Earlier in March, Chris May was appointed the first ever chief creative officer at US IPG agency Elephant. Chris didn't come into the job blind - he was previously Elephant's executive creative director and is one of its founding members. With this switch-up in structure, the creative department will continue to be structured with ECDs running each region, East and West, with Chris managing creative across both coasts.
Since joining the agency in 2016, Chris has been pivotal in expanding Elephant’s creative offering with Apple, from design-focused experiences to campaigns driving usage and adoption of the brand’s various digital services. He's also played a key role in bringing in clients on top of their initial relationship with Apple, such as Beats by Dre, Kia Motors, Twitch, and Electronic Arts. Prior to Elephant, Chris was a creative leader at Razorfish Berlin and AKQA London and Berlin.
LBB's Addison Capper chatted with him about his vision for the new role, the importance of writing skills in building out creative concepts and his kids' inspirational imaginations.
LBB> You are Elephant's first ever CCO. How is that impacting the way that you're approaching the new role? What pressure but also opportunities do you think that created?
Chris> The best part of my new role is getting to work with a wider range of people at the company. As we say at Elephant, ‘what we do is who we are.’ Everything revolves around the people we have and those people have a direct impact on the work we do.
This might not be a surprise, but for me it’s not just an individual thing, it's a team thing and now I’m in a position where I want to make new connections and partner people together who may not have had the opportunity to do so previously.
Right now, I’m really taking the time to get to know the entire team coast to coast… what makes them tick, how they think and ultimately what type of work fulfils them to create maximum impact for our client partners. And from there it will be a case of mixing it up a little, helping foster new relationships and building new teams around new work.
LBB> It's not like you're coming in blind - you're actually a founding member of Elephant. Why was the time right for the agency to have a CCO?
Chris> Since day one, I’ve worked closely with the leadership on so many of the big assignments that have unlocked major milestones in the agency’s history. And as the company has evolved I’ve always taken initiative when it comes to how we show up to the outside world beyond the work we are doing. Awards, events, activities and so forth…
Late last year, we felt it was time to evaluate and refresh the company's purpose, position and values to better reflect the impact we have with our clients and our ambitions as a company.
Leading this positioning work revealed the importance of the abundance of creativity at Elephant and there was this moment where the penny dropped and the creation of the CCO role was a natural part of the evolution. Lucky for me, I was ready to go.
LBB> Part of your role now will be to establish the creative vision for Elephant. What are your initial thoughts on what you want that vision to be?
Chris> As I mentioned previously, we’ve recently refreshed our purpose, which is ‘A Creative Company Moving Ambitious Brands into New Worlds.’ To unpack that a bit further, we are really interested in the type of projects that tap into new audiences, create new markets, and build new businesses for our clients.
And so my focus right now is using the power of creativity to develop new relationships and opportunities for our clients, and for us as a company.
The key point here is that I want us to be open-minded, we are not a ‘one-track agency.’ I see us more as a collective packed full of people who all hold different definitions of what creativity can be… it’s a melting pot and that’s what I love about it. I’m excited to see where this goes.
LBB> Elephant is an interesting setup - it's got a really boutique feel but is part of IPG. How do you see and define the agency? What do you think you do really well?
Chris> Our team is really great at taking a step back, looking at the big picture and proposing a compelling and bold view of what the future could look like for any given assignment, whether it’s pure communications, brand design, product experience or all three!
When we are successful in a new business scenario, the client will often say that we were awarded the work because we don’t think in tactics, we thought about the entire customer journey, the ecosystem… mapped it out clearly and then brought it to life through a strong creative vision. Clarity and creativity, that’s the ticket.
Quite a few of us at Elephant have worked together for some time, we know each other well and there is a good flow between us. We are lean and act decisively — this has really helped us get through the last two years when we are all remote. This intimate relationship is especially true when it comes to strategy and creative disciplines, working as one. We are at our best when the two are closely aligned, with a shared vision on how to tackle the assignment.
LBB> How can you tap into that network in your role to further push the creative power of the agency? Do you work with the wider network at all?
Chris> We’ve always had a strong connection to Huge, it's where we started, it's in our DNA. Over the years, our brand has grown and evolved, both in offering and ways of working. It's been rewarding to see that pay off with greater awareness of Elephant’s work and interesting opportunities flowing in, and with the strength of our IPG foundations.
LBB> Which piece of work from your time at Elephant are you most proud of and why?
Chris> Rather than cite a specific piece of work, let me take a moment to plug our refreshed website
, where you can see a selection of work we love… also check back from time to time as we add more cases!
What I am most proud of is how we’ve grown Elephant from a handful of designers on a single project with Apple, and really built on that relationship. Today we handle a vast array of work with them spanning content creation, digital design and communications.
On top of that we’ve been fortunate to work with many great brands over the years on a wide range of assignments. It feels really good to count companies such as Beats by Dre, Twitch and most recently EA Games as clients… not just the brands themselves but the people we’ve gotten to work with at those companies who are category leaders.
LBB> Thinking about the type of work that Elephant excels in, what are you looking for when hiring new creative talent?
Chris> At Elephant, we seek talent who are agile, able to understand the broader picture but also love being deep in the work, and are diverse, in backgrounds, perspectives, and importantly, gender, race and ethnicity. One of the biggest issues in our industry is a lack of diversity, and we at Elephant are no different - it is a top priority for our company to change the face of talent. This priority also extends outside our company and most recently we’ve focused our efforts pro-bono on several initiatives that endeavour to change the face of the talent in our industry.
The Elephant XD Academy is one closest to me — it’s a nine-week, part-time virtual boot camp designed to teach the core skills and foundations of digital product design to BIPOC talent who have an interest in our field but limited exposure to it. We’ve done this two years in a row and it’s been such a great platform to elevate the students that take part… many who've gone on to get jobs in our industry after graduating.
LBB> As a CCO, I imagine you won't spend so much time ‘writing’ and a chunk of your responsibilities involve nurturing talent and listening to your teams to ensure they're able to work to the best of their abilities. What is your approach to this side of the job?
Chris> My career started out very design focused, I graduated in communication design and started working in London back in the late ‘90s as a digital designer / web designer / gif basher. Thankfully there were a lot of digital shops (and jobs) popping up and I was fortunate enough to get an offer off the back of my final year show... mainly because I’d already been dabbling in Macromedia Director and building interactive stuff.
So in the early days, writing wasn’t really my focus at all, but today, I hold the ability to express ideas in words with such high regard - in my experience it’s often the key difference between a strong conceptual idea versus a set of tactics (not that I don't love a good tactic). Whether we are working on a rebrand, campaign or even product experience, I believe writing helps bring out bigger thinking in all of us and this is something I’ll often impress on the teams in the early stages of a project.
LBB> Outside of work, what's inspiring you and what helps you relax?
Chris> Outside work, I continue to be inspired by my kids' imaginations. In particular I love seeing them draw. Some of the stuff they come up with is in equal parts bonkers and hilarious… one of them made a ‘sorry book’ the other day after a minor altercation with my partner… I think they were really sorry.
I’ve always been interested in objects where design and engineering meet and cars in particular have always been a passion of mine. Recently I purchased a classic ‘70s Alfa Romeo. It’s not run for over 16 years and I’m really focussed on bringing that back to life — I’ve always loved the brand because from an engineering perspective they were ahead of their time and have such a rich history of design. The project is the perfect antidote to spending all day on a computer… it's just me and a bag of spanners… it's totally analogue.