Drum | My creative career: Ian Heartfield, founder of New Commercial Arts

The Adland legend walks us through his professional life, the people he inspired and what it took to get to the top.

With almost 30 years in advertising, Heartfield has been behind many high-profile adverts for Guinness, Heinz and Nando’s, while at AMV BBDO, BBH and now his own agency, New Commercial Arts. As he says, he has always been more artistic than academic.

“I took up art, but I wasn’t that good. Without a doubt, I wasn’t good enough to make a living from it,” the head of the agency admits. “So I turned to graphic design.” After securing a place at Buck’s University, his career aspirations would take a different path after enrolling in a joint course with a second major in advertising.

“There’s an amazing mentor there, a guy called Dave Morris, who’s taught a lot of legends above me, and he’s been incredibly inspiring,” Morris, a fine art photographer who taught at the school for 15 years, inspired what would become his long career at Heartfield. – time occupation He remembers that the tutor always said that the students only needed a year to learn the basics and then they should go out on their own. “Start practicing, get experience. You can’t talk about advertising for three years.”

At the same time, Morris “made you understand how hard it was to get in and that became a real reason to try,” admits Heartfield. “When someone tells me how hard something is, it’s like telling a child not to put their finger in a plug. Why does everyone want to do it so badly? I think it should be very good.”

In the end, he says advertising was far more interesting than any graphic design job he was presented with, scripting and ideation got him hooked, and luckily his passion landed him a job while in college. “You work hard,” he admits. “But obviously there’s a lot of luck involved.”


That first jolt of agency life was “four recessions ago,” as he jokes, at the agency then known as McCann Erickson. “I was part of a creative team and we got a job, so we didn’t finish our undergraduate studies.” This was painful for Heartfield’s parents, especially the father. “He wasn’t particularly pleased that I had dropped out of an undergraduate course and never got a degree.” It’s something the creator can sympathize with now, being a father himself, but at the time, knowing how hard it could be to get a job in advertising, and hopefully being able to forgo the typical tour around town with an idea book, he took the chance.

During this time Heartfield worked as a copywriter and stayed at the agency for about three years, before moving on to Ogilvy, MCBD and then AMV BBDO. The latter created one of his favorite commercials, even though he entered it a few years earlier. “It’s hardly controversial, but it’s the answer I’ve always given,” said the ad, before revealing that he is, of course, ‘The Surfer’ from Guinness.

“It’s just perfection. Nobody wins and I’m not sure they ever will. There aren’t many commercials where you can say this, but I remember being at home and watching it during commercial break [on the TV] in the small apartment I had.”

“I can imagine what I was doing. I was moving the dishes from the table to the kitchen to wash and the ticking continued, this sound started on the TV, which made me turn around and stare for 60 seconds with my mouth open. I was completely amazed. That’s the effect of it.” It’s a spectacle, as he says, and one you never tire of seeing.

The ad was part of the strong brand’s ‘Good Things Come to Those Who Wait’ campaign, which Heartfield would eventually put its own creative touch on. “I was lucky enough to work on that campaign quite a few years later. My favorite ad is also linked to my favorite ad.’

After this successful stint at AMV BBDO, he went on to cut his teeth as creative director at Fallon and BMB, eventually moving to BBH, where he stayed for almost a decade.

Becoming cco of bbh.

It was an agency he had long admired; his mid-90s Levi’s commercials like ‘Creek’ and ‘Drugstore’ were an inspiration to young creatives fresh out of college. “At the time, I used to go into Woolworths and buy the Stiltskin single on CD [from that ad]. The music was on the charts.’ These two advertisements have been among the most awarded campaigns ever and have strengthened the place of the American denim brand in the cultural atmosphere of the time. “Advertising was part of the culture. The songs were on Top of the Pops. You can see why it was a very attractive industry to enter”.

His career has also been praised with numerous awards. One of them was for the Guinness ‘noitulovE’ ad in 2005, which won the Cannes Lions Grand Prix the following year. “Everything changed from that moment on,” says the founder. “When you get something of that scale that gets that much attention around the world. Everyone knew about it, not just in advertising.” Heartfield says that while this is probably his favorite ad he’s worked on, there are clearly many others he enjoys.

This variety of work is one of the things he loves about the industry he has found himself in. “One minute you’re thinking of a big supermarket, the next a can of beer, a price comparison site or a furniture store,”

“There are a lot of briefs and topics, so you have to know about people.” He believes that this is why creatives tend to work in cycles of three or four years at the beginning of their career, they need that mix.

Growing up, a love of film and television means the joy of making a “mini-movie” is something Heartfield has cherished since the beginning of her career. “It’s an opportunity to make a 30-second version of the film, which is alive, which is a film. There is a conductor, a band and sound. I’ve always loved the sound part of the process. It’s very nice.”

After such a wide and rewarding career, the head of the agency says this to people who want to start in advertising: “Have a little patience. You have to come in and be ready to learn the ropes, do your time.’ After all, Heartfield was already a decade into his career when the Guinness ad appeared, but he’s aware that, for someone just starting out, it seems like a lifetime. Accepting that things take time is key or you’ll be disappointed, he added.

Starting an agency in the middle of a pandemic

“Getting a job is so important, it’s just as difficult after getting it. He realizes how much you have to learn.”

It’s also a team effort. “Other students like strategy, account management and production, you need them all. You need everyone around you. They can have as good ideas as you and you can all influence each other,

Successful creatives realize this sooner and then you will get the work you want to do.’

Often, he adds, people enter this business as frustrated artists, but quickly realize it’s a commercial game and there’s a job for clients. He refers to John Hegarty’s mentality of using “creativity to solve business problems”.

“Have a little way, thick skin. There are so many factors that can derail your excellent vision at any time. Don’t overturn it, but don’t take it seriously.”

Heartfield ends with a sentiment he heard from another advertising legend, David Abbott. “He said if a client rejects an ad, thought or script that’s their right, but then his goal was to write something better.

“Successful creatives learn this early in their careers and are happy to say ‘here’s another one and this is better’ and move on.”

Read our interview with Vicki Maguire about her life and career.

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