McCann Worldgroup: Creativity is the only way to survive and thrive

At McCann Worldgroup, creativity is viewed as integral to business success. But with the industry in flux, how will the role and meaning of creativity evolve? We ask chief creative officer Europe Adrian Botan and chief strategy officer UK & Europe Harjot Singh.

Interview by Mark Tungate

Creativity has always been the magic ingredient that allows a product, a message or even an entire organization to rise above the rest. The team at McCann Worldgroup are well aware of this: for the past five years, McCann has dominated the landscape in terms of both creativity and effectiveness.

But what’s next in this unpredictable era? What form will creativity take? Will it be required to play new roles that go far beyond the creative department? How will it be valued by clients and the industry as a whole? To get some ideas, we sat down with two of the architects of the network’s success, Adrian Botan, chief creative officer Europe, and Harjot Singh, chief strategy officer UK and Europe.

How has the network’s approach to creativity changed since the beginning of the pandemic?

Adrian Botan: It hasn’t exactly changed – we have always seen ourselves as creative problem solvers, which means working with our strategic partners to identify clients’ issues and challenges, and then coming up with creative solutions to those. But right now I think clients are even more open to those kind of conversations. Plus we’ve always had an entrepreneurial mindset; we’re built to behave in a nimble way, which our clients really appreciate right now. They value proactivity. We’ve been able to identify situations on the go and come back with really different creative solutions. One great example is what we did in Germany with McDonald’s and Aldi. During lockdown, we created the platform “Together We’re Stronger”. This gave McDonald’s workers who’d been temporarily discharged from their closed restaurants the chance to work in Aldi stores, which needed to keep their shelves stocked during a spike in demand.

It’s a really good example of a solution that has nothing to do with what we think of as “traditional” creative output. What form is the creativity of the future likely to take, especially given the huge migration of consumers from classical media to social platforms?

Adrian: I like to think we’re platform neutral and idea-centric. The idea dictates the choice of platform; we’re always able to adapt. What’s important is to follow your consumers, to serve them where they are, and to deliver value. And I think that last aspect, delivering value, will continue to grow in importance. In a way, consumer advertising is becoming a little like political advertising, in that you’re using platforms to create activism and engagement for a purpose. We’re also becoming better at segmenting our audiences’ needs and delivering on those. In the end, our goal is to help brands play a meaningful role in people’s lives.

Do you think the pandemic has accelerated that change? Are brands talking to consumers in a different way now?

Adrian: At the beginning of the pandemic, brands that had a clearly defined role and strong values found it easier to adapt. There was an interesting example in something we did with L’Oreal, where brand ambassadors like Eva Longoria were saying to consumers: “Look, we’re going through the same thing as you – we’re in lockdown and we haven’t been able to go to the hairdresser.” So, they were giving virtual tutorials about how to cover your grey hair. That was something L’Oreal hadn’t done before, where the ambassador was no longer on a pedestal. It’s a good example of the brand being adaptable but staying true to its values and its mantra as a beauty brand.

Harjot: Perhaps the most challenging thing about this period is that we’ve had nothing to refer to by way of a benchmark or case study. We’re actually living in a case study! And that’s why brands have had to rely on a more self-referential approach in the way they respond and present themselves. They’ve had to look within. It means coming back to their centre of gravity: their purpose, their point of view, their reason to exist. And the best brands have been able to express this in ways that allow them to earn and play a meaningful role in peoples’ lives.

We’re seeing the emergence of brands that communicate and sell directly to consumers, largely via Instagram. How will this change the relationship between brands, agencies and audiences?

Harjot Singh: It’s an important point – we’ve noticed thatalmost every social media platform is now an e-commerce platform. The current situation has been helpful in proving that the best examples of using social media are the ones where brands work with platforms in ways that complement both their own purpose and the platform’s purpose and interface. Instagram offers simplicity, functionality and a visually captivating interface that is very useful if you want to tap into the magic of storytelling. At one point Instagram had become a platform for showing off. But now people want content from people like them, and brands have been quick to respond. When you see a post of Eva Longoria colouring her hair at home, she’s saying: “I’m just like you.” And that authenticity is so much more compelling.

Strategic planning must be playing a vital role in interpreting the response of consumers to this situation?

Harjot: Good planning will always make sense of what’s going on in culture, in business and in people’s lives to help brands move forward in the most creatively and commercially compelling ways. The ultimate goal of strategic planning is to set the foundation for growth and create disproportionate value for brands. And you can only do that by helping brands identify, invest in and fortify what’s important. A brand’s purpose, or it’s meaningful role, is its immune system. Planning is here to strengthen the immune system of brands!

Adrian, tell us more about how you and Harjot work together to drive creativity. What processes do you have in place – or is it more about less tangible things like trust and empathy?

Adrian: It’s important that we’re a model for everyone in our region through the relationship we have at the centre. We’re trying to replicate that in every market: creatives must always work hand-in-hand with planners. It has to be a constant dialogue – building on one another and not seeing strategy and creativity as silos. This concept is reflected in our processes…For example, we have something called The Wall of Problems, which is all about identifying insights and opportunities, and it’s a process that’s carried out by creatives and planners. Processes like these are important because they bring fundament to our vision.

Harjot: As leaders we are committed to envisioning and architecting processes that remove the barriers to success and are guided by our values of bravery, generosity and integrity. Our purpose is to create the conditions where strategic and creative teams are placed in a position of strength, to have fun and mutually reinforce each others’ super power, because that’s how creativity flourishes.

Mark Lund (president, UK and Europe) recently observed that at McCann Worldgroup, creativity does not just reside in the creative department. Can you give us a couple of examples of that?

Harjot: If creativity is about finding hidden opportunities by perceiving the old in new ways, and our business is about creating, claiming and delivering value through differentiation, then creativity is naturally wired into everything we do.The way we conduct research through our Truth Central offering is very creative, for instance. We’ve continually invested in new thought leadership practises, from embedding research with the principles of anthropology to taking our methodology to a level where we’re being genuinely immersive, engaging all the senses. In short, we’ve applied creativity to the way we understand people. We’ve also applied creativity to the way we share that information: when the pandemic hit, we created McCann Worldgroup Presents, an open source platform where we could constantly share thought leadership, inspiration and actionable ideas with anyone who might be interested – not just our own employees and clients.

Adrian: My mission as a creative director is to let everyone express their creativity, no matter what it says on their business card, or what function they’re in. I believe everyone is born creative, we’re just losing this skill as we grow up into responsible adults. So my mission is to allow creativity to be heard, to approach it inclusively. Because you never know where the next idea will come from. Especially now, when you don’t always have the luxury of time, you have to be very attentive to that. It’s about trusting people, being generous – and removing the fear from the process, because being creative can feel risky. We create a safe space where creativity can thrive.

Chairman and CEO Harris Diamond recently announced his retirement, and Bill Kolb will take over at the top slot. What impact is that likely to have on the network’s creative approach?

Harjot: Our agency network is powered by a very strong culture. Thanks to Harris’s leadership and vision, we have a clear understanding of our mission and our values. Bill is very much part of the family. He’s passionate about the work, is living proof of our values of generosity, bravery and integrity and has been in the network for over 20 years with an unmatched track record. So personally I’m very confident about this new chapter. Adrian?

Adrian: I’ve been at McCann for probably as long as Bill, and I’ve seen it going through different stages. The past six years under Harris have been outstanding. He did an amazing job and put together a brilliant team. The agency found its guiding light: we know exactly what we stand for and what we do for consumers and clients. You can see that in our performance. So that’s a great legacy and a brilliant place for Bill to start taking it to the next level.

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