Men's Health Trust chairman and billboard company boss Phil Clemas has led controversial advertising campaigns designed to get men talking about their health.

1. Why did you have a vagina on your Men's Health Week posters last year?

That was actually a picture of vocal cords, but the fact they look like a vagina was useful because it got people talking and got the media engaged. We had a little bit of negativity from certain groups but overall the feedback was positive. The campaign was about achieving cut-through and creating talk-ability. Our message has consistently been to get guys talking about their health. We talk to our mates about the rugby or politics but we rarely talk about things like, 'I've had this lump on the back of my neck for a while - you ever had one of those?'

2. Why won't my husband go to the doctor unless he's nearly dead?

Too many Kiwi men are like that. It's frustrating. Girls develop a relationship with their doctors much earlier in life, around puberty when they need advice beyond mum and dad. Whereas guys charge on ahead with life and because we feel pretty good most of the time, we have this false sense of security around how bulletproof we are. It's not until we become really ill that we find out some serious chronic things have been going on for some time. But most illnesses today can be cured or managed if they're caught early enough. Bad habits are the hardest things to change. I know a few people who've had heart attacks and then gone back to the habits that put them there in the first place.


3. So a near-death experience isn't enough for some Kiwi males?

No, we're numbskulls. But burying our heads in the sand isn't the right attitude. We've only got one health and once we've stuffed it we can't go to the shop and buy a replacement. We've got to think about those who depend on us as well. We're trying to persuade men to have annual check-ups with their GP. You do that with your car so why wouldn't you do that with yourself? It's half an hour's inconvenience and there's going to be a huge upside if you catch something early.

4.Is it because they don't want to hear what the doctor has to say about their lifestyle choices?

We're not trying to advocate a complete lifestyle change. Just making a few small changes can add up to making a real difference without impinging on your lifestyle too much. If you're a big drinker, cut back a bit. If you're a smoker, stop. You can eat less junk food, and so on.

5. Do you have mates you talk to about your health?

Yeah I have one mate where we're quite vocal about that stuff. It's not that often and it's normally a couple of sentences each. My wife will bump into someone at the mall and have a "quick chat" which lasts a good 10 minutes. How do you do that? If I bumped into a mate it'd be three or four grunts, "How you going mate, yup, catch you later," and then we're off. It's really about getting some endorsement, that it's okay to go and see a doctor. Like when you have buyer's remorse and you go to a mate who says "that's awesome" and you feel the purchase was justified.

6. Another one of your men's health campaigns involved sticking speech bubbles on other people's posters. You're the boss of billboard company APN Outdoor. Did you upset any clients?

We did have a couple of unhappy clients. In hindsight we could have done it better. That was a guerrilla campaign where we had a bunch of speech bubbles printed on adhesive with statements like "I noticed blood in my poo" and "I can't see my penis without a mirror" and had students stick them on to existing signage around town - movie posters, pedestrian signs and so on. The aim was to use our brand identity - the speech bubble - to get men talking about their health. We should've just asked permission from the poster owners. But the message was important and we got it out there.

Phil Clemas:
Phil Clemas: "You [have annual check-ups] with your car, so why wouldn't you to that with yourself?" Photo / Jason Oxenham

7. The Tongan community was upset by ads on your billboards for an erectile dysfunction treatment. Were you expecting that reaction?

To be honest, I wasn't. Not to that degree anyway. Their objection was to the word "sex" on a billboard. I mean, so what? I don't understand why certain groups get so upset with the word sex. It happens. Anyway, they complained through the right channels and ultimately the ads were pulled down, which was the right decision.

8. Did you grow up in a health-conscious household?

No. Both my parents and my grandparents smoked. The house was full of ashtrays. It's funny thinking about it now. I had a typical Kiwi upbringing in Lower Hutt in the 60s and 70s. Mum was a teacher and Dad worked at the sports shop. Meals were spuds and chops or sausages. My four brothers all played rugby but I wasn't very good at sport. I was focused on getting good grades.

9. Do you parent differently to the way you were parented?

We grew up in a generation where it was okay to smack your kids.

My wife Jen and I decided we were never going to hit our kids.

It just didn't make sense. Time-out worked so well with our three children we hardly ever had to use it. The trick is not to threaten it without following through. I did oppose the anti-smacking laws though. I don't like the nanny state telling me how to parent.

10. When did you become interested in health?

The penny dropped when I became responsible for staff. My direct mail business Deltarg had grown to a team of 40 staff. A lot were smokers, overweight or very unfit. I felt we should encourage proactive healthcare. We were the first New Zealand company to do the 10,000 steps programme, back in the 90s. You put a pedometer on your belt to measure how many steps you did a day. It was really easy and the staff were really engaged. We also ran little expos with stations around the lunch room where staff could talk to experts on things like nutrition and pilates.

11. Why should employers take responsibility for staff health, why not just hire healthy people?

I'm not sure how you'd do that. Most workforces are representative of the average population. Responsible employers should do a bit more - really simple things like annual immunisations. A healthier workforce is going to be more productive. And it's more fun when people are happy, healthy and engaged in what they're doing.

12. What brings you the most joy in life?

My children. That's a bit cliched but it's true. None of the material wealth we've accumulated can go with us when we depart this world. Our legacy is our children. So we have to invest as much as we can in ensuring they're healthy, kind, respectful people who live their life to the fullest they can.