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5 Minutes With… John O’Keeffe



Worldwide CCO at WPP

5 Minutes With… John O’Keeffe


Upon leaving college, advertising presented a young John O’Keeffe with the opportunity to escape the bland Essex estate he grew up in and, more importantly, the chance to prevent himself becoming yet another unemployment statistic in mid-80s Britain. Fast forward a few decades and advertising is more than just ‘a job’ – in 2008 O’Keeffe became one of the most influential creative minds in advertising when he was appointed worldwide chief creative officer for advertising behemoth WPP. With 162,000 employees in 3000 offices spread across 110 countries, encompassing agency giants like JWT, Y&R, Grey and Ogilvy, that’s a lot of creativity to nurture and keep in-touch with. Laura Swinton caught up with O’Keeffe to find out the biggest challenges he’s faced in his first four years in the job, which countries are on the map in terms of creativity (and who’s lost their way) and why advertising ain’t dead yet.


LBB> What have you learned during your time in the ad industry that you which you'd known when you were first starting out? 
JO> You learn all the time, which is what makes it a special industry. Last week I discovered that you can bake cakes using mayonnaise - Hellmann's of course! - rather than butter, and it's better for you! Who knew? If I'd known that twenty years ago I might have had a chain of patisseries by now. But if variety is the spice of life, this is a pretty good industry to be in. As to whether or not I was aware of that at the outset, perhaps not so acutely. Leaving college back in the mid 80s - Thatcher's heyday with unemployment at unprecedented levels - and being from a working class background, I was firstly pretty keen to just get a job. But I also knew that I wanted to get away from the banal dreary predictability of the estate I lived on and everything it represented. Advertising presented that opportunity.   
LBB> Who are your creative heroes? Why? 
JO> Sorry to disappoint but I don't have creative heroes in this industry. I think the deification of the average is pretty endemic. I admire any young and probably unsung creative wherever he or she may be who has just done something amazing for any of the brands we work with. But I don't hold any individual up as in any way totemic, or the reason I'm doing it, or whatever. Oh alright, perhaps John Webster is the exception because, long before I'd heard of JWT or Ogilvy or W&K or anyone, he was making the ads that formed part of the backdrop to my childhood (we watched a lot of TV in our house). The Smash Martians remains an all time fave, along with the Cresta Bear, The Honey Monster, the .....etc. My real creative heroes would be people like Lennon/McCartney, Picasso, the Coen Brothers, and Danny Boyle (bit of a flag wave: the Olympics opening ceremony was the single most spectacular creative event I have ever seen). 
LBB> Before turning to advertising, you worked in an electronics company - what first drew you to that field and why did you leave it? 
JO> Blagged my way in to a job - late teens I think. It was the only one on the job centre -  in a factory near where I lived. The job entailed writing specs for electronics, about which I know absolutely nothing. Managed to last a year or more before a huge order, for a nuclear installation in South Africa, suffered what was described at the time as catastrophic failure, and I was fired. However, as I wasn't arrested, I considered myself up on the deal overall. 
LBB> And, though the worlds of advertising and electronics may be worlds apart, was there anything about that experience that stuck with you? 
JO> A bad reputation in the nuclear industry. 
LBB> Early in your career you formed a partnership with Russell Ramsey - why did you first start working together? and when you began working together did you ever have an inkling that you would both prosper in the industry?  
JO> I knew he was very smart because he'd started out as a writer and become an art director, something I couldn't have done. As for working together, he choreographed both our divorces from previous partners without my even knowing, and then told me over lunch that we were now a partnership. I think we can both look back with some satisfaction on our output both jointly and solo. I have no doubt he will continue to do well and inspire as ECD of JWT. As for me, if all else fails I can always fall back on my electronics skills. 
LBB> Since being appointed at WPP, what have been the biggest tasks you've had to undertake to settle into the role?  
JO> Changing a mindset in some quarters, inside and out of WPP, that seemed to accept, as if set in stone, a sense that we were somehow less creative than some others. I think Martin's reputation as a businessman and all round economic spokesperson on various news outlets over the years, bizarrely seemed to give some an excuse to label us as 'bean counters': as though our competitors were artisan collectives of buccaneers doing it for love. So, once more from the top, WPP is a business, a very good and successful one. Its success comes from providing its clients with creative excellence. There, is anyone still not getting it??? Across the group, in all geographies and every discipline, we have amply demonstrated our creative credentials in recent years. That said, I caution all of our people that the world has not shifted on its axis. Others haven't fallen back. All of the big three groups posted higher scores at Cannes for example. A very good thing too for all of our respective clients, but we have to stay on our mettle. And we will. 
LBB> Overseeing and nurturing creativity of a whole umbrella network is a mammoth task - how do you keep in touch with what's happening 'on the ground'? 
Trains planes automobiles, email, skype, google hangouts and, when all else fails, I pick up the phone –  it's a great piece of kit. 
LBB> In terms of the global picture, which territories are leading the pack in terms of creativity right now? 
JO> It's interesting how you can track economic woes and recessions against creative prowess. Western Europe and the UK are not enjoying vintage periods on either front, whilst China has won back to back Grand Prix at Cannes (congrats to JWT and Ogilvy). It's always a tough business, and tougher still when money's tight, as it is right now in North America among many others. But India, and Asia in general, are doing great things. South America, especially Brazil, continues to thrive economically and creatively. Post China's emergence, Eastern Europe is now the sleeping giant. That said, I see a lot of potential there. I chaired a WPP only creative awards for our Eastern European agencies and there were some brilliant ideas coming out of Russia in particular. Australia and New Zealand have always punched above their weight creatively. Israel has many of the best digital thinkers and entrepreneurs. Africa, beyond the Cape, is starting to stir. The next ten years will be interesting. I do worry about the Faroe Islands though. 
LBB> What are your thoughts about the 'young blood' entering the industry? Is it a tougher marketplace for young creatives or have social media platforms made it easier for talent to rise to the top? 
JO> Anyone thinking, I've got a lot of followers on twitter, therefore I'm creative, is deluded. Ideas are evolving, we're often told, inasmuch as these days they have to have a life beyond the page or the screen, but actually they probably always did: it's just that no-one was asking those questions then. I've done some workshops where I used great campaigns of thirty and forty years ago and asked my audience to imagine what they would do with those ideas were they fresh out of the creative department today. How many followers would 'The Honey Monster' have had on Twitter? What sort of user generated films would be appearing on Youtube under the banner of 'refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach'? I imagine Avis would probably have a simple text campaign with weekly offers/coupons/deals sustaining their 'We Try Harder' position, and it would have been QR codes a-go-go on 'Good Food Costs Less at Sainsburys'. Sorry to be so UK centric. I'm sure Wal-Mart was doing great stuff in the 70s: it just wasn't appearing on ITV round our way. But what was "The Love Bug" if it wasn't spin off content from loveable VW advertising? The idea remains the essence of what we do. So Mr or Mrs Young Blood. Got any great ideas? 140 characters or more! 
LBB> The role of advertising agencies - and the future of agencies - is, as ever, the matter of great debate and discussion within the industry, with some declaring that advertising is over, others proposing that product design will play a greater role in the future, and others predicting a return to a one-stop-shop... Big question, I know, but what are your thoughts? 
JO> Product design is important. Sure. Especially if it's part of an integrated campaign. One of the attractive things for me about WPP was the ability to bring all aspects of brand building together with advertising, P.R. and media. As for the other disciplines you mention, that seems pretty cyclical. One decade it's all the rage to bring everything in-house, the next it's de rigueur to separate it all again. Well it keeps the interior design industry going I suppose. As for all of you who've been wandering around wearing sandwich boards predicting the end of advertising for the past ten years: you must be getting cross about its reluctance to lie down. I hope you can take some comfort from that American preacher who last year predicted armageddon for October 21st. Asked on October 22nd how he felt, he said he was disappointed but it wasn't the end of the world. Advertising will always be with us. 
LBB> What pieces of work have you seen from the WPP network recently  that have particularly resonated with you? 
JO> Too many to mention. Too few to be satisfied.


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LBB Editorial, Wed, 21 Nov 2012 17:05:15 GMT