Meet the most influential agency executives, creative minds, and innovative production companies at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Mark Whelan (Havas UK)

We recently had a chance to talk Cannes and creativity with Mark Whelan, Group Chief Creative Officer, Havas UK. Our editorial director Mark Tungate posed the questions.


I read in Campaign that your remit has recently been expanded to help bring creative and media closer together again. How are you tackling that task?

The division of our industry into ‘creative’ and ‘media’ is due to company structures, not the reality of the communications landscape. It's a bit like when we had standalone digital businesses – to do so now would make no sense. And equally, separating media and creative thinking no longer makes sense. The main reason that it's not converging – yet – is down to the way clients are appointing agencies. But the clients I’ve spoken to recently think we’ll begin to see more and more of it. We want to be ahead of that.

It’s an ambitious task and very early days, obviously, but the first thing I’m doing is getting around and speaking to all of the different businesses within our HKX building to assess what the creative need is – from social businesses, to creative programmatic, to sponsorship, to data, and to everything else that we do here. I suppose I’m in investigation mode. But there are already some interesting ideas beginning to surface.


You were a co-founder of Cake, which Havas acquired in 2008. You were really doing “branded content” before anybody called it that. How did you become a pioneer in that field?

It was really a reaction to the question of ‘there has to be another way’, other than interruption. So for us, as an advertising bloke, a guy from the music business and a guy who worked in TV, operating in entertainment was a natural fusing of our interests and skills.

And because no one else was really doing it at that time, we started off with a lot of ‘firsts’ – we were the first people to go into Glastonbury (rock festival) with a brand experience, for example. For broadcast, it was a natural evolution from televising the music events we were doing to turning them into formatted television programmes like the Orange Playlist show for ITV.


What’s the last thing you did in the realm of content that really excited you?

We did this brilliant thing for Sky where we commissioned three different directors to create a music video, but the music was a different aria from each of the operas that the English National Opera was staging at the time. We made these videos with Werner Herzog, Sam Taylor-Wood and the early days of the wonderful Dougal Wilson: three very different directors who gave us three very distinct films. They were then aired on Sky Arts as a documentary series. It was a wonderful cross-pollination of the arts and modern creativity. The best bit was that I was in Sydney for a wedding and the story appeared on the front page of the Morning Herald.

I read that one of the things you’re most proud of is getting a brand to help you save a local swimming pool in Brixton. As I spent most of the 90s living in Brixton, I’m afraid you’re going to have to tell me that story!

We were really into the idea of brands having a ‘social cause’. At the time we described it as ‘social action’. Things like getting Budweiser to underwrite the Glastonbury recycling initiative, or Pokémon finding Sunshine Coaches. This was in 2000 so we were there, really, before anyone else was.

For this one, we saw that the Brockwell Lido was under threat of closure because they couldn’t afford to refurbish it. So we got Evian – a fantastic client who cared about these issues – to pay for the retiling and the refurbishment…with the pay-off being that the tiles on the bottom of the pool created the Evian logo. The pool remained open to the local community, and the comedic thing about it was that if you looked out of the window as you flew into Heathrow, you could see this giant Evian logo in the middle of this swimming pool in Brixton.  

The great thing about that piece of work was that it genuinely benefitted real people in that community, as well as benefitting Evian in terms of the inherent media value of the positive PR it gained. It’s still one of my favourite things to have worked on…Although, amusingly, a media agency at the time claimed it was their work and won an award for it. You can quote me on that, because it still makes me laugh to this day. 


Judging by Cannes, more and more brands seem determined not just to sell us things, but to change the world. How can we avoid cynicism about the “doing good” trend? 

By making them real. There’s no doubt that some of the initiatives are genuine and motivated by real heart – things like Pampers’ nappies for premature babies are amazing – but some things are clearly ‘awards agenda’ driven. And that’s where the cynicism comes in. As an industry, we need to make sure it as much about ‘doing’ as it is about ‘saying’ – and never lose sight of the fact that ultimately it is our job to have a tangible impact on real people, not just an awards jury.

That's why C4’s Superhumans is fucking amazing – because of the transformative effect it had on society’s perception of disability. It was the WHOLE package – borne out of C4’s role as broadcaster for the Paralympics and then properly, properly getting behind it as a movement. The notion of the Superhumans alone is genius in its creativity and respect. It deserved to win everything. 


To learn more about Mark, look at his talent profile below

Mark Whelan
Group Chief Creative Officer Havas London
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