"I Either Get Headhunted Or Fired": How A Real Mad Man Creates Work That People Line Up To See

A chat with Kash Sree, the most restless creative director in advertising.

Kash Sree’s career on the creative side of advertising spans over two decades, and includes iconic spots you’re sure to have seen, including that one where Tiger Woods plays hacky sack with a golf ball. Fast Company caught up with Sree to talk about martial arts, self-loathing, and how marketing is the new religion.

FAST COMPANY: You recently left SS+K, where you were creative director. Care to comment on why?

KASH SREE: It was just one of those things where we had different ideas of how to get to the next stage, and in the end, you get outvoted.

What’s next for you?

I’m sort of resting, because it was the hardest job I ever had. And I’m thinking about opening up my own shop, or taking another job, but if I take another job, I’m going to be a lot slower about choosing.

You’ve already had a long career in advertising, spanning back to the early '90s. What are you most proud of?

I tend not to be proud of anything I’ve done. I tend to pick holes in the stuff I‘ve done. But the stuff I’ve done that’s best known is probably the Nike Play campaign, where we were shifting the emphases away from on-field performance to the idea that everyone is an athlete.

If something came to me and said, “Make Vaseline exciting,” I’d draw a blank.

We also did a repositioning campaign for Vaseline, five or six years ago. Vaseline was dive-bombing, and we said, “Stop trying to compete with fashion brands and just say what you are. People are interested in skin.” You find truths. Their weakness was their strength: They missed the beauty market. We said, let’s make out like we didn’t notice it because we were too busy being fascinated by skin.

It’s impossible to be layperson talking to a creative director and not think of Mad Men. What do you think of that show’s portrayal of your job?

It’s actually surprisingly accurate. Apart from the going out and socializing with people, which I’m terrible at. The agency politics is still very true, though some of the sexism has changed, thank God, and the drinking on the job, though less so. I don’t think the business has changed that much at all.

Another of your most famous ads is called “Hacky Sack,” though it doesn’t involve a literal hacky sack.

We were shooting in a driving range in Hawaii, where we’d gone to shoot about seven other golf commercials. During lunch break, Tiger was doing it. We just said, “Can you do that for 30 seconds? Can you do it behind your back? Can you swat it at the end like a baseball?” He did it in four takes. We didn’t get permission for filming it, we just said, “Let’s just try it.” We shot it during the lunch break.

It was spec work, then.

Often the best work is, because it’s not overthought.

Have you ever wanted to burst out of the 30-second box and write something a lot longer, like a feature film?

All the time, and luckily, now’s the time to do it. Because not everything is on TV, and it’s now an engagement model, you can tell your story in as much time as you want, depending on how long you can keep their attention. You can do it, and you can do it without leaving advertising--you don’t even have to say, “Oh, I have this film script in my drawer,” though I do have one of those.

What’s it about?

It goes back to my days in martial arts. The character starts seeing ghosts and shit like that... It’s very complicated.

You’ve cited Bruce Lee as an influence. How many times have you seen Enter the Dragon by now?

Fifty-seven times. There was a time when I knew every single word in the movie. It’s quite sad.

Why the obsession with Bruce Lee?

I grew up a skinny kid in London, and used to get the tar beaten out of me. Here’s a skinny guy who could take on people three times his size. When I got into martial arts, I learned about his philosophy. He closed down all of his schools, saying “You guys are trying to fight like me. What I want is for you guys to fight like you.” You use style as a tool to bring out yourself. That’s the similarity with advertising.

You once created a piece of advertising that people stood in line for.

We got up an old line from De Beers: “Two things last forever. Love is one of them.” It was from an ad 15 years earlier. We said, let’s go back to that idea of longevity, proposing that longer-lasting relationships were worthwhile. We hung up mistletoe in a diamond shape in Madison Square Park, and we used the Gondry technique, where 60 cameras go off at a time, so you have an unbreakable kiss. People lined up for hours, and they were thanking us to be a part of a piece of advertising. That’s something advertising can and should be: something that enriches. Oftentimes, with religion, marketing takes its place, so we’ve got to be responsible with what message we’re putting out there.

Did you just suggest that marketing has taken the place of religion?

In some ways. If you think about how strong the church was 100 years ago. Now the church is weaker. What fills that gap? Sometimes, unfortunately, in more cases than not, marketing and TV fill that gap.

You’ve moved around a lot.

I started off in England, moved to Singapore, then to India, then back to Singapore, then to Australia, and then to America--first Portland, then Chicago, then New York.

Why?

It wasn’t by choice. I either get headhunted or fired.

I ask because so many of your ads have a restlessness: They often feature people running.

I started my career very late: I didn’t start in advertising till I was 30. So I have this little clock, where I’m thinking, “Have I caught up yet? Have I caught up yet?” I was working really hard, I’d just go at it. Then, as I started to be better, I thought, why slow down? I keep pushing, and maybe that expresses itself in this anxiousness to get somewhere.

How do you know when work’s good?

I look at a piece of work, and I think, do I give a shit? And if I give a shit, it’s probably a good piece of work. If I don’t, then it probably isn’t that great.

How do you get the distance to judge your own work?

I think for me, I’ve got more than a healthy amount of self-loathing. I haven’t done anything I like yet. I say this with students. Look at your work, and imagine your enemy is showing you this ad. “Oh, you think that’s good? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.” I tend to treat my work like it was my enemy, so I can be hard on it, and sometimes I’m too hard on it, but it helps me keep some perspective. Though it’s probably not good for one’s health.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who'd make a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

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5 Comments

  • Kait Carter

    Congratulations on your 1,397th job in advertising. That's also the number of times he's cheated his way through his career and on his wife. 

  • Lynette Chiang

    Sree, I can see you've spent time Downunder - that's where I was taught the invaluable  "Who Gives a **** Test" which I repeated here: http://www.fastcompany.com/166...
     When I worked as a CD in Costa Rica we started showing the client award winning ads in his category before presenting our proposal. It made it a little easier for him to accept our ideas, and harder for "Who Gives a ***?" ones to take root. Thank you David Zax for terrific and compelling piece on Sree. 

  • Ivan Ayliffe

    Yes, I believe Paul Arden said it best in his book "It's not how good you are, it's how good you want to be."   

    BEING fired often means that you are at odds with your company. I have been fired five times, and each time my career took a step forward. Being fired used to be a negative on your CV or resume. Now some headhunters find it an asset because it can show initiative.

  • Kevin Hosey

    "It wasn’t by choice. I either get headhunted or fired." Nice to hear that. 

    I've been in the advertising and marketing arena for almost 30 years. I started in an ad agency, decided hanging over a shark tank wasn't for me, so I jumped onto the corporate side. I've been establishing and heading in-house agencies ever since. 

    I've switched companies several times over the years. Mainly it was my choice, but sometimes not. It's nice to see I'm not the only creative who's been doing that. At first, my tendency to wander made me doubt my ability to hold a stable position. But I soon realized it had nothing it do with that. 

    I can track my career back to the day I left college (the day my REAL education began) and I had a damn good reason for leaving every company since. And every time I moved on my career (and my life) were better for it.  

    Sometimes the best way to move up is to move out. 

    Great interview. I wish Mr. Sree the best of luck and hope he ends up exactly where he wants -- or needs -- to be.