In his youth, Neil Lawrence thought of marketing as little more than a “pimple on the arse of capitalism”; now, he’s corporate Australia’s favourite ad man.
A master at merger and acquisition campaigns, Lawrence has helped corporations such as Wesfarmers, AGL and BHP Billiton gobble up their smaller competitors. Last year, he spun Alan Joyce’s decision to slash 1000 Qantas jobs and set up a new airline based out of Asia. And in 2010, less than three years after creating the Kevin07 campaign, he crafted the $17.5 million marketing blitz that helped kill off the Resources Super Profits Tax (and Kevin Rudd’s leadership).
At the height of the mining tax stoush, Lawrence bumped into Julia Gillard, who admitted his ads were impressive. “Could you make them a little bit worse?” she joked. Within weeks Gillard had deposed Rudd and negotiated a watered-down tax with the big miners that will rake in an estimated $60 billion less over the next decade than the RSPT.
“Neil is a rare animal, being both strategist and creative,” Sydney PR supremo Sue Cato tells The Power Index. “No one would welcome him being on the other side of a campaign: the odds are immediately against you.”
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“I think he’s the best in Australia,” says veteran corporate strategist and BHP Billiton adviser John Connolly. “I don’t know what he’d be like at consumer stuff — selling tea towels and toothpaste — but he’s one of the few people in the advertising business who really understand corporate issues.”
Dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, Lawrence cuts a relaxed figure when The Power Index meets him at his office on Sydney’s lower North Shore. A signed, framed poster of Gough Whitlam hangs on the wall, as does a Leunig cartoon and a Sydney Morning Herald front page marking Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations.
So what does he make of the accusation, hurled by some comrades on the Left, that he’s sold out to tax dodgers and union busters?
“My own politics have always been Left-of centre — more centre now than Left,” he shrugs, sipping on a cup of herbal tea. “But I’m an independent thinker and I judge things on their merit.”
Look no further than his decision in mid-2011 to help Qantas CEO Alan Joyce spruik his restructure of the airline’s international operations.
“The international division was losing money — and that’s not a sustainable position,” Lawrence says. “It was a case of change or perish. I don’t think the unions in dispute with Qantas represented any sort of normal ALP point of view. They caused as much angst inside the government as inside Qantas. Their position was extreme.”
Lawrence’s multi-million dollar “New Spirit” campaign was not universally praised. Gruen Planet panellist Rowan Dean described the ads as “half truths poorly told” and “advertising at its worst”. An October poll by Essential Media found only 21% of people agreed it was necessary to move some operations to Asia to ensure a strong future for Qantas.
As for Rudd’s original mining tax, Lawrence says the government’s anti-business rhetoric and lack of consultation with the miners forced his hand.
“I didn’t like the suggestion that there are a small number of rich fat mining magnates who are ripping off Australians and sending most of the profits overseas … I found that inaccurate, misleading 1970s Trot-style thinking,” he says. “They demonised the industry and tried to play the xenophobic card.”
There’s passion in his voice when he says this — and that’s because Lawrence despises negative advertising. He’s no Pollyanna — indeed, he’s the one who lumbered a young Jeff Kennett with the “bull in the china shop” tag back in the mid-1980s. But he’s convinced there are better ways to shift opinions than scaring peoples’ pants off.