Q&A with AWARD School 2024 tutors Simon Fleming and Chris Buchanan: How creative teams work and what students can expect

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Q&A with AWARD School 2024 tutors Simon Fleming and Chris Buchanan: How creative teams work and what students can expect

Communicado associate creative duo and AWARD School 2024 tutors Simon Fleming (left) and Chris Buchanan (right) share their insights into creative teamwork and what AWARD School students can expect ahead of AWARD School 2024.


AWARD School is about to kick off. It is a twelve-week intensive mentorship program run by the Advertising Council of Australia and designed to support those wanting to dip their toes in the world of advertising or enhance their creative skills for storytelling. Contrary to popular belief, AWARD School is not just for fresh faced university grads, it’s for those who are in later seasons of life, those with small kids in tow and even small business owners who are working through expanding their skills.

Buchanan and Fleming are Communicado’s newly appointed creative associates. A partnership that has flowed over four years, the two started their journey at Wunderman Thompson, servicing clients such as Jetstar, Coles Liquor Group and Treasury Estates. From here, they moved to multi-award-winning independent agency Thinkerbell, working on Repco and Vegemite, until they made the leap to Communicado. In addition to their stellar careers, and Simon’s duties as a new dad, both have had firsthand experience mentoring at AWARD School previously and are about to embark on a mentorship role again this year.

Whether it’s writing radio scripts for global elite brands or directing a TVC for a cosmopolitan FMCG project, the two charming, vivacious characters are constantly in pursuit of opportunities to tell stories of longevity.

With an incredible shared energy, coupled with an unrivalled talent, Buchanan and Fleming are living proof that creativity continues to evolve and grow and that programs like AWARD School can teach new skills and reinvigorate participants to reach new heights in their careers.

For those looking to get into a creative partnership, can you tell us the process of being paired? What did that look like for you?

Simon Fleming: That can take many forms and be different for every team. Some creative teams meet in university or through AWARD School and some are paired with someone through the agency where they are working. For us, we were both working at Wunderman Thompson in separate creative teams when a global pitch brief for VISA came through the agency.

My copywriter was busy with some work, as was Chris’s art director, so we decided to have a go at the brief together. Our response to the brief was well received and it became clear to those around us, as well as each other, that we worked well together and could challenge as well as support each other when it came to solving briefs.

How did the creative dialogue and understanding develop between the two of you? Was it just something slowly built over time, or was there a particular campaign or brief that helped to solidify your communication style?

Chris Buchanan: Simon mentioned the VISA pitch brief; that was really where it all came together. The deadline on the response was very tight, and it was being reviewed at a global level, so there was a lot of pressure and attention on what we were doing. It was a trial by fire. There wasn’t any time to question or analyse how we were working, it just worked. And in the years since then it has kept working. You need to have a lot of trust in your partner, so being able to openly communicate both your ideas and expectations is important.

Take us through the process of growing a clever idea, like how do you actually work together?

Chris: To say we spend a lot of time together is an understatement. If we’re in the office, we’re working together. If we’re working remotely, we’re on a continuous Teams call throughout the day. If it’s the weekend and we come across something interesting, we’re texting each other. With this much direct contact, we get a sense for how the other person thinks and what might inspire them. But a clever idea begins with understanding the brief and recognising the problem that needs to be solved. Our first step is usually breaking down the brief to the core problem that needs solving. From there we might talk about ads that we’ve seen that have done the same thing well or have stuck in our minds. You find that from the moment you get into advertising, you begin to collate a back catalogue of ads in your mind to reference whenever you get a new brief. From there we talk a lot about what we’re trying to say and how that is relevant to our target audience. This conversation can blend and morph into discussions on TV shows and movies we’ve recently watched to exhibitions we’ve seen and even personal stories and life experiences that feel relevant.

Sometimes we’ll even head out to something that is relevant to the brand we’re working on, like an event, store or even a pub to get a better sense of who we are working for. In the days of continuous office work you might take over a room and write each idea on a piece of paper to stick on the walls around you. Now it’s all online, but we then go through them, and each identify which ideas we think work best. Once narrowed down, it’s time to apply each of our respective skills to the idea to ensure it works both visually and in tone of messaging.

Sure, you’ll have disagreements every now and again, so it’s important to be able to explain your justification for an idea. But you also need to identify when something isn’t going to work, no matter how much you want it to.

You’ve now been a tutor for AWARD School for three years (two of those with Simon). Can you tell us how it works from a granular perspective?

Chris: It all began in February when prospective students applied to be part of this year’s admission. Hundreds of prospective students apply in each state every year to be one of the 50-60 students who get to take part, so it can be incredibly stressful. The application comes in the form of some creative briefs which they have two weeks to complete and apply. If successful, the course kicks off in late March and goes for 12 weeks. During that time, the students will receive 10 briefs covering all the different executions and aspects of advertising. To help them gain a better understanding of each one, they attend a lecture at the start of each week conducted by some of the best creative directors in the country.

These are invaluable opportunities to not only learn about a discipline of advertising from an industry leader, but to also see how their mind works and build connections. Each lecture will correspond with a brief in the discipline, including print advertising, radio, film/television, digital, social and more.

That’s where we come in. Every week the students are split out into groups of five or six and will visit their tutors who will provide feedback on their responses to each brief. These tutors are all creatives who work in agencies and all of them volunteer their time to support the students. Each week we review their work and provide feedback on ways that they can craft their ideas. They spend the first five briefs at one agency then switch to another for the last five briefs. Once they have received and completed all 10 briefs, we’ll do a review of their entire folios before they submit them. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but by the end of it they are working on 10 briefs simultaneously as we want to encourage them to not stop thinking about new ways to solve earlier briefs. Once it’s all done, they have a graduation night where the top work is displayed on the wall and the top students announced, and they collectively get to celebrate what has been an incredible amount of work in a very short space of time.

What kind of feedback do you think students can expect during the process?

Chris: Every tutor will have their own unique way of giving feedback, but generally we need to be careful not to give the students our own answers to briefs. So, feedback usually revolves around whether it’s a good idea or not in the sense that it properly answers and interprets the brief. A lot of students can be overly protective of their ideas, but they need to be able to move on when they receive a negative response to learn to keep finding new creative solutions.

The phrase ‘be hard on the work, not on the person’ gets used as a guide for tutors a lot. We want to push them to keep finding more ways to solve each brief. Once we think they have landed on a good idea, we can help them to craft it as a lot of students will have never written a radio or TV script, or understand how a social media campaign is executed, but as long as they have come up with a strong idea, we can help guide them in how to present it.

Many people have the misconception that AWARD School is just for university graduates. Can you give us some examples of the type of students you’ve mentored before and their intentions of the course?

Simon: We’ve had a huge range of students from various backgrounds in our tutor groups. Sure, there are a lot of recent graduates from the Advertising course at RMIT, and we get a lot of account managers and strategists who want to understand the creative process better, but it’s not limited to those who are aware of the industry. We’ve had some more mature students who are interested in a career change and wanted to test their creativity. We’ve had someone who worked in a factory, a wine merchant and even a security guard. And what those people brought to their creative solutions was a level of life experience that they could draw on to tap into some very relatable truths for their ideas. So, while not everyone who completes AWARD School will end up working in the creative department of an agency, a large proportion of those who do work in creative departments have done AWARD School.

Interview by Yahna Fookes, Communicado