Women Who shaped Advertising: Sarah Barclay

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If good advertising is about creating culture then Sarah Barclay is one of the all-time great exponents. Here, Pippa Chambers looks back at the stellar rise of the former worldwide creative head of JWT. 

Born in the UK and having plied her trade in the US for the past two decades, it would be easy to overlook the fact that Sarah Barclay is a central figure in two folkloric advertising campaigns which have made their way into the heart of Australian culture.

Her family emigrated Down Under when she was six years old, and Barclay was one of the first to study a new course at Sydney University in visual communication. She then signed up to an Australian Federation of Advertising (AFA) initiative giving 10 people the chance to work for nine months in an agency.

Barclay landed at JWT Sydney as a junior art director and began her journey as a creative rulebreaker.

“I think the AFA rules were then that you had to spend time in each of the departments, but I didn’t. I just stayed in the creative department because I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” she says.

After cutting her teeth at JWT the next stop was the now defunct Garland, Stewart & Roche and then The Ball Partnership (which eventually evolved into Host/Havas after many mergers), where she worked closely with copywriter Mara Marich.

It was a pro-bono ad for Hero magazine for condom awareness helped put the duo on the creative map.

“We decided to do a public service campaign to raise awareness of using condoms. Of course, back in those days, there weren’t really many cheeky campaigns out there,” she explains.

“We used the condom as an O in the ‘Don’t Leave Home without One’ headline – which at the time was an American Express tagline – with the condom photographed from above.

“That’s what got us the job at The Palace”.

‘The Palace’ was The Campaign Palace, Australia’s creative hotshop at the time. The Hero ad’s success helped the duo score a job in the Melbourne office in 1987.

Barclay doesn’t recall an interview, with the most storied agency in the country deciding to “take a punt on a couple of girls from Sydney”.

As art director Barclay worked on clients including the Rupert Murdoch-owned Herald Sun Newspaper, Target, Holeproof, Rev Milk, Big M Milk and Kambrook Appliances.

“It was one of the most amazing places to work there if you could get there,” she recalls. “I think it was Saatchi & Saatchi and The Campaign Palace were duelling agencies at the time, but The Palace was always the one that we were aiming for and luckily it happened.”

At the Campaign Palace Barclay soon found herself under the tutelage of advertising stalwart Scott Whybin, who she describes as an “amazing mentor”. He helped carry on a culture in the agency which was “absolutely creative first”, allowing the team the time needed to play with and refine their ideas.

She explains: “We didn’t have to go and present anything to clients. We were kept in this little creative cocoon, so it was quite an amazing time where the only important thing was making the most amazing piece of work that we could for whatever the brief was.

“It was just one of the best experiences I can remember in terms of being in the industry, because we were just given complete freedom.

“The Palace always pushed things as far as they could so the bar was high, but they were very encouraging and supportive.”

She recalls Whybin walking into the office, looking at the masses of scribbles on paper on the floor and spotting something to run with.

“He just has the amazing ability to see something on the floor and recognise the idea that is the brilliant one. That’s what happened with Antz Pants,” she says.

“He just saw this idea on the floor and knew that was the right one. I mean, that’s one of the hardest things about being a creative director (CD), recognising from something in its infancy that it could be brilliant.

“It was an amazing experience to see how they worked and learn from their ability to encourage and foster great ideas.”

Halcyon days

It’s an even more remarkable feat when you consider that, on paper, the Antz Pantz TV ad is an unusual concept. It features a female backpacker sitting on a bed in a dingy and humid room, in her underwear, watching ants climb all over the furniture. The ants start to crawl up her leg and onto her knickers. At that point she turns to the echidna (Australia’s version of a porcupine) which is inexplicably sat beside her on the bed, telling him to “sic ‘em Rex”.

With a squeal of glee Rex leaps forward and we cut to the face of the backpacker who appears to be giggling with delight as Rex devours the ants while a voiceover proclaims it is “underwear that’s nice to crawl into”.

The cheeky TV spot for Holeproof Underwear caused a stir across the country, seen as being particularly risque for the industry at the time. But it quickly became iconic and despite some complaints to the Ad Standards Bureau, ‘sic em Rex’ soon slipped into Aussie vernacular.

“I spent five fabulous years there, first with James Woollett and then Scott Whybin at the helm, and had amazing success under their leadership,” Barclay recalls.

“They were truly halcyon days. Candy Shoes, Antz Pantz, and the Herald Sun work all made us grateful to be working there.”

Barclay notched up nearly five years at the legendary Victorian agency before Clemenger BBDO came knocking in 1992.

Barclay accepted an offer at the Melbourne hot shop as group creative director and stayed for more than eight years, working on brands such as Mercedes Benz, Yellow Pages, Dulux and Fuel Corp.

Working under former Clemenger BBDO creative director and chairman David Blackley and executive creative director (ECD) Ant Shannon, Barclay was part of iconic Australian campaigns including ‘Milk. Legendary Stuff’ – her first Gold Cannes Lions winner.

But it was the ‘Not Happy Jan’ campaign for Yellow Pages which Barclay says she is particularly proud of. Again, it is a line which has gone into everyday use for many Australians.

The campaign is so iconic that this year chocolate maker Darrell Lea caused a stir when it created a near-perfect rip-off of the ad, leading to a swift cease-and-desist letter from the Yellow Pages in which they said: “To see…our beloved character Jan, used by another company for commercial gain, is a total shock to us and our customers.”

Barclay explains she was alerted to the campaign by someone who had worked on the original and was “aghast”, but dismisses the effort as “a little cheeky”.

On the back of many successful campaigns for Clemenger BBDO, Barclay and creative partner Tony Greenwood landed a trip to New York for some Yellow Pages poster work in 2000. While there both accepted jobs at BBDO New York.

But it was not quite the American dream for Barclay, who describes “suffering 18 months” at the agency because there were only two women in the creative department, likening it to “the old boys’ club”.

“It was like another kind of institution. Tony and I found it culturally very hard to fit into,” she explains.

Barclay describes the US as an “eye-opening experience”, excited by the huge budgets, but frustrated at the conservative approach of many clients.

She relocated to London for a few months post 9/11, but feeling that her time in New York was not quite finished, soon headed back across the Atlantic after being enticed back by Australian expat Bob Isherwood.

He was worldwide creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi from 1996 to 2008, bringing in Barclay as global creative director for marquee client P&G alongside Tony Granger, who would go on to spend a decade as Y&R’s global chief creative officer.

A revolution for tampon advertising

At Saatchi & Saatchi New York Barclay cites an Air Tahiti Nui campaign, a doodle-style campaign on a billboard advertising a new direct flight from New York to Tahiti, as one of her favourites. It picked up a Silver Cannes Lion.



After six years at Saatchis with major P&G brands such as Tide and Ariel, Barclay opted for a new challenge, moving to JWT as global ECD in 2008. She would stay in that role for 11 years as the WPP agency changed and finally merged with sister shop Wunderman, creating Wunderman Thompson.

Her favourite campaigns  at JWT include “UbyKotex” (2010) which she describes as a “revolution” for tampon advertising that changed the whole category by mocking traditional tampon ads.

In 2017 Barclay also worked on Period Equity’s “Periods are not a Luxury” advert. Starring celebrity Amber Rose, the film pulled in a million views in just 10 hours, causing thousands of people to pledge to take action to remove tampon taxes in the remaining 36 states. Coverage went global, form Marie Claire to Nylon.

“Half the population is incurring a tampon tax for what is a natural bodily function,” Barclay explains.

“We highlighted this through a tongue in cheek campaign, directed by the fab Melanie Bridge, lampooning the idea of tampons being a luxury.

“Last October Nevada became the 15th state to eliminate the tax and fueled the national debate around what constitutes a necessity product and who gets to define it.”

She left JWT in July 2019, saying that after being in the industry for “a long bloody time” she intends to take a break with her husband, and make the most of their holiday home in Byron Bay. 

Kicking against the privileged white men

Barclay has judged at nearly every awards show and made friends throughout the industry around the world. Despite this she says she feels particularly honored when young women tell her she has inspired them.

“That makes me feel like I’ve won gold,” Barclay says. “The fact that a number of pieces I’ve worked on are also in folklore, or managed to turn a category on its head, is worth more than awards.”

While it was unusual for females to be in such senior creative positions in the 80s and 90s, Barclay says it is still too rare now to find women in powerful creative positions.

“There’s never been that many super senior women in the industry as far as I can remember and so it just felt like the norm,” she explains.

“I knew it wasn’t great, but I was glad that I was there and doing my bit to try and encourage younger women to come into the industry and to show that it can be done. It was just the status quo over time – men were just in the powerful positions.”

Asked what societal norms she may have been kicking against in her top roles, she puts it simply: “Privileged white men.”

Whilst Barclay says she is thankful for her career, she acknowledges the industry still has a long way to go as it grapples with many new challenges and problems, adding that “hopefully” it continues to evolve and embrace diversity.

“I hope I’ve led by example and that leaving Australia to play on the US and global stage has encouraged young women to explore,” she says.

“I brought a number of women over to Europe and the US and many are still working and have achieved a great deal in the local and international industry, which I’d have to say is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.”

RIP creativity?

Reflecting on the changing landscape, including the demise of The Campaign Palace, WPP’s amalgamation of WundermanThompson, Barclay says it’s “just the nature of how things evolve”.

Recalling the ‘Rest in Peace The Campaign Palace’ Facebook group, she admits it is sad to think of something once so strong and powerful which now no longer exists.

“You can’t hold onto things if they can’t survive in the world today,” Barclay says.

“It’s sad but it’s the reality of the changing world of our industry which is still going through massive evolution now.”

However she does think there needs to be a correction in some holding groups which have let the role of creativity become too disrupted.

“I think the whole focus now towards more technology is leaving creativity behind,” she says.

“That’s wrong and the focus should always be around creativity using technology. The industry feels like it’s a little bit lost and the holding companies are probably a bit to blame for that in swallowing up all the little ones.”

There’s a whole stream dedicated to female leadership and diversity at Advertising Week APAC 2019. See the program and get tickets here.

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