Harry Robinson, “The larrikin grows up,” The Sydney Morning Herald, February 28, 1987, p. 41.
John Singleton is back in advertising but, as HARRY ROBINSON reports, it is a more complex Singo this time around.
He used to be a champ among hucksters, then he dropped out of advertising. Now he’s back. Can he be a champ again? Billings well above $20 million a year say yes he can, and probably will. But that’s not all. He’s driving for something more than that.
John Singleton is a deceptive man. He wants us to think of him as a larrikin who tries to speak English but — alas, poor boy — all he can manage is to mumble Strine.
It is a corny act but he does it with great skill. “Doan yew wroite nuthin sirius bout me, mite. Nuthin sirius.”
With a bit of encouragement he almost admits it is an act: “Sometimes, I can hardly keep a straight face.” And a few minutes later: “People think I’m a yobbo.”
In politics he says, “Joh doesn’t go far enough for me. All he wants is a flat tax. I want absolute deregulation of the economy.” He sounds like the simplistic, down-with-big-government amateur politician that he was in the 1970s.
But he has learned since then and now sees his old self as a fanatic. He has learned society is not simple and won’t respond to simple nostrums. Still, he will say, “Joh doesn’t go far enough for me” to see the effect, to have us take notice of him. He hides behind poor-boy roles.
His great pretence is that he is nothing but a larrikin. Certainly he likes to be a bit of a larrikin sometimes, but he is other things as well. Ace stockbroker and polished gent Rene Rivkin exclaims, “Such an intellect!”
Rivkin would know. His investment company Oilmet has taken a 50 per cent interest in the John Singleton advertising agency. Singo sits on Rivkin’s board. Rivkin sits on Singo’s. Rivkin sings a song of praise. “Anybody as intelligent as John Singleton must be an asset to any board of directors.”
And what is Singo’s response to such praise? What does he do for Rene Rivkin?
He calls his pet office cockatoo Rene. The bird wanders around the posh Hunters Hill agency, waddles to the accounts department to see nobody is tickling the petty cash, comes back and sits on Singo’s shoulder, squawks at the phone, bites the lip of Singo’s coffee cup, interrupts interviews and all the time looks like a sour old curmudgeon.
“Not a smiling person,” as Singo admits. Still, he names the wretched bird after Rivkin. “I don’t mind,” says the human Rene. “I quite like being a boss cocky.”
Maybe stockbrokers and advertising persons understand each other, neither occupation being high on the scale of virtue. But Singo has a mate of impeccable character: Dick Smith.
Yes, the Dick Smith who does good things and fights tobacco giants and flies around like a newborn Sammy Sparrow. They met when Singo was fund-raising for the Wayside Chapel and Dick was setting the Life Education program under way.
Smith is flush with praise for John Singleton: “Most people think he is tough and aggressive but I find him gentle and kind and incredibly generous. I suppose he gives money to good causes but I’ll tell you something better. I’ve known him do work for the Life Education classes to help young people. Giving money is easy. Giving work — in his case, copywriting — is harder.”
Copywriting. That is the nub of the matter. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, John Singleton was the electric charge behind an agency called SPASM. Those were the days of W-h-e-r-e d’ ya get it? Days when Singo banned fake Poms and Yanks from his ads and ockerism ruled the air.
In those days SPASM was innovative, shocking and surprising, and Singo was its storm-trooper. It was probably the first agency in the world to advertising books and records on TV and to do it on a royalty basis.
It make hometown stars like Jeannie Little and Ita Buttrose and John Michael Howson. All the while, Singo was pushing out copy that sold. He was working so hard at it on weekdays that he had to drop out at weekends.
Around 1970 he rented a house on a magical hill at Matcham on the Central Coast just for weekend retreats among the whispering gums and looking out on the soothing Pacific.
SPASM did so well that along came an American giant with a fistful of dollars and bought the whole show. For nearly 10 years Singo sat on the advertising sidelines, married Belinda Green, fathered two girls, ran rodeos, hosted a terrible TV show, did a highly successful radio show on 2KY, raced horses, got fired from KY for his un-Labor attitudes, made a lot of yobbo and larrikin noises and one way or another kept out of advertising.
When the KY job blew up, he turned back to his first love: advertising. Perhaps he knew all the time that he would go back one day, would feel a powerful drive to get back to his ancient Remington typewriter and once again prove himself a Normal Mailer of adbiz.
When he got out of SPASM, he put his office furniture into storage. Now out has come a black plastic lounge suite for visitors — remember when they were supposed to be glamorous?
It is in his office today, fresh out of storage. As for that ancient Remington, it is at least older than Singo. He’s 45. It must be more than 50. But it is the first typewriter he ever had to himself and he says it is the only machine he can type on. He claims that his fingers do all the wrong things on electronic typewriters.
“There’s one major difference between my office in SPASM and this one. The walls in the old one were painted black to keep distractions out. I don’t need black walls any more.” The rest of the agency sprawls through three elegant sandstone buildings in leafy Hunters Hill.
In his office with his screechy bird and iron-framed clacking typewriter and various bizarre artefacts on the walls, John Singleton suddenly looks vulnerable.
Exit jester, exit yobbo, exit all the commedia dell’arte parts he plays. His eyes soften, the rank swagger of the yobbo fades. A mature and sober man takes the stage and, although he does not want it to show, his body language is saying, “This is what I do. This is where I take myself seriously. I hope you’ll do the same.”
Most agency owners employ copywriters. To Singleton, the writing is the heart of it, the pain and the joy and the reward.
So jealous is he of the privilege of writing the ads that there is only one other copywriter (David Said) on the staff of 35. Singo says everyone on the staff is encouraged to think and write and he no doubt accepts good lines. Butr he is the chief of the copy.
His method is as old fashioned as his typewriter. “I sit down and write flatout, sorting out what the ad should say. No special effects — but the guts of what the ad should say. I write furiously at that stage. Then I read what I’ve written and a few things get home to me. They might become print headlines or visual hooks for TV. Then I write it again and then I rewrite it …”
Ocker is no longer king in Singleton copy. Ocker has had his day. Singleton’s copy now changes styles to fit the product. A Wyndham wine ad is smooth, with a hint of culture. A radio spot for Sugar Babies is bouncy and showbizzy.
So can Singo be a champ again?
The figures say yes. In the first full year of this agency, billings ran to $21.4 million. They are now running at the rate of $24 million a year. For such a new agency, surprising figures. And for such a new agency, the variety in the client list is also surprising.
In no particular order, it includes The Bicentenary for The 200 Greatest Stories Never Told, Soccer Pools, A.V. Jennings homes, the ANZ Bank’s electronic fund transfer system, 2UE, Australian Geographic (Dick Smith’s wildly successful magazine), Goodman-Fielder with Buttercup Bakeries, Udson with a Haitch building supplies, Ariadne, the Buy Australian campaign for the Federal Government, Sanctuary Cove real estate in Queensland, Southern Cross Foundry in Toowoomba, EMI Records, Palings, the musical show Sugar Babies, Viscount Caravans, Wyndham Wines, Leda, builders and developers.
John, how do you win your clients?
“Open the door and wait for the phone to ring.”
Come on, tell the truth.
“That is the truth. When I decided to go back into it, I didn’t call my old mates and say, ‘I hope you’ll give me some business.’ I didn’t write fancy letters or make pretty submissions. I just called a few and said I was back in the business. That’s all. Some of them gave me a little bit to see if I was serious …”
This is your trick. It is hard to be sure when you are serious and when you are putting on an act.
“I find great difficulty in keeping a straight face sometimes.”
But he is serious about the agency. When the deal with Rene Rivkin was announced, it was also stated that former Senator Don Chipp would be a consultant. That seemed to be so much window-dressing, so the question becomes does Chippie actually do any work for the agency?
“You bet. I’ve just got a note from him. He’s dealing with three things for our clients. For Goodman-Fielder, he is investigating the incredible over-regulation of the baking industry, especially from state to state, and he is formulating a proposal to put to governments. He is expert at that kind of thing. For another company that wanted to float publicly he has piloted the way through the minefield of corporate affairs outfits in Canberra. And Southern Cross Foundry is making components for Nissan — some of them for export to Japan. Sounds incredible but it’s true. Anyway, they need to know where Senator Button will give brownie points and so on — export credits, that kind of thing. Don’s working for us, all right.”
The Rivkin and Chipp connections indicate that this time around Singleton will not be satisfied to simply sell clients’ products. He is working for an agency that will make other things happen — to make and shake Australian affairs.
The brash kid from Sydney’s inner west moved and shook Australian manners with his ocker ads. The middle-aged Singo should be able to do more. He is a walking forum. He has connections — close ones with Premier Barrie Unsworth and tycoon Kerry Packer and others.
He “gets along with” such disparate people as Sir Joh, Senator John Button, Bob Hawke, Ted Noffs, John Brown, the two Renes and Dick Smith. He has more maturity than the first time around when he thought everything could be solved with a few bold slashes of ink.
Has he grown up enough to be a mover and shaker? “Yes,” says Rene Rivkin. “I hope not,” says Dick Smith. “If he grows up he’ll be boring.”
- Governments Consume Wealth — They Don't Create It
- Singo and Howard Propose Privatising Bondi Beach
- Singo and Howard Speak Out Against the Crackpot Realism of the CIS and IPA
- Singo and Howard on Compromise
- Singo and Howard on Monopolies
- Singo and Howard Support Sydney Harbour Bridge Restructure
- Singo and Howard on Striking at the Root, and the Failure of Howard, the CIS and the IPA
- Singo and Howard Explain Why Australia is Not a Capitalist Country
- Singo and Howard Call Democracy Tyrannical
- Singo and Howard on Drugs!
- Simpleton sells his poll philosophy
- Singo and Howard Decry Australia Day
- Singo and Howard Endorse the Workers Party
- Singo and Howard Oppose the Liberal Party
- Singo and Howard Admit that Liberals Advocate and Commit Crime
- Up the Workers! Bob Howard's 1979 Workers Party Reflection in Playboy
- John Whiting's Inaugural Workers Party Presidential Address
- John Singleton and Bob Howard 1975 Monday Conference TV Interview on the Workers Party
- Singo and Howard on Aborigines
- Singo and Howard on Conservatism
- Singo and Howard on the Labor Party
- Singo, Howard and Hancock Want to Secede
- John Singleton changes his name
- Lang Hancock's Foreword to Rip Van Australia
- New party will not tolerate bludgers: Radical party against welfare state
- Singo and Howard introduce Rip Van Australia
- Singo and Howard on Knee-Jerks
- Singo and Howard on Tax Hunts (Lobbying)
- Singo and Howard on Rights
- Singo and Howard on Crime
- Singo and Howard on Justice
- Singo and Howard on Unemployment
- John Singleton on 1972 cigarette legislation
- Singo and Howard: Gambling Should Neither Be Illegal Nor Taxed
- Holed up, hold-up and holdout
- The libertarian alternative vs the socialist status quo
- Workers Party Platform
- Singo and Howard Join Forces to Dismantle Welfare State
- Singo and Howard on Business
- Singo and Howard on Discrimination
- Singo and Howard on the Greens
- Singo and Howard on Xenophobia
- Singo and Howard on Murdoch, Packer and Monopolistic Media
- Singo and Howard Explain that Pure Capitalism Solves Pollution
- Singo and Howard Defend Miners Against Government
- Singo and Howard on Bureaucracy
- Singo and Howard on Corporate Capitalism
- The last words of Charles Russell
- Ted Noffs' Preface to Rip Van Australia
- Right-wing anarchists revamping libertarian ideology
- Giving a chukka to the Workers Party
- Govt "villain" in eyes of new party
- "A beautiful time to be starting a new party": Rand fans believe in every man for himself
- Introducing the new Workers' Party
- Paul Rackemann 1980 Progress Party Election Speech
- Lang Hancock 1978 George Negus Interview
- Voices of frustration
- Policies of Workers Party
- Party Promises to Abolish Tax
- AAA Tow Truck Co.
- Singo and Howard on Context
- Singo and Howard Blame Roosevelt for Pearl Harbour
- Singo and Howard on Apathy
- Workers Party is "not just a funny flash in the pan"
- Singo and Howard on Decency
- John Singleton in 1971 on the 2010 Federal Election
- Matthew, Mark, Luke & John Pty. Ltd. Advertising Agents
- Viv Forbes Wins 1986 Adam Smith Award
- The writing of the Workers Party platform and the differences between the 1975 Australian and American libertarian movements
- Who's Who in the Workers Party
- Bob Howard interviewed by Merilyn Giesekam on the Workers Party
- A Farewell to Armchair Critics
- Sukrit Sabhlok interviews Mark Tier
- David Russell Leads 1975 Workers Party Queensland Senate Team
- David Russell Workers Party Policy Speech on Brisbane TV
- Bludgers need not apply
- New party formed "to slash controls"
- The Workers Party
- Malcolm Turnbull says "the Workers party is a force to be reckoned with"
- The great consumer protection trick
- The "Workers" speak out
- How the whores pretend to be nuns
- The Workers Party is a Political Party
- Shit State Subsidised Socialist Schooling Should Cease Says Singo
- My Journey to Anarchy:
From political and economic agnostic to anarchocapitalist
- Workers Party Reunion Intro
- Singo and Howard on Freedom from Government and Other Criminals
- Singo and Howard on Young People
- Singo and Howard Expose how Government Healthcare Controls Legislate Doctors into Slavery
- Singo and Howard Engage with Homosexuality
- Singo and Howard Demand Repeal of Libel and Slander Laws
- Singo and Howard on Consumer Protection
- Singo and Howard on Consistency
- Workers Party is born as foe of government
- Political branch formed
- Government seen by new party as evil
- Singo and Howard on Non-Interference
- Singo and Howard on Women's Lib
- Singo and Howard on Licences
- Singo and Howard on Gun Control
- Singo and Howard on Human Nature
- Singo and Howard on Voting
- Singo and Howard on
- Singo and Howard on Education
- Singo and Howard on Qualifications
- Ron Manners on the Workers Party
- Singo and Howard Hate Politicians
- Undeserved handouts make Australia the lucky country
- A happy story about Aborigines
- John Singleton on Political Advertising
- Richard Hall, Mike Stanton and Judith James on the Workers Party
- Singo Incites Civil Disobedience
- How John Singleton Would Make Tony Abbott Prime Minister
- The Discipline of Necessity
- John Singleton on the first election the Workers Party contested
- Libertarians: Radicals on the right
- The Bulletin on Maxwell Newton as Workers Party national spokesman on economics and politics
- Singo and Howard: Australia Should Pull Out of the Olympics
- Singo and Howard Like Foreign Investment
- Mark Tier corrects Nation Review on the Workers Party
- The impossible dream
- Why can't I get away with it?
- The bold and boring Lib/Lab shuffle
- Time for progress
- The loonie right implodes
- Max Newton: Maverick in Exile
- John Singleton on refusing to do business with criminals and economic illiterates
- Censorship should be banned
- "Listen, mate, a socialist is a bum"
- John Singleton on Advertising
- John Singleton on why he did the Hawke re-election campaign
- Sinclair Hill calls for dropping a neutron bomb on Canberra
- Bob Howard in Reason 1974-77
- John Singleton defends ockerism
- Singo and Howard talk Civil Disobedience
- The Census Con
- Singo and Howard Oppose Australian Participation in the Vietnam War
- Did John Singleton oppose the mining industry and privatising healthcare in 1990?
- Bob Carr in 1981 on John Singleton's political bent
- John Singleton-Ita Buttrose interview (1977)
- John Singleton on elections: "a Massive One-Day Sale!"
- John Hyde's Progress Party praise
- King Leonard of Hutt River Declares Defensive Just War Against Australia the Aggressor
- Singo says Lang Hancock violated Australia's 11th commandment: Thou Shalt Not Succeed
- Singleton: the White Knight of Ockerdom
- John Singleton bites into Sinclair Hill's beef
- Save Parramatta Road
- 1979 news item on new TV show John Singleton With a Lot of Help From His Friends
- Smoking, Health and Freedom
- Singo and Howard on Unions
- Singo and Howard Smash the State
- Singo and Howard on the big issue of Daylight Saving
- Come back Bob - It was all in fun!
- A few "chukkas" in the Senate for polo ace?
- Country Rejuvenation - Towards a Better Future
- Singo and Howard on Profits, Super Profits and Natural Disasters
- John Singleton's 1977 pitch that he be on a committee of one to run the Sydney 1988 Olympics for profit
- Thoughts on Land Ownership
- 1975 Max Newton-Ash Long interview on the Workers Party
- The Electoral Act should allow voters to choose "none of the above"
- The great Labor Party platform: first or last, everybody wins a prize
- The politics of marketing - laugh now, pay later
- Singo and Howard call Australia fascist and worse
- The mouse will roar
- Viv Forbes and Jim Fryar vs Malcolm Fraser in 1979
- Quip, Quote, Rant and Rave: four of Viv Forbes' letters to the editor in The Australian in 1979
- Australia's First Official Political Party Poet Laureate: The Progress Party's Ken Hood in 1979
- Hancock's playing very hard to get
- Harry M. Miller and The Australian disgrace themselves
- Ocker ad genius takes punt on art
- John Singleton 1976 ocker Monday Conference Max Harris debate
- John Singleton mocks university students on civil liberties and freedom of choice in 1971
- Murray Rothbard championed on Australian television in 1974 (pre-Workers Party!) by Maureen Nathan
- John Singleton profile in 1977 Australian MEN Vogue
- I think that I shall never see a telegraph pole as lovely as a tree
- Ralph Nader vs John Singleton on Consumer Protection
- John Singleton's first two "Think" columns in Newspaper News, 1969
- Singo and Howard on Ballet
- Product innovation comes first
- Protect who from a 'mindless' wife?
- A party is born
- Tiny Workers' Party gives us a hint
- John Singleton on the ad industry, consumerism and innovation
- Workers Party Economic Policy Statement, December 1975
- Lang Hancock on the Workers Party, secession and States Rights
- John Singleton and Howard on Government Largesse
- Counterculture must exclude government handouts
- John Singleton's 1974 Federal Liberal Election Campaign Ads
- John Singleton believes in the Workers Party
- Write-up of John Singleton's 1978 speech to the Australian Liberal Students Association
- Singo in 1987: "Joh doesn't go far enough ... I want absolute deregulation of the economy"
- Maxwell Newton chapter of Clyde Packer's No Return Ticket (1984)
- Singo and Howard on Totalitarian Socialism and Voluntary Socialism
- Rip Van Australia on Ripoff Vandals Taxing Australia
- Singo and Howard beg for tolerance
- John Singleton's 1985 advertising comeback
- Singo and Howard Demand End to Public Transport
- John Singleton and Howard on Fred Nile, Festival of Light, FamilyVoice Australia and the Christian Lobby
- Capitalism: Survival of the Fittest
- Return Australia Post to Sender
- Singo and Howard on Public Utilities
- John Singleton and Howard say monarchy should be funded by monarchists alone
- John Singleton on cigarette advertising
- Singo in 1972 on newspapers' demise
- John Singleton farewells Bryce Courtenay
- John Singleton on Australian political advertising in 1972
- Gortlam rides again
- Announcement that Lang Hancock will be guest of honour at the Workers Party launch
- John Singleton on trading stamps, idiot housewives and government
- 1975 John Singleton-Sir Robert Askin Quadrant Interview
- Singo asks two prickly questions
- VIOLENCE, TV BAN, DRINK - SINGO SPEAKS HIS MIND
- Why John Singleton can't keep a straight face
- Why John Singleton Defends Smokers Rights
- Tony Dear on Paul Krutulis, the Workers Party and murder
- An Ode to Busybodies
- Progress Party and Workers Party lead The Australian
- How many tits in a tangle?
- Viv Forbes in 1978 on loss-making government, the Berlin Wall and misdirected blasts of hot-air
- John Singleton wants the Post Office sold and anti-discrimination legislation scrapped
- A speech from the Titanic
- A crime must have a victim
- John Singleton vs Australia Post
- Minimum wages the killer
- Has Fraser got his priorities all wrong?
- John Singleton says "the royal family should be flogged off to the U.S."
- John Singleton vs Don Chipp and the Australian Democrats
- John Singleton vs Don Lane
- John Singleton. Horseracing. Why?
- John Singleton's 1986 reflection on the Workers Party
- Bob Howard in 1978 on libertarianism in Australia
- John Singleton on the stupidity of anti-discrimination laws
- Thou shalt know the facts ... before thou shoot off thou mouth
- Charity: An Aesop Fable
- Bob Howard announces the Workers Party in freeEnterprise
- New improved moon
- Announcing people ... YES, people!
- Creativity in advertising must be pointed dead on target
- John Singleton on barriers to, and opportunities for, effective communication
- Wayne Garland on John Singleton on Advertising
- John Singleton schools ad course
- John Singleton: advertising awards
- Mr Singleton Goes to Canberra for Australian Playboy
- John Singleton on his TV career for Australian Playboy
- John Singleton sacked for telling the truth about Medicare