The life-changing power of AWARD School, according to 1983 graduate George Betsis and 1994 graduate Ant Melder
Pictured L-R: Ant Melder, George Betsis and Tom Betsis
Reflections on AWARD School 1983 and 1994, from Ant Melder and George Betsis.
Ant Melder on his AWARD School experience in 1994
The other day, I was chatting to recruiter/creative consigliere Esther Clerehan at the This Way Up Festival of Creativity. Esther mentioned that she’d recently invited legendary creative leader – and my old boss – George Betsis, to an event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of AWARD School. Unfortunately he couldn’t make it as he’s overseas at the moment, but he’d sent her some memories of being part of the inaugural AWARD School class of 1983. When I read them, they chimed so powerfully with me that I felt they simply had to be shared with a broader audience. Being one of my first Creative Directors, as well as a mentor, hero and – I’m proud to say – friend, George’s perspective has always had an enormously inspirational impact on me. To hear how his hunger as a young wannabe creative drove him to unreasonable lengths in pursuit of a career in this industry rang more than a bell, it exploded a visceral nostalgia bomb in my head.
It took me back to 1994, the year I dived into AWARD School like a starving man into an all-you-can eat buffet. Those 12 weeks under the wonderfully wise tutelage of Jane Evans and Jane Caro at JWT didn’t land me an immediate job, fame or glory. But they led to me meeting George, eventually working for him, and thereby going on his crash course in turning hungry rebels without a cause (but with a pale spark of potential), into fired up, buttoned down creative outlaws ready to storm the ad industry barricades.
Recognising a fellow obsessive, George had me learning obscure long copy ads from ’80s One Show annuals word for word, rewatching Shots videos until the tape wore out and rewriting radio scripts until the sun came up. If I’d gone on Mastermind at the time, I’d have chosen the work of Gold Greenlees Trott as my specialist subject…and absolutely smashed it. Which may all sound a bit full-on but was, above all else, a lot of fun. Because George taught me the life-affirming power of truly pouring yourself into your work. Of bringing your hunger, passion, even your self-doubt and desperation, to the table. And working ridiculously hard on something you’re kind-of good at…until your eyes hurt, your brain feels squeezed dry, and finally…you see a path ahead to – maybe, possibly, one day – being really good at it. That’s a drug more powerful than any pinger.
Now, all this may sound a bit overblown. But it’s taken me from being an angry, directionless kid, to creating a life I love, building an agency I’m beyond proud of and, best of all, to spending my days working with truly creative people, on projects that genuinely matter. And none of it would have happened if it weren’t for AWARD School. And George.
So this was my long-winded way of saying thank you. And that you really should read this note from George on his AWARD School experience. The wisdom and inspiration to be gleaned from this story of 1983 couldn’t be more relevant in 2023.
(Pictured L-R: George Betsis and David Droga)
George Betsis on his AWARD School experience in 1983
Thank you for inviting me to the AWARD School 40th.
Being in the inaugural class in 1983 was truly life changing.
When it was first announced in 1982, I was twiddling my thumbs bored shitless as a brand manager at J&J waiting for it to start. When it finally kicked off in ‘83 I was champing at the bit.
As the prototype, none of us had any idea how it would turn out – there was obviously no precedent. And could not have imagined how lucky we would be.
I was billeted out to the Clemenger class under Michael Byrne, previously of Byrne Bunton Tomnay.
At the launch event in the Clemenger boardroom, my head was spinning as I looked around surrounded by the first crop of teachers, all of them creative directors I knew from the earliest AWARD annual juries.
It was a small room to accommodate the first crop of only 33 students. I’m not sure, but I suspect every applicant was accepted that first year.
There are some moments in your life you remember in great detail, even 40 years later.
Such was its profound significance, in hindsight.
So I look over and there was Jack Vaughn, one of my copywriting heroes, talking to a few students. I remember he stood there with such poise, sparkly eyed, happily holding court as they hung off his every joke, spellbound.
Then, I had an impulsive idea. Probably, one of the most consequential of my career. And had no idea it would change everything for me.
It took all the courage I could muster to walk up to Jack.
“Jack, I’m George. I’ve been allocated to the Clemenger class. Would it be ok if I joined the Palace class… as well?”
Jack said ‘hi’ and just looked at me. He seemed a little perplexed. I stood there staring back. Gulping. Shaking. But not blinking. He was after all Jack Vaughn. And I was an assistant brand manager at J&J.
After what seemed like an eternity he said
“I can’t see why not. Let me check.”
He walked over to Ray Black.
Ray look confused. They both looked over.
I stared back. I tried to smile.
Jack walked back over smiling. He said ‘Ok, see you next Tuesday. Do you know where to come?”
Did I know where to come? Of course I bloody did. I had driven my company issued grey Commodore past The Palace at the beautiful heritage building in Mosman called Boronia plenty of times after work hoping to catch a glimpse of Jack or Lionel or Gordon or Rob. If there was such a thing as an advertising stalker, that was me.
Back then there were no standardised briefs or lectures. (I would introduce those things in 1987 when I headed up the AWARD School portfolio.)
So it was The Palace on Tuesday nights. And Clemenger on Thursday nights. For 12 weeks. 24 briefs. I was a pig in shit.
What’s more, and as luck would have it, The Palace class alternated between Mosman, and the King’s Cross office of Stewart Roache Watson.
Tony Stewart and Ian Roache had recently left The Palace to open their own shop. And they agreed to share the load. Ian had the sharpest wit in advertising and had us in stitches the whole time. Tony was a wonderful art director, great teacher and a gentleman. Jack took the other class with his newly arrived co-Creative Director, Bob Isherwood.
They delivered a PhD in creativity every week.
I didn’t sleep much. It was utter joy and my literal idea of heaven. I wanted the School to run for 112 weeks.
I loved every second of it.
I’ve felt an enormous debt of gratitude to AWARD and to those unforgettable teachers and mentors.
About 9 months after graduating, I was hired by Phil Atkinson at Doyle Dane Bernbach. It was still Bill’s agency back then, before all the mergers and name changes.
A year later, Bob Isherwood called.
The (desk) phone rang.
“George, it’s Bob. Did you do that small space ad in the SHM yesterday for that rug retailer?”
Me: “(gulp) Yes.”
B: “Do you want to spend your life doing small space print ads?”
Me: “(gulp) Um, no.”
B: “Then come by for a chat tomorrow. Bring your book.”
Me: “(gulp) Ok.”
This was the first time Bob hired me. Being the first junior team hired at The Palace in Sydney was even more terrifying than starting at Doyle Dane.
An even more terrifying thought for me is what if there had been no AWARD School? Or what if they had only gotten around to starting it in 1993 instead?
Well, I maybe would have hired those great agencies to work on my brands. Just so that I could be welcomed into Boronia as a client. Rather than driving by them wistfully at night.
A big whole hearted thank you to all those AWARD legends who pioneered the School all those years ago.
And bravo to the current crop of AWARD School leaders who continue the tradition of spawning new generations of creative talent.
Esther, I wish I could be there on the night. If there’s some way I could watch a replay of the event that would be ace!
all the best