A creative at W+K, London, Ben jump-started his advertising career in 2013 by winning Emerging Talent at Axis, attending the Young Creative Academy in Cannes, and by being ranked – according to Big Won – the 33rd most-awarded copywriter in the world. He followed this up in 2014 with a Yellow Pencil, another two Lions, and a #12 global ranking from Young Guns. Michael Weinzettl chatted to Ben about all of this and then some.
Hi Ben, can you tell us about yourself? Where do you come from? What is your background?
Hello everyone – my name is Ben Polkinghorne. Though I was born and raised in New Zealand, I’ve been living in London for the last twelve months. In my 29 years I’ve tried many things and failed at most of them but, to keep the money steadily coming in, I work in advertising.
I assume you did not plan to go into advertising when you were younger? Or was it a career you had in mind all along?
Does anyone plan to get into advertising? I’d love to know. My view is the business draws in people that aren’t good at a specific thing. Which is great. And I’m a walking cliché: I got booted out of school, I did some odd jobs and some weird things but, without many career options on the table, university was the obvious choice. And, once there, business seemed like the only thing I’d be capable of actually studying.
How did you get into the ad business?
In my second year of study, I had to choose a major. At the time marketing seemed like the go but when I discovered you could do a double major – marketing and advertising – without spending any extra time in a classroom, I went for it. It seemed more impressive having a double major, you see. After enjoying the advertising side of things more, I decided to pursue that and – foolishly – thought I’d waltz straight into a job after completing my degree. Turns out my degree was worthless and I’d need a portfolio. Enter ad school. Another year of study, a failed internship at JWT, a few months unemployed, and I ended up interning at Colenso BBDO New Zealand. Nine months later, I had a job.
How did you, as a New Zealander, wind up at W&K London?
After a few years at Colenso, my partner Scott Kelly and I wanted a change. It’s quite common for New Zealanders, who grow up in a small country at the bottom end of nowhere, to want to go out and see the world. So we put out some feelers and booked a one-way trip to Cannes 2015, followed by a one-way trip to London. Why London? It was easyish for us to get a visa; it’s fairly close to multiple amazing countries, it’s one of the capitals of the world, and it’s known to do some great work. We’ve always been fans of W+K, and ending up here so soon after arriving in London was an amazing feeling. It still is.
You’ve been there for a year now. Is it what you expected? Can you tell us about any projects there you were involved in?
We had no real idea of what to expect, other than that the craft standards would be impeccable, and it took longer to get work out – part of the parcel when launching a campaign that runs in so many markets.
But we’ve had a great run. In a single year we’ve got out a print campaign for Lurpak, a global campaign for Halls, and a campaign for
Finish dishwasher cleaner launching soon, which we’re particularly proud of. We were also behind the W+K Christmas Window and started the soon-to-be-infamous W+K Sandwich Club.
What are some of the differences between working at Colenso and W+K, London?
The weather isn’t as good but accents are more entertaining. It was actually a pleasant surprise how, in terms of people, things are the same. Smart, interesting folk who are motivated by good work and the odd beer or two.
Both agencies have their quirks or certain ways of doing things – W+K tends to explore subjects by filling a ‘wall’ of inspiration, for example, but it’s great to mess your head up and realize there are different ways to get to a solution.
Can you tell us about some of the favorite projects you’ve been involved in during your career?
Trial by Timeline for Amnesty International still stands out. Essentially, we built a Facebook application that scans your timeline to see what crimes you’ve committed in countries all around the world, before showing you how you’d be punished. Things like political beliefs, sexual orientation, and supporting certain groups would see you hanged, tortured, or shot. Reading and analyzing reports from every country took time. Putting everything into a spreadsheet that made sense took even longer. It was an absolute labor of love.
That said, and I’m unsure how this will come across, the current project is always the one that excites me the most.
You won a couple of Lions in Cannes two years ago, right? And a Yellow Pencil at D&AD in 2014. What was that for?
My partner and I have managed to have a remarkable run, winning multiple Lions each year since first entering in 2013. We’re sitting on 11 now, including two gold. I don’t think we’re particularly clever; we just work hard and surround ourselves with clever people. Awards are a silly but necessary part of the business. They’re essential when starting out to make a name for yourself – and it’s a good feeling to have an idea, execute it, and impress your peers. As long as you remember that literally no one outside advertising cares about awards, I think you’ll be fine.
The Yellow Pencil was, by the way, for the aforementioned Trial by Timeline.
What’s your impression of the Cannes Lions Festival this year? I guess you’ve just returned from it?
I actually just got back from Glastonbury instead. Thinking about it, the two festivals are quite similar. Your week is full of highs and lows, most people don’t have a clue what’s going on, and you wake up hungover every day. The main difference is, instead of swimming in the sea you’re swimming in mud.
When did you first come across Lürzer’s Archive magazine?
We used to have copies lying around Colenso, and the striking cover image would always sucker me in. It was, and is, inspiring to have a flick through and see great work collated from around the world. Then there’s the joy of holding something physical, the smell of print, oh boy! It’s a great feeling to be within this very publication now. My younger self can’t believe it. Breathe it in.
Your vita tells us that you worked as a promoter for three years. Can you tell us about this phase in your life and what you promoted? What were some of the lessons you learned during that period of time?
In my teenage years and early twenties, I had all sorts of mad ideas but could never get anyone to take me seriously. I was looking for ways to prove myself, and promoting parties seemed like an easy way in. It helped that I was single and already partying a fair bit at the time.
I learned it was possible to have fun at work, that some things were out of your control (rain or another big gig on the same night could hurt), and that it was possible to work really, really hard. I was still studying full-time while running the parties, and in one 10-month stretch I had 11 international DJs over. From what I remember, it nearly killed me.
Who were some of the DJs you booked? Internationally known ones?
Given this was a quite a few years ago, I’m not sure how relevant some of these names will be. But I brought over the likes of the Bingo Players from the Netherlands, Tommie Sunshine from the US, Will Baily from the UK, and quite a few Aussie artists. I look back on that time in my life fondly.
You’ve since moved onto a new project, Bangerritos?
I’ve always been passionate about burritos, having run the Auckland Burrito Review (ABR) blog since 2011. But in 2014 I met a guy passionate about sausages and we decided to combine the two. The thing I quickly learned about sausages is there are no rules. So we’ve put meat rubbed in Mexican spices, whole black beans, diced red onion and other burrito ingredients into a sausage casing. You get all the texture and taste of a burrito but in a hugely convenient form. Served in a tortilla with guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream and hot sauce, we’ve got a hit on our hands. They’re called Bangerritos. Last year we were in 15 New Zealand supermarkets and numerous festivals; this year we’re testing the London market, and next year… who knows? Running the business from London while holding down the day job is challenging but I’ve always enjoyed taking on far too much and just seeing what happens.
How did that crab wind up on your head in the portrait you sent? Was it alive?
A few friends and I were at a horseracing event. We had a table with free-flowing booze and I believe the crab was quite dead and part of the lunch provided. One thing led to another and it seems the crab ended up on my head. It’s one of my favorite photos as it makes no sense. It’s also a bit more interesting than the stock-standard black and white head and shoulders shot most people seem to use.
How’s your sequel to the Bible coming along? When can we expect that to be published?
Ah, great question. From memory I tweeted I wanted to write that a while ago, right? The thinking being if the Bible was the biggest-selling book in the world, surely the follow-up would also be a smashing success. I think I once also tweeted I wanted to have a beer with the people that wrote the Bible. I’d either be sitting down with nutjobs or Joseph and Co. Either way, it’d be great. The Bible Part 2 is still on the cards, but it’s quite far down the list in terms of projects I want to invest time in. And there is a list. One day, though …
How do you feed your creativity? Where do you get the inspiration for your work?
I don’t think there’s one specific thing. I just try to stay curious, and go out of my way to do things like read the copy on the back of a muesli box. One of the things I love about advertising is it gives you an excuse – as if you need one – to be a student of the world. So I read books I don’t like, visit toy stores, flick through my girlfriend’s magazines, listen to different radio stations, and just genuinely try to soak everything and anything up. And I love it.
What were some of the criteria you applied when selecting the digital work for this issue of Archive magazine?
I was looking for ideas. Specifically, ideas I was jealous of, or that I thought were incredibly interesting. I also love little projects people have done. I found them all inspiring – hopefully you do too. Thanks for the opportunity.