Australian advertising history is filled with pioneers who brought a distinctive style to the table, and undoubtedly has produced a fair share of legends. The name John Singleton may ring a bell…whether good, bad or controversial; there’s no denying that ‘Singo’ has had notable presence on Australian turf in the Advertising arena.
In his early days, the young Fort Street High Graduate landed himself a ‘dispatch boy’ job in the Sydney office of J. Walter Thompson. He then went on to pursue a Copywriting role at Berry Currie Advertising, before moving up the ranks to become Creative Director in 1963. At 25, with a wealth of industry knowledge and skill, John co-founded the provocatively named ‘SPASM’ agency in 1968, where his entrepreneurial character and anti-authoritarian attitude would be on full display.
Their clients were mainly local Sydney retailers and rather than using polished voices, their ads were distinct as they embraced the tone of the average working-class man. On the other hand, were associated with being crass, vulgar and offensive to anyone who was not a footy lover, boozy, “try blu” Aussie bloke.
The agency flourished for five years, until an offer in 1973 from New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach was too good to turn down. Singleton and his affiliates sold their agency to DDB for $1.2 million and for some time, he was Managing Director of Australian Operations in their company.
Singo’s campaigns broke new ground with their creativity yet highly idiosyncratic retail advertising, with catchphrases that lingered in one’s mind; one of his most successful was for ‘David Holdings Wholesale and Liquor’ in 1974. At the core of the campaign was value for money and Singleton’s approach was to shout the prices at viewers with a voiceover saying “Where do you get it?”, and repeat. Another is evident for ‘Hudson’s Timber and Hardware’, in which he cast a toothless old handyman to say “udsons with an aitch”.
Defending ocker advertisements from the critics, with people often claiming “a bad example was being set for school children and the face of Australia”, ‘Advertising News’ argued that it was an important part of Australia’s coming of age. Saying “We can’t see why the broad Australian accent and colloquialisms should take all the critisism they do … Ockerism is a manifestation of Australia growing up. It is our own language and not imported. It would be a pity if our 1976 culture couldn’t take it in its stride.”.
Amidst a clash of cultures and working for a giant with owners abroad, an unhappy Singleton left his role under DDB after five years. This triggered him to stay out of advertising for a while, 9 years to be precise. During this time he tried his hands in other fields such as radio and television broadcasting, promoting rodeo’s, breeding racehorses, lingerie, property investing and even owned a circus… John of all trades?
Singo returned to advertising with his next venture in 1985; creating his absolute own ‘John Singleton Advertising’. The growth of this agency was phenomenal, later absorbing 50 other companies. The ad business produced a succession of campaigns, including the popular ‘Qantas – I still call Australia home’ initial campaign. JSA’s image was a direct replica of himself, literally his character and charisma as a brand… everything ocker, hard-working and fiercely Australian.
Having developed close ties with the Labor party, Singo had an impact on political advertising and was the no.1 candidate for the 1987 election, his firm coming up with the catchy jingle “Lets stick together, lets see it through” which urged Australians to keep holding on to the Australian dream, while reminding them that “Nobody ever got anywhere changing horses in mid-stream”.
The roaring 1980’s provided the perfect platform for Singleton’s creative powers to flourish and conservatism was flipped upside down. The 80’s painted a time when the Australian society were searching for an identity. Multinational agencies were making their existence felt with the dawn of strategic planning and imitated a British or American tone of voice, whereas Singleton’s style stood out from the crowd.
In 1977, JSA emerged with a trouble Ogilvy and Mather to create ‘Singleton Ogilvy and Mather’ and with the help of his right-hand man Russell Tate, managed to turn the business around. Four years later, they had acquired an impressive 49% of agency JWT to manage a $60 million dollar deal and Singo’s era with Ogilvy and Mather remained until 2009!
Aside from advertising, Singo has also built a reputation around drinking, arguing and womanizing, with more than a few not-so-secret sides of his personal life revealed…and when you’re under the spotlight, there’s no hiding from the paps or slipping under the radar. Take this incident that made news headlines; “Singo lunges at life-long friend with broken wine glass”. That was the end of Monday lunch and he copped a $550 fine from the cops, not that it would break his bank, the same year he sold his Killcare beach house for 4.25 million so he has the funds!
Well known for his larriken demeanor in Australia and love for a “good ol time”, often involving drinks and more drinks… he shouted the entire Rosehill racecourse after his horse won the golden slipper. And lastly; Margaret, Maggie, Liz, Julie, Belinda and Jennifer, the six wives of his past has generated much more banter about his character.
All in all, Singo is a guru who has had significant impact in shaping Australian Advertising and its culture since the nineteenth century; the first to use ‘ocker’ style, revel in vernacular and talk to consumers the way he talked to his mates. His relentless energy saw him dream large through his advertising and divide the industry. If “Australianised” was a word, he would take that cake.