JAMES MACKINNON - PARTNER/STRATEGY DIRECTOR - TABOO
Can you provide a short work bio. Where you started and where you are now?
I started out at George Patterson Y&R on the Fosters account during the glory days of beer advertising. While I had no idea what I was doing, I was fortunate enough to learn from Australia’s best and brightest. When the account moved to Clemenger BBDO, I was offered the opportunity to run the Corona account there, which took me all round the world in search of ‘from where you’d rather be’. I moved to New York in 2011 where I ran the Jim Beam business for North America, at StrawberryFrog.
In 2014 I returned to Melbourne to join forces with my brother, who had a nine-person creative agency called Taboo. While Taboo was very different from the blue-chip agencies I’d worked at, I saw potential in their approach and a mindset that was totally untethered to traditional advertising. The same year I bought into Taboo, I started a kombucha business called The Bucha of Byron with two former clients. My days are now spent juggling these businesses, raising a young family, and embracing an ever-increasing number of grey hairs.
Tell us a little more about Taboo – what is on the horizon for you and the team?
Taboo is a Melbourne-based creative agency. We’re currently a team of about twenty-five, working with some of Australia’s most sought-after clients (TAC, Telstra, Haagen-Dazs, MECCA, CUB, Schnitz). We refer to ourselves as ‘an advertising agency for a world that hates advertising’. This means we create branded communications that go beyond broadcasting messages to create things that people actually want in their lives. Most of our work doesn’t really resemble advertising – in the last year we’ve created documentaries, beauty festivals, concert series, built ice cream restaurants, created a cereal empire, and even launched our own floating bar on the Yarra River.
For the last couple of years, our focus has been on deepening the relationships with current clients instead of hunting for new ones. This has seen us making big investments in our people to ensure we have the best thinkers and doers from within and from outside the advertising industry. To live up to our promise, we need a team that deeply understands culture and the ways in which audiences are willing to interact with brands.
Regarding your stint in New York, what were the main learnings you took away from your time there?
There is a lot of great things about working in New York – huge brands, big budgets and the opportunity to work with top- tier talent from around the world. While this teaches you so much, the biggest learning for me was the power of personal relationships. In Australia we’re lucky because we usually live in the same city as our client – so we can develop strong relationships and gain their respect and trust. In New York, more often than not you’re in separate cities and most meetings are done over tele-conferences (with way too many people on the line), so it’s hard to build meaningful relationship and trust. Without these, the process of selling intangible ideas can sometimes feel like swimming upstream.
Taboo are truly independent. What would you say is the major differentiator between indie agencies and holding group agencies?
Independence gives us the freedom to create the best environment for the people working in the business. Yes, we have targets that we aim to hit, but it’s not a “hit the numbers at all costs” mentality. We regularly turn down work that doesn’t interest us and have discontinued working with clients who haven’t treated us respectfully. Being able to make those decisions is a great feeling and brings motivation and loyalty.
As a Partner and Strategy Director, what do you look for when hiring for your team?
We look for Hustlers (AKA extremely resourceful people) –people who have an innate entrepreneurial spirit and who know there’s always a better, smarter, faster way of getting things done. We also look for people who have experience –triumphs or failures – outside the advertising industry. Many people at Taboo have active side-businesses (hot sauce, bars, energy-healing practices, kombucha) – and we really encourage these endeavours.
Who is someone you admire and why?
I would have to say Craig Reucassel of War on Waste. It’s inspiring to see one person tackle such a deeply engrained and overwhelming issue and to put it on the national agenda so quickly. I think it’s a masterclass on how drive behavioural change by presenting the problem in a unique and entertaining way.
What’s one thing people at work wouldn’t know about you?
I regularly lie awake at night hoping they will never leave.
If you were not working at Taboo what would you be doing?
I’d be living in Byron Bay working in the kombucha business with my two partners, surfing every day and regenerating a crop of nice brown hair. Hmmm…
Instagram: @the_taboo_ group