5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes With… Brian Sheehan

London, UK
Saatchi CEO-turned-professor on the keys to creative success

Pontification, hipsters in corduroy and out-of-the-box thinking – the worlds of academia and advertising may not be as different as they immediately appear. Brian Sheehan has served as a CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Japan, Australia and Team One in Los Angeles but since 2008 he’s been swapping client meetings for seminars. He’s now an associate professor at Newhouse College, Syracuse University, an experience which he reckons has allowed him to view the industry from a completely different perspective. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Brian as he releases his latest book, Loveworks.

LBB> Having moved over to academia, did you find that you had a very different perspective on the industry and Saatchi’s?

BS> Very much so. I’m a lot smarter now. I spent 15 of my 25 years at Saatchi’s as a CEO and I’d like to say that I was a really good one. But now I have a different perspective because I have all care and no responsibility. I don’t have to be obsessed with delivering every day, I also have time. When you’re a professor you take an 80 per cent pay cut but you get your life back. You have weeks and months when you can do nothing bit study. So I can get a really good perspective for writing something like this - a better perspective than anyone working in an agency. Before, I wasn’t a student, but I was a practitioner. Now I’m a student who also knows what practitioners go through.

LBB> There’s also a very different approach in academia – you have to start from an unbiased view point. Often it’s not about proving yourself right, it’s about proving yourself wrong.

BS> I still find that hard! I write for peer reviewed publications and I do intense research – and for peer review it’s got to be perfect. I was the lead author of a paper that was written for the Journal of Advertising Research about eight months ago. While we were working on it I turned to my co-author and said, “we’ve got a real problem, this isn’t showing what we thought it would”. And he replied, “that’s great!” “What do you mean that’s great?” He then reminded me that we were not trying to prove anything; we were trying to find something out. If we find out that our theory is bullshit that’s fantastic, because it’s one more thing we know doesn’t work’. I still struggle with that but it’s very liberating to know that you don’t have to prove that you’re right. You just have to prove something. And that’s the attitude that I hope I’ve taken with this book.

LBB> How have you found working with students? I imagine its pretty different form negotiating with clients and creative…

BS> Newhouse is among the premier communications schools in the USA. We’re in the top of the top tier. The students we get are the best of the best; they’re leaning forward on the edge of their seats. I really like that. I don’t want to teach to babysit. It’s great - I think they’re lucky to have me and I’m lucky to have them. But it’s totally different. It’s nothing like advertising!

LBB> What were the conversations that led to you starting the book?

BS> The book started partly because I’m a full time professor at Syracuse university and professors write books. I’m always looking for new projects. I was looking for something I could really sink my teeth into, something that I’d actually enjoy writing. 

The idea occurred to me because I used to work so closely with Kevin Roberts, who wrote the original Lovemarks book. There were a lot of naysayers when Lovemarks came out, but over time it really started to gather steam to the point that Advertising Age named it one of the ideas of the decade for the 2000s. There were really three reactions to the book. There was a very small group of people who said Lovemarks answered all their problems. Another 10 per cent said ‘this is complete bullshit, it’s just Kevin Roberts and Saatchi & Saatchi coming up with a fancy way of saying emotional advertising is a good idea’. And finally, roughly 80 per cent of people said that they intuitively got it and understood that brands can have emotional connections with consumers but had no idea how to put it into practice. Between the book’s publication in 2004 and my decision to leave Saatchi’s in 2008, that was the question clients asked again and again. How do we do it? So I approached Kevin and I said that this is a book that needs to be written. One of two things could happen – either we’ll have a really nice set of case stories or, which would be even better, is that we might uncover the common factors that underpin these really successful campaigns.

We’re never going to find an exact recipe because every brand is different. The economy in every country is different. We can’t tell you what the recipe is but we can suggest the ingredients. If you use these ingredients your chances of building a Lovemark, baking a good cake grow exponentially.

LBB> Did you have any preconceptions about what these ingredients would be?

BS> No – and I tried very actively not to have any. It’s interesting, one of the key things you’re going to find is that when brands have no preconceptions they’re more successful. 

I didn’t start out by saying ‘these are the four things I’m going to find’. I did 200 interviews over five or six months. I talked to people at the highest level of places like Proctor and Gamble, General Mills, Toyota, Visa, T-Mobile, Ritz-Carlton, Nike, Reebok, and so on. I just gathered this information and told the stories of what happened.

They’re not like case studies which are laid out in a ‘problem, solution, result’ sequence. They’re the human stories of the people involved, the brave decisions they made and the creative ideas they came up with. 

We also looked at it across lots of different geographies. We covered Africa, particularly Nigeria, Europe, UK, US, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, China and Japan. What we’re hoping to prove is that it doesn’t matter what category you’re in, it doesn’t matter what country you’re in, if you do some of these things in common and do them well you have a very good chance of reaching Lovemark status. At the end of this the conclusion is that love is working.

LBB> So what were these ‘ingredients’?

BS> The 4 things are discovery, exploration, inspiration and attraction. 

The ‘discovery’ phase is all about really understanding your relationship with your consumers. One of the problems brands have is that they spend so long talking to their loyal consumers that all they ever hear is how much they love them. They often have a warped sense of their relationship with their consumers. 

There’s a case study in here about Pampers. They introduced a new DryMax technology and a small group of very vocal moms online said that it was causing a chemical burns. Even though there was nothing wrong with the product, Pampers knew that they had to engage.  Another example is Toyota Camry. Toyota had to do a huge product recall in the United States and as a result had to testify in front of the US congress. There were two billion dollars’ worth of negative publicity on the Toyota brand. Toyota Camry was the top selling brand in the US and they realised that they needed to regain that trust. They also realised that the experience that Toyota drivers were having was very different to what people were reading in the papers. They created a project called the ‘Camry Effect’ which aimed to get every Camry driver in the U.S. to come online and tell people how much they loved their car. The goal Toyota set was to make the Camry the most reviewed car on the planet. So that’s the discovery phase – it’s about having an honest view of your relationship.

The next phase is exploration. This is where insights come in. Sure we might do focus groups and a survey but really it’s about finding much more creative ways to find real insight. There’s a patented Saatchi approach called ‘Xploration’, which is an imaginative ethnographic technique where you go get involved in the lives of your consumers with no pre-set questions. It’s really important in developing countries. 

Guinness is one of the best case studies in here. It’s the top selling beer in Nigeria and sells more beer in Nigeria than it does in Ireland. Guinness did an incredible job over the course of a decade. They realised there were very few positive male role models in central Africa, so they created an African James Bond called Michael Power and he became a national hero. A lot of people didn’t realise he was a fictional hero – and TV stations would run his ads for free as content. They then made a movie which won an award in New York at the African American film festival.  The next campaign was ‘there’s a drop of greatness in every African man’. It’s a campaign that’s really about African men doing what’s right for their family, what’s right for their tribe, what’s right for their country. African men have said that it really speaks to them. It’s totally cool and it all comes from exploration and understanding.

The third stage is inspiration. It’s not a case that you use the exploration and discovery to draw up a great brief, push it under the door of the creative department and run away.  They do this thing that Saatchi called ‘Tribes’. They got a big group of people together at the beginning of the process, from inside and outside the agency, to help figure out what the big creative solution is.  

And finally there’s attraction. Attraction is participation. In a digital society, in each of these case studies people online have either helped to create the campaign or have perpetuated the campaign on their own afterwards. There’s not a case in here in which that hasn’t happened. Perhaps the most inspiring of those is the Blood Relations campaign, which was created by Saatchi Israel. The ‘Tribe’ for that project was every creative person in the world. The impossible brief was put out at Cannes and the person who cracked it was a guy in France who didn’t even work for Saatchi’s at all. His name was Jean Christophe Royer and he worked for BETC in Paris. The attraction element there was that people really got involved. People from Palestine and Israel who had lost relatives gave blood together, and for each other. Not all of these cases are as inspirational but that’s an example.

LBB> What have you taken personally from the stories and the people that you’ve met researching the book?

BS> I’ve taken a lot personally out of this. As an author you can have a much deeper relationship with a client than you can when you work on the agency side. I think this book is in many ways the client’s voice and many of the people that I spoke with are friends now. They really are friends because they were so honest with me, probably more honest than they’d be with the agency.

The most inspirational was a guy called Ruairi Twomey, a good Irishman. Talking to him was one of the coolest conversations that I’ve ever had. He was put in charge of Guinness in Nigeria – and there are definitely two ways you can react to a posting like that. But he thought it was great – it’s such a big market for Guinness and he couldn’t stop talking about how the people of Nigeria were the most positive, inspirational people he had met. It’s what he talked about for almost the whole phone call. The first thing he did when he got there was read Lovemarks. He came in and threw it on the table in front of his team and said, “this is our new marketing plan”. But to hear someone talk about the love and respect for the consumers that he was serving really opened my eyes. Of all the conversations I had, that is the one I’ll remember the most. 

There are a couple of case studies in here which really are the story of one person and the journey they went on, the difficulties had to overcome. One really good example is Jodi Allen at Pamerpers, and what she had to go through when the DryMax problem cameup. She’s a mother of two and all of a sudden her team is being accused of hating babies – but the love of babies is why they come to work every day. Imagine knowing that suddenly all of these mothers don’t trust you anymore. These personal stories about the people involved are not cookie cutter case studies. One hope I have for the book is that it will change how case studies are done for ever.

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