Last week, McCann Worldgroup unveiled its refurbished Tokyo offices. In attendance from the US was Rob Reilly, who as McCann's global creative head is responsible for Cannes-winning work such as State Street's 'Fearless Girl' and Lockheed Martin's 'Field Trip to Mars'. Campaign asked him to elaborate on these pieces of work and on some specific challenges to advertising creativity. Reilly joined McCann in 2014 after a long period as chief creative officer at Crispin, Porter & Bogusky. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Who was Field Trip to Mars aimed at, and what did you want it to achieve?
The brief McCann got from [Lockheed Martin] was, we need some kind of buzz around the CEO's keynote speech to students. The original idea was a train from New York to DC. Didn’t sell. Then it was a plane. Didn’t sell. Then it was a city bus. Didn’t sell. And I think the 19th try, we said what if it’s a school bus. It gave the CEO something that was physical at the location of her speech that then could be used to travel America to give kids the experience from it. So it’s ongoing; they’re using it now. At the same time it helped inspire young kids—especially young women.
I always tell young people there’s an opportunity in every assignment. It doesn’t mean every assignment’s going to be winning 19 Lions at Cannes, but this wasn’t a sexy assignment and someone found the magic in it. These kinds of ideas have such a risk level, and I think if it didn’t work we would have been fired.
How good do you think Japan is at applying this sort of technology to marketing?
It is odd in some ways that with how much technology is born here and how much innovation is here, the advertising has not yet been part of these bigger things. Now, ‘Sound of Senna’ for Honda, that’s probably one of the best uses of ingenuity, innovation. I don’t know how big that was in Japan. I think Japan is at a moment that is going to explode. I think there’s so much creativity and I think that clients are starting to realise we need to maybe do things differently. I think there’ll be more adventurous ideas.
Let’s talk about Fearless Girl. Does the revelation that State Street underpaid female executives compromise the impact of the statue?
No, I think. Listen, State Street would be the first to say that they were part of the problem. They were part of the problem and they recognised it too. It was a 2010 lawsuit and they realised they were part of this issue of gender inequality. So I think it even—it’s never been hidden that they were part of the problem. It would have been a nothing story if we hadn’t done this thing, so again I think it’s all—it maybe helps the story even more that they never said 'we didn’t realise we were part of the problem'. That’s why they created these things and they’re still working on it. They’re walking the walk on a lot of things. They’ve put pressure on hundreds of companies about women on boards and they’ve made the changes and owned up to some of these things. Again, I don’t think anyone realises it was a 2010 lawsuit. I think they’ve done the right thing, but they never hid the fact that they had issues in the past.
Number two, our job is to take the great things that they’ve done and expose them and help them live in the world and be talked about. So it doesn’t really take anything away from what McCann had done. I’m not defending State Street, but I’m defending the fact that they've never hidden the fact that they realised they could be part of the solution. They are part of an industry that on the whole has not done good enough. Like many industries, frankly.
Lots of brands do have a disconnect between the image they portray and their actions. Should agencies do more to determine whether or not the business lives up to its communications?
When I started at McCann about four years ago, there was a sign on the wall that said ‘McCann Worldgroup: Transforming brands and building businesses’. I said to our CEO, we have to take this sign down. It is soul-crushing for young people, and this whole business is young people. I said that can’t be the mission. I said there’s got to be something McCann has been good at from the beginning, and we dug and came to an articulation—and I don’t think it’s very sexy but I think it’s very important which is, ‘We help brands play a meaningful role in people’s lives’. So our job is to figure out what that role is that brands can play. Because I do believe we’re at a time where people accept brands in their lives more than ever before. Especially young people. The flipside is people expect a lot more of brands, so you’d better be doing right.
You’ve been a jury president at Cannes. What do you see as the number one thing that judges reward?
I think the trend is less charity and more real brands with real problems. I'm a big proponent that young people in the industry realise that winning a gold Lion for WWF is not the same as winning a gold Lion for Microsoft. We have to make sure everybody understands the real business is helping brands be successful. When someone does something so extraordinary for a real brand, bravo. You want other brands to get jealous and feel the need that they might have to innovate and take those risks too. It doesn’t help the industry if we continue to just award the charity on the same playing field as real brands. It doesn’t mean we should stop doing charity work. If something benefited one person, then it’s not a scam. I want everyone to keep making things, but do it on the after hours or the weekends. Don’t spend one hour working on a charity when you could be trying to solve something big for one of the brands that pays for us to be in existence.
In a recent white paper, Ace Metrix [a US advertising analytics company] suggested Cannes judges often like work that average people find confusing. Are you surprised?
Our job at the minimum is to be clear. Nothing drives me more crazy than when you watch something or see something and think, I don’t get it. That is the cardinal sin. It should be clear first, interesting second.
They also suggested that award-winning work is often different to the work that’s actually effective for clients.
We’ve been accused of doing things for our own gain forever. Yet we grow companies, help to reshape companies, care a lot about companies we don’t have stock in. So I think it’s another attempt to knock our integrity.
People’s attention spans are short, so we’ve got to try and be interesting and different. I think there are only a few companies who can get away with not doing great things [because] their products are so sought after—you know the companies. [As an agency], you’ll do way better work if you believe in something. It may be more difficult with some things, like cigarettes, but you’ve chosen to be in it so you’ve got to put yourself inside it and find the things that are motivating.
I think we get dinged a lot. It’s easy to say something’s not effective but it’s really hard to tell. I think we should do a study on Ace Metrix. I don’t know if I give it much weight. I think most agencies are really trying to do the right thing.
Speaking of cigarettes: tobacco brands are still one of the biggest sources of revenue for agencies. Does this make it difficult to attract the type of millennial talent you want to hire?
It’s been difficult since the beginning of time—as soon as it became clear that tobacco was harmful to pregnant women… I think there was probably a tipping point where people said, I don’t want to work on that kind of stuff. Again, that’s why we’ve worked hard to figure out how brands can play a meaningful role in people’s lives.
I think a young person can go to work in an agency and say it’s a cool job. I think where we can all do better is attracting diverse talent. One of the biggest challenges we have in the States is with people of colour. People of colour do not feel like it’s a business for them, and I don’t think we do a very good job of creating a way for qualified people of colour who want to be in it. I think it hurts the work. I think we need to be more open and outward and say that we have not done a good job of making this a place that feels more diverse.
We’ve been talking about it for a long, long time. Clients are asking for it too but everyone should ask for it.