Global Headline Makers: Paul Gregson and Jono Flannery (Australia)

by Mark Tungate , MAYDREAM

Jaws is to blame, of course. Anybody who has seen the movie at an impressionable age can’t help hearing that thump thump music every time they’re in the ocean, coupled with the feeling that to dangle their feet in seawater is to invite a mauling.

This sensation was even more exaggerated for Paul Gregson (far left), an English art director who found himself working at M&C Saatchi in Sydney, Australia. But he wasn’t only worried about sharks – he thought everything in the country was out to kill him. “I’d just found a huntsman spider in my flat,” he recalls.

This was inevitably a source of mild amusement for his Australian copywriter partner Jono Flannery, who’d grown up surrounded by unfriendly fauna. The result was the Optus Clever Buoy, a Titanium-awarded shark detection service that may eventually make Australia’s coastlines safer for swimmers – as well as protecting sharks from fear-inspired killing.

The brief from Optus, Australia’s second largest telecoms provider, was to make its intangible service tangible. Jono says: “We were looking for an idea that would generate PR while demonstrating how amazing Optus’s service was. So we needed to identify a big problem we could solve…And Paul, being an Englishman, said ‘Surely we can do something about the sharks?’”

The context was relevant as shark attacks had risen sharply and a “shark cull” had begun – which involved baiting lines and then reeling in the predators; any shark over two metres long was killed. “Sharks may be dangerous,” says Jono, “but they’re massively important to the food chain because they’re apex predators.”

The final idea come down to this: “Let’s put something out in the water that detects sharks and sends a message via the Optus network.”

Paul says: “It was a very open brief, and we could have gone down an entertainment road, something that was just a spectacle showing the power of the network. But once you solve a problem the work becomes bigger and better than a pure entertainment idea.”

Their inspiration led to a two-year saga that involved liaising with everyone from marine biologists to “mechatronic engineers”. Not to mention sonar experts, who at first said it was impossible to detect sharks using sonar. In the end, the project required a three-way cooperation between Optus, Google and Shark Mitigation Services. For full details of how Clever Buoy came together, take a dive into this amazing case film.

Needless to say, the buoy generated exactly the kind of headlines that Optus and the agency were looking for. Jono says: “It was a great combination because it connected to something that was already in the media, while fitting perfectly with Optus’s brand ethos, which is about using telecommunications to improve people’s lives. Optus had a line at the time about it being ‘the ultimate wingman’ for its customers, so here it was being the perfect wingman at the beach.”

Paul adds: “We didn’t just pluck the idea out of the air. It was core to what the brand was communicating, so it felt complementary.”

It’s perhaps worth mentioning that Jono studied journalism before switching to advertising, while Paul began his career at the Manchester branch of the below-the-line agency Tequila. So perhaps they’re naturally inclined to look beyond conventional solutions.

As for Clever Buoy, it has not yet been installed countrywide, but it has been adopted by the New South Wales government and is already “live” at the famous Bondi Beach.

So what came next for its instigators? How do you top a shark detection device? The answer is Australian of the Day, a campaign for CommBank. A new idea – inspired by one that was 35 years old.

“Commbank is the biggest bank in Australia,” says Jono, “and for a long time it’s been sponsor of the Australian of the Year award, the highest honour an Australian can receive. But it only has four categories: Australian of the Year, Senior Australian of the Year, Young Australian of the Year – and Australia’s Local Hero. Plus its profile among young consumers was low: I don’t think anyone under the age of 24 had voted for the past two years. Our brief was to re-engage them.”

To Jono and Paul’s thinking, it didn’t make sense that a bank that wanted to celebrate everyday Australians could only give an award to four people a year. So Australian of the Day was born.

“Over eight months leading up to Australia Day on January 26, we sent out eight photographers who travelled around the country looking for the ordinary Australians who were making Australia extraordinary.”

On the related website, a person was crowned Australian of the Day – every single day. Visitors to the site could also nominate great Australians in their region.

“The stories that came out of it were great,” says Paul. “It was wonderful seeing all the different worlds these people lived in – it was like discovering the real Australia. It was also a real shift of gear for the bank: they allowed us to send young photographers out there to document Australia as it really is. Normally there are a lot of sign-off processes and so on, but they really let go of the reins.”

One example of a previously unsung Australian was a Sikh cab driver in Darwin who would work all night as a cabbie and all day fixing air conditioning units – only to then cook up a cauldron’s worth of Indian food and drive around distributing meals to the homeless. Another was a man who has devoted his life to the cult Mad Max movies and has a museum stuffed with vehicles and artefacts from the series.

As well as nominations and the photographers’ own discoveries, the team also followed the news – when a man was named Sydney’s favourite shopkeeper, a photographer was sent out to make him Australian of the Day. “There was something interesting going on every day,” says Paul.

Needless to say, the project was re-commissioned for this year. It’s another example of the duo’s talent for connecting brands with society through a mixture of news sense, empathy and curiosity. All while making Australia just a little more extraordinary along the way.

Mark Tungate is the editorial director of the Epica Awards, based in Paris. A journalist with more than 30 years of experience, he has written for magazines and newspapers in the UK, the US and France. He is the author of several books about advertising and branding.