The CCO at CHE Proximity on growing up in coastal South Africa, having a well-rounded view to build brands and pinning a decision to move to America on his dog
Hearing from a creative how they got into the industry is always an interesting story. Sometimes it’s by chance and others it’s something they’d dreamt of doing since childhood. But for CHE Proximity’s Gavin McLeod, his entry into creativity was spurred on by a stubborn desire to prove a recruiter at Ogilvy South Africa wrong when she rejected his ‘underwhelming’ portfolio. From that moment on he’s been on a rollercoaster ride in the advertising world, even pinning a decision to move to San Francisco for a role with AKQA on the decision of the family dog.
As he settles into his role at the helm of CHE Proximity, LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with Gavin to hear all about his ‘terrifying’ new role, surfing mentality and what he believes Covid has done to consumer thinking.
LBB> Firstly, congratulations on the new role! How does it feel to be CCO at CHE Proximity?
Gavin> Bloody amazing. And, bloody terrifying. Amazing because there’s no other agency in Australia better able to deliver on my vision for what a modern brand needs to be. I think everyone understands that marketing is increasingly about connected creative experiences that enable brands to show up in meaningful ways across an entire ecosystem. But, there are very few agencies that have the full set of capabilities across creative, technology, data and experience design to actually deliver on it. And, there are even fewer who have the strategic nous to connect them all together in a way that delivers true business value for their clients.
The bit that terrifies me is making sure we are consistently delivering breakthrough ideas that make an impact in this new world. CHEP has set a high standard for creativity over the past few years and my job is to make sure we keep lifting the bar. But, I’ve always thought that I do my best work when I’m way outside of my comfort zone and I enjoy the challenge of reinventing what’s possible in a world that’s changing so rapidly.
LBB> You've worked in so many different agencies - and countries - previously, what are you bringing with you to this role?
Gavin> Someone once said to me that to thrive as a creative in the new economy you have to be a bit of a polyglot. This resonated deeply with me as I’ve tried my hand at many roles during the course of my career. As a consequence, I have a well-rounded view of what it takes to build the brands of tomorrow.
So much of what we do nowadays is enabled by technology and having a good understanding of what’s possible and what’s not is very helpful as a creative leader. As an example, I’ve made a concerted effort to educate myself about the capabilities of AI services such as IBM Watson over the last few years and I have to laugh at some of the bullshit claims that agencies are making about how they’ve used it in their projects – it’s frankly damaging for our credibility as an industry.
I take it really seriously that we only present ideas when we have some sense of how we are going to turn them into reality. And, to do that you have to be open to the thinking evolving as you bring in and collaborate with the people with the skills to actually make stuff happen.
LBB> Let's rewind a little, I know you studied in Cape Town, is this where you grew up? If so, what were those early years like?
Gavin> I studied Fine Arts at the University of Cape Town, but I’m originally from a sleepy little coastal town called Port Elizabeth. It was a great place to grow up and it’s where I fell in love with surfing. PE is a short drive away from Jeffreys Bay, one of the world’s most famous waves, and I was fortunate to enjoy many hours of uncrowded surfs at the iconic Supertubes before it became the surf tourism mecca it is now.
I also love that my pursuit of perfect waves has led to some truly incredible life experiences all around the world. One of my favourites was in Raglan, New Zealand when I was travelling and surfing on my own in the late ‘90s. I was staying at a backpackers in the dead of winter with one other guest who was writing the autobiography of the oldest pure-blood Maori in New Zealand. She was 103 and told her story every night over the course of the week surrounded by tribal elders. I was an enthralled listener as this tiny woman spoke of growing up in Aotearoa in the 1800s in the flickering light of a log fire. She had a faded face moko, which was the first time I had seen one, and spoke movingly of how it symbolised her transition into womanhood and how it still made her feel beautiful to this day.
Of course, not all of my experiences are stories that I’d want my Mum to know about, but I’m grateful to have lived them (and in some cases survived them) nonetheless. In advertising, we tend to live in our own safe little bubbles and surfing has given me a wonderful opportunity to experience worlds that are radically different to mine.
LBB> When did you know that a career in advertising and creativity was the one for you?
Gavin> As I said, I studied Fine Arts in Cape Town. After I graduated, I was a bit lost as to what I wanted to do, so I went for an interview for a junior art director role at Ogilvy. At the time the agency was a powerhouse in South African advertising and creative hires were handled by a tough as nails recruiter. She took one look at my underwhelming portfolio of not-very-good paintings and sent me packing. I’m pretty stubborn and right then and there I decided that I was going to prove her wrong. It’s been a while since then, but I think I’m on track!
LBB> What lessons from your early years really stood out to you?
Gavin> I’ve been an avid collector of great advice throughout my career, so I’ll go all the way back to one of the first bits of wisdom that inspired me. I was a junior creative in my very first role and was working on a Nike print ad. I really admired (and still do) Wieden+Kennedy’s Nike work as it set the gold star standard for an aspiring Art Director. So, I was really driven to do something that lived up to their impossibly high standards and I’d spent hours exploring hundreds of layouts. Eventually I asked a senior art director, who I really admired, for their advice. Shani Ahmed looked at all the work pinned to the wall for a long time and then asked, “How do you feel about it?”. It was such an unexpected question and after some thought I answered that I wasn’t sure and was finding it difficult to decide if it was great or terrible.
Shani’s sage advice has always stuck with me and has been a guiding light throughout my career. He said: “Not knowing if it’s good or bad is a positive thing. It means you’ve pushed yourself beyond what you are familiar with.”
Shani’s point of view was that sticking to what you know can too easily give you a sense of reassurance because you are falling into tried and tested patterns. It’s only when you go way outside of your comfort zone that you really push yourself and discover new ways of doing things. With that comes a sense of discomfort because of the inherent risk of doing something outside your set of ‘rules’.
Such great advice and something I always remind myself of when I’m looking at work that makes me feel uncomfortable. And, if you were wondering what he thought of the work on the wall, his exact words were: “It’s terrible at the moment, but it’s starting to get to an interesting place; so don’t stop and keep pushing”.
LBB> I'm intrigued to hear about what made you move from Australia to San Francisco? And what was this move like from a creative perspective?
Gavin> I love American advertising and used to pore over One Show annuals to try and deconstruct how people had done the work I was so inspired by. I was particularly fascinated by the amazing dialogue writing that American writers seem to be able to churn out at will. One Show used to publish transcripts of the award winning TV spots and I would read them to see how great writers had mangled the English language to capture the way people actually speak to infuse their spots with personality and humour. Unsurprisingly, I’d always held an ambition to work in America; but as my daughters grew up I thought the chance had passed me by.
When the opportunity to join AKQA SF came up, my daughters were old enough to be part of the decision making process and we ended up being tied two-all on the family ballot. So we did the only reasonable thing and gave our dog the deciding vote and shortly afterwards we moved to San Francisco for the adventure.
I really enjoyed the experience of working in the US as I found out so much about myself as a creative leader and as a person. A big factor in this was AKQA, it was an amazing place because it had such a diversity of talent. There were close to 30 different nationalities working in the San Francisco office alone and it was inspiring to be surrounded by so many talented people from all over the world. It was also exhilarating to be at the heart of the technology industry and having the opportunity to work with tech giants like Apple and Facebook. As fascinating as that was, I definitely enjoyed working with smaller tech clients more, as by definition you have greater access to the true decision makers.
The only thing I didn’t enjoy about the US was how much Americans worship alpha personalities. I’m a fairly introverted person by nature and I found it draining to have this constant pressure to project this larger than life persona. In Australia we seem to have more room for different personality types and it’s a huge strength of our industry in my humble opinion.
LBB> What prompted you to come back to Australia as ECD of Ogilvy Australia after this and what was the experience like?
Gavin> Coming back to Australia was a decision driven by family reasons, and happened sooner than expected. I didn’t have a job organised and was panicking a bit (my wife would say a lot!). I got some great advice from Hamish Stewart, my old creative partner, to leverage my connections in the Aussie ad industry and organise video chats with as many people as possible. I embraced this and got a lot out of the process. I found people incredibly giving of their time and it really made me realise that there is an advertising fraternity that is incredibly supportive when you need it.
It was thanks to the recommendations of champions like Sunita Gloster and Brian Vella that I ended up at Ogilvy. I’d been fortunate to have a couple of job offers and I really did my homework about where the best cultural fit for me would be. Ogilvy was perhaps a surprising choice considering my previous roles at R/GA and AKQA, but I could see huge opportunities there and thought that my experience could add something to the mix.
I’m proud of the creative success we enjoyed during my time there with Grand Prix wins at Spikes for KFC and awards at all the major award shows for a range of clients. We also won Creative Agency of The Year titles at Campaign Asia and shared the honours with Colenso at APAC Effies. But, I’m prouder still that we did it with largely the same creative department that I inherited. I’d been told by a few people in the industry that I needed to go in and get rid of all the ‘dead wood’ when I started. But, I quickly realised that the creative team I’d inherited was up for the challenge, they’d just lacked creative leadership to empower them. I really believe it’s my responsibility to make sure that when people leave the agency, they leave for a better job because of the work they have done under my watch. And, I was happy (but mostly annoyed) that the creatives at Ogilvy were constantly being headhunted by some really great agencies.
LBB> What made you decide to move to CHE Proximity?
Gavin> Our world has found a new gear, seemingly overnight thanks to Covid. It’s brought irreversible changes to the way we work, shop, socialise and exercise. These changes have created a New Economy that is being powered by this new kind of consumer. They have new beliefs and new behaviours that are driving an inflection point in culture, commerce and our communities. And, they provide brave brands with an incredible opportunity.
I’m all-in on this paradigm shift and get really excited about the opportunities it opens up for us as creatives. Especially as brands today are defined by end-to-end experiences. For instance, if you are a bank in the New Economy the ability to build your brand will be just as influenced by the everyday app banking experience as a national TV campaign. And, arguably even more so. CHEP is one of the very few agencies that has the creative ability to create cut-through advertising work like our recent ‘Give a Flybuys’ repositioning campaign and the technical expertise to re-build a ‘big four’ bank’s core website platform like we’ve just done with ANZ Bank in New Zealand.
This depth of capabilities, and how CHEP connects them together with a common thread of creativity, is what drove me to join. I don’t believe this creativity is the exclusive domain of the creative department and I’m inspired to work in a place that values diversity of thinking to get you to an unexpectedly brilliant place. A perfect example of this is the Samsung ‘Performance Enhancing Music’ that we’ve recently launched. Creating music designed to tangibly improve Olympic-level athletes’ performances, that is something that they actually want to listen to, is no easy feat. It requires a blend of Art and Science and a broad array of creative skill sets to help the idea come to fruition.
LBB> Where does your creative inspiration and motivation come from?
Gavin> At a work level, I’m constantly inspired by the people I work with. The best bit of advice I ever got was to put your ego aside and hire people who are better than you. When you do, they push you to be a better creative yourself. I don’t think I’ve done my best work yet and I need all the help I can get if I’m ever to achieve that goal!
In surfing I’m inspired by a guy I see in the water fairly regularly. I don’t know his name, but he’s in his 60s and surfs a longboard. Surfing is an interesting sport because it’s more like ballet than a pure athletic pursuit. You can master the technical side, but if your style is rubbish you will never be a great surfer. This particular guy surfs with a style and grace that sets him apart from everyone else and he’s doing it at an age when most surfers have long given up. I also only ever see him out on days when the waves are serious and he surfs his longboard better than most guys half his age in the lineup. What a legend!
LBB> Who is your creative hero and why?
Gavin> Two people.
David Carson because he wilfully broke every typography rule under the sun and always makes me go WTF – in a good way. Plus he surfs!
Nadav Kander, because every image I’ve ever seen that he’s shot is breathtaking and always elevates the idea. I mean how often does a portrait commissioned for a Nike campaign go on to sell as a work of art in its own right? My advertising dream is to work with him one day.
LBB> Outside of work, who is Gavin? What does life look like for you?
Gavin> If you hadn’t picked up on it yet, outside of work I can be found surfing often as not, preferably as early in the morning as possible. This is largely because my Scottish ancestry makes spending too much time in the blazing Australian sun a life shortening event. Beyond that I’m slowly compiling material for a book about my daughters. I’ve been recording all the funny things they’ve said to my wife and I over the years on Facebook, with the idea of making a book for each of them down the track. I’m reliably informed by friends and family who have been enjoying the posts that it’s sure to be a bestseller. Here’s a small sample of their sometimes too insightful commentary.
Ella: Oh Dad, I need you to help me with my school project.
Gav: (Feeling quite chuffed) Cool, why do you need my help?
Ella: I need to write a speech where I lie to my class. And, you work in advertising.