Q&A with Facebook Creative Shop APAC chief Fergus O’Hare: We want to reinvent mobile advertising but we’ve no ambitions to be an agency

Fergus O'HareFergus O’Hare, a traditionally trained former Ogilvy creative director, was hired to run Facebook’s inhouse creative offering for APAC in September last year.

In this interview with Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks, O’Hare talks about how Facebook Creative Shop is like an agency and how it is not, assembling a team of former agency creative directors, rethinking mobile creativity, and competing for attention with a Star Wars trailer and Kim Kardashian’s rear-end. 

Tell us a bit about your background, Fergus.

I worked at Ogilvy on everything from IBM to Louis Vuitton to Motorola, in Paris and New York, for 12 years. After five years of doing ads just for Cannes, I thought this is pointless – even though I was one of the lucky ones working on global accounts (we won awards on bigger accounts like IBM). I had a mid-life advertising crisis and went to Qatar and set up an agency for the Qatari royal family. Which was wonderful for six months, until it wasn’t.

A friend of mine recommended me for a job at Facebook. They were looking for someone for the Middle East region, and I worked there for 14 months. It was great, producing work for 2G in Israel. There are $150m startup businesses without agencies, and I’d go there and talk to them about Facebook. I’d say you guys need a brand, and I’d work with them to build one. Then I took the role for APAC. Which is not unlike the Middle East in terms of its diversity, which is a great bed for creativity.

You mentioned businesses without agencies. A big part of Facebook’s strategy is to bring SMEs online to start using the platform to advertise, right?

Yes. Again, when I went to Dubai I didn’t completely understand what I was doing, because I came out of an agency. A lot of people didn’t get what we were doing at Facebook. They didn’t see the potential. We’d do a lot of speeches, but it got to the point where I had to show agencies the potential of it. So I started to build things. I set up relationships with production companies, and started to produce work that I could take to agencies and show how it works. For instance I helped to relaunch Etihad, working with a top photographer (Norman Jean Roy) to produce work for Facebook and Instagram to position the brand as the world’s most prestigious airline.

Etihad Airways mobile ads before and after the rebrand:


Before the rebrand



Agencies had trouble selling creative because they didn’t understand Facebook, but clients wanted to be on the medium because they knew that’s where the audiences are. They were going to digital agencies who don’t understand creative and were producing shit work. I had to show them that it’s possible to do good work on the medium.

The problem with mainstream creativity is that with print work, people are trying to put too many messages in there. On Facebook, you’re competing with the Star Wars trailer and Kim Kardashian’s ass and whatever else. How does your piece of creative sit in between those two things? How are you going to stop someone’s thumb so that they look at it? It needs to be simple and beautiful and capture your attention within the first three seconds.

Are you designing creative work with mobile in mind, or desktop too?

Always mobile first. We design everything for 2G and up. In some countries mobile devices are used for everything from a bank account to the main source of entertainment. So why should creative be shit on these phones? Even if it’s just a thumbnail-sized piece of creative, there’s no reason why it can’t be great.

Isn’t advertising on Facebook more about data and tech than it is about creative, tweaking the message so that it’s more relevant to the user?

Facebook is about data science and art coming together. If the ad is shit, it’s still not going to work. It has to work in three seconds – and that’s not a tech issue. That’s because of how people are consuming content. People have shorter attention spans than goldfish these days, and it’s still about creativity.

We’re launching a media lab to examine exactly how people are consuming ads, and how we can use data to make ads better. We know that people get bored quickly, so what can we do creatively to keep them engaged for longer?

The thing with TV and print is that the work is getting more and more generic to talk to broad audiences, and so the creative tends to be boring. The best work you see now is work that is done for Cannes, because creatives can be more singleminded. With Facebook, you can be more targeted, which means you can be more creative, as you can be more singleminded.

BBH work for NTUC Income won at the Facebook Awards

BBH work for NTUC Income won at the Facebook Awards

What’s your view on the quality of creative work that’s being done on Facebook in APAC at the moment?

Good and getting better. We’ve just had the Facebook Awards. There were 20 winners, and I think a lot of them will win at Cannes [see the work here]. I think APAC has a chance to win the global Facebook awards this year. The last four years have been dominated by Droga5.

What trends did you notice among the winners?

It’s still about the big idea, and humour tends to win. Video is key and so is innovation. People are starting to think creatively about how to hack the platform.

Tell us about your inhouse creative team.

When I got here last September we had seven people. We’re up to 18 now. I’ve intentionally hired some of the best chief creative officers in region [the country creative heads include Valerie Cheng from J. Walter Thompson as creative head for Singapore, her former JWT colleague Juhi Kalia to head up Indonesia and India, ex-Clemenger BBDO creative director Rebecca Carrasco for Australia and New Zealand, Kitty Lun, former boss of Lowe China for China, and Jun Fukawa, previously a creative director at JWT London, to head up Japan].

L-r: Juhi Kalia, Valerie Cheng, Kitty Lun, Jun Fukawa, Rebecca Carrasco

L-r: Juhi Kalia, Valerie Cheng, Kitty Lun, Jun Fukawa, Rebecca Carrasco

I’ve somehow ended up with a leadership team almost entirely of women. It wasn’t intentional. They were just the best. Facebook is where I’ve had my first male boss. We talk about Lean in at Facebook [COO Sheryl Sandberg’s gender equality movement], but I’ve worked for women all my life. It’s about getting the mix of people who can stand in a room and build stuff. I see so many creative leaders who can’t build stuff anymore.

What are you looking for in the people you’re hiring?

They are a number of things we look for. The first is humility. We don’t want to be a bunch of dicks – we really want to be able to work with agencies in a good way. We know the turmoil they’re are going through at the moment. Two years ago I was working in an agency so I know. The second is that they’re great creatives and great strategists. And we also want people who can stand up in a room [to talk about how to use Facebook as a creative platform].

We are trying to reinvent advertising from looking at the way mobile content is consumed, and build stuff there’s never been built before. We’re trying to get away from the traditional 30 and 15-second spot thinking – those formats are dead. We want to add to people’s experience. Advertising should be about utility.

But agencies are still putting 30 second ads on to Facebook…

Look at the time before television, when radio ads were put on TV. There was a guy introducing, say, Nescafe Blend with a monologue to camera like a radio announcer. Then peopled realise it was boring and started to create better stories for the medium, and soon commercials became better than the programmes that they ran between.

Mobile is where radio was when ads first went on TV. That’s where we are. Now we need to rebuild for the way people are consuming mobile. A Facebook mantra is that we’re only 1% of the way there, because there’s always stuff to do. Well, we really are at that point with mobile. We haven’t even scratched the surface.

Is the job of your creative team  job to create the work themselves, or work with agencies on how to produce better creative for Facebook?

I get asked this a lot. Agencies are afraid of Facebook and think they’re trying to their jobs. I’m always saying this is ridiculous, we’re just 18 people. We’re the size of a tiny agency, we could never do that. We have to scale.

I understand people being afraid, because we have great talent here. But my job is to put myself out of a job. I want to teach agencies everything that we know so they can do what we do. We’re about partnering with agencies to help them build for mobile-first campaigns, and show them what’s coming up on the platform. We’re a free resource. We don’t charge for our time. People obviously pay for media but not for Creative Shop. And our aim is to scale and do bigger things for advertisers.

We do build things. When Facebook Live was introduced, we played with it and looked at how we could build creativity into it. We have a fortnightly session called T minus 14 where we take a product, hack it, and explore new ways products can be used creatively.

One example is Hotels.com, which played with the fact that videos on Facebook play without sound.

It’s the idea of the freedom of a tight brief. There are constraints and it’s about how you build creatively around them.

How about creating ads in the traditional sense, such as video to run on Facebook? Do you have any inhouse production capability?

No. If we wanted to create ads in that sense we’d work with a production company, but we don’t have an inhouse set up. We’ve no ambitions to become an agency. We are setting up a video lab, but that’s about showing how to, say, sell cars from a showroom on Facebook Live. We’ve also launched ‘Feed proof your TVC’ to show people how they can take their existing assets and make them work better in the Facebook news feed, for instance re-cutting it to get to the point in the first three seconds, or taking images and turning them into cinemagraphs or carousels.

TBWA is the most recent ad agency to forge a collaboration deal with Facebook in this region. Do you feel there is a point of tension in that Facebook, and Google, are two of the reasons why the agency side of the advertising business is going through, as you’ve said, turmoil?

It’s not Facebook’s fault per se. Facebook is part of the change, because that’s where people are. People are not watching TV anymore. A lot of the agencies weren’t quick enough to move and learn about platforms like Facebook, and that’s why they’re diminishing.

When I was at Ogilvy, I used to sit across from clients and they used to scowl at me like I’d stolen their first baby when I was presenting a creative idea. They didn’t trust me. I was trying to sell them the same old medium, and they knew their audience was elsewhere. We were just not listening.

Now that you’re left agency land, what’s your view on awards shows?

Panasonic adI like awards shows. They can be inspiring. But 90% of the work no one has ever seen. But the thing is, if you take a beautiful idea and put it on Facebook you’ll find an audience for it.

Take the ad for an air cooler with the dog sticking his head in the window to enjoy the fresher air. It’s a beautiful piece of creative, but no one saw it [Saatchi & Saatchi Australia’s ad for Panasonic apparently did not run in any media] apart from 16 awards judges, a few creatives and a dog trainer. What a waste. It would work so well on Facebook. It’s thumb-stopping, it’s smart, you get it in three seconds and it would drive results.

Personally I haven’t interacted with many Facebook ads. Tell us about effectiveness on the medium, what sort of engagement advertisers are experiencing?

We know that Facebook gives a better return on investment than any other medium. We don’t guess. We know that it works, because everything can be tested.

Can you give an example of a particularly effective ad on Facebook?

A video for Kleenex. It generated 100m views, reached 28m women, and led to a 4.5 times sales lift.

Also work for Vanish led to a 17% increase in ad recall, and 3% lift in purchase consideration.

Vanish work

Facebook announced recently that it is to open itself up as a platform for branded content. Does offering advice on creating content for Facebook fall within your remit?

Not yet. But we will be looking at that more.

Do you experiment with non-Facebook platforms, such as SnapChat, Weibo and WeChat, to see where Facebook might go as a creative platform?

Facebook don’t like to react. Instead of looking at what SnapChat are doing, we’ll look at what people want and how they’re using the platform, and take a lead from that.


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