Paul Wilson isn't the whiskey-swilling, chain-smoking advertising cliché we've come to expect from the characters in shows like Mad Men.
The softly spoken Saatchi & Saatchi boss is instead the type of guy who sends congratulations cards to competitors when they beat him in a pitch for a new account.
As the boss of arguably the most famous ad agency in New Zealand, Wilson usually spends his days finding clever ways to draw consumer attention to brands like Toyota and My Food Bag.
But he's recently found himself at the centre of two of the most contentious political issues for 2020: recreational cannabis and euthanasia.
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At the beginning of this year, the Ministry of Justice appointed Saatchi & Saatchi to inform New Zealanders on what they'll be voting when they cast a ballot on September 19.
It was always going to be a tight brief.
There would little room for the agency to tap into the creative reserves normally used to cut through the noise and persuade Kiwi hearts and minds.
"It's certainly not the normal type of creative campaign you might have when you're selling something," says Wilson.
"These projects are going to be vital pieces of communication. They're going to be impartial, unbiased, factual, signposting that definitely doesn't lead one way or the other."
The project will largely be dedicated to letting people know where the information is for them to make informed choices.
The first part of the campaign was quietly rolled out in early May with the relaunch of a Government website dedicated to the referenda.
This will now build into a multi-faceted advertising campaign that will run across television, radio, billboards, print, digital and social media in early July.
The impact of Covid-19 may have pulled up the handbrake on commerce across New Zealand, but Wilson says the team continued to work remotely with the Ministry of Justice all the way through the lockdown to ensure everything was rolled out on time.
"This work was too important for us to put on hold," he says.
"The decisions we're asking Kiwis to make could end up changing New Zealand law."
Covid, the vampire
Over the past few months, we've seen Covid-19 function as a media vampire sucking the interest out of all other topics.
Issues that were once major talking points all but disappeared from the headlines in favour of headlines dedicated exclusively to the pandemic.
As the lockdown ended and New Zealanders were given permission to return to some semblance of normality, we've seen the media line-up diversify with a steady introduction of a broader range of topics – particularly those of a political nature.
This will only escalate as we progress toward the election and politicians start to debate policies and issues facing Kiwis.
As a corollary, we'll also see lobby groups ramp up their efforts with emotionally charged campaigns that attempt to pull voters one way or the other.
This highly partisan media environment makes it all the more essential for Saatchi and Saatchi to reach as many people as possible to ensure decisions aren't made on the basis of which lobby group is the most persuasive.
"The thing that drew us to this initiative is not necessarily that it's the most creative campaign but rather the thought of being trusted with a project of this significance," Wilson says.
The issue of a lack of trust has long plagued Wilson's industry, with a US-based survey by PwC last year putting trust in advertising at a measly 3 per cent. Other surveys conducted have seen advertising executives ranked behind real estate agents, bankers and politicians.
So given these metrics, is it wise for the Ministry of Justice to trust an advertising agency to deliver such an important message to so many Kiwis?
Wilson isn't surprised by the question and admits it is sometimes a challenge to work in the shadow of the pop culture perception of the nefarious advertising executive so common in film.
"If we're starting from a base that advertising is mistrusted, we need to double-down and fight against that," Wilson says.
"I think if you behave in a different manner to what external public or consumer pop-culture perceptions are of the industry, then you can build trust."
One way this can be done, argues Wilson, is by doing what's right for the client rather than simply trying to sell the most elaborate – or expensive – idea in the agency's repertoire.
"I think ad agencies sometimes pretend that they know better when they don't always do," says Wilson.
"Agencies need to take more time hearing what clients want to achieve and treating with importance rather than being flippant.
"Your recommendation to a client demonstrates that you've listened. That's what building trust looks like."
This is the external process of building trust, but Wilson also believes there's work to be done within agencies to reshape the way people see them.
The culture within ad agencies has long been infamous for heavy drinking, partying, long lunches and even longer hours. And while they're certainly not killjoys, Wilson says the new generation of advertising executives and workers look at the world differently to their predecessors.
Rather than simply keeping the booze flowing at Friday drinks, advertising agencies like Saatchi are now working on cultural and structural changes that make their workplaces more inclusive and flexible.
As someone who cut his teeth under the previous generation, Wilson admits adjusting to the idea of flexible work can be a challenge at times.
"I've had to quite consciously adapt to lead by example," he says, almost apologetically.
"These days, I sometimes work from home so I can help my wife out and do drop-offs when she's at work. But I always have this niggle at the back of my mind, I guess it could be Catholic guilt, that people might be expecting me at the office."
Working on the cannabis and euthanasia information campaigns aren't likely to assuage his feelings of Catholic guilt, but get it right and a few more clients might be willing to put their trust in him. And few things are more valuable in advertising than that.
Keeping the lobbies in check
In every election, there's always an explosion of advocacy advertising as interest groups attempt to persuade voters of who they should back.
These days, the most glaring examples are delivered directly to Kiwi social feeds from political and lobby groups.
Hilary Souter, the chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority, says the ASA has received more than 30 complaints under the advocacy category so far in 2020. As many as 20 of these have been specifically linked to political advertising.
Souter tells the Herald the ASA already started receiving complaints about advocacy ads focused on the referenda last year.
Souter says the position of the ASA in these matters is not to determine which side is right, but rather whether any information contained within a sponsored social media post – or other ad – is inaccurate.
She says there's an onus on lobby groups and advertisers to back up any claims they make with evidence.
Souter says her team is currently geared up for what will be a busy lead into the election – particularly as interest grows in the two referenda.