To say that 2017 was a stupendous year for McCann Worldgroup is something of an understatement. McCann has always been one of the networks that count – a storied name from the founding era of Madison Avenue – but thanks in part to “Fearless Girl”, the installation that became an icon, last year it roared back into the headlines.
No coincidence, then, that McCann was named Network of the Year by the very people who had spent months chronicling its successes: the press. I couldn’t help wondering how Harris Diamond, the chairman and chief executive officer of McCann Worldgroup, feels about the press right now. After all, Diamond has a strong track record in both PR and politics.
“The press is under scrutiny and attack in ways we have never seen before, certainly not in the United States. There have always been newspapers that profess a certain viewpoint, but now the press as a whole is under attack – and that’s not healthy.”
McCann has some reason to be thankful for the continuing influence of the press. Fearless Girl dominated conversations about Wall Street and women in power, but also symbolized the idea that McCann is “back” creatively.
I wonder aloud how much credit Diamond can take for that. “Well, McCann has been a leading institution in marketing and communications for a hundred years. But having said that, it became clear to us that in a world of multiple platforms and many, many brands, all struggling to get noticed, the only way to stand out was creatively. It’s the only way to differentiate our clients’ products. The onus has to be on finding an idea based on a strategic understanding of where a brand fits into society, coupled with a creative execution that ensures people will pay attention to it. That’s what’s been driving us over the past few years.”
Many networks espouse a pithy creative ethos, whether it’s TBWA’s theory of Disruption or Leo Burnett’s philosophy of HumanKind. Diamond says he’s not a fan of one-word definitions, but he adds: “For me our work is about understanding how our clients’ products fit into people’s lives, and then demonstrating that creatively.”
CLIMBING THE STAIRS
As somebody who comes from a PR background (he was CEO of Weber Shandwick and its predecessor companies for more than 16 years) does he feel that successful advertising campaigns are now obliged to generate earned media? If your story isn’t being written or talked about, does it have any merit? In other words, should PR be at the core of every campaign?
“No, but it should be one of the elements. Look, Fearless Girl was an event, it was a PR operation, it was a digital video. There are multiple platforms available to us. They trick is finding the best way of expressing a given idea.”
He admits that Fearless Girl captured “lightning in a bottle”, defining a workplace revolution just ahead of the #MeToo landslide. But has it also changed the way he thinks about gender diversity in advertising?
“If you look at the advertising industry compared to other areas of corporate America, for reasons I find hard to understand, it’s lacking. Here at McCann I think we’ve made tremendous progress. Gender balance is something you want, but you have to make sure it’s based on merit. And I think we’ve achieved that here.”
As for the industry in general, he says: “Well, like everyone else I watched Mad Men, and I did get the impression advertising got stuck in its ways in the 1970s while other industries changed. But I’m hopeful that it’s changing now. Not just in terms of gender diversity, by the way, but diversity of all kinds. You need people of different backgrounds and ethnicities. That’s our audience.”
Diamond once wrote that no matter how good your idea might be, if it isn’t working, you have to step away. It’s something creative people can find hard to do. Does he have any tips for working with creative people in a commercial environment?
“The key words here are ‘commercial environment’. We don’t do creativity for creativity’s sake. We’re here to help our clients sell more products. Having said that, we do get involved in pro bono work, which offers plenty of opportunity for creativity. And I would argue that because we’re always looking for ideas that are relevant to society, the work we’re doing is positive.”
Diamond comes over as being a hard-working New Yorker in the classic mould. Somehow I wasn’t surprised to read that one of his first jobs was selling peanuts at Yankee Stadium.
“The idea was get paid to watch baseball, but I discovered that it was pretty hard work, climbing all those stairs. Somehow, though, that made the whole experience more satisfying. It was a good lesson. If you’re here to work, then work. You’ll get more out of it at the end of the day.”
This enthusiasm continues into the present day advertising world. “I’ve said this many times, but this is the perfect time to work in our business. When the pressures we’re under lead to solutions like Fearless Girl, that can only be a good thing.”