Creative industry Leader Interview - 5 minutes with...

Shaun McIlrath

Global Chief Creative Officer, iris

Shaun McIlrath - Global Chief Creative Officer, iris

Career to date:

2008, Executive Creative Director, iris Worldwide
2006, Creative Director, VCCP
2002, Creative Director & Founder, Heresy
2000, Creative, HHCL
1993, Creative, impactFCA!

Creativebrief: As Chief Creative Officer of iris, what is your primary focus?

Shaun McIlrath: We have so many different disciplines in the agency and so many offices around the world; it’s about putting together the right skill sets around big briefs, to create different sorts of solutions.

So, on one level, it’s about setting the standards and the ambition for the agency and on the other level it’s about making sure it’s delivered in the best way possible.

And also, making sure we’re attracting the best, most interesting talent. Today, it’s about creative problem solving, so you’re looking for a different sort of thinker. You still need really good craftspeople around you but at the heart, what’s going to create the most interesting solutions are those sorts of people with stranger skill sets.

Creativebrief: How do you do that? How do you find them?

Shaun McIlrath: They’re a rare animal. Generally, it comes from conversation. When you talk to people you just know, you can see how people approach problems, how they think.

When my first boss hired me, I said, why did you hire me and he said, do you know what I look for when I hire people? Honest criminals. I look for people who’ve got that sort of criminal mind, a mind that looks at a situation differently. You know, looks for an open window. We’re all looking at the same thing but that person’s looking at it for a different reason or in a different way.

“You still need really good craftspeople around you but, at the heart, what's going to create the most interesting solutions are those sorts of people with stranger skill sets.”

Creativebrief: Is that something that you’ve developed over the course of your career? Could you outline how you began?

Shaun McIlrath: When I left uni, I worked for the BBC [Northern Ireland] as a script writer in youth programmes. I was also doing fringe theatre and testing the sketches live with audiences. Somebody who had seen a few sketches said to me, I’ve got an advertising agency, would you be interested in that?

When I came to work in London I started off in a company that was mainly financial advertising. I was frustrated seeing everybody making nice ads for toothpastes and acne lotions, so I moved into the West End and worked in a company called FCA, which became agency of the year in 2000.  Then I left that to join HHCL, which had just been made agency of the decade. I actually joined there with a view to setting up a new company - Heresy.

The idea for Heresy was an agency that represented customers creatively, rather than brands. The first thing we worked on was the creation of Ocado. It was an amazing thing. And then Heresy became VCCP, and then I left. I Did another start-up, which I hated and then I joined iris.

Creativebrief: What attracted you about iris? What do you think is unique about it?

Shaun McIlrath: Primarily, the people and the culture. It’s just a really nice place. The great thing about Iris is this sense of team and support.

I think to create fearless work, you need an absence of fear. You need to know that you can go out on a limb and do something brave and not be vulnerable for it. The other thing about the culture is that, because we have a no assholes policy here, it’s naturally collaborative. The best idea wins.

Creativebrief: What do you think has been your agency’s best work in the last year?

Shaun McIlrath: In the last year, Adidas definitely. The Pogba work that we did about 6 months ago was really good. The Glitch work where we co-created the football boot with the consumer, and launched it through an app with communities of influencers; that was really interesting and really commercially successful.

We’ve had 12 quarters of double digit growth on Domino’s; we’ve doubled the share price and we’ve created GIFs that are the most viewed GIFs in the world.

We always say our best work looks more like culture than marketing.

Purdey’s, with Idris Elba. We hit on something with that. The insight that at some point we all give up on our dreams and our goals, was so universal we were getting responses from all over the world. It was actually more shared than liked, which was a really interesting because when you like it, you’re saying something about it, but when you share it, it’s saying something about you.

Interestingly, these are not just a nice ideas, they are really hard-nosed, commercially successful ideas.

Creativebrief: Industry wide, what work has excited you most over the last year?

Shaun McIlrath: There’s Meet Graham, the Australian Accident Commission - I mean that was just such a brilliant idea.

One of the tests I have for a good creative idea is how far will it travel before you have to put media money behind it? Because if people talk about it and share it, you know you’ve got something really interesting. If you have to put money behind it then it’s sort of in the old world of marketing.

Graham’s a really good example of something that is just so inherently interesting that you’d want to share it and talk about it.

I actually really liked Samsung’s Ostrich ad as well, the VR. It’s such a nice, charming old-school film but, you know, my mum loves it. And it’s still the ultimate test!

IKEA did an amazing thing in Canada. The idea was basically a Read it and Eat It. They printed posters on bake proof paper, you to laid out the food on the recipe, rolled up the ad and put it in the oven.

“We always say our best work looks more like culture than marketing.”

Creativebrief: What agency outside of the UK do you think is doing particularly influential work?

Shaun McIlrath: Droga5 in New York is consistently good. It’s very clearly creatively led and has been since the outset.

It’s a bit like popcorn going off. There are lots of little interesting things happening in different places around the world, and that’s what’s quite exciting about the industry at the moment. A good idea can literally come from any sort of agency at any time.

Creativebrief: How do you see the industry evolving over the next few years?

Shaun McIlrath: I think we’re going to move more into service and product development, so we talk more specifically about creative problem solving.

In terms of the way that Iris is gearing up for the future, we’ve had a management consultancy for 5 or 6 years now and we’ve recently bought a pricing solutions company. It’s a much more thorough partnership, about all the consumer touch points.

We’ve got all these different specialisms in-house and a culture that enables them to work together so we’re not fighting over our slice of the cake. And one bottom line, which means that everybody benefits from it.

Creativebrief: I guess that feeds into the next question of what’s your ambition for Iris over the next few years?

Shaun McIlrath: It’s that it becomes a beacon of creative problem solving.

Some of our better work, some of our most interesting work, goes under the radar, and actually agencies need to get used to that a little bit more. Some of our best work won’t be a wow on TV, it will be a smile in a queue or a smile at the lack of a queue, or something that’s experienced in the customer service. But that’s a good thing. It’s a very, very necessary thing. It’s proper commercial creativity as opposed to just commercial communications.

Creativebrief: This is taking things in a slightly different direction, but the changing nature of the traditional pitch is something that we’re quite interested in at Creativebrief. What are your thoughts?

Shaun McIlrath: I’ve done a lot of pitches in my days and they're such a huge investment for agencies, not just financially, but also the emotional investment that is involved.

Workshops are really good because you get a chance to see whether you like each other, and what it’s like to actually work with each other.

Humanising corporate behaviour is a constant theme for me. When companies behave like people, we like them. And yet, when they behave like corporations, we hate them. And that’s true of the pitch processes as well.

Creativebrief: Outside of the industry, who or what are you inspired by?

Shaun McIlrath: I’m inspired by little shoots of humanity. I’ve started doing this thing, I think it’s an age thing, I’ve started pulling cheerful optimistic little maxims off the internet. I’ve now got a collection of hundreds of these things.

Hope, there’s so much bad stuff around that I'm inspired by people who are making a difference. Like the 17-year-old kid who came up with the way of cleaning the oceans. And then you’ve got people like Ken Robinson who are rallying for education to be changed.

People who are not just going through the motions and following them.

You’ve got to ask yourself a question. Is doing this month’s funniest ad really that creative? How do you create environments and cultures where that sort of thinking doesn’t fall off the table? Where actually it’s put to the fore and celebrated. That’s the challenge for creative companies going forward and that’s where I hope Iris will get to in the future.

Topic of the moment

How can brands give customers the tools to express their own identity?

That’s back to what I was saying about Purdey’s, likes verses the shares: when you like something you’re saying something about it, when you’re sharing it, it’s saying something about you. I look at my kids’ social feeds and the brands on there all say something about them.

And our most successful work, works that way. It is branding at its most basic.

That is the heartland where advertising and branding will live now. But it requires a different set of rules and it requires marketers to be very brave. It’s about mattering rather than marketing. It’s about saying something that’s important rather than saying something that is directly about the product. And when you’ve got sales targets to hit, that can be quite a big ask for clients. So, it takes the bravest, or those who exist in an absence of fear, to be able to do that.

About the author

Izzy Ashton, Assistant Editor of BITE, Creativebrief

Izzy is a writer/researcher for BITE, Creativebrief’s daily insight into global marketing trends and the cultural movements driving them. She keeps abreast of the latest communication, technology and consumer news, and is responsible for conducting interviews with key agency strategists and creatives to gain insight into the most innovative global campaigns.