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Raising the Disruption Bar

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John Kane, Executive Creative Director at TBWA\Dublin. Picture: Sebastian Rutkowski (sjphoto.ie)

With a shed full of Cannes Lions to his name, John Kane, TBWA\Dublin’s executive creative director is aiming to raise to bar higher for both the agency and its clients, as he explains to John McGee.

They say every creative director has an unfinished manuscript tucked away in the bottom drawer somewhere. For John Kane, the executive creative director of TBWA\Dublin, however, the manuscript never made it to the bottom drawer and next January he can proudly add ‘published author’ to his CV alongside mention of the 12 Cannes Lions he has picked up and the several successful business start-ups he has been involved with creating.

The book, which is aimed at the lucrative children’s market, is the first of two that his publisher is planning to publish but he won’t be giving up his day job anytime soon.

Kane joined the Rathmines-based agency as its executive creative director earlier this year and set about raising the creative bar for the agency’s 68 staff almost immediately.

From Dublin to Oz

Having started his advertising career in Dublin with Javelin in the late 1990s, he moved to the USA in 2000 and then later to Australia where he spent five years at Leo Burnett Sydney, including a stint as its creative director. After that he started his own agency, Happy Soldiers, which quickly became internationally recognised and was named Hotshop of the Year twice in its first three years and in year four it was ranked the top independent agency in Australia.

In his relatively short advertising career he has bagged more than thirty major international awards, including 12 Cannes Lions as well as a few Clio’s, D&ADs and a Grand Prix Effie.

More recently he founded Idea Gallery, an innovation and accelerator agency that has worked with clients around the world, such as Coca Cola, Subaru, Diageo and Virgin. Working with the Idea Gallery also gave him exposure to the coalface of entrepreneurialism when he co-founded two businesses including the popular Dublin-based ice-cream parlours, Scrumdiddly and the Australian flower delivery website, Little Flowers, which is now the fastest growing florist in Australia.

With a young family, a return to his native Dublin was always on the cards but it came about in a rather circuitous manner.

“The agency Host in London was on the shortlist for the eir account and I knew Anthony Freedman quite well as it’s an Australian agency that had opened an office in London. He asked me if I was interested in pitching with them and I did, but we didn’t get it in the end. So, I thought maybe I should check out Dublin to see if there was anything happening and I had a good chat with Deirdre and Mark (Deirdre Waldron, CEO and Mark Nolan, deputy managing director). I liked the whole disruption model which is central to everything TBWA does and that was more or less it,” says Kane.

Kane is hoping to bring some of the Antipodean magic that sees Australian and New Zealand agencies winning big at Cannes every year, to Rathmines.

The Game is Up

With a client list that includes the likes of Electric Ireland, Laya Healthcare, BMW, McDonalds, Bank of Ireland, Jameson, ESB and Dunnes Stores, Kane is hoping to bring some of the Antipodean magic that sees Australian and New Zealand agencies winning big at Cannes every year, to Rathmines.

But he is under no illusions about the scale of the task that lies ahead, given the size of the market, the short-term thinking that is creeping back into it and the fact that clients are looking for something different.

“I’ll tell you one thing and that’s every single client coming in here now, knows the game is up, they know the game has changed they know they have to do something. The traditional game of advertising and the way that they have always seen it, that they can sit back and let it happen around them has changed. They are now asking for things that make a difference and all the conversations we are having with them have changed considerably,” he says.

“A recent example of this is that I presented three campaigns to a very conservative client. The first two were TV ads and the third one wasn’t but when I presented the third, the client went ‘thank God, we thought you were going to give us another TV ad. And this was coming from a client that would have been on the conservative side in the past. These are the types of conversations we’re having with clients at the moment. They want something different, something that makes a difference to their business or the category in which they operate,” he adds.

Slightly Tainted

With a lot of advertising conversations dominated by the future of advertising, does he think that the model is broken?

“No, I think advertising has become one of those words that has become slightly tainted. I think the word advertising is the problem. I think what we do will always have a place but I think a lot of agencies will struggle if they keep going the way they are going. I think if you keep repeating the same thing 15 years later, you are eventually going to run into trouble. I think advertising needs to find a new way and the role we play within it needs to be different than what it was before. And it will be hard to find the people with skills to rise to this challenge. Where do you find those skills when you have people writing TV, radio and print ads for so long? How do you make them look at something with a view to solving a problem in different way?  But it’s not all just about problem solving, you have to sell stuff too and that’s what we get paid for,” says Kane.

“But I also believe that creativity, used in the right way, is the most powerful tool a business can have. I don’t know if all Irish companies understand this – some of them do – but creativity is why companies like Uber exists and its why a lot of companies like Fitbit are starting to hire creative directors. The importance of creativity is huge but from what I can see there’s not a lot of what I would call creative consciousness amongst Irish brands and that’s a pity.”

When Kane’s appointment was announced earlier in the year alongside the rebranding from Cawley Nea TBWA to just TBWA\Dublin, much was made of some of the ambitions he set out for the agency, including winning at Cannes.

“When we sat down when I first joined, we tried to work out what our vision is and I basically said ‘look, I’d like to be a world class agency that just happens to be based in Dublin.’ That was the vision and for me that is hopefully achievable and it’s the goal. It’s to do that thing that New Zealand or Sweden does every year in Cannes or whatever else it takes to compete on a worldwide level. And then at least everyone knows what the goal is. When it came to the agency’s award strategy I said that if we are going to be a world class agency, we need to win or compete for world class awards. So, it was nothing to do with the industry here or indeed anybody else and it was purely to do with our own ambitions. So, we set out our stall and then that decision was based on our ambitions. Now we mightn’t win next year. But when I raised the bar, the ideas got better immediately. Because they couldn’t jump over the small bar anymore, they had to. So, it’s like they are training for the Olympics as opposed to training for the Community Games. Again, we mightn’t win at the Olympics, but at least we know that we are training for them and we have a shot at them.”

An Entrepreneurial Flair

Kane’s involvement in the Scrumdiddly ice-cream parlours in Dublin (there’s one in Donabate and another in Dun Laoghaire) as well as his role in founding Little Flowers, has probably given him a greater commercial and entrepreneurial exposure than most creative directors, something which he hopes will give the agency more of a commercial edge. It may also lead to deeper relationships with some clients that may be looking at new product development.

“We are looking at a number of things, particularly in terms of how we can add value to our clients through new products or services. We are currently working on something at the moment which I can’t really discuss but it’s a new product for one of our clients. But we need to work out how we as an agency make money for it because it’s not like billing for a service. There’s another issue around how you protect your IP or whether it belongs to the client. So, there’s still some work to be done but, ultimately, we would like companies to come to TBWA not just for an advertising campaign but for other solutions to whatever it is that needs to be solved,” concludes Kane.

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (IMJ July/August 2017)© to order back issues please call 016611660