James McGrath, creative chairman of Clemenger BBDO, is hoping for a return to extraordinary thinking from and for brands.
If one campaign managed to rise above last year’s Cannes Lions politics and Publicis pull-out, it was "Meet Graham". The initiative, for Melbourne’s Transport Accident Commission, depicted the grotesque outcome of human evolution if our bodies were re-designed to withstand car crashes.
Despite missing out on Integrated and Titanium prizes, on the basis of perceived creative similarities to a 1985 UK public health campaign, "The natural born smoker", "Meet Graham" scooped 29 Lions, including two Grand Prix awards for Cyber and Health And Wellness and eight Gold Lions.
It also propelled Clemenger BBDO’s creative chairman James McGrath to the top of adland’s creative rankings. As he prepares to return to the Croisette, Campaign asks McGrath for what he hopes to see and experience at this year’s festival.
What does fearlessness mean to you in an advertising context?
The best of ideas and their platforms have that sensation of other-worldliness. They redefine by their very existence, they make us better and make the product or service at their heart wonderfully connective and useful, in ways we never imagined. They carry an effortless confidence and a fearlessness that is brilliantly deserved and disproportionally captivating.
Who in the industry do you admire as a beacon of fearlessness?
There are two categories of people I admire in our industry: the brilliant creators and the pioneering clients.
The creators because they are the brilliant observers of behavior - they are the ones who choose not to know the answer in the first instance but curiously seek truth, understanding and exploring what it is to be human. They understand the critical intersection at that heart of modern creativity between art, science, engineering and design. They are the generous collaborators and pioneers who inspire while concealing and repressing that remorseful and underlying fear of doubt and failure.
The clients because their fearlessness starts at the very heart of their business. They apply a visionary approach not for ego or to meet a trend or a moment, they simply have seen a demand to be met, a real-world problem to solve; commercial, yes, but all resulting in a critical and brilliant usefulness.
Why do you think "Meet Graham" was such a big hit with Cannes judges last year?
I guess at its heart it created a new demonstrative clarity, with a context that made a message readable and captivating to a series of audiences that didn’t conventionally want to hear it. It has that all-important apparent effortlessness with an unseen complexity. Of course, from the name Graham, the decision to bring all the wonderful human empathy through the artistic rendering by the world-class artist Patricia Piccinini to create an iconic, emblematic, single visual compelling curiosity with an essential sympathy, through to connecting to the warmth of the humanity of the very being, to the eyes that read you. Part-shocking, part-ugly, with the ability to go under the armature of the distorted body to read and explore the detail just when you ready to find it.
What are you hoping to see from the industry in Cannes this year?
A return to extraordinary thinking from and for brands. There is no doubt we are acutely aware of the lack of depth and quality. I know it’s a hope that won’t be entirely delivered-on, but I would love to think we will see a return of confidence, because that will drive virtuosity. Technology is relentlessly giving us more canvasses to be creative on, and brilliant brands are being more and more substantive and delivering meaning and usefulness through experience. I’m hoping that the role of big driving storytelling and ideas reveals itself in ways that inspire us to engage and reward those brands for their fearlessness.
What must the industry do better over the next 12 months?
We have all been very distracted by complexity, doing more for less, working faster, digesting vast amounts of data, creating a rhythm of iteration and a rolling responsive development. We must and I think we are getting better at orchestration and critically collaboration. We know that requires a fundamental overhaul of the long-standing "art and copy" era. The unknowing and the open exploration we now need flies in the face of the era when we being paid to give an answer not ask a question.
What about your own highlights since last summer?
We have been thinking about the greater influence of communication, the importance of big, brilliant organising ideas only becoming more critical. We have been observing the ever-growing status of the creator and the ever-increasing role of creativity in our culture.
In your eyes, does Cannes Lions remain an important platform for commercial creativity?
While we are fortunate to have a number of wonderful institutions that celebrate creativity, Cannes Lions is the one that holds universal appeal to both the creative classes, technology platforms, media and importantly clients alike. That shared experience for me legitimises the prudent, performative, innovative and result-focused experience.
Finally, any Cannes tips for beginners?
As conscientious as it sounds, curate and attend the best of the seminars. Never will you have the opportunity to observe and see how the best of our world think, create and are redefining how big and different our ambitions should be. Review the work and get to the ceremonies; there is no other way of immersing yourself in a virtual creative yearbook. And when that’s done, debate, argue, have a point of view on what your contribution will be to the year ahead.