ImpactBBDO’s Chief Creative Officer on duking it out as a young creative, directing Kobe Bryant and his current role supporting flourishing creative talent across the Middle East
Hailing from bleak, rainy Scotland – ‘dreich’ we might call it – and growing his career across European damp spots like London and Amsterdam, when the chance came to move to a land of sunshine, Paul Shearer didn’t think twice. Having cut his teeth at agencies like Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson, built his career at Wieden + Kennedy and flexed his skills as an entrepreneur and director setting up pioneering digital agency Sapient, Paul found himself with a new challenge: working for a big international network. In 2015 he headed out to Dubai to lead the creatives at Memac Ogilvy, and a few years later he moved to Impact BBDO, where he’s been leading the charge and championing great creative work across the region. Impact BBDO has wowed at award shows with its work on clients like newspaper An-Nahar and Snickers and as local Arabic talent flourishes and agencies across the region gain confidence, that sunny story is just getting started.
LBB> How did you get into advertising in the first place?
Paul> Like most advertising people, I went to art school because I was too lazy to do anything else, I guess. Then a pal and I came down to London and we got a job at Saatchi’s – well it wasn’t a job as such, we worked there for six months for nothing. We got a job in Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson, then I went to BBH and then Wieden + Kennedy. I got really into going to the most creative places, I didn’t go to the big networks. I wanted to do work that really inspired me on brands like Levi’s and Nike. Then I came back from Amsterdam to Leo Burnett. And then I started my own place, with some reprobates, called Nitro! We sold that to Sapient and then I did some directing. And then… I needed some sunshine. This came up, and it’s six hours away and the kids were off to university.
Advertising was a perfect path into the creative world, where you felt that you had freedom and were doing fun stuff. Waking up in the morning you felt very lucky.
LBB> Starting out somewhere like Simons Palmer and then BBH must have been an education and a half!
Paul> Yeah and it wasn’t a job. That’s the key thing. You just went in and did stuff that made you really happy. Yes, it was really difficult to even get a Nike poster out at Simons Palmer. You would have the whole agency competing for six or seven weeks and you were competing against some really creative people. They had a wall where they’d put their favourite Nike poster – say it was something for the London marathon. If you did a poster at the beginning and they liked it, it went up. And if someone did something better, it came off. Every morning you would look to see if your poster was still up there. You know, it was rewarding but obviously quite depressing too. There was only one poster.
But like I said it wasn’t a job. You felt very lucky to be in a place where you actually enjoyed what you’re doing.
LBB> Looking at the environment for young creatives coming in today, do you think it’s as fun?
Paul> No, of course not. But it’s still a creative environment, especially in the digital age now given technology is easily usable. Look at TikTok for instance. If you’re a young creative person you can really develop some amazing ideas on your own, right? You can become famous all of a sudden. It hasn’t got the negative side of the horrible competition at places like Simons Palmer. And I mean horrible in terms of getting left behind. Say you were doing a script for Levi’s and someone else got it and you didn’t. It was hard to take.
These days that competition doesn’t really exist. Yes, creatives want to win awards but there’s not that intensity. I think young people have got an advantage in that they can make lots of stuff quickly and it’s out there. Social media helps, obviously.
LBB> I’m really curious about what it was like when you set up Nitro. And now, looking back to what it’s become and how it’s morphed along the way?
Paul> We just had a plan to be modern. We saw that the digital world was coming but we also understood that you still needed ideas, you still needed to be creative. That’s all we set out to do, nothing more than that. We were a bunch of people who really liked each other.
Nike and Mars were founding clients and, because of our background with Nike, we did lots of work for them. I ended up actually writing and directing all the ads we did for Nike, so that was good fun. The problem with actually being a partner at a company is that you’ve got to pay people every month, so you see that side of it, which is a bit daunting. But it was a very good experience.
LBB> A lot of creatives seem to harbour this ambition to direct and few actually get to do it. How did you develop that side of your creative skills?
Paul> I don’t know if I had that skill. When I worked for Nike, I was good friends with the client. It was at a time when digital was coming through and clients wanted everything quicker. Nike is a company that wants to just do things. It’s what the slogan’s all about! They were getting fed up with getting Hollywood directors coming in and saying that the ad would be ready in six months.
We were doing a World Cup campaign called ‘The Cage’, which was called the Secret Tournament, with Eric Cantona. They play football in the cage, three against three. We had Terry Gilliam, the Monty Python director, directing it. The client wanted a rematch because it was so successful, but Terry Gilliam didn’t want to do it and someone said, ‘will you do it?’ All of a sudden, I was on a big set with all these famous footballers.
It’s one of these things, I don’t think that being a director is all about being artistic. It’s about being confident enough to tell people what to do. I never felt that I was talented as a director, I always felt I was good enough to get the job done. I’ve won loads of awards but I was never happy with the outcome. I might do it again when I’m older, but at the moment I’m quite happy just trying to inspire and help young creatives do better work.
LBB> I’d imagine having that hands on experience of the nuts and bolts of production must have been helpful.
Paul> I did so much stuff for Nike. I guess they liked that I could deal with these big sports stars. You know when I did stuff with Kobe Bryant, for instance, God rest his soul, he would turn up with his entourage and the client was too nervous to talk to speak to him. So I had to go over to tell him a crap Scottish joke or something. My big intro was ‘I only need you for five minutes’, so they get excited that they can leave. I guess it’s about having the confidence, or brass neck, to get it done. People would quite easily walk off set or not perform. They didn’t need to be on a TV ad. I guess I would just get it done, whereas with a famous director with their own ego, there might be a clash. It was exciting as I was a huge sports fan, just seriously good fun.
LBB> So have you always considered yourself a confident person or is that something you had to build up?
Paul> I would probably say it’s the opposite of confidence. You just have to do it. I think that’s your job, you take a deep breath and crack on with it. But I’m definitely not confident. I’ve been around some amazing creative people who are very confident. The John Hegartys and Dan Wiedens, these people are confident. And you speak to them and they’re just normal people.
LBB> And when you moved to Dubai, how did you navigate that adjustment to a whole new culture and audience?
Paul> I think it was the first time working for a big network, Ogilvy. It was exciting in that respect. I’d always been at independent agencies and now I had Ogilvy fighting for me.
At the time, the global chief creative officer Tham Khai Meng had this cadre of the top 50 creative Ogilvy offices around the world. For him it was all about creating great work. You had to be in the top 50 award-winning agencies to get into this, so I set my sights on that straight away. Dubai got into that and it helped the creatives in the agency. It was quite exciting.
I was even more excited about all these other agencies I had to look after like Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan… I had the chance to go and find talent. I think the second year I was there we had seven Cannes Lions, one from each office. The Jordan office won the first Cannes Lion for Jordan as a country. These may be small things outside of the Middle East but for us it was amazing. And the people that worked in the agency and developed the work, it helped them and I know for a fact most of them are doing very well.
LBB> And now, as well as leading Impact BBDO, you’re also helping to nurture award-worthy creative ideas across EMEA for BBDO. Sometimes you’ll get agencies where they don’t have the confidence in an idea to make it properly. How do you overcome that?
Paul> I look after all the creative directors and try and inspire them. And I think it’s recognition of what we’ve been doing the last two or three years, winning in Cannes and winning our first Grand Prix Cannes was a big thing for us. It put us on the map.
LBB> It seems like on a regional level, lots of the work is of an international standard but with its own cultural flavour. What’s the key to that?
Paul> It’s the only way to win awards, by developing your own style. You can’t ape other styles. Look at South America, they started developing their own style of work that was very localised and then they started winning a lot. They actually found their voice.
I think there is a lack of confidence and people get intimidated by these New York and London agencies. And there’s no need for that because our office in Beirut has some fantastic talent there, fantastic creators and no one ever asks them ‘what are you doing? What are you passionate about?’. But when you ask the question, you start to find people, for once getting heard. You see work that’s got a nugget of a great idea in it and you drag it out. If you can do that, then, all of a sudden, you’re winning work that could only be from the Middle East.
We did some nice pieces of work last year for Snickers. And, when you look at An-Nahar, not many newspapers are doing work like that. You’re creating that original content that makes people sit up and take notice. Lack of confidence is a big thing, it’s trying to make people believe that they can do it.
LBB> Talking of An-Nahar and Beirut, it’s amazing to see the work coming out of there as they’ve had such a tough year with Covid, the economic troubles and the blast. As an industry we can talk a lot about social good, but the creatives there look like they’re really dealing with big issues.
Paul> I always say to them, look where you live and look where you came from. Your ancestors are pretty amazing people.
With our office in Egyptian office, I’m always trying to get them to do more Egyptian work. They’ve always had great creativity and they come from a great culture. Being Scottish, we just dig deep and get on with it. I think the Dubai office is doing some nice work as well.
But it’s hard work. It’s nice to say we’re doing well but it’s blood and tears and we are talking about the raw material. It’s not like London where you’ve got five art directors or copywriters crafting stuff, it’s just me and a couple of creatives.
LBB> Dubai feels like it’s going through an interesting transition. I guess I’ve always thought of it as an international hub, but I hear there’s a lot of local talent coming up.
Paul> When I arrived six years ago it was full of South Africans, South Americans, a lot of Americans and quite a few Brits. And they were coming for the money. The South Africans were coming so they could win some awards and take that next step to New York. But now what’s happening is that local people – not so much Emirates but Arabic people from the region, Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon and Egypt – are all coming here. Where they’re coming from, the Dubai salaries are incredible, and we can bring more Arabic talent in. When they’ve got enthusiasm, you can train them.
We’re doing some good work and we’ve got some amazing female Arabic creatives as well. Not only are they taking responsibility and getting work done, they understand clients and they understand the importance of brands and I didn’t need to teach them that. It takes a lot off your shoulders. They’re not interested in winning awards, success for them is a happy project for the client and they just accept that awards might come with the work. At Wieden + Kennedy they had the same attitude.
LBB> And finally, what do you think the coming year will bring?
Paul> Oh I don’t think it’s going to be normal for at least a year. Touch wood, we’ll get over this. When it comes to our industry, it’s all about getting through it and keeping clients – I wouldn’t say happy but that we are supporting them. We as an agency have great respect for our clients and we know that it’s a tough time for them, but our job is to make sure that they know we’re here. I keep telling the creatives to keep bringing proactive ideas to clients and reassure them that you’re thinking of them. We need to reassure them that we’re listening to them.