in a single year, but luckily always rehired the next day after the fog of war had cleared. It certainly was a game of two halves.

So never have a career, have a project. During my Kiwi time, I became a member of the FCB Worldwide Creative Council and worked a lot with the Asian offices, so when Chris Kyme stepped down I became the Asia-Pacific ECD.  

There’s an old adage about regional or global leadership: First you have to be liked, then you will be trusted; only then you will be respected. It’s true – because at the end of the day arseholes really do finish last.

I lived in Singapore and Hong Kong, both amazing meccas of East meets West, the same but different. Each defining and producing some of Asia’s best industry leaders. I was merely an observer of the glorious madness, a participant in the process, although I firmly believe it’s still the best training ground in the world.

I then joined the FCB Worldwide Board in the early 2000s and had my first taste of corporate America.

Highs and lows

Now to ‘make America great again’ or so I thought. I was asked to become chief creative officer of the newly merged DraftFCB Chicago, I think because I was the neutral choice between two tribes at war.

I had recently led the creative on the WalMart pitch, a massive account that was the biggest pitch in the world that year. We won. Howard Draft (the company chairman) was elated.

The Chicago gig in 2010

Unfortunately the agency was fired five weeks after winning it and a few days before my arrival in Chicago. This essentially set the tone for the next five years – massive highs and gigantic lows.

A year after my arrival, the 2008 recession kicked in. And yet we doubled revenue over the following three years.

Obama, Chicago’s prodigal child, was elected – and my agency president was unceremoniously (and unfairly) fired. I worked with some of the smartest and brilliant people ever. I also experienced some of the harshest politics of my life.

After five brutal mid-western winters and an unhealthy degree of cynicism, I decided to retire from the business and head back home to Asia.

‘Set short term achievable goals – and achieve them’. This is apparently the best way to achieve and maintain a true state of happiness. On my return to Singapore things changed again.

I helped set up an apparel company with some wonderful partners: Benares and Shaye. I studied hard to become a better digital native. I turned down another global role, this time out of London. I vowed never to work in advertising ever again.

And then I met the wonderful people at ADK. Japan is the world’s third largest advertising economy and ADK is the third largest agency. Being a ‘gaijin’ in what is essentially a very Japanese corporate culture has been an incredible experience in many ways – and transformative for both the company and myself.

I joined as global ECD, moved into the global CEO role for two years (thanks dad for insisting I learn accountancy) and then became global chairman this year. I’m now moving into a wider role as group CCO, back to the beginning so to speak.

After the Bain Capital buyout late last year, we’re reconfiguring and revitalising the entire group. It’s an exciting time for ADK and the entire industry.  

Dos and don’ts

This subheading calls for bullet points in my opinion, so here you go:

  • Good enough isn’t good enough.
  • Ready, fire, aim.
  • Work with strange and disturbed people.
  • Aim beyond what you think you can achieve.
  • Experience is not necessarily a good thing.
  • Don’t seek praise, seek criticism.
  • Do less better.
  • Do learn to innovate.
  • Don’t take it all too seriously.
  • Do avoid moderation in all things.
  • Do be nice.

Fancy dress (for some at least) at an ADK party in Tokyo

And that’s it. It’s been a wonderful journey – in what is quite possibly the best industry in the world.

Rob Sherlock is ADK group chief creative officer and splits his time between Singapore and Tokyo

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