When Shane O’Brien started his new job as executive creative director of BBDO Dublin a few weeks ago, he had no idea what would unfold and, as he tells Adworld, his first week was more akin to being in the Civil Defence than working in a creative department.
Stepping into a new job can be a daunting prospect at the best of times; but when those first steps are in your slippers with your wife watching you across the kitchen table, it’s doubly so.
A month ago I was appointed as the new ECD of BBDO Dublin. I had joined full-time last December, but I have a long history with this beautiful old tram shed that houses our agency.
The Tram Shed
I started my career in Sandymount as an intern back in 2006, and this is the third time I’ve worked here. Perhaps even more serendipitous is the fact that my great grandfather worked here when it actually was a tram shed. It would be fair to say that this was very much a homecoming for me.
Usually when you start a new job, you’re given a couple of weeks’ grace as you get to know the team, meet your clients and learn the settings on the coffee machine. When you’re promoted internally, the window shrinks quite considerably because you already know the ropes and the button for a flat white. And when you’re promoted internally the week a global pandemic arrives on your doorstep, that window disappears completely and it’s instant coffee for everyone.
Leo’s Independence Day
On day one, at my inaugural leadership team meeting, the first item on the agenda was COVID-19. This was not covered in my predecessor’s handover notes. Fortunately for me, most of the heavy thinking had already been done. The management team had been contingency planning for about a month and all the logistics for how we would function from home had long been worked out. All that remained was to put the plan into action.
And so, my first week as ECD was more civil defence than creative direction – making sure my department was ready to set up at home when the time came. That Friday, following Leo Varadkar’s Independence Day moment, it came sooner than expected.
The first week working from home was like one long Zoom conference… in that it was a bit of blur and I wasn’t always completely sure what was going on. But somewhere along the way, while attempting to run a sizeable department through a combination of e-mail, Microsoft Teams and an unwieldy WhatsApp group, I got into the swing of it. There is something about a crisis that focuses the mind.. When an insurmountable global catastrophe faces you, small problems start to seem manageable. Practical solutions make you feel useful. It was palpable that the whole agency felt the same way. Everyone was hungry for work, hungry for distraction and hungry to help. So we just got on with it.
We collaborated with our clients in AIB and EBS to create the HSE’s ‘Be On Call For Ireland’ campaign in a matter of hours. Minister for Health, Simon Harris, announced the call to action the following morning and in just two days it helped to recruit over 60,000 health workers to assist the Health Service in their fight against COVID-19. We worked with our clients at Lidl to create multiple end-to-end campaigns on TV, radio, digital and press all from living rooms and kitchens across the country, asking the public to ‘look after yourselves and we’ll look after shelves’. The line has since been adopted by Lidl in the USA. We created a pro-bono campaign for Dublin Simon Community featuring Game of Thrones’ actor, Liam Cunningham, highlighting the impact of the current crisis on those who are truly isolated in our society.
I am now a month into the job, and in truth, it has been challenging in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. However, I don’t want to be glib about it. I realise what a privileged position I am in at the moment. I am extremely lucky to have been able to work. And I am lucky that the nature of that work does not put myself or my family at risk.
Nevertheless, I miss the office and I miss the team. I did not expect to learn so much about my colleagues while separated from them. I am incredibly proud of how they have handled this. To borrow a phrase from our CEO, Neal Davies, they have been ‘ferociously tenacious’, although I do believe he borrowed that phrase from Edna O’Brien first.
In any case, I’m looking forward to stepping back into the tram shed and stepping into my new role under more normal circumstances. I might still bring my slippers though.
Shane O’Brien is executive creative director of BBDO Dublin.