‘Focus on potential rather than past success’

McCann London’s Chief Strategy officer on curiosity, corporate jargon and creating culture

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


“I’ve just taken on the role of CSO, the biggest role of my career as a relatively new parent.” Mel Arrow, Chief Strategy Officer at McCann London is effortlessly squashing the mother of all myths: that you automatically become less ambitious when you are a parent.

“I’m more ambitious than ever,” she explains, adding: “Motherhood has ignited me. There is a new fuel to my curiosity. I have this lived experience of this wild and amazing thing. I have very quickly had to learn new skills. The negotiation and planning is off the scale.”

Barely pausing for breath, Arrow is passionate about the possibilities for creative growth which come hand-in-hand with motherhood. She explains: “I need less sleep. It has made me more empathetic. It has made me find more joy in the mundane.”

Her view that motherhood is anything other than a creative full stop brings oxygen to an industry narrative which for too long has suffocated the potential of mothers. She successfully punctures the myth that motherhood and driving forward a creative career are mutually exclusive pursuits.

Motherhood has ignited me. There is a new fuel to my curiosity. I have this lived experience of this wild and amazing thing.

Mel Arrow, Chief Strategy Officer at McCann London

Hiring for potential

People are what get Arrow out of bed in the morning and her love of her colleagues is clear. She also has her eye firmly on the talent pipeline. Arrow is passionate about the importance of ensuring people get a step up in an industry. A focus which she believes is vital in an industry which historically hasn’t always prioritised making space for new experiences or new voices.

She explains: “I think we are a people industry and therefore we tend to focus a lot on people as personalities. We could be a lot better as an industry at focusing on potential rather than past success.”

It is an astute analysis of a status-quo-driven approach which doesn’t always cut through with clients. Agency leaders are at risk of becoming too insular and talking a language clients simply do not understand.

From an industry perspective, this focus on the past as a roadmap to the future also raises questions as to how engaging that vision is in attracting and retaining new talent. Arrow explains: “It means we hear from lots of the same voices and it does mean we uphold the status quo.”

For Arrow, the opportunity lies in learning from experience, but not being wedded to the status quo and telling stories of past successes. “Let’s focus on big opinions and big ideas, not big names,” she adds.

We could be a lot better as an industry at focusing on potential rather than past success.

Mel Arrow, Chief Strategy Officer at McCann London

Jargon is a sign of insecurity

When it comes to driving cultural connection Arrow is a fan of simplicity.  She believes that the industry’s over-reliance on corporate jargon is driving both disconnection and confusion. She explains: “We have created a language that is only understood by half the people in any given room. It creates insecurity. Our job as an industry is to get closer to people, not to overcomplicate everything.”

She believes that simplicity can be the cornerstone of cultural relevance for brands. Pointing to the example of Jeremy Allen White’s already iconic Calvin Klein ad, praised by critics as a ‘national landmark’, she believes that advertising can puncture mainstream culture.

“It is really interesting how mainstream that campaign was. When we stop and consider how the advertising itself was the event. He [Allen White] was at the Golden Globes but he was being asked about a Calvin Klein ad.”

She continues: “There was no concept or idea, no beginning, middle and end but the whole world stopped to look at it.”

It is this mainstream cultural influence which fascinates Arrow. She believes that while what constitutes influence is changing that doesn’t automatically mean the future of influence is automatically niche. “There are a huge number of mainstream creative influencers making an impact,” she adds,

For Arrow, the key for creatives is to look beyond the cliches and stereotypes to drive meaningful relationships with audiences. She explains: “We say attention spans have decreased to 45 seconds, but then you look at the interest in the Traitors and you can see people are genuinely devastated for people they have never met. People want those mainstream moments of connection.”

Finding their voice has been a big part of the success of Aldi.

Mel Arrow, Chief Strategy Officer at McCann London

Creativity in the mainstream

Mass market mainstream creativity is where Arrow sees huge potential. It is also a space where McCann London, with brands such as Aldi and Just Eat, is making a significant impact. Mainstream makes sense for both business and brand building.

“There can be a snobbishness in advertising about mainstream culture,” explains Arrow, adding: “But when you think about Kevin the Carrot and Aldi, the truth is people really do genuinely love him.”

Indeed, few could have predicted that a carrot would become a Christmas advertising icon. “We want to create things that are accessible, not just to win awards,” adds Arrow.

She believes that looking ahead there will be more humour in advertising this year. If ever there was a year that consumers craved both escapism and humour, 2024 is it. Reactive media opportunities give brands an opportunity not just to reflect culture but to raise a smile. “Reactive media is all about finding your voice and using it,” Arrow explains.

Arrow believes that Aldi is a perfect example of a brand which has really embraced the creative opportunity of that ethos. “Finding their voice has been a big part of the success of Aldi. That democratisation of media really allows you to speak and connect,” she explains.

In an increasingly polarising media ecosystem, who wouldn’t welcome the much-needed light relief of a feud between M&S’ Colin the Caterpillar cake and Aldi’s more cost-effective caterpillar cousin Cuthbert?

The power of cultural context

Arrow believes that agencies have a huge role in supporting brands to create those cultural touchpoints which genuinely mean something to consumers. Even if that meaningful moment is a simple opportunity for escapism or light relief.

“The cultural context that brands operate in is so important. Leading agencies have always been great cultural guides for brands,” explains Arrow. Pointing to the example of the ‘Mob Wife Aesthetic’ on TikTok as an example of subverting a powerful female trope in a mainstream and accessible way, she believes there are always new opportunities to connect. Being curious and open-minded is key to not just staying on top of these cultural trends, but in understanding what they mean to audiences and how they should show up in consumers' lives.

“Unless you have a really full grasp of cultural context you can’t understand the cultural specificities of a trend,” she explains. In practice, this means there is a real opportunity for agencies to be both broad and deep in their approach. Supporting brands not to just find that perfect cultural touchpoint, but to ensure the right aesthetic alongside production partners.

She continues: “I absolutely believe you can build a brand rooted in culture through mass-market channels but the more brands can build communities and conversations the more understanding they can build.”

Notably, Arrow points to the golden era of TV as a key opportunity for brands to engage with culture. While trendwatchers might default to TikTok, the impact of ITV’s Mr Bates vs The Post Office underlines the firepower of storytelling.

It was a TV show which successfully accelerated the justice process for the wrongly accused postal staff. It was a TV show which pressured Paula Vennells, the chief executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, into handing back her CBE. This power is not lost on Arrow. “Yes people might be on their phones for half of it, but they are still in front of that screen. It still matters,” she says.

She believes that brands and agencies need to recognise that sonic branding is more important than ever. Yet also recognise that people may well be watching content on stories with the sound off. In short, now is the time to get comfortable with contradictions. A step-change from an industry narrative which has long equated the rise of one medium with the death of another. Let’s be honest, those headlines on the ‘death of TV’ haven’t aged well.

Some of the world's best content is free because of advertising.

Mel Arrow, Chief Strategy Officer at McCann London

Bringing back the joy

Arrow is clear on the need to bring joy back to advertising. “At McCann, we think about the meaningful role brands can play in people's lives,” she explains. Noting that when you bring back the joy then you have the permission to take up space in consumers lives.

It’s an approach which lives out in campaigns for clients such as Just Eat. A brand that was once a functional food delivery brand is now arguably the advertising industry’s most successful earworm with ‘Did somebody say Just Eat’. While Aldi is a brand which has transitioned away from the transactional with an ethos of making quality food accessible to everyone.

At a time when most consumers have at least 50 tabs open in their brains at any one time, that respect for a genuine value exchange is an important lens for the industry. “There is a great deal to do to ensure you gain attention without annoying people. To ensure that you aren’t pushing people to unsubscribe or block out the ads,” says Arrow.

This is not to say that Arrow shares the squeamishness surrounding advertising which is so embedded in British culture. “Advertising is a value exchange. The internet is mostly free to access because of advertising but there is an embarrassment of the advertiser-funded model,” she explains.

She continues: “The industry needs to do a rebranding of itself because it's all based on the people who come up with ideas. Some of the world's best content is free because of advertising. We should be less apologetic about contributing to high-quality content.”

Curiosity is the fuel of our industry, we never know where the next answer will be found.

Mel Arrow, Chief Strategy Officer at McCann London

Creating the conditions where curiosity can thrive

Creating that high quality content, in editorial or advertising, is ultimately dependent on creating the conditions in which creativity can thrive.

“Curiosity is the number one trait I look for when hiring. It is the absolute bedrock of a brilliant strategist,” says Arrow. She adds: “Curiosity is the fuel of our industry, we never know where the next answer will be found.”

Curiosity might have become an industry-wide buzzword, yet as an active approach, rather than a passive phrase it remains a progressive agency's competitive advantage. Arrow recognises that curiosity is a doing word.

“Creating the conditions for curiosity and creativity demands psychological safety,” says Arrow. She points to the hundreds of conversations that the team had about sex while working on Durex. “It needed to be ok for people to ask uncomfortable questions,” she adds.

Equally, true curiosity demands that leaders get comfortable with the three most underutilised words in advertising: I don’t know. “I’m finding comfort in not always knowing the answer. I like to solve problems, but I'm also able to hold the possibility of many different answers,” says Arrow.

She adds: “As a strategist, it is your job to seek and work out which insights can illuminate a path. It is curiosity that will get you there.”

We can win when we are all on top of our game, not because everyone else is rubbish.

Mel Arrow, Chief Strategy Officer at McCann London

Complacency is the enemy of creativity

For Arrow curiosity is always a work in progress. A progress which sometimes comes at the detriment of rest. From podcasts to articles to making the time for that coffee and chat. Curiosity is a muscle she believes you need to exercise every single day.

“Curiosity is a superpower and you need to be intentional in fostering it in teams and in people,” says Arrow. From bringing in speakers to having a ‘listening lounge’ where team members talk about their side hustles, to unexpected and slightly meandering conversations in creative reviews, she is intentional in making moments matter. “If you want to harness the power of curiosity you have to make space for it,” she says.

Yet, making that space isn't easy. Timelines are getting shorter, to do-lists are ever longer. A pressure that Arrow believes makes great talent vital.

“I have a genuine love for this industry, but we are facing a big talent drain,” she warns. She believes that attracting talent and retaining talent, sidestepping industry politics and embracing a ‘healthy competitiveness built on a deep respect for rivals’ is key to success.

“We can win when we are all on top of our game, not because everyone else is rubbish,” says Arrow.

The advertising game can be brutal at times, but Arrow’s infectious enthusiasm not just for the work, but for the people who make it, ensures it's impossible not to root for her. While no agency will win every time it goes to bat, McCann London is clearly committed to changing the game.

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