Last week it was announced that FCB Chicago was the highest performing North American agency at Cannes Lions 2021. The agency also ranked number three in the entire world, notching up 24 total wins, including Titanium awards for ‘Boards of Change’ on behalf of the City of Chicago and ‘Contract for Change’, created in partnership with FCB New York, for AB InBev brand Michelob Ultra.
It’s worth noting the prestige that comes with winning a Titanium Lion, which are saved only for truly game-changing work that breaks new ground. ‘Boards of Change’ won a whopping 14 Lions total, including a Grand Prix, while ‘Contract for Change’ picked up nine wins during the Festival, also including a Grand Prix.
President Kelly Graves and chief creative officer Andrés Ordóñez have been the duo leading FCB’s Chicago outpost since October 2019. LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with both of them about the journey to becoming North American Agency of the Year - and the pressure that comes with success.
LBB> FCB Chicago smashed it at Cannes this year. Number three agency of the entire festival, two Titanium awards, and you’ve just been announced as North American agency of the year! There have also been impressive showings at other shows. Tell me a bit about that journey specifically and what you brought you to this point.
Kelly> We didn't start with Cannes in mind. When Andreas and I started working together, we started with the work in mind. One of our first charges was to get the agency really centred around the work and to really help every account leader, every creative leader, every strategist understand that they could do incredible work on a client's piece of business or as part of our civic engagement practice, or just in general here at the agency.
Throughout Covid, it was a lot of “Let's stay focused on our clients’ business, what do they need to be successful? What do we need to be successful and protect our people and the jobs sitting here in Chicago?” But I think throughout that process, where we ended up was finding amazing creative opportunities in the businesses that we led and ran every day.
Andrés> From a creative standpoint, one of the biggest questions that they asked me, when I moved to FCB, was why I was even going. But I have everything in my toolbox now. I have everything to make the work better and to surround me with great talent. And as these ideas started to pop, that's what we did. We took the ideas and we surrounded them with great talent and great tools to make them bigger and stronger. Obviously, I never thought it was going to be that fast, but it pretty much turned really fast on us.
LBB> You were both appointed to your current roles around the same time - thinking back to then, what were your main goals as leaders of the agency? What needed to be done?
Kelly> About one month after Andrés and I were officially together in our roles, we set out a few key messages within our townhall meeting. One: all about the creative work. Two: we were working on changing our internal culture to get people working together more as integrated teams. We called it ‘banishing the baton’ and ‘no more handoffs’ - working truly together from start to finish in the creative process. So now you have strategists and analysts working together from the very beginning, all the way to the very, very end.
Three: we talked to the team a lot about organic growth because we definitely felt like a lot of the most rich opportunities for us, from a creative standpoint and also from a business standpoint, start with our existing clients. We have an incredible roster here of 44 brands, so we talked to our teams about really focusing on the brands that we have, and identifying those amazing creative opportunities. Andrés actually introduced the ‘and’ brief - if you look at Foote, Cone ‘&’ Belding, there's an ampersand that's been sitting there, and he pointed it out that it’s been in our logo for well over 100 years and the spirit of ‘and’ is very much like the spirit of ‘never-finished’. It's the idea of looking for something else.
So we said to all of our teams, “We want you to find that ‘and opportunity’. You all know your scopes of work, you all know what we have to deliver, but what's the thing that we should deliver above and beyond that? What's the ‘and’?”
We built a briefing process around it, teams rallied around it, and everybody worked to find the “and opportunities” in their business. And some of those “and opportunities” ultimately ended up becoming some of the stuff that we've entered into award shows this past 18 months.
LBB> Andrés, can you speak a bit more about the “and opportunities”?
Andrés> Inside your agency you’ve got to upgrade your own language and your own way of finding ideas. Everyone talks to us about ‘FCB’, but no one talks about ‘FC and B’. When a client hires our agency, or we have a new partner come in, they hire FCB - they know what we can do. But what if we activate that ‘and’... that second part? So we deliver on what they hire us for, but we give them a little bit more than that. And that’s where growth and awards come from a lot of the time, because they see the potential. We get to show our other departments and other talents, and we just keep adding on to it.
It's at the point now, after almost two years, where you’ll be in meetings and someone will say, ‘And this...’. It’s starting to become that, in every conversation, there's always an ‘and’ in there. I think that's where the magic is starting to show up in different places.
LBB> You’ve both touched upon improving or changing the culture within the agency. Can you speak a bit on that? And also, naturally, Covid was probably one of the biggest challenges for keeping culture alive, so how have you navigated that?
Andrés> One big thing that we believe is to lead by example. People joke about us that we're the ‘never-finished’ team - we don't stop. They say the speed we’re going at is scary sometimes, and I get it in a way, but if the teams need you, we're there. I think that has paid off because feelings have been all over the place for the last 18 months or so, and I think that being there for the people and working hard next to people and understanding what they're going through - their emotions and things like that - shows that we're here for them. When you take care of your people, everything comes back to you. I think a lot of the success comes because we care about them.
Kelly> Andrés and I and all of our leadership team - Eric [Chun, managing director strategic analytics], Nicole [Brandell, CSO], Mark [Wilson, executive director of strategic inclusion] - we actively work on the business. When a project is perhaps having some difficulty, if a team can't nail something, if there's a client that's unhappy, we swoop in and we help and we work. Andrés designs and I write set-up slides and Eric runs models. I think for our folks that was a different way of working. I think there are leaders that give directions and then come back a few days later and say, ‘Did you nail it?’ And then there are leaders that roll up their sleeves and get in there. For us, that was a way to build trust with an agency that we were newly leading - to hop in those trenches with them and actually put pen to paper.
LBB> Okay, let's talk about some recent work for a minute,starting with Boards of Change. Can you just tell us what the actual seed of that idea was, and when the idea first came to you? Did you even know that the idea was possible or legal?
Andrés> When an idea is there, and you see it, and you see the magic as itself, 80% of it is from the gut. We were also working with the City of Chicago at that moment, so we had so much data on the census and for voter registration in the city. It was a perfect storm of understanding what we could do with these boards and all of the data that we had in front of us, and it just happened. From the minute that they said go, it was incredible.
We literally had a weekend to find 170 boards, put them away, and then started contacting all the artists to make sure that we could use them. We had to find an artist per town and understand the registrations for each town.
I also think that the fact that the window was so small helped to accelerate us - it was either we go or we don't. I love that we all got to see those boards up and gave them the opportunity for a second life. It’s not only about putting words out into the world - if you really want to see change in the world, you have to take action. So we did.
Kelly> I think there were many points in the process too where you had to make a bet or take a risk. With the boards, do we spend a bunch of money to pull them down and store them? We didn't quite know exactly how it was going to work. But we said, ‘There's something here, let's do it’. In the end it ended up being what it was, which was incredible, but I think along the way we never would have seen this path because it certainly wasn't linear - we had to follow our gut.
LBB> The results of that campaign were huge - but also it's very much rooted in the city that you call home. What was the experience like of building it and releasing it into the world? How did it make you feel personally?
Andrés> I believe as creators, we have the power to make people buy anything and do anything, which is beautiful. It's a superpower. But I also think that you have to give back. You have to figure it out and find a balance because if you don't take care of the people, if you don't take care of your city, it will come back to bite you. At every opportunity we should try to do it. So I think this is one of those where we're giving back to our city and to the situation that was happening in the US. It was bigger than just the campaign.
Kelly> I think it meant a lot to our employees, because a lot of our folks live right around the city centre. I live four blocks from the office and one of the things we learned during Covid is that our folks don't just rely on us for a job - this company has an emotional support system. When your city is turned upside down, and a lot of them are scared, a lot of them don't live near their families, I think seeing their agency taking action in a space that was so filled with emotion and uncertainty meant a lot to the people that work here.
LBB> And tell me about Contract for Change (which you can see more of here). I love that campaign so much. Your second big-winning idea centred around ‘change’!
Andrés> We’ve stopped looking around us, because of devices, because of Covid, because of everything. What these two campaigns have in common is that they’re looking outside, understanding what is going on, understanding that only one percent of America is organic, and people want to go organic. Both things needed us to come in and create a change. We can’t ask for these things if only 1% of the land is organic, and we can’t ask for a change in our leadership as a country when we’re not even registered to vote.
Kelly> One of the things that’s so exciting to me about Contract For Change is having a client that's willing to get behind something like that. We can have an idea and we can give it an incredible handle and beautifully crafted materials, but it takes a client like Anheuser-Busch to step in and really get behind something like that to make it meaningful. When it started, we didn't know if it was going to make it out the door, right? But they saw it - it was part of a Super Bowl ideation session and there was one little kernel of an idea on a wall, and it kept kind of going . Then it was on hold because legal couldn't figure it out… and then it was on hold for another reason. Two years after its inception, the client said, ‘Okay, we're ready, we can do this’. It wasn't just us pushing for the idea, it was also the partnership with Anheuser-Busch, who eventually figured out how to get that through their internal system.
I think sometimes people don't realise how much clients play a huge role in ideas like this. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn’t have this idea, we wouldn’t have been winning an award for Contract for Change. It was an incredible amount of work on their side, it was an incredible partnership between our office and our New York office. A lot happened in those two years. I think it speaks to how much endurance and perseverance you have to have to get an idea this big out the door. It wasn't just about the creative idea, it was also about the business plan that sat behind that creative idea.
Andrés> It's a beautiful partnership with New York - and again, surrounded by the right people. It was a beautiful, beautiful project. 65% of consumers believe that change will first come from brands, before the government. And I think Anheuser-Busch just showed the world that it's possible. It's about time that brands step up and help others.
LBB> Given that FCB just won Network of the Year at Cannes, how do you work with the wider network? Is it quite a collaborative relationship?
Andrés> It's a beautiful network, it's a beautiful family. The Global Creative Council is incredible. We get together twice a year to look at the work between all of us. We put all the best work from every office and we workshop them and push them. When you look at the results, it's a combination of everyone cheering for the right work and putting the energy there. There are no egos, there's no internal competition. I always say to new clients, ‘When you're buying into FCB you're not buying Chicago, you're just buying FCB as a network’. Because it’s true. We're a strong family and what Susan [Credle, global CCO] has done is incredible - to bring us all together and understanding that we need to be humble and open with each other, and this spirit of collaboration.
LBB> It feels like, especially under CEO Tyler Turnbull, that North America is a pretty tight-knit group of companies as well. Is that fair to say?
Kelly> Yeah, for a while we were all individual offices and the leaders of each office didn’t necessarily spend time together, to collaborate, work or meet. When you look at the leadership now across San Francisco, Canada, New York and Chicago, we have a tight group of people that you can call and ask for favours, ask for counsel or share resources and capabilities that maybe one office has and the other office doesn't. Oftentimes just working together is all it takes. When you sit in separate buildings and separate offices in separate parts of the country and you never have the chance to work together, it just makes you feel super separate. When we started working together a lot more regularly, when you go into the trenches on a pitch or on a project or the development of a corporate plan, you get to know each other in a way that allows for those bonds to be built, as opposed to just working independently and then expecting everyone to come together as a network.
Andrés> All of us CCOs, we’re like brothers and sisters honestly - between Jordan [Doucette, FCB San Francisco] and Nancy [Crimi-Lamanna, FCB Toronto], and Michael [Aimette, FCB New York] and Gabriel [Schmitt, FCB New York], we’re super tight. It’s that kind of friendship where you’re on WhatsApp and you're just texting all day, getting them to check out your ideas and vice versa. We know that it’s just going to make us stronger and better and there's this beautiful feeling of community and we take care of each other.
LBB> When an agency is on a downward spiral, the need at hand is quite obvious - to improve. FCB Chicago is not in that state though - you're riding on a lot of success at the moment. So, with that in mind, what is the challenge at hand?
Kelly> There's a lot of pressure, I think, to continue to grow in terms of the creative situation and the client situation. The fortunate thing for the two of us - and the leaders that we surround ourselves with - is that everybody wants to win and everybody wants to do more and truly embody that spirit of ‘and’. So while there's definitely pressure - thinking about where we placed in the award shows this year or the number of clients on our roster - I don't think there's anybody that's afraid of that. Everybody's like, ‘Alright, what else are we doing? Let's go! Let’s put the pedal to the metal!’ In a year like this, the best thing that we can do right now is make sure we have the best talent. That is the one thing that will shore us up. When we interview folks now, it’s an easy conversation because they want to come here, they want to be here, so we've had the benefit of being able to bring in some incredible people over the last three or four months that I don't know if we would’ve been able to bring in two years ago.
I think those people are some of the ones that are going to help us ensure the success - maybe moving up to number two or even number one - and winning new clients, adding to our roster and improving our capabilities.
Andrés> When you're in the top three, the pressure is so high. But I say this a lot to the teams - if we believe that we're the number three in the world, we will lose. We can't think about it. Don't think about it. Don't think about where we rank. Still feel that we're the little one and that we’re still an underdog, and keep fighting because we're very far from the top. If we keep going like that, I think beautiful things will keep happening. The day that we believe that we made it, we're done. And we can't do that.
Additional reporting by Ben Conway