Creative Directors / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Jon Austin, Executive Creative Director at Host/Havas

Jon Austin is the Executive Creative Director at creative agency Host/Havas, where he works with clients like Air New Zealand, the Australian Federal Police, and more.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I’m the Executive Creative Director of an agency called Host/Havas.

I broadly oversee the creative direction of the agency and our output across a range of brilliant clients including Air New Zealand, the Australian Federal Police, Lion Breweries, the United Nations, Avis Budget Group, Reckitt Benckiser, Heart Foundation, and more.

It keeps me incredibly busy, but I’m fortunate enough to have some of the world’s most creative, brilliant, talented people helping me do it. I started my career in New Zealand, and spent my time moving between big shops like DDB and Saatchi’s.

After a decade of that I was keen to try and find something with a bit more hustle, so left to try out the (then) independent agency Host.

Cut to a few years later and we merged with Havas to create a bigger agency that prides itself on having the hustle and entrepreneurial spirit of a smaller shop. So it’s been a nice loop to close.

Prior to advertising, I had a brief fling with a career in music, but soon realised that being a successful musician required more than just growing your fringe.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Right now I’m temporarily based in NZ (more on that in a sec), so my work days are based around Sydney time. That means I start pretty late and end pretty late.

As a single parent, the former is great for school drop offs and organising the kids, but it can also make the latter a bit tricky when you’re trying to suss out dinner and bath-time during peak arvo meeting time in Australia.

A pretty regular day would see me waking up at 6:30, getting the kids dressed and fed and off to school. I try to get to the gym because it helps me think better, so I aim to be done with that and in front of my computer by 10.

Given that’s 8am in Australia, I spend the first hour or so checking and responding to emails and setting stuff up for the day.

From there, we have a daily agency WIP run by our CEO Laura Aldington at 11am (9am Syd time), then a department check in, which gives me a chance to chat with the team about any big projects or issues we’re facing.

If I have any client presentations or meetings, I head into a shared office space, so I can use a big screen and a vaguely professional-looking backdrop. Otherwise, I’m at my kitchen bench for most of the day, overseeing work, having creative reviews, checking in with individuals or having management conversations.

As part of the Vivendi Group, we’re network partners with Universal Music, Gameloft, Studio Canal and other really interesting organisations, so I’ll often speak to the teams at those places to touch base on any exciting partnerships or opportunities floating about.

I aim to log off and get the boys from school at around 4pm (2pm Aus time), get them home, fed, and showered, and then I’ll jump back on and check in on things for another couple of hours before putting them to bed.

Like I said previously, I’m surrounded by a fucking brilliant team, many of whom are young parents themselves, and their talent, resourcefulness and empathy makes every day, even when I’m in a different country, a real pleasure.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

At Host/Havas, we’re lucky enough to have the world’s greatest HR Director Thierry Lalchere on board. Since we started she’s been instrumental in making the agency a genuinely brilliant place to work.

One of the things she optimised early on was the ability to work remotely. So we were fortunate in that we had strong, successful processes for remote working in effect before COVID really kicked off.

A Creative Director would often work remotely from Newcastle, we were using talent remotely from other offices within the Havas network, I was working week about between Auckland and Sydney, our Chairman works remotely from London.

So when COVID hit, it was less of a system shock, and more just familiarising the broader agency with processes that many of us were already using.

I was significantly impacted by COVID in that, when there were murmurings about borders closing, I decided to come back to NZ so I wasn’t stuck in Australia away from my sons. I jokingly said that, at worst, I’d be away for three weeks. Cut to 10 months later, and I’m still here, eagerly awaiting for the Trans-Taman Bubble to kick in.

That’s a long time to be away from your agency and team. I miss them all (and our awesome office) like crazy, and it has certainly had its challenging moments, particularly when it comes to trying to capture the spontaneous creative collisions that can happen in hallways and meeting rooms when you’re co-located under one roof.

But the management team and the agency as a whole has really leaned into remote working, and we’re not just making it work, we’re winning pitches, getting great work out the door, and continuing to build great relationships with our clients.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

People in this industry often say that ‘we’re not doctors. We’re not saving lives, we’re just making ads’. That’s true. But when you have teams and clients and projects with big budgets needing guidance, you do, to a certain degree, have to be on call and available a lot of the time.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a quirk of our industry – I think it’s a facet of senior leadership. And so, rather than gauging work-life balance by my freedom to log off at a reasonable time at night, I gauge it by the trust I have in my colleagues and team, and the freedom that gives me in knowing they will take care of business and successfully manage most situations.

Knowing this, I can step away from the computer or take my sons on holiday knowing that the place will be running when I return.

To me, work-life balance is found in the ability to effectively delegate and give your team autonomy. In a role like this, in an industry like ours, if you don’t trust people enough to relinquish the reins, you’ll burn out fast.

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5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

My drinking has decreased a lot, which is great. Prior to COVID, I’d often have beers from the office bar when we were brainstorming ideas. Or wines in the airport lounge when I was travelling. It was just a very easy, casual thing to do.

Now I’m finding having more time in the mornings and less in the evenings has had a real impact on how much I drink during the week (although now I destroy several coffees every day).

I always sorta believed that having a couple of drinks loosened my brain up and helped me think. But I’m increasingly finding the opposite to be true. Having a clear head in the mornings and a bit of room to breathe has done wonders for my productivity.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I get a lot of shit at work for having the most atrocious taste in film and music. I like listening to thrash metal when I need to concentrate, and quite enjoy the filmography of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, so I’m not the best person to be asking for recommendations.

That being said, the book that I’m recommending to my creative department at the moment is called The Five Deadly Sins of Presenting Creative Work by Kerry Feuerman. It’s a fantastic read for anyone that has to pitch ideas, and I guarantee everyone is guilty of at least one of the sins.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

I recently bought a smart vacuum. Yeah yeah, I can hear the strain of ocular muscles from here as readers collectively roll their eyes, but hear me out: it’s an absolute life-changer.

It goes morning and evenings, just buzzing about the place in the background while I work, and by the end of it, my house is spotless.

And I feel like I have less allergies as well. The air just feels cleaner. Plus, my sons have stuck big cartoon eyes on it, so it makes me feel like an extra in a Pixar movie, which is also nice.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

Dwayne The Rock Johnson. I’m keen to know where he finds time to relax when he’s busy putting out so many brilliant films.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

A few months back, I got told something about remote working by someone I work with. It’s really stuck with me. She said, ”you have to make sure that working from home doesn’t become living at work”. It’s so true, I reckon. Try not to blend your work life and home life too much, or one becomes indistinguishable from the other. Get some separation in there. It’s never been so important.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.