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RUSSEL HOWCROFT has been
fighting for ideas all of his adult life, and
he’s got the scars to prove it.
During two decades in the advertising
industry, ideas were his secret weapon
in the battle for the hearts and minds
of clients and consumers. And today, as
executive general manager of Australia’s
Network Ten television, Howcroft is
entrenched in a TV ratings war that will
be won or lost on the strength of ideas.
So it is little surprise that, in his new
book about ideas, Howcroft pulls no
punches. “Don’t believe your own BS”,
“Sell is not a four letter word” and “Your
boss can often be a dick” are just a few
of the tips contained within.
The book, he says, was partly born
out of exasperation.
“In the past ten years or so, as I got
to the pointier end of business, [I felt]
more and more frustration around
how difficult it was to get people
enthusiastic about ideas.
“I think we use the word ‘no’ far too
quickly, far too readily. The ‘no’ word
is a really powerful word, because that
just means stop. ‘No I’m not going to do
that’ is the end of it.”
An economy of ideas
The danger for nations like Australia
is that if ideas and innovation are
stifled then productivity suffers too.
Productivity measures efficiency in
the use of resources – and efficiency is
what drives economic growth. Reports
from the Australian government’s
Productivity Commission have shown
a gradual decline in productivity over
the past decade. And last year The
Economist’s productivity growth ranking
placed Australia second-to-last out of 51
countries, just ahead of Botswana.
Howcroft says Australia has a lot to learn
from the US, the UK and New Zealand.
“If we go over to the US, they
celebrate innovation and they celebrate
ideas, and they are great at building
businesses off the back of them. They
commercialise ideas fantastically well.
“You go to Britain and they are
equally brilliant at it. They just love
talking about ideas as well. They love
debating, they love conversation, and
they love pushing and prodding and
trying to find which idea on the table is
the better idea.”
Howcroft enjoyed a five-year stint
in London, working at creative agency
“I suppose when I was living over there
that was something that really dawned
on me – surely Australia can be a bit more
radical, be a bit more creative, a bit more
interesting. Because the Poms are better at
it than we are – what’s going on?”
He adds that New Zealand punches
above its weight when it comes to
“In my previous advertising agency
job [CEO of George Patterson Y&R] I was
over in New Zealand quite a lot. Their
advertising sector is highly creative but
equally they’re innovative in textiles,
dairy, sailing, and fashion. I think it’s
almost a strategic plan for the country.
“It’s always struck me that they have
a really strong view of what their key
success factors are and I think they’ve
pursued them really well.”
New Zealand is small but it’s highly
innovative, he says.
“It’s concentrated, I think that
probably helps. There’s, sort of, clusters of
categories – and they do that really well.”
So what can Australian business
and government do to emulate these
other nations and foster a culture of
“I think leadership around this is
important,” says Howcroft.
“We have a Minister for Innovation
now [Christopher Pyne MP]. I think that
matters a lot. And giving people a sense
of what the future might look like does
“In the end, we need it from all
leaders – political leaders but also
business leaders. We need the big
business community leaders to talk
about their investments in innovation.
There’s an NAB advert at the moment
where they’re talking about how much
money they’ve got that they want to
lend to enterprise. This is great stuff. We
want more and more of that.”
Championing great business ideas is
one of Howcroft’s passions. He’s been
doing it on television screens for several
years now, as a regular panellist on the
ABC’s Gruen series.
“It’s an opportunity to celebrate
commerce,” he says of the show.
“I think that’s culturally interesting.
The ideas man
Advertising guru Russel Howcroft shoots from the hip about innovation, creativity
and why CFOs and marketers must join forces.
BY ANDY MCLEAN PHOTOGRAPHY JAMES PENLIDIS
Tap here to listen to the full
interview with Russel Howcroft,
or here to listen to an excerpt where
he shares his message for CFOs.
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