Since Ben Lilley took the reins as Chairman and CEO at McCann Australia, the agency has received tremendous acclaim. In 2013, McCann Australia was named the ‘World’s Most Awarded Agency’. Today, according to the World Advertising Research Centre’s annual report, McCann is the top ranked agency in Australia for advertising effectiveness, and it ranks sixth globally. Ben has been appointed McCann’s Asia Pacific Creative Leadership Chair, and is now tasked with driving the network’s creative effectiveness across the APAC region.
Beginning his career in advertising as a copywriter, Ben’s desire to find the most creative and effective ways to connect clients with their customers is still what drives him today. At the dawn of the internet age, and the beginnings of digital marketing and advertising, Ben recognised exciting opportunities that others hadn’t yet appreciated.
At the time, traditional agencies were slow to embrace new technological advancements, so Ben decided to get the jump on them and launch his own digital-savvy creative agency. Ben teamed up with Paul Findlay who was running design agency SMART, and relaunched it as a full-service agency in 2000. Growth was swift for SMART and by 2010 it was Australia’s largest independent Trans-Tasman agency, with big-name companies like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Unilever on its client list.
Running an independent agency like SMART had its challenges, as Ben explains, “We had grown rapidly because we had great ambitions for our clients, and also great ambitions for our own business, both creatively and also in terms of growth. It was still evolving, but there was a whole raft of challenges ahead of us. We had just under 100 people across Australia and New Zealand, and to try and grow to a 200-person agency came with a lot of challenges.”
The ‘hair-raising’ moments
“There are some limitations when you’re running your own company, particularly going through the global financial crisis and a few other hair-raising moments. After twelve years of that it was starting to feel a little bit like Groundhog Day in terms of the usual aspects of running our own independent agency.”
“My primary focus is to continue to offer our clients the most strategic, creative and effective solutions for their business and marketing problems while the world continues to rapidly change around them and around us.” – Ben Lilley
In 2011, SMART was approached by McCann with the proposition of a reverse takeover. McCann would acquire SMART, but Ben and his partners John Mescall and Ashley Farr would take over the national McCann management and creatively overhaul and reinvent McCann Australia.
“When we were approached by McCann we’d all sworn to ourselves that we never wanted to work at another multinational agency again — we were enjoying building our own business in reaction to a lot of the negatives that we’d seen with the bigger players. But the idea of a reverse takeover was very appealing; the fact that we were coming into McCann but could then redesign it and run it our way rather than try to mold ourselves into a traditional view of how an agency should be run, was the greatest opportunity. We were able to take a much more creative and more entrepreneurial approach to what had been a very traditional agency.”
A truth well told
Being invited to reinvent an agency like McCann, especially with its long heritage, is no small task. Established in New York City in 1902, McCann was the first advertising agency to trademark a motto: ‘Truth Well Told’. Ben explains that the credo has stood fast over the past century, but the way that McCann has distilled the truth about its clients’ brands and customers has changed drastically over those hundred years. In order to keep up with the digital age, when Ben first took over, he rapidly transformed McCann to be a digital agency at its core. His motto became ‘A Truth Well Told is a Truth Well Shared’.
Ben also saw that, traditionally, media services and creative services had been separated. For many new clients, trying to manage completely separate creative, media, digital, PR and direct marketing agencies was too complex. By being able to re-bundle its creative and media services to include a digital service offering, McCann is now able to offer a much stronger integrated strategic creative offering for its clients.
Providing integrated, comprehensive marketing and advertising solutions, all comes down to one seemingly simple task. “My primary focus is to continue to offer our clients the most strategic, creative and effective solutions for their business and marketing problems while the world continues to rapidly change around them and around us,” explains Ben.
“The things I find exciting about the work that we do is how we can adapt to, and embrace, that ever-changing marketing landscape, but also how we can continue to be completely contemporary and relevant — and also how we use creativity through the ever-changing channels, techniques, methods and technology that is available to us, but still be really creative and innovative in how we take our clients’ messages to their customers.”
For Ben it’s all about delivering quality and effectiveness, especially across McCann’s broad range of clients — which range from the Australian government to MasterCard, Microsoft and L’Oreal. They all have the same need: to find the most effective, creative ways that they can connect with their customers. Having highly creative and innovative partners is critical to McCann, as is being able to continue to find new, fresh, and innovative ways of communicating their clients’ brand messages.
“I’ve been in this industry for long enough to see many agencies come up with models they might say are more innovative, or intellectual property they might say is unique. The truth is, we’re a professional services firm, and our service is creativity. We are differentiated by the quality and effectiveness of that creativity.”
The most awarded advertising agency in the world
Ben says the best firms are the ones whose work delivers the best results, and McCann’s success speaks for itself. Within 18 months of the reverse takeover, McCann became the most awarded advertising agency in the world. Its 2013 ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ campaign for Metro Trains Melbourne went viral, and became the most awarded campaign in Cannes Lions history.
As far as the future of advertising goes, Ben reiterates, it’s all about creativity. “In a word, the future of advertising is exactly what it’s always been, which is creativity. The core challenge of every advertising agency is exactly the same as it was a hundred years ago: just try to find the most creative ways to connect each clients’ brand with their customers. Creativity is absolutely the core of everything we do today — it was a hundred years ago and it will be in another hundred years. The thing that keeps on changing and it will continue to change is how we go about that. The channels and the methods by which we are communicating with consumers is what is constantly changing and evolving, so frankly, it’s impossible to predict what that might look like even a decade in the future.”