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Rob Reilly: We’re Not Frontliners, but We’re Secondliners

Advertising Agency
New York, USA
McCann Worldgroup’s global creative chairman tells Laura Swinton about the ad industry’s duty to drive the economy, how the network has approached the Covid-19 challenge and why the next phase requires a creative gear-change
“I think it’s even more important that brands are here now – not when we come out of it.”

Rob Reilly, McCann Worldgroup’s global creative chairman may be hunkered down on Long Island in his home office, but he’s certainly not shying away from the challenges thrown down by the global pandemic. As country after country has been hit with restrictions, the agencies in the network have rallied creatively and without hesitation – and as these restrictions now, tentatively, roll back Rob’s very much of the opinion that brands can’t wait until the economy opens up, they need to drive it. And advertising is very much part of that.

“We’re not front-liners but we’re second-liners to some degree. Our job is to help companies stay in business and keep the economy going because of course the economy doing well means jobs for people, people can go back to work, all those things. It is connected. That is a critical role,” says Rob.

Speaking from a global standpoint, Rob’s mindful of the human cost of the disease as it wreaks havoc on lives as well as livelihoods. But, if the industry plays its part, it can at least help mitigate the impact on the latter by driving the economy on. As many governments have proven to be frustratingly complacent, business has had to step up to meet people’s needs – but Rob also worries about the inequalities of Covid-19’s economic impact, which is another reason he says it’s crucial to drive demand and allow businesses to keep as many jobs as possible.

Across the network, McCann has come out of the gates roaring on behalf of its clients, with a consistent drumbeat of work from every market. For Verizon, they’ve been helping the telco support small businesses with the ‘Pay It Forward’, a series of online concerts they’ve created together with fellow IPG agencies like R/GA, Momentum and Art and Science. With Microsoft they’ve been helping champion its online tools that have helped keep families and businesses connected, like Teams (seen most recently in a very relatable Mother’s Day tribute to working mums). In Belgrade, the team created a print and outdoor campaign celebrating  health workers as superheroes. In Colombia, the agency brought together 25 major companies and institutions to put out a nationwide ‘stay at home’ campaign. In Bucharest, iconic local chocolate bar brand Rom paid tribute to Romanians living under lockdown in other countries. In New York, the agency collaborated with illustrator Noma Bar for some bold and graphic outdoor work for Mucinex. In Dubai, the team had to juggle the growing pandemic with Ramadan campaigns, managing to turn around emotive campaigns at super speed.

Rob puts this consistency down to two things: the McCann mission  to ‘help brands play meaningful roles in people’s lives’, which has given both the network and clients a clear ‘why’ through all of this; and the thoroughly organised creative excellence programme which has been refocused from awards prep to harnessing the global network to support local creative.

“Brands have such an important role and our mission as a company is to help brands play meaningful roles in people’s lives. We came up with that six years ago and thought it was a relevant positioning for us but when you think about it now and how critical it is for brands to be meaningful – it doesn’t mean they have to be about saving lives but just being there and keeping the economy going, making sure people have food on the table or toilet paper.”

And that question of meaning and purpose is something that is really being put to the test – now brands have to live up to their promise and, if they do nothing else, they should do what people expect them to do. While some clients are facing immediate, dramatic difficulties – LATAM Airlines is a major client in Latin America and any business linked to travel has largely ground to a halt - those with an obvious role to play like Verizon and Microsoft, which are providing the tools and infrastructure for businesses to keep going and are expected to provide extra support, have their own pressures and challenges to juggle.

“The opportunity is that people accept brands in their lives more and more but the responsibility is that they expect a lot more from you,” reflects Rob. “They don’t mind that you’re in their lives a lot, they understand that’s how the world works, brands are paying for things for people whether they’re free or discounted … but you better be doing the right thing,” says Rob. “Now, more than ever, people are going to be remembering who were the brands that stepped up and were there.”

And the aforementioned second prong of attack is the creative excellence structure and network of ‘creative leadership communities’ or CLCs. Ordinarily these are about developing work and figuring out how best to present it for awards – now that same organisational structure is being used to help offices cope with the Covid-19 challenge and share knowledge and talent across the network to improve the work. This structure is also mirrored in other functions like business, production, strategy and digital. “We’ve had the mechanism in place and we’ve repurposed it for day to day business, and not necessarily here are things to win awards. I think we’ve been so set up for this but no one ever planned it that way. The community has been together a lot and I frankly have got to know more people from this than maybe I would have. “

This knowledge-sharing isn’t just an internal thing – Rob feels that throughout pandemic there’s been a collegiate spirit of mutual support. He says he hopes everyone figures their way through it and that if any competitor truly suffers, it’s bad news for the whole industry. On the flip side, it’s also important to applaud good work from other agencies.

Over the course of pandemic, creative workarounds to production restrictions has been a key determining factor of what kind of work brands have been able to put out. Rob credits the tightness of the network and the expertise of McCann’s integrated production unit Craft with enabling his teams around the world to create. In India, McCann created one of the first ads shot by a director in their own home – something that has since become a more common approach. Now that restrictions are lifting, there’s also a great deal of cooperation between offices to enable shoots on the ground for a market that’s still more tightly locked down.

Nonetheless, Rob detects a tipping point of sorts in the interplay between creative and production. “I said it at the global town hall: I don’t know if we’ve challenged production enough,” says Rob. “The first month of this was: ‘how do we make something? We know what the production limitations are so let’s make an idea within the production limitations. And if we can’t make it exactly that way, we’ll make a version of it’. That’s what’s going to flip. It’s not about what can we make – it’s like, 'what’s the idea and then figuring out how to make it?'”

But if being mindful of production challenges has reigned in wilder creative thinking in some ways, the pandemic has allowed creatives to push and challenge in others. One example is a recent hair dye ad for L’Oreal which saw Hollywood star and brand spokesperson Eva Longoria bare her inch-long grey roots and sort them out herself, in a self-directed spot shot in her own bathroom. The brand has done plenty of innovative work in the past, but this is the brand at its most intimate and human.

“She’s a beautiful, smart, bold woman who is awesome but it took a lot of guts for her. I think she should get a lot of credit,” says Rob. “L’Oreal has done a lot provocative and bold things, like the Vogue Non-Issue and Makeup Genius, but I think when it comes to how they are shown in commercials before, this was so refreshing. The situation forces you to go against what your norms would be. I don’t know if we could have sold that idea to them and even Eva in another situation.”

But while working from home is, well, working, there’s no getting round the fact that being stuck at home under lockdown is not an idea environment for creatives who are used to working in partnerships and teams, bouncing ideas around. For many people, the pandemic has brought with it difficult emotions and a stultifying lack of stimulation. For creatives looking to whip up excitement and business for brands, that means they have to really dig deep. “We have to find this next gear and as a creative person you’ve got a responsibility to figure it out – maybe your brain hasn’t worked in that capacity but it is what it is,” says Rob. 

As a consummate ad nerd, though, the excitement lies in seeing who  is really breaking new ground and who is really using creativity to help brands survive through a situation that’s both intimately painful and truly global and which will shape the 21st century.

“I think for each category, the question is, ‘who’s going to do something really spectacular in the auto area? Who’s going to do something in technology?’ I think Microsoft is a big winner so far. There should be more and there will be more. I think we’ll look back on this as a production challenge but as a creativity triumph.”

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