The McCann Health London ECD on learning creativity from the people who made Guinness Surfer, taking concrete steps on diversity and the importance of brands’ Covid responses as trust in institutions falters
It’s hard to imagine a more important time for creativity in health. We may not know exactly how Covid-19 will ultimately change the world, but the fact is that billions of people’s lives have been altered in 2020 due to reactions to a health crisis. That’s terrifying, but for someone like McCann Health London’s executive creative director Guy Swimer, it’s also rather exciting.
Whether it’s hijacking men’s bathrooms around the UK to get them thinking about erectile dysfunction or driving impressive sales for Sudocrem, the campaigns Guy’s created over the past few years have changed behaviour and perception around health. And he’s keen to seize the opportunities of this year when we’re all thinking about health to alter the way we live our lives for the better.
Having been promoted to ECD mid-pandemic, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with him.
LBB> Firstly, how would you characterise your 2020 pandemic experience? Are you coping OK?
Guy> Like everyone, I’m just trying to adapt. It's strange not physically being in the agency, and I’m missing the energy of a busy office, all those random, informal chats that spark ideas. You start to appreciate those everyday moments more than ever! But you adapt. You gain new insight. You keep progressing. There are a number of things I previously thought could never have been done remotely, and I’ve been amazed to see what we've managed to achieve. Plus, I’ve learned to appreciate the simple things - like the value of a hairdresser’s appointment!
LBB> It must be a particularly intense time to work for a health agency. How has McCann Health responded to it all?
Guy> A significant part of McCann Health London’s output is global health campaigns for non-profit organisations, or charities trying to tackle health and wellness challenges around the world. So, we’ve been collaborating with many clients on Covid-19 responses. As you can imagine, this kind of work requires real human insights and ideas that are tonally right… plus some tight turnarounds.
LBB> This year the whole world has been shaped by health concerns. Our lives have changed to varying degrees depending on countries' different responses to Covid-19. How can the health industry react to that?
Guy> Well, if ever there was a time to be reminded that health and wellness are central to the way we live, it's right now. It’s often said when it comes to purpose-driven advertising, there is no bigger purpose than health and I think that’s truer now than ever.
But also, given the current climate of misinformation and growing lack of trust in institutions, political leaders and authorities, what we do in the health industry may have even greater significance now. As an agency we’re working on briefs centred on building trust in the science or advice of doctors, and hopefully, before long many of us in the industry will be working on campaigns related to Covid vaccines, so it's pretty fundamental stuff.
LBB> Let’s get some context about you personally. Where did you grow up and what were you like as a kid?
Guy> I’m a Mancunian, and you would have to ask my mum what I was like as a kid! I think I was pretty cheeky, probably a bit clever for my own good! I used to question everything and ask ‘why’ a lot (still do!) and sometimes teachers didn’t like it. But being from Manchester, you either have to be into music or football, and I was in bands throughout my teenage years. I didn’t do well in school until I got into literature and more creative subjects later on.
LBB> When did you first start taking an interest in creativity and even advertising?
Guy> My dad’s dream, when he was young, was to work in advertising. He idolised the Mad Men era, the classic DDB campaigns from the 1960s etc. So, it came from him, I suppose. I used to memorise all my favourite ads growing up, and I did work experience in my school holidays at JWT in Manchester, so I was always into advertising.
LBB> Do you remember any early key moments in your career that helped you become the creative leader you are today?
Guy> My first job was at AMV BBDO, and it meant I was able to learn from some of the best in the UK industry at the time - watching Tom Carty and Walter Campbell while they were making Guinness Surfer, plus inspirational talents like Nick Worthington and others. I was there when David Abbott was in his final year at the agency, but his presence was felt in everything the agency did.
Plus, my tutor at Watford, who taught me both copywriting and life the hard way - think JK Simmons’ teacher in Whiplash and you’re not a million miles off - although I’m sure he’s mellowed with age! And I was fortunate to study alongside some talented people whose work you see across the industry now.
LBB> What was the health space like when you first got into it and what was creativity's role in it?
Guy> Well, coming from the background above, I fell into health in a slightly random way. But it's a sector that’s changing faster than anything I’ve experienced in my professional life.
The industry owes a lot to a group of trailblazers who began to move into the health space 10-15 years ago, and many of us current generation of ECDs are standing on their shoulders, to be honest. But the speed of change is incredible. You only have to look at the agencies and budgets that now swell the ranks of the pharma and health Lions to see how high the creative standards have become.
LBB> What is the role of creativity in health right now?
Guy> No-one knows what kind of a world we’ll emerge into after this period, but there’s no doubt that simple, brilliant ideas will be as crucial as ever. I don’t think there could be a more critical time for creativity in health.
LBB> What projects have you recently been proud to be involved in and why?
Guy> There are a number of award-winning creative firsts we're proud of; from taking over men's bathrooms across the UK to talk about sexual health, to turning London’s landmarks into eye tests for OCO Opticians of Shoreditch. We're currently producing a campaign to support nurses and front-line workers in hospitals at a time when compassion fatigue can impact public support.
Plus, it was great to work with an iconic household brand like Sudocrem and launch a campaign during last year’s Britain’s Got Talent premiere. It led to a huge increase in sales - even while fewer babies are being born in the UK!
But I’m probably most proud of the IGNITE creative programme we launched last year, an initiative to recruit diverse talent for our agencies in London and New York. Ideas can come from anywhere, and so should our creative talent. That's why we’ve been working with leading diversity organisations in the UK to help find the talent of tomorrow, and no specific experience or qualifications are needed to apply.
LBB> What changing or new factors are most important for the industry to harness so that they can make a positive impact on people's health moving forward?
Guy> We’re living in a world shaped by our reactions to health. Data and technology enable us to track, measure and maintain our health better than at any time in human history. It’s no longer enough just to have a great creative idea. If we want to encourage real behaviour change, it needs to be combined with innovative thinking and emerging technologies to reach people at the right time, so they can make the right decisions to benefit their health.
LBB> Finally, have you learned any new skills or hobbies in lockdown? Or has it helped you grow at all outside of your work?
Guy> Working from home with two young kids, my wife and I experience daily crash courses in multitasking! I’m not sure it's practical to do a creative review while feeding your children dinner, but I’ve had to learn how. Also, you discover client presentations can be gatecrashed at any moment by an 18-month old wanting to show everyone his new sunglasses. Before the pandemic, I hadn’t ever really worked from home before in any meaningful way, and while I do miss the creativity of an agency environment, it’s been great and educational in a lot of new ways!