Creative is Native: “The Irish Industry Has Decided That the World’s Stage Is Fair Game”
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Jen Speirs, ECD at Rothco on what drew her from Australia to Ireland and why she believes Irish creativity should be celebrated on a global scale
IAPI is the official Irish representative for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and in February (right before lockdown!) we called upon executive creative director Jen Speirs, Rothco | Accenture Interactive, to share her experience as a Cannes Lion winner and Cannes Lions judge. Lucky for us Jen accepted and was not only encouraging and entertaining, but impressively forthright in giving advice to the attendees.
Jen is also a serious role model for female creatives in Ireland. The IAPI census report last year highlighted the massive issue of gender imbalance in creative departments, with only a handful of women in creative director roles. Thankfully, the advertising industry is making progress, albeit ever so slightly, but it’s because of people like Jen, who push the boundaries and prove just how vital this progression is.
LBB> As an Australian coming to work in Ireland, how do you view the Irish market?
Jen Speirs> It feels like the Irish industry has decided that the world’s stage is fair game – and they’re going all in. There’s a sense of urgency over here that I love. And I believe great work can come from this. I know the Irish industry is well established, but it still feels like there’s a bit of a pioneer spirit, that doesn’t hold itself back – and there’s bravery in the work that comes from that.
In Australia, we often look to New Zealand with a bit of a jealous side-eye, because the work doesn’t seem to be constrained or reserved. Like some of the work out of this market, which – sure, is a small one, but that’s irrelevant because the ambition is massive. And it’s an ambition that’s not contained in the agencies, I’ve worked with a lot of clients here who are amazingly passionate about doing great work, famous work, work that engages the world. That’s absolutely refreshing.
LBB> And how would you describe Irish culture and their approach to creativity?
Jen> Creativity seems innate in Ireland. I definitely feel that there’s something a little bit special here. But it’s so inclusive at the same time. The arts or creative world can sometimes keep people at arms length, and feel a bit elitist – but here, it really feels like you’re encouraged to be and do whatever you want, and that’s really inspiring. People aren’t afraid to try new things and push themselves creatively.
Even where I live, there seems to be a bit of a creative hub. You know, as lockdown began – neighbours were blocking streets off to put sheets up on a wall for movie screenings, having musicians play, photography exhibitions. Creativity was what brought the community together – and it was awesome.
LBB> Rothco, part of Accenture Interactive, was one of the first in Ireland to show at Cannes and push for global work. A lot of people in Ireland look up to you - do you feel that pressure to constantly keep on top?
Jen> What Rothco does really well is look forward and aim high. We’re an ambitious bunch – and we push to create and maintain a culture that inspires everyone to realise that ambition. As an agency, it doesn’t matter whether we’re on top, middle, bottom – if we focus on other agencies instead of the work, we’re focusing on the wrong thing. There is pressure, but it’s pressure to do the work that we know we can.
For me personally, I feel as long as I believe the best is yet to come – I’m going to love what I do, and be ok when shit goes wrong. And believe me, shit goes wrong. As an agency, when it does, we have to use that to fire us up and head towards whatever’s next. And when things go well, it’s like “Brilliant. Celebrate it. Now, what’s next?”
LBB> What was it that drew you to the Executive Creative Director role in Dublin on the other side of the world?
Jen> Well, to be honest – it really had not much at all to do with Dublin. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the place – but what drew me here was the work coming out of Rothco. Whether it was the JFK work for The Times, Dublin Bus Proud Dads or Sleeping Flags, this work is up there with the best in the world. And there was no real formula, or predictability to the range of work either. It seemed to play in the intersection of creativity, tech, data and media, which is exciting. That, coupled with the persuasive, dulcet tones of our CCO, Al Kelly – just made it too good to not jump on board.
The other thing about Rothco, is it seems to trust its instincts. And I felt that’s what I was doing when I made the move - after a couple of emails, and two or possibly three phone calls – I was sitting at the airport with a one way ticket to Dublin. It just felt like the right fit.
LBB> Has your approach or style of working evolved in any way since coming to work in Ireland? What has the Irish industry taught you?
Jen> I’ve always believed that the best way to the best work, is a great culture. A place where people feel inspired to do and believe they will do, the best work of their lives. As a creative, pretty much the only thing you can control is the amount of effort you put into something. It’s my job to make the team want to give a shit, and put in that effort. And that absolutely hasn’t changed since being in Ireland. Obviously it’s different doing that when we’re not allowed in the building together – but keeping people connected to the bigger picture, the wider agency, and reminding everyone what we’re here to do, is more important now than ever.
The thing I’ve found is that people here are, and with all due respect to myself and fellow Australians, much more polite. Which is lovely and all, but when it comes to the work, it’s ok to be hard on it. So I want us to get better at challenging things. Saying it’s not right. Asking for something different. That’s not being an arsehole, it’s not personal, it’s making the work better. And ultimately, doing great work is what we’re all at Rothco to do.
LBB> Your campaign ‘Don’t Cook Yourself’ for the Marie Keating Foundation was an extremely creative way of approaching a serious topic. How has this been received in Ireland and how did you design the campaign to deliver the most impact?
Jen> I think it’s a mistake to think that a serious message needs to always be delivered in a serious way. Getting it right for the audience is what matters, never more so when it’s a life or death issue. I guess, the first part in designing this campaign was actually to design the right gang. We had strategists, connections, production, media, PR, creatives – as well as the client – and it was that collective that established a really creative jumping off point by connecting men, meat and melanoma.
The Don’t Cook Yourself idea then came to life in PR, social, through retail partnerships, with influencers and the BBQ For Life sun cream product itself. The majority of this was done in-house, including media – which gave us a whole new level of agility. It was seriously impressive to see this gang band together to pull this off, especially during COVID. And while there has been loads of national and international news coverage, this creative gave the message the best possible chance to be heard by the Irish people, which may just save lives. It was never a case of being creative for creativity's sake – the goal of this campaign was to work. And work hard. I lost my 27 year old brother to melanoma some years ago – so I know just how devastating it can be, and just how important it is we do whatever it takes to prevent it.
LBB> What are some other great pieces of Irish work you’ve loved this year?
Jen> One of the most impressive things I’ve seen is not so much a piece of work, but a movement that kicked off because of the pandemic… CREATIVES AGAINST COVID. It really made everyone feel like they could actually do something, in a situation that otherwise made us all feel a little helpless. And that 'something' was to create. There was SOON messaging in my social feed, team conversations, even in chats with people from Aus, and I loved that.
The very real, very harrowing StillHere domestic violence ad was brilliant, and hopefully very effective in getting help for the people who needed it. I thought it was so well done – and such a relevant message and execution for the time. Even watching it back again now gives me the chills.
Staying in the 'real and harrowing' space, is a Swim Ireland radio ad. It actually made me feel really anxious and helpless. Which is what happens when the craft of something isn’t compromised. It’s a very simple idea, executed in a way that makes it impossible to ignore.
And while it seems like a lifetime ago now, I loved when Guinness and An Post teamed up to turn beer mats into Christmas postcards. It felt like a really genuine demonstration of both brands’ commitment to community.
LBB> What are you passionate about achieving within the industry right now?
Jen> Very soon after starting at Rothco, I realised I was working with some amazing creative thinkers – but what COVID has done is reminded me of just how amazing they are, and how bloody lucky I am. Seriously, over the last few months the ideas, the insights, the work made, tech built – has blown my mind. Like the entire world, we had to create our way out of this situation, and really quickly. Being creative – across the entire agency – was the only answer. So as an industry, this is absolutely our time to make the most of. Think differently, work differently, hire differently. Creativity is the only thing that we know for sure. That is equal parts absolutely daunting, and seriously bloody exciting. I’m all in.
LBB> How are you hoping to see the Irish creative landscape develop over the next few years?
Jen> When I see work that I love, actually – let’s be real – when I see bloody amazing work that I wish like hell I’d done, I think about why it’s so good (yep, I am THAT nerd). And it’s the same things… it starts with a ridiculously real human insight, you know the sort of thing that seems so obvious – but that has taken some very smart strategic heads to craft. Then brilliant connections thinking, data input, technology to hit the exact right people, at the exact right time. And of course, with the exact creative idea that you could never have predicted or expected, have never thought of before, but now just can’t stop thinking about.
All of these, I guess, ingredients – I’ve seen by the bucket-load in my time here. Add to that some of the most ambitious clients I’ve ever worked with, and to me – that makes Ireland the perfect place in the world, to do the best work in the world. And that’s what I’d like to see more of. Irish work, ideally a huge chunk of it Rothco’s, influencing culture and getting talked about and celebrated around the world. The sort of work that gets people gagging to come and work here, because they see so much work that they wish like hell they’d done.