AdForum Exclusive: 5 Questions for McGann | Zhang

by James Thompson

Air China recently tapped McGann | Zhang as its Agency of Record, so AdForum's James Thompson wanted to follow up with the global agency to better understand its creative culture, strategy for the Air China account, and philosophy on the trends and influences that are having a profound impact on the advertising industry.

First, a little more about McGann | Zhang:

Geoff McGann and Yichi Zhang co-founded McGann | Zhang  in 2015.

Headquartered in both Los Angeles and Beijing, our people are from radically different backgrounds and cultures, yet we share similar philosophies, creative thinking and a deep-rooted commitment to improving the world we live in.

From a strategic and creative position, we believe that creating a unique brand voice for our clients is absolutely pivotal in the current business climate. In order to get to the special places that genuinely resonate, brands must have a memorable voice that they can own. This is where we start every conversation.

We know that experience is invaluable and our people have worked on some of the most iconic, thought provoking and successful campaigns in history. We also know, however, from our long experience within the teaching worlds of academic programs like VCU Brandcenter, 72U, WK12, and Art Center College of Design that some of the freshest thinking comes from the minds of new creative talent. It is this mixture of non-stop drive, humility, a sense of humor, an understanding of pop culture and history, experience and imagination that is the recipe for the creative magic we try to deliver to all of our clients.

We are united by our tenacity, work ethic, curiosity, and our willingness to push things beyond what is considered possible. Together, we are bent on giving our clients a voice and an approach that speaks loud and speaks true.

5 Questions for McGann | Zhang

AdForum: Juxtaposition is an excellent catalyst for creativity. How does juxtaposing your life and sensibility with that of Yichi Zhang (or vice versa) contribute to your agency’s overall creative ethos? To take that a step further, how does the collision of Eastern and Western values – represented by the respective Beijing and LA offices – influence the overall culture at McGann | Zhang?

Geoff McGann: We are still a very small shop, and so it’s really important for Yichi and I to only look for and work with people that we consider family more than employees. Of course, as we grow, that dynamic will change, and the condition of our family will take on different perspectives. Right now, we are working 16+ hour days, but everyone here is really enjoying the ride because we try to give people real opportunities to become their best selves through the projects we are all working on, together.

The East/West thing is a natural condition, part of our DNA, literally, but it isn’t something we try to force people to dive into. I think the people that work with us see how different Yichi and I are, but also how much we truly respect and genuinely like each other…and that attitude provides a very human, open work environment.

AdForum: Congratulations on the Air China account acquisition. Why do you feel McGann | Zhang is uniquely qualified to represent Air China, and what challenges – in terms of advertising – do you feel the airline brand faces, and how do you propose to overcome those challenges?

Geoff McGann: Obviously, this is a big client, with lots of moving parts. We are going to be challenged in many ways, some of which we cannot see right now, as the relationship is quite new. But it has been an incredibly energizing thing for all of us because we know how tricky things can get with a global brand that has lots of cooks in the kitchen. Trust and respect are two values that are critical in Chinese culture, as well as in ours at M/Z, and although Air China is a big brand, we have had nothing but warm, respectful and contemplative interactions with them.

Our biggest challenge, which is the first thing that we believe we have accomplished, is to help Air China understand and respect us as people who care about their brand, which has led to a trusting approach to developing work that they sometimes may not fully understand because of certain language barriers. Trust is essential in global brand marketing maybe more than in any other type of advertising.

AdForum: McGann | Zhang has made a commitment to hiring young creatives who are at the forefront of pop culture and emerging technologies. As digital devices become increasingly integrated into our everyday lives, how do you think technology will impact the way people consume information – and how will that influence the advertising industry?

Geoff McGann: Technology has been changing things in our industry for a long time, and obviously it will continue to do that. But technology is only a tool that falls under the platforms of strategy, concept and brand voice. So, whatever exciting technologies come our way, we will always look at those opportunities AFTER the more important part of our job as creative marketers is accomplished – that being, strategy, concept and voice. And brand voice is always going to be our strongest secret weapon, a foundation and an art form that in our opinion has been losing its way.

AdForum: McGann | Zhang seems to naturally gravitate toward cause-related advertising – the Pride piece (video below) and your Heal the Bay work, for instance. Is this a conscious decision? Also, as more brands expand into cause-related advertising to bolster their public image, how important do you feel transparency is in storytelling?

Geoff McGann: Of course, cause marketing is important to both Yichi and I. We have tried to prove that in the amount of work we have done in this area, and will continue to do. It has been a major part of my career for the past ten years. We don’t just check off a box in our agency agenda that allows us to say, “We did our part and gave back.” There is no chance that we will ever abandon cause marketing as a crucial and absolute part of our past, present and future.

AdForum: What are the best seats you’ve ever had to a VCU Rams basketball game, and have you ever met Shaka Smart (sorry, I was born and raised in Richmond)?

Geoff McGann: Please. They’re all choke and no go. Besides, Yichi went to University of Richmond.


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