As his agency, Howatson+White finds its feet in the Australian advertising landscape, LBB’s Natasha Patel speaks to Ant White about how he got to this point right here
Ant White, founder and chief creative officer at Howatson+White has had a pretty illustrious career. Throughout this time in advertising, he’s had stints at Clemenger BBDO, Droga5, CHE Proximity and more. But, his love for the industry began at a young age. “My dad started an agency years ago and it was very successful. I'd always looked up to him, that was sort of in the blood.” His dad did indeed start an agency, and being more of a ‘suit’ man he used his creative prowess to ask ten of his friends to sit in a rented office just to pretend it was a bustling agency. “That's creativity, and it’s also a lesson that anything's possible.”
Looking back over his childhood and career to date, Ant is adamant to make the point that while his dad was in the industry ‘it definitely wasn’t handed to me’. Point in hand is that as a child he was ‘pretty naughty and a bit cheeky’. “I was always doing things to just get a reaction and I was very into the creative side of things: stories and writing and design. I guess if you merge the two of them, advertising is the perfect combination of just getting a reaction out of people through stories.”
To hone his craft, he went to RMIT University in Melbourne to do an advertising course where he learnt about art, copy and tackling briefs - but when he went to New York he realised that he felt ‘almost really insecure’ of the skill set he had. “I was looking at all these people and where they all come from. The writers were actual writers, they'd written short films or short stories or were ex-journalists. I worked with artists who were trained fine artists or graphic designers first and had a real appreciation of art. I'm like 'I like advertising'.”
Despite his initial feelings about his skillset, Ant has taken this experience with him when it comes to building his own team. He now looks at hiring art directors or copywriters who have a core understanding of their principle.
Appreciating a wide skill set isn’t all that New York taught Ant and while he was there, he experienced big briefs and even bigger budgets. “I think what I learned over there was that nothing's impossible, but you come back to Australia and Australians have to punch above their weight in the work they do.” While his plan was always to come back to his native Australia he came back with a lot more appreciation for why Aussies do well in the Big Apple – and how to implement that into his work.
“The work has got to stand out more, they don't have the budget, it's got to have that attitude. I think that's why a lot of Australians who go over to New York do quite well over there, they take that spirit of wanting to push things to the absolute limit and at the right agency that sort of ambition can be met.”
Ant came back with his experiences and quickly rose through the ranks in all of his roles – the latest at CHE Proximity. He admits to toying with the idea of starting his own agency but the battle between comfort and a leap of faith was always big. “For me, there was always a niggle like maybe one day I will do it, but I blocked it out.”
“I think there's always been something in the pit of my stomach that says ‘what's next?’ And whether that's becoming a creative director or executive creative director or managing people or moving to New York or whatever that step is, it has always been there.”
It took a global pandemic for Ant and his now business partner Chris ‘Howie’ Howatson to turn a feeling into a tangible project. The duo had been at the helm of CHE Proximity for five and eight years respectively and in that time had helped the company grow. “Covid shook the world and 2020 happened and everyone questions, I guess, everything. In that moment we also realised that we didn't really run the company. It wasn't totally ours and the holding companies, very rightly so, take back a bit of control because they need to stabilise the global market.”
Having realised the pair helped to grow CHE Proximity – not start it – was the perfect starting point for Ant and Chris to run with as they set about starting up their own agency. “We both talked about it for years but it's over a beer and it's sort of bullshit talk. You don't really know if the other's serious or if you're even serious.
“We did have a moment when we realised that it wasn't really our agency, and our hands were tied, that we went well, why don't we, and that's when it became really serious.” Of course, coming from the likes of Droga5 and BBDO New York, starting up alone would be no mean feat and would require a team of only the best. “What you work out quickly is that people can't be replaced, but there's so many talented people out there if you just let others in.”
As of now there are 40 people in Howatson+White but the aim is for it to be an agency that’s so much more than the founders’ names. “The ambition is for it to be a culture where people want to come and work and the agency where they want to come and create the best work of their career,” says Ant before adding that the next few months are ‘bloody crucial’ for them.
Crucial for many reasons, not least because they’ve got a handful of projects in production and are working on countless ideas each day. It’s also a pivotal time for brands and marketers who have done a bit of soul searching, as Ant says. “I think that like marketers, people have gone, ‘what am I doing?’ Brands have gone ‘we've taken a hit, so we need to find ourselves again.’ I think consumers are demanding more, but it feels like just the perfect intersection or perfect moment and it's all creating this time where I think we're gonna see some really good work emerge.”
With so much to look forward to and the experience of navigating a changing market, for Ant restlessness is what’s keeping him going. “If the piece of work that you're working on right now isn't in your mind gonna be the best thing you've ever made then it's not worth working on. I think without actually having ambition and energy you're not going to keep trying to create better work.”