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Axis throwback: Toby Talbot on the brutal simplicity of great ideas

This week we will see the winners of the first Axis Awards for the new decade. Here, Saatchi & Saatchi’s Toby Talbot, conveyer of the Axis Awards in 2008-2009, gives his thoughts on the winners we saw over a decade ago, and how things have changed since.

“George ‘W’ Bush coined the phrase ‘Axis of Evil’. But I prefer to dwell on the Axis of ‘Pure Unbridled Joy’

That would be the year 2009 which was my favourite ever Axis. Not because of the awards my agency at the time had won, but because it was a proper P.T Barnum-type show. And Brent Smart and I were ‘party planners’ that night. He in his role as Axis Chair. Me as Convenor of Judges. It was like organising a giant 21st party. Lots of fun.

This was our second year in a row at organising Axis. We were determined to get it right after a pretty flat show the year before. The sweeping changes to the judging process we implemented in 2008 made it an altogether ‘fairer’ show, but our focus this year was different. “Let’s make it the best party ever” said the young upstart MD from Colenso. So that became our main focus.

Yes, the work was great. But the venue was bloody awesome.

The late David Walden, at the time Chairman of CAANZ (as it was known back then) had been hugely supportive in making Axis more of a landmark event. He was the ultimate showman after all. So a shift from a ‘conference centre’ to a ‘stadium’ got Devo excited.

Despite Devo’s enthusiasm, Smarty and I had to work very hard to convince the rest of the CAANZ board of the merits of putting on an industry awards show at Vector (now Spark) Arena. Let’s face it, 1400 people were hardly going to pack the place out. But by cunningly draping enormous black curtains around the auditorium we managed to shrink the voluminous size of the place. It wasn’t exactly intimate, but it wasn’t ridiculously big any more. We had a tongue in cheek glam metal band play every time there was a winner. A sort of homage to Spinal Tap. Worked a treat. The crowd got more excited by the band playing than who won after a while, an excellent solution to the inevitable boredom brought on by sitting through ninety categories.

The previous year, we had made sweeping changes like getting local juries to vote finalists only and then getting world-class overseas judges in, with no allegiance to any agency here to judge the serious metal.

So we got some fabulous people down like the legendary Swedish comedy directing trio, Tractor, and they came to the show and talked about the winners’ work on stage. That was a real buzz for the recipients I can tell you. Having world-class international judges there handing out the prizes. It’s a pity they don’t do it anymore.

I recall Tractor’s Executive Producer, Richard Ulfrengen, stepping up to the mic and saying in his opening address, “You know, I think you’re all good cunts”. I had just told him that the ‘c’ word was also a term of endearment here and he wanted to put it to the test. It brought the house down.

As for the big winners that night, I just recall humour being the common thread. I think the brutal simplicity of great ideas has been diluted by case studies. And this unbearable habit of applying ‘woke’ to every brand at any opportunity. It’s the opposite of entertainment. And nine times out of ten, it feels very forced indeed. Back then, ideas seemed punchier because they were unencumbered.

Deadline Couriers, in retrospect, felt a bit scammy. But hey, what’s not to love about blowing up a billboard.

Instant Kiwi ‘Get a Perm’ I do recall very well because it was my own agency’s work. Still one of my personal favourites, the wonderful Steve Ayson directed the ads.

I think if you watched them again today, you’d still laugh. Trying to find a Mexican actor proved very hard indeed. We literally cast all over Australia and came up with no one. Then two days before the shoot, they found a guy who in truth was more Filipino than Mexican, who owned a dry cleaning shop in the Bombay Hills.  We had our Mexi-Doug. And boy, was he funny.”

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