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Chris Maclean On The Power of Brave Branding



“The main difficulties lied in rewiring conventional thinking – convincing conservative people that the tried and tested road doesn’t lead to innovation”

Chris Maclean On The Power of Brave Branding
Highly awarded branding specialist Chris Maclean recently moved on from his position as ECD of Interbrand to join M&C Saatchi’s branding consultancy RE.

Maclean’s work has helped rebrand the likes of Opera Australia, Griffin Theatre Company, Darling Harbour, Alzheimer’s Australia, Queensland Art Gallery, Yellow Pages and Telstra.

Maclean was the CD behind the visionary colourful transformation of Telstra and managed the giant telco’s brand evolution for more than four years.

Here he takes some time out to speak with LBB about the power of one of the most powerful mediums to change the way people think, feel and behave.

LBB > In just seven years, you helped to build global respect for Interbrand in your role as ECD & CD. What was a major contributing factor to the agency's success?

Chris Maclean: From the very outset we set ourselves the goal of de-corporatising Australia. Under the leadership of Damian Borchok we knew we wanted to create a brand consultancy like no other in the country. We defined our creative philosophy – Stand Apart – which gave us a guiding light towards the kind of work we wanted to produce. Work that stood apart from the rest of the crowd, was highly innovative and sought to serve as a higher purpose than producing static corporate identity systems. We wanted to produce work that counted and left the world better than when we found it and we worked bloody hard to achieve it. 

It was useful that we were all in our roles for the first time and had to learn as we went along. There was no dusty old brand guy sat in the glass office shouting, ‘that’s not branding!’. We were free to learn from the influences we chose, make our own mistakes and be unencumbered by traditional thinking. Plus, being so far away from the rest of the Interbrand network meant we were largely left alone as long as the targets were met. 

Building an agency from scratch meant we got the opportunity to build the culture from the ground up. We chose down-to-earth people who didn’t take themselves too seriously but were highly committed to seeing what creative thinking was capable of. So we recruited an army of people who were up for the mission and wanted to produce work that mattered.

Telstra changed the fortunes and direction of the company. We worked tirelessly for eight days and nights to rebrand Telstra even though that wasn’t our pitch brief, telling Telstra that if they wanted to connect with their audience they would need to change their personality. Our audacious approach led to one of the most iconic and transformative rebrands Australia has seen in recent times and put us firmly on the map. Although many people applauded the rebrand, not everyone liked it; but the numbers spoke for themselves. Telstra supplied the steady income that allowed us to take risks with our other clients and continue to further stretch our legs creatively and attract top talent from all over the world. It was one heck of a ride. 

LBB> As the CD behind the visionary colourful transformation of Telstra, what was the biggest challenge in managing the telco’s brand evolution for more than four years?

CM> Telstra is an oil tanker of an organisation and when we first started working with them they had a very risk averse, conservative culture, so to change its course (even a little) was an incredible challenge. It was either naivety or audacity that made us think that we could turn the oil tanker 180 degrees in the opposite direction. The idea was brave and we knew it, but in a pitch situation we also knew that we had to do something pretty special to get attention. Ultimately that’s why we won the pitch.

Former Ogilvy ECD, Mark Collis, was charged with bringing innovation into Telstra’s culture so he embraced our radical attitude and championed the concept. The challenge came in convincing 43,000 staff that this was a good idea. I presented the brand concept well over 100 times within nine months to rally internal support and get everyone excited about the new Telstra. My personal challenge was to keep the faith that this was going to work even though nobody knew for sure. 

Doing something as innovative as this means there is no manual on how it’s going to work across a brand of this size. It was certainly the largest organisation any of us had been involved in transforming and we had knots in our stomachs the whole time. Creating and managing a six colour identity is no easy thing and we had to make up the rules as we met new challenges.

The main difficulties lied in rewiring conventional thinking – convincing conservative people that the tried and tested road doesn’t lead to innovation and to be a leading brand requires you to do something hard. Fortunately Telstra has enough innovators amongst its ranks that the brand has continued to evolve into the modern, innovative and exciting brand it is. I feel immensely proud to have been the catalyst to this transformation. To have turned an oil tanker around has been no mean feat and I personally sacrificed a lot to do so. My reward has been to create a Telstra that people like a little bit more and see it continue to evolve and reach new heights, having sparked the flame in the first place.

Now, however, at RE I’ll be working for the opposition, Optus, so strangely it’s a little like playing chess against yourself.

LBB> As a public speaker and lecturer on the subject of design and branding and its ability to change the world, what surprises you most about people's or the industry’s misconceptions on the power of the medium?

CM> People still think we make corporate identities and that attitude is only perpetuated by our own industry. There is still a lot of conventional thinking in our industry that continues to underplay the true potential of creative thinking and its ability to change the world for the better. Many designers have their eyes on the wrong prize – producing work for the benefit of their Behance presence or to appear in awards annuals. These things have purpose in attracting talent to your agency, but the real focus should be on changing things for the better, not making the world prettier and our egos bigger. If we design for people first, then the rest will follow. 

Design has a well stated purpose: to make things better for people. Branding is one of the most powerful mediums to change the way people think, feel and behave, and brands themselves have an incredible power of influence that, if harnessed correctly, can have a profound impact on the world. Increasingly, brand designers are getting more and more upstream in the creative process, shaping the product itself, not just producing the marketing material at the end. 

Agencies that are satisfied to merely articulate what a company does without giving a damn about how that entity works are missing a big part of their creative potential. No matter how incremental change happens, it’s the responsibility of creative people to push the world forward, through our clients, to make it a little bit better than it was before. Designers need to stop calling themselves ‘graphic' designers and start thinking about how they can expand their creative toolkit and put design to work on solving real problems. Because the world faces some pretty significant problems and it will be the creative people who will be asked to solve them, not the graphic designers. 

Brands are living, breathing entities – ones with a lot of power and influence. Therefore the brand designer has influence over how those entities can shape our world. To me that’s one of the most exciting jobs going.

LBB> What creative collaborations or partnerships in advertising excite you most?

CM> It’s pretty simple for me – the collaboration between the client and the agency. The best work always comes out of a collaborative attitude rather than a transactional, master-slave one. Design thinking can only flourish if the client is open to this process. It’s no longer about the big ta-da moment. More so it’s about iterative concept development with the client and agency working together to shape the solution.

It requires clients who are willing to take risks and roll their sleeves up rather than being personified inboxes. To do something uncomfortable whilst being comfortable with not knowing the outcome. Fear is paralysing for creativity and agencies who are afraid to fail or have difficult conversations with their clients don’t solve their problems – they just get paid.

LBB> What advice would you give young designers looking to carve out a career path in branding?

CM> Ideo coined the term T-shaped people. It means people who have a wide variety of passions, interests and capabilities with a deep expertise in one of them. It means their references for inspiration are more than one dimensional and when you put a group of them in a room together they have conversations that lead to much richer, innovative solutions. So be T-shaped. 

Or even better, be proficient in as many areas of creativity as you can. Get into writing, UX/UI, technology, art-direction, motion and design thinking in addition to graphic design. Because more diversity in your capabilities will mean you are more attractive to employers looking to form teams that can put their heads together to produce solutions that are more textural than identity systems. Learn how to demonstrate how you can think about solving real problems for the world through creative thought and you’ll be in good stead.

LBB> What has been your stand-out favourite campaign to work on this year and why?

CM> Prior to joining RE, I worked on the rebrand of the Sydney Opera House back at Interbrand. This work is still yet to be released to the world so I can’t say too much, but watch this space for what will be a significant relaunch of this global cultural icon. 

LBB> As you embark on an exciting new chapter with RE, what challenges are you most looking forward to?

CM> To join RE is to join M&C Saatchi and it’s clear already that they are one of the most exciting and progressive agencies in Australia. They certainly have ambitions to be one of Australia’s most influential companies in the next five years. With new leadership there’s new momentum that makes it an exciting place to be part of. 

Every major advertising agency in town strives towards offering clients a full service offer and that includes a fully-fledged brand consultancy. However, typically the merging of the worlds of adverting and design is difficult since they come from very different philosophical places. Design and advertising normally fight for supremacy and protect their creative boundaries to the death leading to civil war and bad work.

However, with M&C Saatchi I think it might just work. New CCO, Andy DiLallo shares the same philosophies as myself about creating work with purpose and his track record is testament to that. He respects the work of RE and understands the power of what we do. In addition the work coming out of their innovation lab transcends advertising and is closer to technological innovation – something I’m incredibly passionate about.

It’s clear to me that to create the kind of brand consultancy I want RE to become is going to need the backing of something bigger, with extended capabilities, tech innovators and budgets that can bring big ideas to life. This is something that brand consultancies have struggled with and many have scratched their heads about how they might stay relevant in the inherently digital future. For me, it means real integration with people whose core competency stretches way beyond creating graphic identity systems or even television advertising. M&C Saatchi has these ambitions and we’re jointly excited to see how true collaboration between our two disciplines can become a new model. One that I believe could be unstoppable if we get it right.  

Longer term I’m looking forward to taking RE internationally to other M&C Saatchi offices around the world. The intention is to make RE a global branding consultancy and see what impact we can have by playing with global clients and ultimately see how we can change the world through the power of creative thinking.

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