Under the Hood of McCann Worldgroup’s Effectiveness Machine

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Harjot Singh, chief strategy officer for Europe, explains the engineering that underpins the network’s reputation for effectiveness
Under the Hood of McCann Worldgroup’s Effectiveness Machine

Every ad agency says effectiveness is the most important thing. They’re businesses that exist to make their clients more money; and McCann Worldgroup’s rhetoric is no different. “Effectiveness is the only true measure of the value of the work we help our clients create,” says Harjot Singh, chief strategy officer for Europe. “Effectiveness allows you to create value and then command a premium for that value.”

Well, he would say that. But the network he’s part of has lived by words like this for years now and it shows. 2019 was the culmination of a consistent crusade for effectiveness across the network that paid off for McCann Worldgroup and its clients. Particularly in Europe, where, following three consecutive years of being number one in the European Effie Index, it was also named European Agency Network of the Year for the first time in 10 years at the Euro Effie Awards.

It was a stellar year for McCann Worldgroup in Europe. It rose to dominance at a range of other major awards including EMEA Regional Network of Year 2019 at Cannes Lions, EMEA Agency Network of the Year according to Campaign Magazine; #1 Network of the Year at the IPA Effectiveness Awards and WARC’s 2019 European Network of the Year, in addition to numerous other local industry accolades across key European markets.

Harjot charts the network’s progress more generally through its success in the Effies Index. For him, that one is an important motivator for all the agencies he’s headed up strategy for since 2015. That year they topped the Index, but in 2016 they missed out “by just a handful of points.” He and his colleagues felt it. “2017 we were number one. Because we knew what it felt like in 2015, we knew how close we came in 2016 and we were never going to let anyone snatch that away from us. 2018, 2019 we were number one. Then in 2019 we were number one in the Euro Effies as well.”

The Index is the result of agencies’ individual performance in 21 markets and the Euro Effies is the result of the network’s collective performance for work that runs in more than one market, Harjot explains. Having taken up the honorary role of jury co-chair for the Effie Awards Europe 2019, he knows how it all slots together and appreciates the value this sort of confirmation has for a network’s morale: “First you win at an individual level. And when you’ve won once, twice, thrice - then people get excited and they want to win at a collective level. It’s about creating the conditions for small victories and then scaling those conditions and those victories.”

This feeling of taking pride in effectiveness is something that Harjot is personally keen to highlight. “For 21 markets to be performing optimally, it’s not because it’s a centralised initiative,” he says. “It’s because the vision and ambition is shared and it’s been deeply internalised at a local level.”

Effectiveness has to be personal for everyone, he believes. It needs to be more than awards. His vision has always been to move effectiveness from being about compliance to being about culture. “Where you have KPIs they are about compliance,” he says. “The minute you shift the conversation from compliance to culture you have a lot more active participants, a lot more engaged applicants around this mission. Because you realise effectiveness isn’t just about proving how smart a strategy team you are. It’s about showing how valuable you are as an agency network.”

That’s why it’s always been Harjot’s personal calling to preach the gospel of effectiveness way beyond the borders of his strategic departments. “Effectiveness is a creative discipline, it’s a client management discipline, it’s a financial discipline,” he says, “because it is about creating value and commanding a premium for that value. It’s a strategic discipline because building measurable impact is a strategy unto itself. It’s a production imperative too because good production makes work beautifully through an effective use of all resources. It’s a digital discipline. It’s a discipline that runs across all facets of the agency. I have always believed that. That’s why I’ve always said effectiveness is everybody’s business.”

McCann Worldgroup carries this belief through into the way it structures its community across markets. All its strategy leaders meet regularly in the strategic leadership council, but creative leaders are welcome at those meetings too. And vice versa. Harjot and his head strategists regularly convene with the creative leadership council. “We meet independently, we meet together. We invite each other to our gatherings, every time we’re envisioning what needs to happen.”

Harjot’s personal partnership with his creative opposite, chief creative officer for Europe Adrian Botan, is a microcosm of this two-way strategic-creative synergy. “It’s very important for the leaders to like each other. This is something that doesn’t get spoken about,” he says. “Adrian is my partner. We do everything together. We understand each other on a personal level. We have a shared idea about what success looks like. Teams pick up on it. Often I’ve noticed that when strategy and creative work well together, they work only as well as their leaders do. They see Adrian and I and everyone else creates the same relationship. It becomes a model.

“Every time you want to take something and make it part of wider, organisational culture, you have to make it personal. And at the same time you have to make it transformational, where people actually buy into a shared vision of success. It has to be meaningful to everyone individually, then has to create a level of pride collectively. Then things become part of  the culture.”

One way that creating this effectiveness culture has succeeded, Harjot suggests, is in challenging an ad agency bad habit that he says doesn’t get spoken about. “Strategy is often seen as a discipline that’s responsible to validate, rationalise, shape, censor and edit ideas. It’s seldom seen as a discipline that’s also responsible to generate ideas. Adrian and I agree that the job of strategy is as much to be a source of inspiration as it is a source for rationalising, shaping, tweaking and finessing ideas.”

A good strategic-creative partnership isn’t about getting excited about an idea and then selling it through using strategy. Everyone in an agency should get excited by problems clients have and opportunities they spot to solve those problems, says Harjot. “Let’s figure out the most interesting way to solve this problem, because there are only seven or eight marketing problems in the world, but they present themselves in ways that are not classical. So we need approaches and solutions that are just as interesting as the ways in which these problems manifest. We need to solve old problems in new ways. The only way to do that is to work together and bring both disciplines of creativity and strategy to bear.”

McCann London and Paris’s collaborative project with L’Oréal Paris and Vogue - The Non-Issue - is a clear case in point for Harjot. The April 2019 issue of British Vogue put out a 80-page supplement dedicated to women over 55. The Non-Issue issue featured everything you’d expect from a normal issue, except every woman featured inside was 55 or older. It contained the usual content on fashion, travel and lifestyle, as well as interviews with a range of inspiring women in their ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, from Jane Fonda and Helen Mirren to makeup artist Val Garland. A cultural contribution in the name of a brand that dovetailed neatly with the cause it was commenting on. “It’s not a new problem, but it’s being solved in a very new way,” he says. “And the reason is because we have a process and a community. It wasn’t that someone had an idea and then we tried to figure out the strategy to sell the idea. We were excited about the problem.”

Once you have a culture that values effectiveness, you need a process to ensure that it bears fruit. “That’s also something people don’t talk about,” says Harjot. “I’m a vision person, but I Iove process. The strategic machine is built on very smart people and a very effective way of working.”

Part of the process that allows the McCann Worldgroup community to tackle its clients’ problems strategically is by convening ‘bootcamps’ to tackle a particular issue. Harjot and Adrian run the European ones jointly. “We bring the best brains from our respective communities together from all over the region to hot-house a client issue for two days. We’ll come up with a set of interesting solutions together and figure out the best way to bring the client in on it.”

Microsoft, The Fanchise Model in 2018 is one example of a new strategic solution to an old problem that came from this sort of process. The journey that started off as 2015’s Survival Billboard may sound like it was just about a promotion for a new game. “It’s not a new brief,” admits Harjot. But they realised back then that what made the network different from others was its ability to bring the best minds from across its agencies to, as Harjot puts it, “be part of this party, want to play together and create something as iconic as Survival Billboard. You can’t make that as one group of people. That took a village.” 

The 2015 outdoor campaign that still gets shoutouts for its innovation was a seminal moment for the agency’s relationship with Microsoft. “From there all the work that’s happened has been a continuation of that,” says Harjot. “The Fanchise Model was some of the most interesting minds coming together to solve a problem that’s not new - getting people to buy more controllers. It was all about investigating what is going in culture, in the category, in people’s lives, the way people consume, engage and connect with messages. And what is going on with the company that is Microsoft?

“When you look at the world through all these lenses, you’re then able to determine a wider set of ideas about the level of ambition, creativity and appetite that Microsoft have. They’re in the business of empowering everyone.” And there’s an insight that you can see played through right to the most recently lauded Microsoft work - the Immortal Award-winning Changing the Game, a product innovation empowering disabled gamers to enjoy Xbox more freely than ever.

Fostering a community where different voices are heard has led to some of McCann Worldgroup’s best work. Harjot flags IKEA ThisAbles, another project that allowed a brand to make its product more accessible. “It’s come from somebody who’s actually lived that experience [McCann Tel Aviv copywriter Eldar Yusupov, who has cerebral palsy]. Some of our best work comes because we’re inclusive, not in a KPI sense or a compliance sense. We’re inclusive in a cultural level, I believe. 

“Again it’s about looking at all the ways in which a problem can be solved. Sometimes you start from where the brand is. If this brand’s role is to be in service of democratising good design, the good life and design at a great price for everyone, it has to be for everyone. This is what the brand is declaring its purpose to be. Are we doing enough to to earn this role in culture? This happens only when you, as two communities, talk about issues regularly, meet, engage regularly.”

‘Truth 2 Meaning’ - McCann Worldgroup’s name for its guiding philosophy - underpins all of this integration and same-page-ness at the network. Harjot calls it: “Our way of looking at the world, solving problems, extracting what’s most useful from all the information that exists, whether that’s information that clients own, information in the public domain, or information that’s proprietary to us. It allows us all to have a shared language and a common way of looking at the world.” 

You might imagine that truth is the strategist’s job and creativity is what makes that meaningful for people. But Harjot’s effectiveness-obsessed mind values both from a hard-nosed strategic perspective. “It’s also about making it meaningful to the business - something that actually moves your bottom line.”

McCann Worldgroup has been winning creative plaudits for its smaller, more local and purpose-driven clients. Look at its work for BreezoMeter on air pollution, Refuge on domestic abuse or its voice tech innovations for the Alzheimer’s Society. That recognition’s great, but Harjot prefers to champion the work that earned the network effectiveness accolades spanning dozens of markets, made for multinational corporate clients. “Our best work is on our biggest clients,” he says. “We work with L’Oréal  consistently. We win Effies on that brand not just out of France but out of many markets. We win effectiveness on Coca-Cola in many markets. We’ve done some amazing work on Reckitt Benckiser - it’s one of our biggest clients.”

The point is that all of this talk of inclusiveness and community - everyone being on board with a culture where strategy and creative are valued equally and work in perfect synergy - is nice to talk about (Harjot gushes about inspiring the people he works with: “If you have those values you will get those benefits without effort. If you’re a generous person you don’t have to make an effort to be generous. Leadership’s job becomes to create the conditions that don’t just invite this kind of talent but conditions where this kind of talent will flourish, and stay, and attract more talent and be motivated to make more work. And get behind this mission”). 

The means might look wishy-washy, but the ends are hard nosed: “Effectiveness is about creating work that’s both creatively and commercially compelling,” he says. “When work is creatively compelling it moves people. When work is commercially compelling it moves markets.” And that is, after all, what advertising does.

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