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“Creativity Is a Team Sport”: Ronald Ng on the Democratisation of Ideas

Advertising Agency
New York, USA
The global CCO of MRM speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about not going it alone in a new job and why “business inspired purpose” is the next stage of brand’s doing good for the world

Creative leaders approach their jobs in different ways. There are those who prefer to be more of a lone ranger among leadership, left to their own devices to (hopefully) make great work and make their agency and its clients famous.

Ronald Ng isn’t one of those leaders. Ronald joined MRM as its global chief creative officer around 18 months ago, in December 2020, under one main condition: that he would achieve the agency’s goals as a team. “You join companies for what they stand for,” he told me recently during a chat at Cannes Lions. “But most importantly, you join people, and I joined because of Kate [MacNevin, global CEO at MRM]. I told her that I’m really not good enough to do it alone. I need all the support, I need a partner, and if you’re game, let’s do it. Together we have created a culture around ‘creativity is a team sport’.”

Since joining, Ronald’s ‘teammates' have grown. MRM has just announced its new global chief strategy officer, Diana Ceausu, who has moved over from fellow McCann Worldgroup agency Commonwealth. Jayna Kothary is the agency chief technology officer and Ronald’s “creative partner in crime and nerdiness” and an “amazing technologist who appreciates creativity. “Every time I have a powerful creative thought, I call them first. And, for example, every time Diana has a proposition for strategy, she would write to me first. You could ask them this and they would say the same. It's really the team sport culture that we, most importantly, as leaders are not just talking but behaving in that way. It's a great new behaviour that we've created and it permeates. Ask anyone at MRM about 'creativity is a team sport' and they'll know what you are talking about.”

Elsewhere across the agency, it was announced just today that Ioana Filip, previously an ECD at Energy BBDO in Chicago, was taking over as CCO at MRM London. The move marks somewhat of a homecoming for Ioana, who was previously MRM’s creative leader at MRM and a big player in the creative renaissance of that market. What’s more, Harsh Kapadia joined MRM New York as CCO from VMLY&R and Félix del Valle is around six months in as CCO of MRM Madrid, having joined the company from Ogilvy Brazil. 

“The reason he [Felix] is perfect isn’t just because he’s done famous work and has a big reputation,” says Ronald. “It’s because he has done famous MRM type of work, which is data and technology driven creativity.

“I think the industry still talks a big game about the importance of data and technology,” he adds after I press him more generally about data in advertising. “But muscle memory is still there and intentionality is not there. Behaving differently and approaching work in new ways takes intentionality. The industry is not intentional, it's still very campaign driven versus thinking about bringing technology to the table, making sure strategy is here from the beginning.”

Ronald was in Cannes as the jury president of the Creative Business Transformation Lions, arguably one of the least “campaign driven” categories of the festival. “I had so many people asking me what this category was looking for but let me start by saying what we weren’t looking for.  It is not campaigns, it is not ads, it is not stunts. There are many Lion categories for work like that. It is really about what is behind your experience and the story that you're putting out in the world?”

He uses an analogy around a beautiful new car. “Don’t submit that. Tell us what you do in your factory, your design team, your operations, your partners, your suppliers for your assembly plant. Tell us about how you changed from gas power to electric. We are really interested in how the business or the organisation transforms.”

After concluding his judging commitments, Ronald noted down three key themes that he identified from the category’s best performing entries. They really are relevant to the ad industry on a much grander scale outside of this one award category. 

“Everybody talks about purpose. But I think the next stage of purpose is purpose for growth,” he says, highlighting a theme that LBB heard in a number of conversations during Cannes Lions. “Doing good for the world while doing good for your business, instead of just finding a purpose for the sake of it. I call it ‘business inspired purpose’, where you establish your role in the world or in people’s lives, identify the problems for your organisation and your customers, and define the opportunity and what you will give to the world. When you get that right, you will grow your business.”

The perfect example of this in practice is the Grand Prix winner in Ronald’s category, ‘Piñatex’. The Dole Sunshine Company is the world’s largest producer of fruit and vegetables and its pineapple leaves weren’t just a waste byproduct, they were actively harming the environment. Piñatex is a technology created by a much smaller company, Ananas Anam, which involves upcycling waste pineapple leaves into vegan leather to be used for footwear and clothing. The partnership between Ananas Anam and Dole meant that less pineapple leaves would go to waste but also that the Piñatex technology could massively scale from a business standpoint. “They are now provisioning material for 1000 companies,” Ronald adds. “They [Dole] are not just exploiting a small company, they are now helping a small company while also making a tonne more money. Transformation is great but it shouldn’t cost you money. You can’t save the world if you can’t save your employees.”

Ronald’s second point is authenticity, in transformation needing to be deep rooted and with longevity, unlike campaigns which are often just weeks or months long. “It's a lasting transformation,” he says. “Are you doing it in an authentic and committed way? If it’s in and out, it is not transformation. Transformation means to change behaviour, change practices, change choices of vendors and partners. Authenticity means long lasting commitment.”

His final point – and an undeniable link to Ronald and MRM’s mantra of creativity as a team sport – is the democratisation of creativity. “I’m sure you’re tempted, when you look at an idea, to wonder if the creative or the client came up with it,” he begins. “We told ourselves as a jury that we don’t care. Everyone has an equal right to offer up a great creative idea. 

“I’m very passionate about the democratisation of creativity. In the old days it was about strategists and technologists staying in their lane and coming in at the end once the creative had come up with the big idea. Look at Piñatex. Dole didn’t come up with the idea but Ananas Anam wouldn’t be this successful without the Dole partnership. The idea of creativity as a team sport is at work there. If we break down these walls, we could make all of us better.”

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