Keeping Leo’s name in lights

By Mark Tungate

Chaka Sobhani, Leo Burnett’s Global Chief Creative Officer, discusses the Print Grand Prix, her international role, and the future of print itself.

All creatives know that simplicity is hard to achieve. But as an attention-grabber it works a treat, which is why the Epica Awards jury picked “Lights On” by Leo Burnett as its Print Grand Prix. During the debate, they used the word “simple” alongside “bold”, “graphic” and “classic”.

Although Chaka Sobhani is Leo Burnett’s Global Chief Creative Officer, as of last June, she doesn’t waft loftily above the network’s creative output. As she puts it with characteristic humour, “I’m way too nosy for that – not the hands off type by any means.”

When she describes the campaign, a phrase stands out. It has, she says “a glint in its eye”. Wit and warmth alongside simplicity is a rare combination. So how did the creative team get there? (Hats off, by the way, to art directors James Millers and Will Rees, copywriter Andrew Long and illustrator Sam Kallen.)

For one thing, Leo Burnett has McDonald’s in its DNA. Chaka says: “The insights that come out of our planning team act as springboards, then creatively we’ve got the tone of voice – we know when to be emotional, when to be playful and so on. And when you’re working with a brand of the magnitude of McDonald’s, you get to explore that range.”

Chaka Sobhani, Leo Burnett’s Global Chief Creative Officer

Although the agency works to a calendar, it’s constantly thinking of ways the brand can react to topical events. “Another wonderful thing about McDonald’s is that it has an iconography, from a design point of view, that’s one of the most recalled and recognizable in the world. So we’re always looking for ways we can play with that.”

The golden arches as a delivery vector was the starting point, but there were multiple ways of treating it. “We looked at it from a photography point of view, but the stripped-back graphic approach seemed to be the boldest and the simplest to read. As we all know, the sign of great design work is that you can dwell on it for two seconds and you just –” snap of the fingers – “get it.”

The reassuring outdoor campaign landed at a moment when home delivery was of the utmost importance: if McDonald’s is on a mission to bring a little cheer to its customers’ lives, they sorely needed it just then. As a bonus, the campaign’s colours and visual pun worked brilliantly on social media, too.

As an aside, can print survive the social age? “I see all of it as being additive. When something new comes along, we don’t have to throw away the past. Our job is to create feeling and a meaning for as many people as possible. But we’re now aware that people sit in different places and have different needs – so the Insta audience is looking for a different kind of emotional hit to someone reading the Sunday paper or flicking through a magazine. Great print can still be massively impactful, for the right audience at the right time. Just as a cracking Tik Tok campaign can resonate with a different audience.”

Leo Burnett has of course produced consistently great work for McDonald’s. A lot has been written about the importance of the client-agency relationship, but what’s the secret in this case?

“Everyone says the same things about good relationships, but the reason why these tropes come up again and again is that they’re true. And they’re simple to articulate, while being far more difficult to find, maintain, nourish and nurture. They come down fundamentally to trust, respect, honesty and partnership.”

McDonald’s was a big part of the conversation when she joined Leo Burnett five years ago. “Paul Lawson, who was CEO at the time, talked to me a lot about the relationship with McDonald’s – the depth of it, the heritage of it, why it works. But until you come in to the agency you’re always a bit sceptical: ‘Surely it can’t really be that good?’ And then you meet the people – because it’s always about individuals first and then the collective – and you see that Leo Burnett and McDonald’s are built on very similar cultures. Kindness, understanding, respect. They’re just good people; you want to spend time with them.”

That’s on a personal level. Professionally, she continues, “McDonald’s are brilliant marketeers. They understand their brand. They don’t try to over-complicate. They know exactly how their brand fits in to the world and how it benefits people. Also, when you have that longevity – and the agency and the brand have been working together for 40 years now – you’ve built trust. The important thing is never to take it for granted.”

The partnership seems solid: Chaka mentions that McDonald’s UK CEO Alistair Macrow has described the agency as an extension of the brand. “It feels like more of a friendship than anything else. All of us want to do well for them.”

It’s difficult to have any conversation right now without mentioning the pandemic. Chaka found herself in the unusual position of being asked to head the network’s creative team in the midst of all this madness. Ironically, she says, the situation helped.

“There’s something I find very grounding about this time. When uncertainty becomes your norm, and you have to accept that you can’t plan anything, you tend to live a bit more in the now rather than trying to prophesise about what might be. It focuses your mind on the fact that all you can do is your best in the circumstances you’re given.”

Calm, humour and empathy are her watchwords for handling a big responsibility in a bonkers context. “It’s obviously a huge honour. The opportunity to work with my colleagues and friends on a larger scale and more often – well, what’s not to love? I’m excited about where we can go, given the talent within the network and a culture that’s so strong. One of my aims now is to make us a bit louder again.”

A Grand Prix can do no harm in that respect. Judging by the quality of the work that was sent to Epica from all corners of the network, the industry should be paying attention.

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The APPIES is an annual event that presents a rare opportunity for creative, media, digital and marketing agencies or brands to present their best campaigns to the industry.

This is the only event where Live Presentations meets Live Judging.

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APPIES Festival – Judging & Presentations
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