The Tragedy of Tall Poppy Syndrome

by Heather on February 22, 2010

I want to dig a bit deeper into yesterday’s post in which photographer Clay Stang talked about his transition into a new market. Although Clay makes many pertinent self-reflections (learning humility for eg.), one of the most interesting things he mentioned was how hard it was for him to get validation from his local (Canadian) market, even after having success away (New York). This phenomenon is common in Canada and is referred to as Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Frank Falcone is the President and Creative Director at Guru Studio and offered the following perspective in response to Clay’s post:

Great observations Clay. I can empathize. My first directing gig at 23 was out of Grey NY and my company’s first gig was a pan Latin American campaign for Hershey’s out of Ogilvy Mexico City.

I often feel totally shut out of the Toronto market despite the fact most of our work is for London NY + Chicago. It’s bizarre but uniquely Canadian phenomenon. To not reward your own.

The tall poppies syndrome.

“We’re going international with this one” is oft heard rallying cry of those bent on spending their most substantial budgets outside of our own borders. Are the motives to go international more nefarious? “Client jollies” is what the UK producers call them. Where are the cost consultants when you need them! Ok that’s being cynical. :)

It may well be that we are a small market and the AD’s are choosy. It’s certainly a nice sentiment. But you cannot deny that Toronto leads the nation in their possession of that crippling “outward gaze”. The one that blindly passes over local talent in favour of ’superior international talent’. It’s the Canadian way. We can’t POSSIBLY be good enough!

I’ve often wondered if I would be busier in the Toronto market if I moved to NY.

Because it’s fun and it’s in another medium (animation- hurray!) lets look at some of Frank’s work. Here’s Guru Studio’s current Demo reel:

guru studio demo reel 2010 from guru studio on Vimeo.

Let’s turn to Wikipedia for some context on Tall Poppy Syndrome:

Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is a pejorative term used in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada to describe a social phenomenon in which people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers.

Critics of the tall poppy syndrome sometimes declare that the United States is relatively free of “tall poppy” attitudes. Americans are thought to appreciate the successful, seeing them as an example to admire and attempt to emulate. In the cultures of the UK and Commonwealth nations, such commentators assert, many resent success of their fellows.

There are two things here: cutting down your compatriots and the tendency to favour those from away.

I can think of several photographers who struggle with different versions of TPS-related injuries.

Shooter A lives here, has a lot of success in the US but can’t seem to get anything of substance in Toronto. Photographer B left Canada many years ago and is top of his game in America. Recently, he’s turned his attention back to Canada and really wants to have success “back at home” too, oddly, it’s been a bit of a struggle. And I know reps who have serious concerns that once their Canadian shooters achieve major success here, they will leave for the US.

As I am loath to point out too often, there are many many different reasons that you get the job. The suitability of your photography is not always the only determining factor. What a shame though that it has to go deeper into our own national psyche and the trouble we have envisioning ourselves as good enough.

So I want to know: Is America free of TPS?

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Anna February 23, 2010 at 12:36 am

I have always found that Torontonians suffer from two ills. One that they feel that anything outside their borders is more worthy and two that many in the Toronto ‘industry’ have a self inflated sense of their own worth.

I’ve heard one too many stories about industry insiders that felt they were the s@$!t here and then got their buts handed to them on a platter when they went to explore other markets expecting to be lavished with praise. Yes, it’s harsh and no, this description doesn’t apply to everyone, but I think we all know at least one person who fits the bill. I’ve also heard of great success stories, where talents went ignored here and went on to great things abroad because someone somewhere else had the balls to take some risks.

Maybe Torontonians should just focus on getting it right inside their own borders. Hire your own for a while, keep the egos on simmer and aspire, like our American neighbours to reward great work instead of great hipster style or someone’s ability to slag a beer when the day is done. At the end of it all, we sell stuff to people who don’t need to buy it. We sell the dream and everyone one of us who gets to make a buck doing what we do is really lucky to do it. We could all be sitting facing a brick wall every day, but we get paid to create.

Can we all cut the bull and realize that we’re not New York or Paris or London, but we are a great city with tons of talent that people in New York, Paris and London have the sense to discover before we do? Instead of following the bandwagon after everyone else has jumped on, perhaps we should try and build a new one that will make Toronto finally ‘the place’ to be instead of the place to escape because you’re never quite ‘good enough’ to get the dream gig.


Don Giannatti February 23, 2010 at 8:55 am

“Is America free of TPS?”
Short answer: NO.

America is not free of the “Tall Poppies” – especially in the America that exists outside of LA and NY. As a shooter/AD in a smaller market I have watched it play out for decades.

Terrifically talented local photographers are passed over when the really big budgets come along. Sure, the local talent is working with agencies all over the world, but when a local agency would get a real plum gig, off to NY or LA to get “the really good guys” to shoot it.

I knew a director who got more local work after moving to LA than he ever got when he was local.

We had a big client in the Bay Area for a while. When we go to a really great international recruiting campaign, we pitched 3 SF based shooters – all excellent. The company however had aother plans… they wanted to work with a European shooter (bigbigname guy) and when we got the bid back nearly fell on the floor… 8 times more than the local heavy hitters. And he got the job.

The company is now out of business, but that is more irony than explanation.

While I have never heard it called TPS before, we do indeed have that type of conceit… oh yes we do.

shane February 23, 2010 at 11:06 am

Never heard “tall poppy”. We say, “you can never be a star in your own backyard”…or we refer to it as the “foreign girl syndrome”. The foreign girl is always sexier.

Leigh February 23, 2010 at 12:23 pm


Bravo! and Amen!

matt haines February 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm

I think the phenomenon is not as common in the US, but it still exists. It might really just have to do with a country’s reputation for something. For example, the US has a ton of really excellent fashion photographers, and generally no one here turns up their noses at them, in preference for overseas talent.

That said, my friend is a big-production car shooter, and he’s always complaining about how “the Germans” are eating his lunch when it comes to getting the high profile shoots. “Everyone wants the Germans shooters for cars now, and my style is just like theirs, but I don’t get hired because I don’t have a funny accent.”

I see some people have mentioned a more local tall-poppy syndrome, and that’s probably true. But again, it’s reputation: if NYC has all the best commercial shooters, and you want the best you can get, you get one from NYC. Even if your local shooter is just as good.

I thought TPC was merely the act of cutting down or denigrating those who do well or stand out, without the component of foreigners-are-better component. No?

Alex Hayden February 24, 2010 at 10:45 am

I agree with Don.

TPS exists in the smaller markets in the US. When the agency has the budget, the desire is to go with the big name shooter in a cool place. Let’s face face it, who wouldn’t want to go to LA during a Seattle (where I live) or Canadian winter.

It is a shame, but it is human nature.

Vicky March 18, 2010 at 3:15 am

Came across your blog while looking up definitions for tall poppy syndrome. As a Kiwi (where tall poppy syndrome is near part of the daily vernacular!) I should point out that it’s not the same as cultural cringe, where local is never as good as foreign (which is what happens in NZ too – it’s a known fact that most bands, such as Flight of the Concords, only get taken seriously when they do well overseas).
Tall Poppy Syndrome is the idea that it’s wrong to be too overtly ambitious or successful. It’s accepted that other countries may be just as aggressive, but that’s nullified because they’re foreign and so play by different rules.
Just had to point it out – I hate tall poppy syndrome, it actively encourages people to be embarrassed about being successful, but it’s has nothing to do with hotshots from other places.

Melissa March 19, 2010 at 12:12 am

No, America is not free of this syndrome. I think familiarity breeds contempt and an attitude , for some, of, ‘how can he/she be THAT good if we grew up w/them or know them? Isn’t greatness discovered, not developed?’

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