Peter Cullinane made his name in the advertising industry, but he’s certainly not your stereotypical Mad Men-era adman. He’s more about soft power than ruthless Machiavellianism. And that attitude has taken him a long way and gained him a heap of respect among his colleagues and competitors.
It all started for Cullinane in Wellington in the heady days of the ‘70s, when he took up his first job in advertising at the age of 19 after dropping out of Victoria University. Around five years later, he was running the Wellington arm of up-and-coming agency Mackay King, which was eventually bought by Saatchi & Saatchi in 1988. And not long after, he became the chair and CEO at Saatchi & Saatchi New Zealand, presiding over it during its halcyon years, before being named worldwide chief operating officer, a role he held for four years.
In 2002, after returning from New York, he co-founded Assignment Group and, with a focus on “commercial clarity”, helped turn it into one of the country’s most consistent and successful agencies. As if that wasn’t enough, he also sat on the boards of NZME, SkyCity and WPP Aus/NZ, and he even went back to school in 2010 to get that elusive degree, doing an MBA and a Masters of Management from the University of Auckland (not surprisingly, the overachiever got straight A’s).
Another thing that separates Cullinane from many of his advertising peers is the fact that he hasn’t just used his skills to help clients build their brands. He has also created his own, with successful restaurant-only water brand Antipodes and, now, Lewis Road Creamery. After an epiphany in the supermarket when he questioned his inability to buy good New Zealand butter, he bought some equipment, put on his white coat and made his own. Since then, he has expanded the range significantly and convinced a big chunk of the nation to pay a premium for his products (hell, security guards even had to be hired to control the hordes hunting for his elusive chocolate milk).
Cullinane has a picture of himself posing as Winston Churchill on the wall of the Lewis Road Creamery HQ, with the tongue in cheek title ‘Our Founder’ below. Churchill obviously has a special place in his heart, because one of the quotes he lives by, as mentioned in an interview with NZ Marketing in the formative days of Lewis Road back in 2012, is ‘Fear nothing, live life as it comes, all will be well’. So far, that approach seems to be working out pretty well for him.
He’s a great leader, a great teacher, a great student, a great businessman, a great marketer and a great man. But don’t take our word for it. Here’s what some of his peers had to say about him.
Mike Hutcheson, ICG executive director: “They say that being in advertising is like being a Battle of Britain fighter pilot. Your life might be quite glorious, but it might also be quite short. Pete Cullinane is a guy who’s given a lie to all that. He’s lasted a long time in the business, and outside the business he’s built some brilliant brands, both for himself and his clients. A lot of people, either colleagues or competitors, will say there’s nothing they like more than sitting down for lunch with Pete and thinking the older we get, the better we were.”
Jamie Hitchcock, creative director, Assignment: “When you first meet Peter, he can seem a bit stern. He doesn’t tolerate mess, he doesn’t ever like having to ask twice and he certainly doesn’t like biro pens because he reasons they’re low rent. He’s got very high standards. So thank you Peter for being a legendary boss and a hell of a lot of fun to be around.”
Josh Lancaster, ex-creative director at Assignment and artist: “In our industry Peter is a rare gentleman. He’s generous and thoughtful and brave and exceptionally clever. Jamie and I have learned a lot about life from working with PC. And no matter how curly the brief or gnarly the client or weird the meeting he would always know the right thing to say at the right time.”
Richard Brookes, associate professor of marketing, The University of Auckland: “I first met Peter many decades ago when he was a junior account executive at Mackay King in Wellington and a group of us executives were there on a visit to them. And after we finished the meeting, someone commented ‘what a nice guy Peter is’. And someone else in the group said ‘he won’t get too far in advertising, it’s too cut-throat.’ Well, Peter did go far in advertising.”
Martin Yeoman, managing partner, Assignment: “What I’ve learned from ‘The Book of Peter’: enjoy the small pleasures, like donuts, pies, wine gums and McDonald’s strawberry milkshakes; the word New Zealand should never be abbreviated and should always be on the same line; where there’s a will there’s a way; pursue quality over quantity, revenue before cost; while both are ideal, it’s more important to be respected than liked; if in doubt, draw a triangle, because it can explain just about every business issue. You make the difficult look easy and it’s not, you have an enormous work rate, impeccable judgement, you’re incredibly generous with your time and knowledge, and anyone who has had the pleasure of working with you has benefitted enormously.”
Vincent Heeringa, content director, Narrative: “The great thing about Peter Cullinane is that he’s like a doctor who takes his own medicine. There aren’t many people in advertising and marketing who are prepared to put their own money against their own advice. He’s put his ass, his reputation, everything on the line against his own products. And I think that shows real bravery and that’s the very thing that would make someone qualify for the Marketing Hall of Fame.”
Angela Weeks, general manager sales and marketing, Lewis Road Creamery: “Every day is an adventure working with Peter. He’s just brilliant to work with. You do sometimes have those moments when he walks into the office and says ‘I was thinking last night…’ and you say ‘ahh, shit’ and you have to brace yourself and go for the ride. He’s an amazing creative thinker, he works at breakneck speed, nothing is impossible, he’s the master of momentum and it’s an absolute honour to work with him on a daily basis.”