Alison Weissbrot
Nov 17, 2020

McCann’s Harris Diamond on agencies: “We make ideas, and keep those ideas alive”

The McCann Worldgroup chairman and CEO announced his retirement last month.

McCann’s Harris Diamond on agencies: “We make ideas, and keep those ideas alive”

Harris Diamond is leaving IPG in a very different world than when he joined.

Diamond, most recently chairman and CEO of McCann Worldgroup, is retiring amid a global pandemic that’s causing tectonic shifts in how we live, work and spend our time.

It’s also having lasting impacts on agencies, both in terms of how they work and the work that they make.

“We've learned from this, and I think we'll be better because of this,” Diamond said, “but the business will also change. We’ll have much more opportunity for people to work from home, to not necessarily be in all the locations we're in now.”

Another outcome of the pandemic and resulting shifts in how people communicate is that clients are seeking more integration between marketing disciplines. McCann was one of the first global integrated network agency models in the 1990s, and has since grown to cover disciplines including creative (McCann), PR (Weber Shandwick), media (UM), MRM (CRM) and more.

CMOs and CEOs are starting to wake up to the value of this integration, Diamond said. “If I was a client, I would want my agency to be thinking about all the platforms out there, and to have skills to take advantage of each.”

Diamond spoke with Campaign US about his career, the value of deep discipline expertise and the importance of surrounding yourself with a great team.

What’s it like leaving McCann at this crazy time in history?

This was a unique year. It's the first time, in my experience, other than the global financial crisis, where the whole world went through a very similar issue. Even that wasn't the same in every place. With COVID, the world went into a shutdown, and that was unique. It had an impact on our people, our clients and the work.

Candidly, we handled it better than we expected. But it also changed things. It was a year spent on Microsoft Teams calls in a business that thrives on person-to-person contact. It wasn't perfect, it's still not and it won't be until we're all able to socially mix.

Office life is such a big part of agency culture. How do you view that shifting after this remote work experiment?

I do think there's a yearning by many people to come back. People in our industry thrive on social discourse. They thrive on meeting with clients, going to their offices, going to shoots.

Having said that, will they have to return every day? Probably not. Will we have much more of an understanding of how to operate across borders? Absolutely. Those changes allow agencies to tap into greater resources than in the past. We understand how we really can tap in, and it's better than we expected.

How did your background in PR and marketing help you shape McCann’s success?

Marketing plans need to be holistic. We love being at the Super Bowl, but we have to be there on TV, on a streaming platform, on the scene experientially, with out-of-home ads. We recognize that massive programs, by definition, have to be holistic. We take advantage of all of those platforms.

The difficulty is, where do you spend the money, and how do you make sure that it’s getting the return? The silos that exist on our side exist on the [client] side too. There is still struggle with that. But we're making progress, and they're making progress.

IPG has always been intentional about keeping its agency brands. Other holding companies have taken different approaches.

What role do you see agency brands playing as clients seek more integration?

I still believe in the power of brands. I believe in the value of the disciplines, so I don't necessarily buy into the consolidation. All of these platforms require intellectual vigor and specialized skills. So I do believe in these disciplines continuing to deepen their expertise.

Then what it takes is the willingness to bring them together to get the benefits of that knowledge. It takes a strategic agreement from the leadership team. We've also had to change the incentivization scheme. It has required change and will continue to.

How is the creative agency approach changing as consumer attention fragments?

Great work breaks through. The whole job of creative is to get noticed in a world where a lot of people are clamoring for attention. Creativity is the key to brand and marketing success.

But it's not creative for creative’s sake. You have to understand the role the product plays.

Sometimes we forget that we started in a business where there was only print. Then somebody invented radio and scared the print people, and then someone invented TV and it scared the radio people and then digital came along. But we still do all of those. The great thing about our industry is the ability to innovate on all these platforms.

What are you most proud of in your career?

You always look at the work you've done, whether that has to do with gun safety, or Fearless Girl, but also for clients day in and day out, like Coke, Microsoft, Nestlé, or L'Oréal.

But what I'm most proud of is the people. It's a people business. We don't make jet engines. We make ideas, and keep those ideas alive.

What advice would you leave for someone trying to lead a successful agency today?
Build a great team and have great partners who agree about how to build something.

What's next for you?

I'm looking forward to doing some things in the public service sector. It’s something I've always believed in, and it’s important to me. If COVID has shown us anything, it's that there are disparate outcomes for people depending on economic status, race or geography. Figuring out better ways to deliver medical care is a pretty important issue in my mind.

I was also looking forward to, candidly, spending a couple of months skiing out in Utah and enjoying myself. But we need COVID to be better than it is to do that.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Campaign US

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