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The Work That Made Me: Dave Roberts



McCann Montreal’s ECD on the joys of '80s ads, how adidas Originals changed his career and an ever growing collection of design magazines

The Work That Made Me: Dave Roberts

Dave Roberts is an award-winning executive creative director at McCann Montreal where he oversees the integrated creative product for clients including L’Oréal, Nespresso, Royal Canadian Mint, Export Development Canada and General Motors Quebec. Prior to joining McCann, he spent more than a decade moving up the ranks at Sid Lee, leading creative teams in their Montreal, Toronto and Amsterdam offices. With 20 years of experience creating innovative campaigns, products, services and experiences for global brands, Dave loves working at the intersection of storytelling, design and innovation. 

The ad/music video from my childhood that stays with me 

I grew up as a kid in the UK in the 80’s. Back then there were only four channels on TV, and you couldn’t skip the ads, so it often seemed like an eternity waiting for the commercial break to finish. But a few brands, like Carling Black Label, managed to make ads that were better, funnier and more creative than the actual programming. One that I still vividly remember was their 'Cowboy' ad by WCRS London. It began with a funny western spoof saloon scene, which led into an epic chase that seemingly continued into the next two (fake) commercials. As kids, the sheer cleverness and creativity of this blew us away. We would sit patiently waiting for it to come on at commercial breaks so we could watch it again and again. It was 'It’s a Tide Ad' 30 years ago, at a time when the creative and media sandbox was a lot more limited. 

The ad/music video/game/ web platform that made me want to get into the industry

Hands down the work that made me dive into the industry was Burger King’s 'Subservient Chicken.' I was already working as a junior digital designer, but that work opened my eyes to what marketing could be thanks to the internet. I remember it was one of the first truly viral experiences. Everyone  was sharing it – and it was just hosted on some obscure vanity URL. The whole premise was simple but brilliant – and technically it was flawless. It really gave you the impression that the person in the chicken suit was acting on what you asked them to do. The rest of the digital team and I literally wasted an entire day typing in different commands to see how far it went and how many bizarre scenes we could uncover. I don’t remember seeing a chicken sandwich in the whole experience, but it positioned Burger King for me as a really progressive brand. 

The creative work that I keep revisiting  

Like most creatives, I’m constantly searching the internet for the latest and greatest, but I’m also a huge fan of the printed page when I’m looking for inspiration. I’ve built up a robust collection of design magazines and books over the past 20 years and I love going back over them when I’m feeling like I need a new perspective, beyond the online industry press.  

Eye Magazine has long been my go-to for design – the in-depth and critical nature of the articles still makes me feel like I’m just beginning as a designer. Juxtapoz is a Saturday morning favourite for contemporary and street art – it’s just such a great visual read. And one of the design books I’ve been revisiting a lot lately (or perhaps it keeps haunting me) is David B. Berman’s Do Good Design. I discovered it a couple of years ago and I keep thinking about its message. It’s the book that  introduced me to the term of the three P’s: Profit, People, Planet – as a sustainable model for doing better design and better business. I’ve always believed that design (and creativity) can change the world – this book does a great job of showing how you can start with baby steps in your own practices. 

My first professional project

Other than the slew of crappy logos, illustrations and other odd design jobs I did to get through design school, or the first websites I taught myself how to design and code – my first notable professional project was a website we developed for MGM Grand Hotel in Vegas. At the time I was lucky to be part of an ambitious team that wanted to push the envelope of digital experience, was obsessed with The FWA Awards (Favourite Website Awards), and anything coming out of Sweden. MGM had originally come to us for a straightforward website showcasing the details of the hotel amenities and connecting to their booking engine. However, hotel rooms in Vegas are a commodity and the team was smart enough to realise that if you wanted people to book the MGM Grand Hotel, they had to experience  what it felt like to stay at MGM. So, what started out as a simple search site turned into an elaborate interactive video experience, a kind of 'Alice in Wonderland' Vegas journey.  

As a young designer in such a dynamic team, it was an amazing time where it felt like we had incredible freedom to create and experiment. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate how much shit the CDs, account teams and dev team shielded us from. What you learn quickly in digital is that you are only as good as the rest of the team around you. I think this was the project where I learned the importance of checking your ego at the door.

The piece of work that made me so angry that I vowed to never make anything like *that* 

I think all creative work that gets made in our industry is subject to a large factor of individual circumstances, so I’d hate to bash specific executions. However, I think 'mediocracy' is really the enemy of all great creative work and the thing that makes me the angriest is 'design by committee' – especially when the goal of that committee is to make everybody happy and accommodated. It pains me to see designers, writers, directors and technologists hone their individual craft for years and years just to have their hands guided by clients whose agenda is to please internal stakeholders – ultimately leading to forgettable work. In the past couple of years there have been some stunning campaigns that have helped change social views (Nike Dream Crazy) and some that have set them back (Peloton wife?) – but at least they sparked passionate debate and opinion. What I find is a bigger shame is all the forgettable stuff that disappears in the middle. 

The piece of work that still makes me jealous 

I practically spend my days in a state of constant jealousy of other creative work which, in a weird way, fuels my motivation to get up every morning and keep doing this job. One of my favourite pieces of work from recent years, and one that drew me to McCann, was their 'Field Trip to Mars' work for Lockheed Martin. I can imagine that the original brief for this was something very corporate about  positioning the aerospace engineering company as a great place to work for future innovators and a modern progressive company – cue typical corporate video. But instead, the idea and its execution are beautiful and brilliant. Other than the technical wizardry, which must have taken months of R&D to pull off, the great thing about this is the doing versus saying approach to demonstrate the brand’s innovative DNA. Like the old adage “don’t tell me you’re funny, tell me a joke!”

The creative project that changed my career 

The work that changed my career was the Adidas Originals business. We’d just won the mandate for  the global advertising business, and I was quickly shipped out to Amsterdam to run the digital campaigns for 2009 and 2010 with an uber-talented crew and an inspired client. Adidas wanted to push the boat out on digital and social innovation, and at the same time we were doing these crazy brand campaigns filled with celebs and franchises that you’d never have imagined working with in your wildest dreams. We had so much free range to create things that would resonate in culture and engage sneaker fans.  

During those two years we created ads, branded content films, events, mobile apps, social games, a new e-comm site and even launched the first augmented reality experience embedded in a sneaker. (I’ll never forget trying to explain to Ciara how she was going to pop out of a virtual world when people held their sneakers up in front of their webcams!) Other than the exposure of seeing how a global  brand operates, it was an amazing lesson and affirmation in understanding that, to keep the attention of an audience, you have to always be making stuff that is of interest or value to them – and do it at  the speed of culture.

The work that I’m proudest of 

In early 2011, we started a small Sid Lee office in Toronto with six people on the ground and, by 2013, we’d grown to be just shy of 50 people. In September 2013 we had to opportunity to pitch on a rebranding mandate for the Toronto Raptors NBA team. It was an insane time at the shop as we were  simultaneously working on a bunch of other large campaigns, flying to shoots halfway around the  world, and the team was stretched thin beyond belief. We literally had everybody in the office throwing in ideas on the Raptors pitch from account staff to strategists and interns, not to mention the entire creative team working on it every evening after a full day.  

The resulting pitch work became more than just a rebrand – it became a rallying cry for the team, and ultimately the nation, with the now ubiquitous 'We The North' anthem. The clients loved the spec work so much that when the team made a surprise winning streak into the playoffs in April 2013, they gave us just two weeks to shoot everything and get it out in the world. Ultimately, the team didn’t  make it past the first playoff round – but the branding and 'We The North' mantra remains pervasive in culture today. I was lucky enough to be at Dundas Square (Toronto’s answer to Times Square) six years later when the Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship. To hear hundreds of thousands of  people chanting 'We The North' and flying flags with the team colours and symbols years later gave me Goosebumps.

I was involved in this and it makes me cringe 

In early 2013 I got the chance to work with Tom Tagholm who directed the epic 'Meet The Superhumans' Paralympics campaign for Channel 4. We were super excited that he had signed on to direct our work for Sport Chek – we had a great concept in the works. Tom had just landed in Toronto from the UK for the ceremonial pre-production meeting before shooting began two days later.  

We went through the scripts and concepts one last time with the clients in what was supposed to be more of a formality when the client CMO (who had been a little out of the loop) said the fateful words, “Oh, that’s how YOU guys are seeing the spot. Well, here’s how I’M seeing it”! He then dictated a completely new version of what he wanted the spot to be while the rest of his poor marketing team who had been leading the project for months, sat silently. Tom, however, was a trooper and a  gentleman. Instead of jumping on the next plane out of Toronto, he leaned into the challenge and tried to rework the spot within limited time and production realities as best he could. Being the incredibly talented director he is, he was still able to pull off something credible; however, I cringe every time I  think about how good that work would have been but for that fateful meeting. I learned to never take any production meeting or client presentation lightly and never assume that all clients really understand the vision you have. It taught me the importance of removing any ambiguity and facing any difficult conversations early in the process to avoid getting burned later. 

The recent project I was involved in that excited me the most 

At McCann Montreal, we’ve recently just completed a rebranding for a pro bono client that has a palliative care home for severely sick and terminally ill kids. It was a great project and process because the client had a lot of trust in us. We pitched them a bold approach and they were completely  behind it. It’s nice when you’re not only able to give back to a very worthwhile cause but when you are actually able to do work that you know is going help transform their organisation.  

I remember getting into this business because art and design were the most important things in my life, and I truly believed creativity could change the world. Over the years you can get a little cynical, so it’s great to be reminded that the work you and your team are doing can make a real difference to an organisation or group of people. I still think it’s one of the best feelings in the world. 

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McCann Canada, Tue, 09 Nov 2021 15:28:43 GMT