I really do believe family is what nurtures your creative influence or at least can foster it. I remember going to the Naked Gun movies with my dad or seeing something live, like the D’Unbelievables on the second night of their very first show which was the most I’ve ever seen an audience laugh at anything. Also, in college we were very lucky to have a young Tommy Tiernan trying out his comedy too in the GPO nightclub. So, I think growing up in Galway, there was always something going on. I think the characters you meet who bring out that creative side in you are really important in your life.
I think it’s this hotch-potch of influences that becomes really powerful. I used to criticise myself that I wasn’t mad into one thing. But I think it’s good to actually have an interest in a wide variety of things, people and experiences. As I think this all influences our creativity and allows us to inhabit many different voices and ways of looking at things. It’s really about being open to influence and not being closed off to the new.
LBB > The ad landscape in Ireland seems to be growing rapidly, how have you seen it develop over the past few years?
Des > Advertising in Ireland has most certainly changed. A lot more competitors, a lot of different options out there now. I think the one thing that is better is the ambition. I think there’s a lot of agencies now that are growing based on their ambition to do better. Also, before, people were happy to be the best agency in Ireland. Whereas now, what has become different is that agencies aren’t satisfied with just that - they want to win on the world stage too. I think it’s great that these shackles of what success is have been removed and that now the landscape is also being fuelled by this international ambition. The workforce too is now more diverse and also feels far more international.
And there seems to be far more collaboration between agencies too. Sure, there’s still business rivalries. But they seem less personal which is a good thing. I think now, most agencies wish other agencies well. And there’s often texts between creatives after pitches, congratulating the winners or commiserating with the losers. Roy Keane possibly wouldn’t like it. But I think it’s a good thing. I think there’s less begrudgery and more inspiration coming from seeing other agencies do well.
LBB > How would you describe Irish creativity in the ad landscape?
Des > In advertising, I think our average is better than most places in the world. But our problem is the extra bravery that it takes to push ideas and concepts into the exceptional. Those ideas that create culture, that become part of, or even better, shape the cultural conversations that are happening. This is where, I feel, we don’t have as many of these types of ideas made. But this takes 'trust' and 'belief' and a shared belief in what success is, between client and agency, in order for this to happen.
Often mediocre and safe is often prioritised over something that might make a splash. I remember John Hegarty in a talk at the Kinsale Sharks saying that really, our a creative’s job is advanced by taking risks. As in with risk we can get the awards and we get noticed. Whereas a marketeer’s job, or their trajectory, is uninterrupted if they don’t make a mistake. So, that’s why it is up to us to try and ensure we minimise the risk to the client.
But I think there are lots of agencies and clients that have stood up in recent years. Right now, Rothco obviously being a case in point. But even before them, the sadly departed, Chemistry also were standard bearers at times for creativity. It really depends on your yardstick though doesn’t it? People say Ireland didn’t win Cannes years ago. That’s very true. But we didn’t enter Cannes either. It wasn’t on the radar. For years I worked in Publicis, under Ger Roe, Carol Lambert and Ronan Nulty, and as a team we were by far the most awarded agency in Ireland. But we stopped there. I guess we didn’t think to look globally. But it wasn’t that we weren’t interested. At that stage, it was “well, clients don’t care”. So, the investment didn’t seem to make any sense. But now that’s all changed, thankfully.
Clients now understand that it’s an important factor in how they are judged. In particular if they themselves are working for a multinational and would like to see themselves in some corner office somewhere. That’s a relatively new phenomenon. The biggest thing that Cannes has done is that it has gotten clients interested in their awards. That’s why Cannes became the biggest game in town. Because clients went there. It’s this change in our clients too that has peaked the industry’s eagerness to be recognised at a global stage and not just be acknowledged or talked about at a pub in Gort.
LBB > You started your career as a copywriter, how did you transition into the role of creative director?
Des > Well actually, I started my career as a ‘conceptor’ alongside my partner Marcus Hartung after Gerry Kennedy hired us straight from college. Yes, it is a totally made-up term by us. But Marcus and I really both wanted to be art directors. So, to team up, we settled on conceptors and that’s how we worked. Both art directed, both wrote copy. Eventually, I chose to be a copywriter as Quark Express and me didn’t mix. I thought there would be a ‘boy’ to do up my whirlwind ideas! I was wrong.
The transition for me was very smooth. I was lucky to be approached by TBWA/Dublin. And as it happened at that time, I was joining two great Creative Directors, in Martin Cowman and Adam Crane. So, I got to learn the ropes from them and was able to lean on them for support when needed. I was also a ‘gigging’ Creative Director, so was very much using my copywriting day to day as well across the accounts I was working on. So, I had a foot in both worlds for a while.
As for managing people, I think I was kind of doing this since the very beginning. Even in McConnells, lots of the new people that came in would be put under my wing. Even though I had one year more experience than them! Publicis was no different. There was a real sense of collaboration in there, where you would share your work with your peers and get their raw reaction or builds on the work and give yours too. So, it became second nature to say what you feel about work and be able to deliver constructive criticism.
LBB > I read that you were handpicked from TBWA to lead the agency into its new phase of growth at the time - what changes did you implement and how has the agency grown from this over time?
Des > One of the reasons I joined TBWA/Dublin was that feeling of democracy. It felt like a place where a good idea could live and be fostered. One change we made was to create smaller pitch teams and also go for smaller pitches. We brought in a policy of ‘no confusion and no complications’. If you’re steering the ship, I’d rather make a decision and smash straight into the rocks with something we believe in, rather than slowly and painfully drifting in the tide until we smash off the rocks inevitably anyway.
Another change was to try and give a sense of empowerment and enfranchisement. To me it’s one of the cornerstones of having a successful agency. I think you need to believe in your people and their abilities and give them the opportunities. I really think our role as creative leaders is to help and aid and abet creatives in the pursuit of their ideas. Make sure they hit strategy, but also help foster the relationship between the creative team and the clients.
We also introduced idea sheets with most of our clients to try and make sure we come back with platform thinking and media agnostic ideas. This way too is far more efficient and really helps clients get involved in the process earlier and helps foster better relationships in my opinions as it’s far more collaborative than arriving with a 'ta-dah' moment and a 60 page deck that’s wrong for the client after slide five.
We’ve grown into a far more collaborative agency, where job title isn’t important. What’s important is the work. We've tried to become far more reactive and flexible. But really that’s the biggest shift, we now actively seek out opportunities and attempt to break down the silos internally. Making sure that planning, social and creative along with some killer client service and innovative production solutions can bring the ideas to life.
In the past, lots of ideas die out of practicality or lack of interest or a failure to sell it. I think change now is that what we are attempting to do is not let these ideas die. Find a home for them, or alternatively, if we like them, do them ourselves. That to me is the biggest difference between what was then and us now.
LBB > What do you most love about working with TBWA?
Des > Sounds corny, but the people. There’s a really good crew in TBWA/Dublin. I also think there’s a defined metric of what success is. I think there’s a real hunger to do well and a real collective disappointment if there’s an opportunity missed. I think everyone understands that we are moving to a far more human way of expressing what we do. Finding that human truth. Chief strategy officer Mandy and head planner Shane joined us with a real vision in putting strategy and planning at the forefront of our offering. But it’s not the usual. It’s using our new product called ‘100 voices’ which really does a great job in judging perception in a very human and natural way. It has led to real human insights and verbatims that guide the creative offering.
LBB > What are some of the projects that you have been most proud of recently?
There’s three possibly that stand out at the moment, #TheFaceAsk, Department of Justice campaign ‘Still Here’ and of course Supervalu Christmas
, which was a beautiful timeless story but told in a very timely way. These are the kind of jobs we are proud of and for lots of different reasons. Two were borne out of our more proactive approach and all of them depend on the Covid-19 context. That’s why all of them performed so well. They took a problem on in a timely way but delivered it brilliantly.
Yvonne Caplice our business director with one phone call, after realising domestic violence incidences were climbing during lockdown, got onto the Department of Justice. A week later, the campaign was shot, by ourselves and on our airwaves. For #TheFaceAsk, one of our social people, Amy Tumelty, had a brilliant simple idea to create a new facemask emoji which doesn’t mean you’re sick but just adhering to the guidelines. It re-established what wearing a facemask stands for. We put some money behind it and used the strength of our network to also PR it around the world. All this good creative work is coming from good agency people, not just creatives and I think that’s so important. That sense of being in it together.
LBB > What exciting projects are you working on next and what would you like to be more involved with?
Des > We have a few big projects coming up on our global client Jameson. I could tell you more but I’d have to kill you - roll on 2021!
And really, what’s great is the great unknown. Because of our move to a more proactive culture, who knows. Just recently a great proactive project from Al Byrne, one of our senior copywriters, led to a great collaboration with Creative Ireland and Libraries Ireland. I think the days of sitting around the creative floor waiting for a brief to land are long gone. You need to be seeking out the opportunities where and when you can. We recently had a great talk from one of our peers in the network who said in the beginning she used to hire for talent or ability but now, she hires based on someone being a self-starter. And I think that’s how the landscape is changing. It’s the telling, yes. But the telling is in the doing. Otherwise, it just sits in that top drawer again.
LBB > Lastly, what advice do you have for up-and-coming Irish creatives?
Des > To develop their voice. I think a lot of creatives that I see have the approved and stamped version of creative. They need to find their own voice and their own humanity. Often, they feel they need to inhabit Mister Adman and write like an ad. But the best ads never sound like an ad, they feel human.
Something else I always advise younger creatives is to be a bit more selfish too. I think it’s important for people starting out to learn something from every job they do. Try something different, use a different technique, or a different format. This always makes for more interesting work and better work for the client. And always, always bring a plus one, or the Sean Connery system from the Untouchables - (don’t bring a knife to a gun fight) always have something else. If the ask is a press ad, well why not present radio too if there’s a brilliant idea to go with it. You cannot do too much. Look at the platform, recognise what the active word is in your idea, and blow that out.
Good storytelling should still be the backbone of good advertising. But that story can be a visual, a piece of street art or an icon. But it needs to tell a story. It doesn’t have to be in words. One of the things we always look for is that platform thinking. That’s really the hardest thing for young creatives to learn but the most crucial thing to get right. And once that’s concrete or nailed on, then make me laugh, make me cry or make me interested.