OTB Talks: Mike Hutcheson

Talk 14.11.2015

As one of New Zealand’s most successful business minds, Mike Hutcheson, an artist turned advertiser, has found his way into a number of ventures across more than 40 years in the industry. From winning ‘Most Outstanding Young Advertising Man’ in his early 20s, to founding advertising agencies in the form of Colenso and HKM, and even holding the position of Managing Director at Saatchi & Saatchi, it would seem that Mike has done it all. He recently responded to our few of our questions, and told us a little bit about himself, his career, and his take on Kiwi creativity.

Mr. Hutcheson, you were accepted into the Ilam School of Fine Arts but ended up studying law. How then did you find yourself in the world of business?

I’m an accidental businessman. I was at Uni studying Law and was bored out of my brain. Law is essentially derivative thinking – it’s about knowing where to go to find the rules and analyzing or interpreting legislation or the essence of some judge’s dictum.  At secondary school I studied Fine Arts Preliminary in Form Seven because I intended to become an Art teacher. However I made the mistake of following my head rather than my heart and I was bored rigid studying Law.

Fortunately I discovered advertising by accident. I dropped out of Law School and joined Charles Haines Ltd, then a leading Wellington advertising agency. While there I won a Scholarship as New Zealand’s “Most Outstanding Young Advertising Man”. My working life since has been a series of start-ups or company reformations. I’ve founded or co-founded a number of companies including advertising agencies; Colenso (now Colenso BBDO) and Hutcheson, Knowles Marinkovich (HKM). I was also a director of a family building company and set up Replica Homes, a franchise building organisation and a Real Estate agency.

You are well known for the roles you held at Saatchi & Saatchi, can you tell us a bit about your time there — are there any experiences that stand out in particular?

I was privileged to work with some of the best talent in the business. There are so many highlights it’s impossible to number them all or rank them. Every day was a new high. But that was well over a decade ago and the new generation wouldn’t know what we are talking about. Sufficient to know that there’s an old saying; advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

On your website you are described as a ‘serial start-up guy’, do you prefer starting a company or joining one? What challenges and differences have you noticed between starting your own company and being hired by one?

The only things I can do are write and draw.  If I didn’t start my own companies, who would have me? To an administrative type (i.e; the type that runs most companies) I’m basically unemployable.

You recently completed a master’s thesis examining the problem of New Zealand creativity, could you elaborate on your inspiration for this topic, as well as your findings?

Although now I draw and paint for pleasure studying art taught me the importance of discovering new ways of looking at things; the difference between looking and seeing. I am passionate about new ideas and the practical application of creativity. I believe creativity has to be manifested through an outcome or an output. It has to have a product, its relevance needs to be recognised and acknowledged by a responsive audience.

During my time at Saatchi & Saatchi we engaged a psychologist to work in the agency and give us some insights into why it is difficult for creative people to sell their ideas. Among other things, the findings underscored the gulf between what conventional wisdom and a number of writers have chronicled about Kiwi ingenuity and the reality. We found that short term financial imperatives in business have come to mitigate against long term investment in, or focus on, innovation. In other words, accounting cultures in business tend to dominate creative cultures.  That’s why I wanted to write the thesis – to bang the drum for creativity and find out why it has lost its place at the top table.

You may or may not have seen, but the University of Auckland is now offering a course in creative thinking. What is your opinion on trying to teach or study the creative process?

It should be taught, not as training program but as a way of showing people where they fit on the creative continuum.

 When I heard you speak on Radio National last week, you said that marketing is not a process but a skill — in your own words, it is a philosophy. Do you think there is a problem with the way that a subject like marketing is taught in universities in this country?

Yes. The trouble is that Marketing is taught as a function. It isn’t a function it’s a philosophy. A company with a marketing department is like a Church with a religion department. I believe in Peter Drucker’s dictum, ‘Business has only two functions. Innovation and marketing. Everything else is a cost.’

You also said that many of the things we pride ourselves on as a nation — things like No. 8 wire, the jet boat and the electric fence — are rather less impressive than the accomplishments of many other nations, and yet we continue to use them as exemplars of Kiwi ingenuity. Why do you think this is? Do you think our national pride is rooted in our identity as ‘the underdog’, and that we perhaps overstate the importance of our accomplishments due to our relative size globally?

A number of writers have explored or commented on successful business innovations in New Zealand, often alluding to a seemingly innate cultural propensity for, and facility with, innovation. Such texts celebrate a certain belief in cultural ingenuity, but aside from Bridges & Downs, who discuss the dangers of perpetuating “Number 8 Wire” thinking and practice, most lack in-depth critique or analysis of the business contexts in which such innovations occur. Some warn that assumptions based on cultural myths like “Kiwi ingenuity” and “Number 8 Wire” can be problematic without deeper analysis. They suggest that some form of verification is required, either through statistical analysis or examination through case studies.

One of the things you said that stuck with me was that, “It’s not enough just to give birth to an idea, you’ve actually got to take it somewhere”. Do you believe New Zealand has an ambition crisis? Are we too happy to rest on our laurels once we have come up with something, where others might push it further?

New Zealanders’ inventiveness is often used to drive down the cost of production instead of being employed to create new value. This decision often results in New Zealand business embedding high value intellectual assets in comparatively low value products.

New Zealanders often tend to start businesses for lifestyle reasons, rather than wealth creation. Because leisure pursuits are so accessible and cheap in New Zealand, leisure-based readings of “success” can be achieved at a relatively low threshold. Such a basis for initiating businesses can operate as an impediment to the robust development of local businesses. This underscores the basic purpose of my thesis in exploring the importance of using accessible forms to effectively communicate the importance of fostering creativity in business so that Kiwis’ undoubted inventiveness can be fully maximised.

What do you think needs to be done, both governmentally and by the individual, in order to capitalise on the talent within this country and elevate New Zealand globally to a position that we have the potential to reach?

Put as much money into, or offer as much support for marketing initiatives as for research and product development. Too much research ends up in projects that are solutions looking for problems rather than vice versa.

Finally, what does the future hold for you Mr. Hutcheson?

I want to bang the drum for creativity in business. I want to advocate for reducing the number of lawyers and accountants on boards and replace them with creative people and marketers.

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Nick is a second year English student at the University of Otago in Dunedin. With a quick wit and cynical eye, Nick has a keen interest in all creative pursuits, be they fashion, architecture, art,… AUTHOR PROFILE

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