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BBH global creative chief Pelle Sjoenell says ‘Asia is now ahead’ as a force in advertising

The worldwide chief creative officer for Bartle Bogle and Hegarty talks to Mumbrella Asia’s Eleanor Dickinson about brands becoming entertainment producers, creativity in Asia and men playing a more prominent role in promoting gender diversity within the industry

You took over the role of global chief creative officer a year ago now. Was it a difficult transition given the legacy left by your predecessor Sir John Hegarty

“Sometimes these chief roles in our industry can be an elevation to irrelevance. It’s like saying: ‘We’re done with you. Here’s a title and do something else’. Historically, you had Sir John at the top of the pyramid, whereas I’m at the bottom of the pyramid, trying to support and help everyone.

“When I got the chance to do this, it was amazing – I grew up on [BBH’s] Levis ads. But I have always been driven to try and reinvent what we do and be more useful for brands. Even though I love my job and always want to do this, there is a chance that the role of an advertising agency creative director may not be around for too long. A lot of things are pointing at that: creativity becoming democratised – anyone can now do it. YouTubers have more reach than we do. But, we were built in a time when the agency was the route to mass communication.

“So the only way to save my job is to save the industry first. I don’t want to be doomsday about this, but if I am against something, it makes the position more exciting. Obviously you cannot fill Sir John’s shoes, but you can make him proud.”

BBH’s legacy comes from making ads so famous that even today ‘The Levis ad’ still rings a note with people. Yet many creative agencies, as they strive to innovate, seem too embarrassed these days to use the word ‘advertising’ to describe themselves. Are they losing touch with their beings?

“We’re an innovative industry and it’s part of our DNA to do what’s new. The task we get from brands is to find new ideas of where they can go. It’s also inherent that we also look at ourselves and see how we can better what we do – and that’s a good thing.

“The name advertising itself is something of a problem. When advertising is done really well it’s when you don’t notice it. Obviously the changing media landscape has made advertising release itself into a void of content and I don’t want to see it. I want to see the things that I love seeing.  So the task of reinventing advertising just comes from a will to be better at our jobs and not be ashamed of what we do.

“For example, when it comes to creating big entertainment pieces, a lot of brands will go to the talent agencies and the production companies. They don’t necessarily go to the advertising agencies because they see us as just delivering what we always did.“

You have spent the last six years in Los Angeles and before that you were based in New York. Given your experience of these big US markets, how would you say Asia is faring comparatively in terms of creativity?

“In this region, there seems to be a similarity between what they call emerging markets and emerging marketing. You have to adapt to the different markets here. When I went to China a few years ago, there was a lot of this ‘East copying West’ idea.

“Now it’s the other way around: WeChat is the best digital platform on the planet. Most of the ones that went before are absolutely behind. It’s an interesting time: for us it used to be this work is great for the region. But in the last couple of years, the work has been great for the whole world. Part of this is to do with the budgets, ambition and invention that’s coming from this region.

“On a creative level, Asia is ahead now because they don’t have the history and the years and years of advertising – the rules are not set. The clients are not serving history as much. They are saying: ‘The market is exploding. What do we do?’ And they are rushing to it with innovation. I would say they are leaving the ‘copycat’ worldview behind them. Taste has become important.

“The US, even though it is a big market, is behind in so many ways. It’s like two countries: one half is an ancient, medieval country and the other is light years ahead of the rest. But in Asia in particular, innovation is going to win over simplicity. Here there’s a lot of inspiration available because every market is so different. So for Nike, people run very differently in Thailand than they do in the Philippines, and that makes the markets a great creative starting point. Whereas in the US, there’s a lack of inspiration because these stories have been told so many times.”

Looking at Asia, when John Hegarty was interviewed by Mumbrella Asia in 2013, he said Asia will never be a dominant force in advertising if it doesn’t cut out scam. Four years later, in the wake of last year’s I-Sea’ scandal, is this issue still holding the region back?

“Scam wherever it comes from is just the shame of what we do. We generate business for our clients through creativity and not to create fame four ourselves. I think the way to get around [the perception of Asia as being a region of scam] is to create big campaigns for big brands that have a big effect. That’s what we do.

“We don’t make scam work obviously, but I can see that if you’re a region that has not had the limelight yet, I can see the reason why it happens. I don’t believe in it; it’s like doping in cycling. But I don’t think it is going to be a problem in this region in the future because there is going to be so much innovation. It will be be a thing of the past, [the region] doesn’t need those means to create the fame anymore.”

Since moving to LA, you have been heavily involved in the entertainment industry and trying to bridge that sector with advertising. What are the main challenges with this endeavour? Is there enough collaboration at play between the different industries to create great work?

“We, as creatives, need to let go of control a little bit. We were built in a time of monopoly and now we need the storytellers. Brands need to know that they can be a provider of great content without having to be in it.

“Most car brands are soon going to have autonomous driving, which means do you really care what’s driving you if you’re not driving it. Probably you’re going to be bored. So cars are going to have to become entertainers; what you put in the car will become more important than how you drive it.

“Technology means that we are constantly wanting to be entertained and the brands that have realised that are paving the way. Red Bull is a fantastic example; you could even argue that if Red Bull became illegal as a drink, it could continue as a media company.”

But Red Bull is a rare gem among brands surely?

“I don’t want to call them copycats, but a lot of what happens is when brands see [Red Bull] is they say: ‘How do we do that?’ Everyone goes there. But what Red Bull did inherently well was figure out their own space for it, which was to make athletes better at what they do.

“Whether that’s jumping out of space or Shaun White’s secret halfpipe, it was about improving athletic performance and the content just came through it. It wasn’t just to create content, an ad or a story about themselves; it was to support athletes by giving them ‘wings’, then creating content out of it and ultimately creating great entertainment. And there are few brands that have figured out that equation: what is your story?

“What made The Lego Movie so great as an example of brands doing entertainment was the conflict it related: do you build by the rules or by imagination? If you have 30 seconds, you either show an ad where someone plays by the rules or with their imagination. But in the longer movie format you get the excitement of seeing which side was going to win. Brands which find their stories like Lego did will not have to pay to get interest.

“Not every brand has The Lego Movie in them. And not every brand has a long story in them like the [award-winning content marketing campaign] Thomas Burberry series. But there are brands with a lot of history and a lot of innovation, and it’s those stories that are missed when you just concentrate on the latest product. Yet we trust in brands when we know where they’re coming from.”

Moving on again, you have been a vocal figure for diversity in the creative industry and in particular for helping to boost female leadership numbers. How much of an uphill battle is it today? And why is it, despite years of activism from the likes of Cindy Gallop and the 3 per cent conferences, that the pace of change is still so slow?

“It’s still a big issue; it’s an industry-wide issue and it needs to be addressed. If you get practical, the buying power is with women, but we don’t have enough creative leaders who are female. But the thing is, equality is not something you will reach one day, it’s something you have to work on every day. It’s a way of acting in meetings and in everything we do. For me, we have to change the culture around it and obviously get the numbers right.

“You need to think about it when it comes to promotions, bonuses, about who you fire. And you need to find mentors who are male and female. And a tweet doesn’t do much, it needs to come from within. There are so many reasons to do diversity right. Diversity isn’t even just about women: it’s about class, race disability, but if we cannot do gender right – the first diversion in our species – then I don’t have much hope for the rest of them.

“However, I do think it is a good time for equality right now because of the politics around it. If the US election had gone the other way, then the shoulder would have come down a bit. The only good thing about this is that it is now action-time and people care. I think there are two generations who were not previously political, but who are now interested in what’s happening. It’s a great opportunity for brands and the industry to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

Could you say the same thing about the Kevin Roberts episode? As unpalatable as his words were, was there a silver lining in the outrage is provoked with with many saying that this attitude has no place in the industry anymore?

“I’m not sure I want to go there. I want to talk about the positive things that people are doing and not look backwards. But every big change that’s ever happened is our reaction to things we don’t like. A lot of things that have happened in our industry have made us more awake, even though we should have been awake long before then.

“It’s also a bit unfair that it’s the minorities – in this case women – who are the ones forced to be the loudest when we – men, who sit in positions to help change – are the ones who should trying to achieve change quicker. Why are the protectors not helpers in all cases with minorities?”

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