Wednesday, July 18, 2018
  • Friday, Dec. 16, 2016
Agency of the Year: Creativity, Strategy, Production Sing In Harmony at McCann NY
Rob Reilly, global creative chairman, McCann Worldgroup
Shop serenades us with breakthrough work that surprises

Though it missed this calendar year by just a few weeks, Microsoft’s 2015 Xmas spot in retrospect was a harbinger of things to come in 2016 for McCann New York and its shop dedicated to Microsoft, m:united. On November 16, 2015, a group of 37 Microsoft employees from around the country gathered in New York City at the company’s new flagship store to sing a song of peace to the world. New to NYC, they took a walk in the neighborhood and sang in front of the Apple flagship store on 5th Avenue.

This Microsoft ensemble—along with members of a Harlem youth choir—surprised a crowd of shoppers, tourists and passers-by with a stirring rendition of “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” Several Apple employees joined the Microsoft chorus. The performance elicited cheers from singers and the public alike. The edited commercial then ends with the words “Spread Harmony.” 

The Microsoft yuletide serenade, chronicled in a video from which was culled a national commercial titled “Peace on Fifth,” underscores a penchant for breaking down barriers, bringing people together in a shared experience, thinking and feeling outside the box, fashioning work that surprises, and connecting in a way that weaves its way into the fabric of mainstream culture. All these dynamics characterize McCann New York’s memorable performance in 2016, making it SHOOT’s pick as Agency of the Year.

Indeed the element of surprise courses through much of McCann NY’s lauded output in 2016. Tongue in cheek, Rob Reilly, global creative chairman, McCann Worldgroup, observed, “I doubt there was anyone at SHOOT going into 2016 thinking, ‘I can’t wait to see what they do with Lockheed Martin.’”

What they did for and with Lockheed Martin was “Field Trip to Mars,” the single-most awarded campaign at Cannes 2016, earning 19 Lions across 11 categories (including Cyber, Entertainment, PR, Innovation), reflecting the range of different disciplines the work spanned. The centerpiece of an ambitious STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education program, “Field Trip” is an immersive groundbreaking group VR experience in which the windows of a seemingly ordinary school bus transform to take riders on a tour of Mars. McCann NY worked with Framestore, which invented cutting-edge technology specifically for this campaign, to enable a 1:1 relationship between Earth and Mars. When the bus turns, the landscape turns just as it would in any bus tour, allowing riders—in this case school children—to truly feel that they are traversing the Red Planet (and not the city streets that the bus was actually driving down). This was all done sans the need to don headsets or glasses. The bus itself became the headset, with a wondrous, awe-inspiring journey seen through its windows.

Lockheed’s Generation Beyond STEM education program is designed to bring the science of space into thousands of homes and classrooms across America, inspiring the next generation of innovators, explorers, inventors and pioneers to pursue related careers. Youngsters after all will be part of the generation who likely will walk on Mars. The online curriculum for middle school teachers and students includes lesson plans, a virtual field trip of activities as well as the Mars Experience Bus itself that will travel the country, replicating for students a journey covering some 200 square miles of the Martian surface. There’s even a smartphone app enabling students to find Mars in the sky, travel there virtually and get real-time Mars weather reports.

McCann’s journey to Mars, though, was fraught with roadblocks. “You can’t let things die,” affirmed Reilly. “You need to present a hundred great ideas to sell one. That’s the ratio. There were so many pitfalls [encountered by ‘Field Trip To Mars’] that its success had to do with the fact that an account person, people in production, creative, a strategy person did not let it die. Steve Zaroff [McCann NY’s chief strategy officer] was among the many here who kept persevering, who fought to get the project done. It probably died 19 times but we kept at it, getting 19 Lions. We had a great partner in Framestore, and a great client who in the end took the biggest risk.”

Tom Murphy, co-chief creative officer of McCann NY, noted, “The list of credits is huge on ‘Field Trip to Mars,’ spanning departments and requiring a degree of collaboration in the best possible way among creative, strategy, account and production teams. That teamwork has been critical to our success here. It’s what contributes to us making work that matters again, helping to grow confidence and the right kind of swagger. Your confidence builds to try more new, even bolder things because you know that everyone will team to help make them happen.”

“Field Trip to Mars” was a year and a half in the making, shared Nathy Aviram, McCann NY’s chief production officer. McCann gravitated to Framestore for its computer graphics expertise and its feature film department’s work on Ridley Scott’s The Martian. “That was the first clue,” quipped Aviram, citing Framestore’s experience with Martian landscapes for the critically acclaimed box office hit. Aviram and Eric Silver, McCann chief creative officer, North America, met with Framestore’s Jon Collins, president of integrated advertising, and Jonathan Shipman, head of integrated production, to get the ball rolling. Framestore then brought a creative technologist on board and they agreed to deeply into the project. 

“At that point we were in the process of investigating how the pieces could be put together, defining what needed to be done and how it could be done for the cost,” recalled Aviram. 

Kathy Love, McCann NY’s executive integrated producer, noted there were “two months of discovery once we decided that Framestore was the right partner.”

Silver related, “There was no precedent for making this. I remember telling the guys at Framestore, ‘We have some good news and bad news. The good news is that you will love this project. The bad news is that we only have X amount of money.’ We could not even speculate on the resources it would take to get this done properly. There were all kinds of problem solving involved, including coming up with monitors/bus windows that didn’t exist.”

But Silver noted that there’s an affirmation of commitment to be found when looking at the big picture, no matter how challenging the logistics of any specific project. “An implicit task in every brief, whether directly stated or not,” said Silver, “is that the work promotes discovery or purpose—or in short, humanity. And we had that humanity and sense of purpose with this project—to inspire the next generation. That helped us all come together to work towards the same goal.”

Breaking through
That sense of humanity, purpose, surprise and breaking new ground was evident throughout McCann’s body of work in 2016. The agency satirized stereotypes about why women are underrepresented in computer science via a series of videos for Girls Who Code. Then for Microsoft the “Woman Made/Make What’s Next” campaign shows girls citing the likes of Einstein, Edison and Tesla when asked to name inventors, underscoring that the achievements of males dominate what’s learned in school. Filling that gap is an anthem spot introducing us—and these girls—to assorted female inventors, inspiring the youngsters to make their own strides in science, technology, engineering and math. And yet another highlight of the year was the satirical “Toddlers Kill/Keep America Safe” PSA for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The latter sheds light on the creative culture at McCann New York. Creatives Susan Young and Daniela Vojta came up with an idea, recalled Sean Bryan, co-chief creative officer at McCann NY, “that didn’t have a client or any money at the time. But the idea was worthwhile and we try to say yes as much as possible to good ideas, figuring out how to get them made, how to even get a client for them. We ask ourselves, ‘What can we do to make this thing get famous, to make an impact for a cause we care about?’ The larger point I’m trying to make is you can only do this sort of thing if you have the confidence to say, ‘what the fuck.’ That confidence and sense of purpose have taken hold here.”

Young said, “It started when we were talking randomly about something completely unrelated. A planner brought up this statistic that was mind blowing to us—that toddlers shot and killed more Americans than terrorists. Given the political rhetoric of today, it seemed then that a pretty ‘logical’ way to keep Americans safe was to produce a video about banning toddlers. We thought we’d try to do this project on the side but one of the things that keeps us at McCann is the opportunity to go to Rob [Reilly], Sean [Bryan] and Tom [Murphy] and say, ‘We have something we think is good.’ And they are incredibly supportive.”

The PSA was made, showing kids brandishing weapons and thus making a case for jailing toddlers so they don’t accidentally shoot us in our own homes. McCann reached out to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence to sponsor the piece and it went on to spark vigorous debate about gun control. In fact, it even was a spark at the third Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton Presidential debate. Responding to a question on gun violence, Clinton referred to toddlers three times, prompting The Washington Post to note that “in bringing up toddlers at the debate, Clinton may have been channeling the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which recently launched a PSA focused on toddler shootings.”

Young and Vojta were also lead creators on such notable work in 2016 as the alluded to “Girls Can’t Code” and Microsoft’s “Make What’s Next.” In the former campaign for the national non-profit Girls Who Code, videos present absurd theories for why girls “can’t” do computer coding, including that “they have boobs,” “they menstruate,” and “they’re beautiful.” With their funny and provocative tone, the videos are designed to trigger conversation about unconscious bias and call out stereotypes related to gender and appearance that have been used to exclude women from traditionally male-dominated fields like technology. 

Also sending out a message of encouragement while pointing out bias was Microsoft’s “Make What’s Next”which changes perceptions about women inventors and their contributions.  Now as an offshoot of that, Microsoft has launched an initiative which will help aspiring female inventors secure patents for their innovative creations. “It’s taking the campaign to a higher level,” said Vojta. “Instead of just making a video, we are doing something tangible with Microsoft, offering more incentives to get more girls involved in STEM.

In ways, this brand of purposeful, socially progressive work promotes a trait that has served McCann NY well. “We’re stubborn,” observed Vojta. “We ask questions a million times until we hear yes. Rob [Reilly] will attest to this. We may have to make some changes and compromise a little bit, but we feel the support of the whole agency to do great work.”

While advancing causes as well as opportunities for women through their work, Young and Vojta also saw their careers advance at McCann NY in 2016 as they were both elevated to executive creative directors.

New business; production
2016 also proved to be a stellar year on the new business front. Verizon moved most of its wireless biz to McCann NY which was already handling FiOS. Reckitt Benckiser added to the Mucinex biz by assigning its largest brand, Lysol, to McCann NY. The agency also won Chick-fil-A, Qualcomm and Godiva Chocolatier. And MasterCard consolidated its digital and social media with McCannXBC in NY. There were no account losses.

Reilly noted that beyond fashioning a strong creative culture, “the culture of winning fixes a lot  of things.” New business was a prime initial focus for Reilly but he affirmed it’s crucial to put that into perspective. “We’ve tried to build a place where you’re not going to lose your job because we lost an account,” he stressed. “If we do the right things, we can get new accounts.” The “right things” center on creativity, strategy, production and account people coming together to create work that’s successful and which they’re proud of. “One of the first things I did when I joined McCann,” recalled Reilly, “was to initiate ‘3 For All.’ I have the poster promoting it right in front of me. If you can’t hold up three things that you’re proud of on an account over the year, then we have to talk, perhaps change our strategy, explore relationships. Let’s not let the work ever be the reason we lose an account. Our mission should be to help brands be meaningful in people’s lives. That’s the McCann Worldgroup mantra.”

McCann NY’s work in 2016 also spans notable content for, among others, Verizon, FiOS, Tommee Tippee, Nespresso (following up on George Clooney’s U.S. ad debut), Mucinex (including a charmingly disgusting “Mr. Mucus Talks Back” activation at JFK), an all digital brand experience Cryptaris Mission for the U.S. Army, witty NY Lottery fare, an enchanting “Hippo” spot for the U.S. Postal Service  “Priceless” experiential work for MasterCard (via McCannXBC), and Cigna’s “TV Doctors of America.” The latter takes the form of a conventional broadcast spot but with a twist as NY CCO Bryan explained, “People don’t listen to real doctors so we thought let’s cast fake doctors from TV [Alan Alda, Patrick Dempsey, Lisa Edelstein, et al] and have them deliver a real message about getting annual check-ups to promote health and wellness.”

Helping to yield such a diverse body of work is a production team, said Aaron Kovan, head of integrated production, m: united, NY, “that gets involved on the creative side, working closely with creatives up front. Producers at McCann and m:united have to be more creative, particularly as budgets become more challenging. Creatives are receptive to bringing producers early on in the process.”

Love shared, “I’ve always tried to be a creative partner, with instances in the past where I’ve actually concepted ideas with the creative team. That’s been a constant. What’s changed is that we have to wear so many hats now. It’s not just about the cornerstone :30 TV spot. There’s experiential, prototyping, making stuff, design, art, so many platforms and venues we need to know about. Creatives look more and more to production, wanting to know, ‘How can we do it? Can we do it?’ We’re always connecting with vendors, talking about new things like how to concept for VR, staying as current as possible.”

That current runs through a contingent that includes: 40 producers at McCann NY; and 10 at m:united who are focused on Microsoft. Aviram describes this staff talent as coming from diverse backgrounds with varied skillsets. They collaborate with numerous production companies, post houses, VFX studios, music and sound shops, and assorted other vendors. At the same time, McCann’s Craft Worldwide operation has grown to offer a wider range of in-house talent and capabilities. Aviram has been involved in developing in-house resources over the last few years, initially editorial, digital and print at Craft, then expanding post, adding 2D and 3D graphics to handle social media needs. Production has been a more recent effort over the past year, with select directors brought into the fold, often for social content and other online projects. Craft also dovetails with freelance directors and other outside talent.

“We built this capability more out of necessity. We still very much value our relationship with outside vendors, the best creative talent in the world,” said Aviram. “I’ve talked to company owners, executive producers and managing directors, hearing what they think about our building internal production capabilities. They understand it. They don’t feel we’re competitors. We don’t want to be competing with A-list production companies. But we had to build ourselves up in-house—otherwise we had to continue asking for favors for every budget-challenged project. So we opened up the option of filling in our capabilities and taking on those types of projects ourselves.”

Joyce King Thomas, NY-based chairman and CCO of McCannXBC, a unit of McCann focused on MasterCard’s global marketing efforts, noted that her shop taps into both outside vendors and Craft. She related that XBC and McCann NY share the bond of “getting the job done,” that “there’s kind of no rulebook... We do whatever it takes. Some projects we shot internally with Craft because going that way made the most sense. We’ve done everything from producers holding cameras when necessary as second unit to shooting with great outside talent from directors like The Malloys to Jun Diaz. We find a way to make the work happen, to make ideas happen.”

Creative Culture
Asked to define the creative culture at McCann and what makes it work, North America CCO Silver shared, “Agencies are at their best when everyone is moving in sync. We’re all very committed to each other and to making this place great. We don’t let egos get in the way. Strategists come up with great creative ideas. Creatives help shape strategy. The producers are revered here and able to take on many roles. We work in concert together.

“I think the measure of any agency’s success,” he continued, “is being unpredictable. The truly great agencies own the element of surprise. Droga5 is a great example of this. We’ve been able to do this with our brands.”

New York co-CCO Bryan observed that McCann NY kind of turned a corner in 2013. “We always had good ideas here. There are good ideas and good people at most every agency. But we changed our outlook, began to think about things differently, looking at how we can make these brands and causes we care about relevant in people’s lives, how we can make these brands matter. We’re thinking what’s the conversation about the brand going to be in six months or a year based on what we do.”

NY co-CCO colleague Murphy chimed in, “We’re looking way beyond the advertising, business or marketing press, way beyond the advertising community. We’re focused on the impact of the brand on culture, how it connects with people in a meaningful way. We’re thinking bigger and outside insular boundaries. Philosophically it was a big shift that resulted in work that’s gained recognition and relevance in the culture at large.”

Global creative chairman Reilly came to McCann from Crispin Porter+Bogusky where he served as partner/worldwide chief creative officer. “CP+B was the agency of the decade, and I’m proud to have been a small part of that. There were lessons learned there that were applied to McCann. Strong work ethic was part of the Crispin culture—and that resulted in ideas that had impact when they landed in mainstream culture. We also have at McCann another element that was in place at Crispin when I was over there—all the partners are on the same page. There was never confusion about what we were doing. All the partners and senior managers of this company have to be on the same page or it won’t work. Part of what we don’t waver from is the belief that creativity is the answer to our clients’ problems. And we’ve been good at convincing our clients of that. Creativity is needed for brands to have meaning. Young people will allow brands into their lives but they expect more out of those brands. Brands have to realize that and need to work to deliver more for their customers. And creativity is key to all of this.”

When SHOOT interviewed NY CCOs Bryan and Murphy for this Agency of the Year coverage, they alluded to a Microsoft project they embarked on just 36 hours after the Presidential election, only noting that it was work that speaks to the unifying and inspirational power of people who care about what they’re doing. This too applies to the talent at McCann as they seek to create and bring to life pieces of communication that they care about, helping them to connect with others.

That Microsoft project turned out to be m:united//McCann’s Xmas season follow-up to “Peace on Fifth,” cut from the same “Spread Harmony” cloth. As we look to regroup after a year marked by an inordinate amount of divisiveness and negativity, the new “Art of Harmony” campaign spotlights a group of eight real-life people: Artist and advocate for social change through community-based public art, Joel Artista; child activist Zianna Oliphant; Florida police officer Bobby White, nicknamed the “basketball cop” after a video of him playing ball with local kids, rather than busting them after a complaint, went viral; West African refugee artist Hawa Diallo; Jazz Jennings, the youngest person to publicly identify herself as transgender; Zea Bowling, a 7-year-old who stood firm in the face of hate during a celebration of the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage; Migrant Offshore Aid Station founder Christopher Catrambone; and Mona Haydar who invites people to come “ask a Muslim” over free coffee and doughnuts.

The uplifting message focuses on the spirit of the holidays, people coming together and celebrating what is good and right with the world. An anthem spot shows these eight people working together using Microsoft Surface Studio to create a peace mural. The film ends with words that also reflect the approach and sentiment at McCann NY: “When the world seems divided, coming together can be a beautiful thing.”