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5 Minutes with… Paul Banham


MullenLowe MENA’s Regional ECD reflects on a run of big, bold ideas at the agency – from turning the Burj Khalifa into a giant donation box to bringing the twin moons of Mars to Earth – and shares his fascinating journey with LBB’s Laura Swinton

5 Minutes with… Paul Banham

Earlier this year, MullenLowe MENA was named Agency of the Year at the Campaign Tech awards, and their ideas that combine gutsy ideas with technology have proven to be irresistible. Obscure little innovations that the public never see? Nah, we’re talking bringing the twin moons of Mars to the desert skies. We’re talking turning the world’s tallest building into the world’s tallest donation box – and generating unignorable PR in the region. 

For Paul Banham, the regional ECD, this is only the beginning. His career-long quest to save clients from fear-driven mediocre work has coincided with Dubai’s creative boom. As the UAE and clients across the wider region seek to invest in a creativity and tech-fuelled post-oil future, Dubai has become a magnet for talent and has been cultivating a very distinct flavour of work. It’s a long way from the bucolic English countryside where Paul went to school – but even then, growing up with kids from all over the world, he had his eyes and imagination opened to a world of possibility that lay beyond. And he hasn’t stopped looking over that horizon.

LBB’s aura Swinton caught up with Paul to find out what’s next.

LBB> MullenLowe MENA has been having a stellar couple of years creatively, with some standout projects like World’s Tallest Donation Box and the Double Moons of Mars - feels like there's a real sense of ambition in the agency. Congratulations! What do you put that success down to?

Paul> For me, there are a few simple things that make making great work easy. For starters, it helps when you have a management team that all buy into and believe in the transformational power of creative thinking for brands. Equally, it helps if you teach your creatives to understand and respect the silent 'C' in the word Creative - The clients' Commercial agenda/responsibility'. Because if they do stop to think about this, and if they've got enough smarts to learn to direct it, then the world's your oyster (creatively speaking). As they'll know that anyone in advertising, whatever their title is only ever using creativity to serve the real ‘big C’ in the industry. You are hijacking and packaging the idea of creativity as a tool to assist your client in making money. Forcing yourself to confront this constantly is the only way to be successful. It also helps if you have a creative vision, a goal, and a type of work you want to create - Ours is simply framed around creating an unfair share of attention for our clients, so we set out to create work that creates headlines and as such earned media, and PR always follows suit. It helps if you dedicate a lot of time to finding and hiring great talent that also buys into your vision and plan. Plus, it helps if you involve and treat your clients as a natural extension and part of your team, so not just as the sign-off at the beginning and end of a project plan. 

The raft of global awards and vast amount of new business won from the last two years are simply testament and proof of the above approach. Most agencies get some of these things right, but when you get all of these things working together seamlessly, then the difference is effectively 10x. It's what separates the good from the great agencies.

LBB> Let’s go back to the beginning. What kind of kid were you, and where did you grow up? What was your childhood like, and how exposed were you to creativity growing up?

Paul> A tad mischievous. But equally, rather shy at heart. That aside, I was a kid on a global adventure from a very young age because my parents divorced when I was seven years old. And as such, I found myself in a rather stuffy, semi upper-class boarding school with what unbeknown to me would become the best friends any boy or man could wish for, as my dormitory was filled with equally petrified young boys like me, but unlike me, they came from all four corners of the globe: Zambia, Germany, Bahrain, Oman, etc. And their life's adventures and bedtime tales provided a mind-expanding experience that opened my eyes to a world beyond anything I'd ever known, seen, or read in a father's Sunday broadsheet.

LBB> How did you end up in the ad world? Was it a career you were aware of growing up and deliberately worked towards, or was it a bit more accidental?

Paul> At the same school in the middle of the deeply wooded English countryside, I was unwittingly schooled and gently cajoled in a direction that would later form a basis for a successful career path by a wonderfully patient and talented art teacher. She eked out and prised open my somewhat premature artistic talents and tendencies. Later on, an art scholarship ensued, and a passion was ignited thanks to her tutelage. Back then, I painted in many mediums. Today I still feel like I'm painting; it's just that sometimes the canvases are a lot bigger and way more fun - like the Burj Khalifa, for example. But the reward of finishing a piece (and being praised for it by total strangers) never, ever fades. And that's what makes me jump out of bed daily. 

LBB> If you could go back and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be and why?

Paul> Don't smoke. I remember the day back in the aforementioned school when a seemingly bold and daring decision started what was to become a life-long habit. Damn it. And damn you, Mark Clark. 

LBB> What would you say were the pivotal moments in your career?

Paul> Tough question as there are so many. The advertising greats I was fortunate enough to spend some time with and learn so much from; John Hegarty, Lee Clow, Trever Beattie, Robin Wight, Leon Jaume, Rob Reilly, etc. 

Then, becoming an ECD at 30 years (and two weeks) old. Ha. Never be satisfied; those two weeks annoy me. 

What else? Well, judging potential D&AD Black Pencil winners was something I'll never forget. It's tough enough to get in the book. But I vividly remember the judging criteria for a Black Pencil' to this day - "Does this work fundamentally redefine adverting as we know it?" Then, presenting at Cannes on the big boy's stage after John Hegarty, knowing that nobody came (or was going to stay) to listen to what I was going to say. Next, winning 14 pitches on the trot at FP7 McCann. Also, winning my first award, then my hundredth, and then losing track of after the five hundred marks. While always remembering to remain humble and stay true to what got you to where you are, which is simply a belief in this… It's not how good you are (because I'm not that good), but it truly is how good you want to be. Damn it, I wanted to be good at this. Because, I failed miserably as a pro-footballer (Chelsea) and equally as Tony Hawk wannabe (and I have the scars to prove it).

LBB> What would you say have been the most exciting or challenging campaigns you've been involved in – and what did you learn from them?

Paul> Every campaign or brief (and there have been thousands) where clients have believed or argued in a bullheaded fashion that playing it safe is the smart play. Because there's nothing smart about this. Ever. Safety and mediocrity are lifelong bedfellows. And I've spent the best part of half a lifetime trying to convince many clients of this fact. Plus, if I had to list my top ten most successful campaigns of my career from an ROI POV (which have all delivered 10's millions of dollars in organic/free media btw) and got most of the clients promoted, then every one of them would be intrinsically linked to a brilliant and unsafe idea. 

The best work I've ever done? The work for clients that understood the true value of originality – or the search for it. And as such why challenging the marketing status quo is the safer and smarter bet when it comes to delivering game-changing results.

A more direct answer to the question? It would be The Sony Underwater Store which we created a few years back at McCann in Dubai - to launch (or submerge actually) the world's first fully waterproof phone. Because, when you end up in a room with Naval Divers, Marine Biologists, Boat Builders, and a few Lawyers to boot, you can quickly find yourself a little out of your depth. But what that taught me was that creative speaking is always a good aim for the deep end. 

LBB> In 2012 you made the move to Dubai – what attracted you there? What were your initial impressions of the city?

Paul> After 17 years of working in London at some amazing agencies and having spent time hanging out in Soho, Knightsbridge, Shoreditch, and a few other London postcodes trying to crack various briefs… I honestly just fancy a change of scene and a life adventure of sorts. Interviews quickly ensued in the likes of Paris, Dublin, Australia, and then finally Dubai. And long story short, it's so lovely and warm here, isn't it, plus London summers are a myth.

LBB> Since moving to Dubai, how has the creativity of the city (within the advertising industry and beyond advertising) evolved?

Paul> Immeasurably. But in truth, when I arrived in the sandpit back in 2012, Dubai was more than a little behind the curve, creatively speaking. Today though, and thanks to an influx of talent from around the world, standards have risen dramatically. Today Dubai it's a hotbed of creativity that's punching well above its weight and country size - just look at the country rankings from global tier-one awards shows if you need any further proof.

LBB> Your current role at MullenLowe Group spans the MENA region, which is super diverse both culturally and (from my non-expert perspective) the kind of work that you see in each market. How have you gone about understanding the local nuances? 

Paul> Admittedly, it does take a few months to acclimatize to the region and lifestyle (especially when one hails from London town), but post that, every single brief that lands on your desk become an educational experience on local culture and all of its' nuances.

LBB> And which markets in the region are you finding particularly creatively exciting and why?

Paul> There are a few good ones who are doing some good work. But today, honestly, I'd have to say Dubai. I feel it's grown up creatively over the last couple of years, as the type of work it's producing has matured greatly. With creative agencies, there will always be smaller proactive projects getting made. But, today, great work is being done for great big local and even bigger international brands too. And that's a good thing.

LBB> MullenLowe MENA dominated the Dubai skyline by turning the Burj Khalifa into the world's tallest donation box. From what I understand, it was a PR hit and captured imaginations – what were the challenges of bringing that huge project to life?

Paul> The idea was conceived in less than a day (thankfully, sometimes it happens like that). Then the challenge became producing it almost as quickly as people everywhere were losing jobs and going hungry. From the initial idea to launch, it took just five weeks. The list of challenges was long, challenging, and highly problematic at times. But where there's a will and a trusting client, then the impossible becomes, well, a little more feasible. 

LBB> What other recent MullenLowe MENA projects are you particularly proud of and why?

Paul> Our Ramadan food waste initiative - The 3/4 Pizza Box, because it cost practically nothing to make, only $850. But it delivered a massive amount of fame and buzz for the client, cause, and problem. We have a few other nice ones on paper and going into production, but you'll have to wait to see those.

LBB> The UAE in particular seems to have this knack for activations and for combining tech, creative and data in a way the rest of the world can only dream of (maybe China, Korea, and Japan aside). What are your thoughts on this? Is it a fair assessment and if so, what is driving it?

Paul> I've always loved technology. Equally, I've always been a Digital ECD and Creative Technologist at heart. Because for me, technology gives you as a creative another brush to paint with. Yes, we have words, pictures, sound, and moving images. But with tech, you have an added dimension to play and be creative with. And for me, that's so exciting. How do you build or code a different engine into a webcam to play a digital game of stare out with the English Rugby team? Or how can you use collision detection to track a user's cursor and make a point of domestic abuse on a webpage? And how can you allow your client to control an industrial snow machine in your agency's reception from anywhere in the world, years before anyone had ever coined the term The Internet Of Things? These were all wonderful tech-lead creative challenges that we solved via embracing tech and its creative possibilities. But in answer to your question, I guess a few more people (creatives) think in the same way that I do in the region these days. 

LBB> I've heard that there's a real blossoming of local work and local talent across the region as agencies are no longer trying to simply ape what works in the US – is this something you've observed and if so, what impact is it happening on creative?

Paul> I've never looked at the US as the benchmark. Maybe because I'm an anglophile through and through (plus a converted ex-pat now). And yes, there's a lot of good local talent. The bigger issue is selling today's youngsters on advertising as a viable career path. 

LBB> As agencies and even brands try different approaches to production, some taking capabilities in-house, others looking for a more flexible network of collaborators, and some brands skip agencies altogether to work with production and creators, what are your thoughts about the production model long term?

Paul> That's a very good question. The simple answer is this. It was way better (and easier) in the old days. As it was, a model that was based on trust, loyalty and friendships that were built over a lifetime and many, many projects. I'll come back to the same point again and again. What are we trying to do? Help our clients sell stuff, and gain market share, etc. Doing this with someone you know and that knows you'll give them more business is a smarter approach because they'll work harder for you and never let you down. Trouble is today, loyalty is a rarity, and everyone what's to make a fast buck, which usually results in cheap, crap, forgettable work. Neither of which sells anything very well at all. And it certainly doesn't help to build brands. 

LBB> I can't not ask a question about Covid! How have you and your team navigated the crazy past year? 

Paul> The short answer is that it brought us all closer together, even though we're all further apart than we'd ever been.

LBB> Outside of work, what are your passions? 

Paul> My work is my passion, but when I'm not working (which is rare), then great friends and good wine makes me happy. Plus, mediocre drumming and annoying my neighbours also make me happy. 

LBB> Who are your creative heroes, and why?

Paul> There are far too many to mention. From designers and art directors to typographers, painters, sculptures, engineers, writers, singers, poets, authors, coders, installation architects, product designers, and so many more, who inspire me daily - thank you!

LBB> And looking forward to 2022, what are your goals for the team at MullenLowe MENA?

Paul> More of the same. Hopefully. I didn't join MullenLowe to have a good year or two, creatively speaking (be there, done that). I joined a like-minded bunch of people interested in creating a legacy that'll be remembered for many years to come. Yes, there's a way to go, but MullenLowe MENA is forging new ground, and as such, the future is bright (to quote part of the best brand line ever, in my opinion).

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MullenLowe Dubai, Tue, 14 Sep 2021 13:16:00 GMT