Given his most recent positions as consulting executive creative director at iris and ECD at Sid Lee before that, working at a post house might seem a bit of an odd shift for Kenn MacRae, but he describes his move earlier this year to Smoke & Mirrors as: “Jumping the fence back into my own backyard.” As LBB found when we interviewed him last year
, he’s had one of the most varied careers in advertising, including (but not limited to) positions as a bouncer, an anaesthetics intern, a landscape gardener and a film director.
Even within the creative industries, he’s tried his hand at a fair variety of things. “I started in advertising as a creative, a copywriter, but then that tilted into screenwriting and directing two films - that’s ten years compressed into one line!” he clarifies.
Kenn actually spent several years directing both films and commercials, first with his brother Simon in Sydney (in which time they made 2008’s The View from Greenhaven
) and then by himself in Los Angeles (2014’s Missing William
being his solo feature film debut). So he’s pretty familiar with the craft side of the industry and is excited to have the new dual role at Smoke & Mirrors’ Amsterdam office as Managing Director and Global Creative Director. “To now come back into the production arm of things and to be fully involved with making stuff day-to-day is superb,” he reflects.
But he’s not just there for his own satisfaction. His appointment in the spring was all about growth and ambition. “In terms of the pure work, that side is great,” he says. “In terms of the opportunity it’s fantastic because they’ve only been in Amsterdam a year. They’re effectively a start-up even though the brand is really well established. We want to expand it more to tap into the creativity in that [the Dutch] market.”
It was Smoke & Mirrors’ world-spanning pedigree that attracted Kenn in the first place. “Even being in the distant shores of Australia coming up through advertising I knew who Smoke & Mirrors were, knew a lot of the work they’d done,” he says.
Late last year, Advent International, one of the largest global private equity investors, announced acquired Williams Lea Tag, who own the post-production company, signalling a new era for Smoke & Mirrors. “Often in those situations people see another cliché,” says Kenn. “They see a big behemoth coming in and everything’s going to change. Whereas I see it as an opportunity. At the very least it’s a refreshing new energy. With new owners comes new vision and new clarity. I love the chance to change stuff and shift it up a gear.”
Kenn brings an agency creative perspective as part of his extensive professional toolkit. “My priorities are not to push creativity back to the fore, but to remind people that creativity is at the fore. A global creative director role is a new role altogether for Smoke & Mirrors, but you see more and more heavy-hitting post production companies have creative directors and they’re either ex-agency like me or they’ve come up through the ranks via the technical side. Both have awesome merits, of course. I like to think that I add the narrative side from my feature and writing work. I’ve seen it from a lot of sides!”
Having seen the industry from every angle, he’s not content with Smoke & Mirrors sticking to the ‘post’ part of the production. “More and more, you want to be involved as early as possible and collaborate. We want to be great creative partners, not just great finishers. That is the very nature of post: ‘Here’s what we’ve shot, do these things, it looks better.’ As opposed to coming in a bit earlier. What else can we offer? How can we improve it from the start? How can that affect the way you shoot it in the first place? How can all of us working from agency, brand and post side, get it right from the start?”
Since Kenn joined the company’s been on a hiring spree. “The suites are filling,” he says with glee. “There’s a lot of potential to be tapped. Before I got here they’ve all been working their arses off and now I just want to give them a bit more focus as to what we’re headed towards.”
For examples of the sort of work Smoke & Mirrors are aiming for, he points to the company’s recent film with Cloudfactory for Strongbow cider. https://lbbonline.com/news/global-strongbow-campaign-introduces-peaceful-orchards-to-bustling-city-life/ “It’s a local agency that are really creative in a million ways,” he says. “They came with a really cool concept. Secondly, there were a lot of post elements involved. There was grading, split screen, retouching, finishing, a lot of clean-up. And the agency was in the building for a long time, which we love. That’s the type of collaboration which we’re all about.
“Regardless of whether you’re agency or client side, the best relationships are exactly that. If you [treat people as your service provider] it’s going to be shit. We all have a job to do. I happen to work on the post side. You happen to be agency side. But if we’re all just working for Strongbow, that’s great.”
Another project Kenn’s proud of was ‘The United Collection’ with JWT Amsterdam for Young Designers United - a local fashion label on the same canal as Smoke & Mirrors.
YDU, ‘The United Collection’ from Smoke & Mirrors on Vimeo.
“That came about really quickly and I think it was partly in response to the feel of the new [set up],” he says. “I’ve said to people even if I was shit (and I hope I’m not) hiring a global creative director signals your intent in a lot of ways. Bas [Korsten, creative partner https://lbbonline.com/news/5-minutes-with-bas-korsten/] at JWT saw that so we did all those CG threads and the flags coming apart. And JWT, as they do, did a superb job of not resting solely on that piece but building the whole story around it.”
An Australian who’s lived in the USA, Kenn is happy to be settled in Amsterdam and contributing to that exciting market. “Anybody in Amsterdam knows it’s not a removed city, it’s an EMEA hub. There’s that side of it,” he says. But while he heads up the Netherlands office and CEO Gary Szabo runs things from London, there’s no particular hierarchy of outposts. “We see it as two European hubs. In fact if Gary and I were in the same building it would be doubling up. Thirdly, a year in it’s still a start-up mentality. Even from that side of things I’m a head of operations on the ground in that building. Finally, and most selfishly, I just love Amsterdam. It’s an incredible, utopian, deluxe city that’s just full of creativity.”