Interviews

Martin McAllister, Creative Director, FCB Inferno

"The last few years we’ve got very caught up in advertising mechanics and actually, when something’s just cool, that’s what we end up talking about. There’s nothing wrong with that."

Izzy Ashton

Assistant Editor, BITE

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Creativebrief: Please could you briefly outline your career to date.
Martin McAllister: I ended up at FCB because I used to work with Al Young [CCO at FCB Inferno] years ago at TBWA. I started doing design so long ago in digital it was still called New Media. I thought, I definitely want to be a graphic designer. So, I went to [Central] Saint Martin’s and just by chance, they had a specialism in advertising. I don’t know what I thought advertising was up until then? I kind of fell into it and then I really liked it, so I kept doing it. I’ve been at FCB four and a half years. Before that I was outside of advertising for a year and a bit, doing digital production. Before that I was at Rainey Kelly and before that I was at TBWA and that’s where I started.
Creativebrief: In your role at FCB as Creative Director, what’s your primary focus?
Martin McAllister: Day to day it’s the work. I feel like it has to be everyone’s. We’ve been through this upheaval where, for years, there was talk of increasing efficiencies and different medias and technologies. While I don’t think any of them have died away, one thing the last few years have proved is the agencies that are doing the best work are the ones that have the fewest problems. You’ve got to do something interesting that people want to talk about. Process has a load to do with it. Equally here, I really enjoy the culture and that’s a big part of the reason I love being here. There’s also an inescapable truth that it’s hard to do good stuff; you have to want it and you have to work at it. It does sometimes involve working at it more in order to get something that you’re proud of.

The last few years we’ve got very caught up in advertising mechanics and actually, when something’s just cool, that’s what we end up talking about. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Martin McAllister
Creativebrief: Was it the work that drew you to FCB initially? What did you think was unique about the agency?
Martin McAllister: Yes, I thought it was a really interesting place because it was at a size and with a skill set that I hadn’t really experienced up until then. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my time at both [Rainey and TBWA] but they were quite staid, traditional agencies. FCB have a lot of different disciplines under one roof. A lot of people you chat to in creative, they get into it because they like making stuff. Then suddenly if you’re in a place where you’ve got this incredible mix of people who all enjoy making different things, you feel the opportunity that you’re going to get to make more, and different, stuff.
Creativebrief: What do you think’s been your agency’s best piece of work in the last year?
Martin McAllister: Without a doubt, StorySign for Huawei. It’s a campaign platform to try and tackle deaf literacy. It’s a massive problem. Deaf kids, because they grow up unable to match sounds with words, they struggle to read and write. That has huge knock on effects. With Huawei’s backing, we co-developed an app with the British Deaf Association which is using selected children’s books to translate written word into sign language. Sign language in any language is actually different to the spoken language. So, the sentence I’m speaking in English wouldn’t have the same word order or even all the same words in British Sign Language. I didn’t know this until I started this project. It’s been such a learning curve. We’ve launched this app StorySign with a bunch of selected kid’s books from Penguin that’s across 10 European languages. There was a big Christmas campaign to start it off where, because a lot of deaf kids who have problems with literacy couldn’t write letters to Santa, we had a Skype call centre full of signing elves to do sign language letters to Santa. The work, I’m deeply proud of but I think also any project where each time you come to it you get presented with something you didn’t know before, is great. It’s been great from start to finish.
Creativebrief: Is there anything industry wide that you’ve also been impressed by?
Martin McAllister: This will be no surprise because they’re both Cannes winners. AMV’s Trash Isles unsurprisingly I thought was amazing. Taking an existing thing, the UN’s definition of what makes a country and then following that through to the nth degree, I thought was fucking fabulous. The Palau Pledge, that was great again, taking an existing thing and reinventing it through creativity was fucking cool. For me, if you’ve got an existing thing and by thinking about it a bit more, you can turn it into something new, that’s kind of cool. In terms of an agency, inside UK I really like Lucky Generals. They’re doing funny stuff and we’ve had about 10 years of being really pious and serious and they’re not afraid to use humour. Similarly, Nothing Beats a Londoner is a return to craft. The last few years we’ve got very caught up in advertising mechanics and actually, when something’s just cool, that’s what we end up talking about. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Creativebrief: How do you see the industry evolving over the next few years, from a work perspective?
Martin McAllister: I think we’ll see more day to day stuff going in-house. Take this as a positive or negative, I think because of how fractured it is, the people coming up with the bigger ideas or the stuff that’s stickier or more famous will end up thriving because of it. Although there are more tools and tactics at hand, I think we’ll end up seeing agencies having to be the architects of big platforms because more and more, clients are asking for a consumer experience position from start to end. The way to do that is by having a brand purpose or a brand vision at the heart. I think you’ll start to see, maybe not agencies pick up that role end to end but it’ll be their thinking and work that ends up influencing it end to end. It’s quite an exciting time. I used to work for Steve Henry when we were at TBWA and he said, the landscape might be changing faster than it ever has but whether you see that as a positive or negative, at least you can say you were here for it!

If you look at macro trends outside of advertising, the distrust in government is growing and that’s part of the reason you see the flipside, where brands and other known entities can pick up the slack and take the lead.

Martin McAllister
Creativebrief: That feeds into the trend we’re looking at, at the moment which is that customers want to know more about the societal, economic and environmental impacts of brands. How do you respect that when you’re having that conversation with a brand? And then how do you execute that within the work?
Martin McAllister: As an agency, as I’m sure every agency does, we have a bunch of guiding principles, things we stick to and one of them is very simply, do the right thing. And we try and adhere to it whether it’s internally and how we are with other people or again clients we take on. That’s not really set down in stone as what the right thing is. As the leadership team more broadly, when it comes to which clients we pitch for, and we’ve turned down a couple recently, it’ll become a big open forum of should we be going for this or not, what should, or shouldn’t we be talking about. That’s a big part of it for us and, honestly, I think it’s only going to grow. If you look at macro trends outside of advertising, the distrust in government is growing and that’s part of the reason you see the flipside, where brands and other known entities can pick up the slack and take the lead. I don’t think that necessarily means we’re always looking for every brand to be a righteous crusader. What we are looking for is consistency, brands knowing what they do and why they do it and then continuing to do it. The brands that do that and have a strong sense of self identity will ultimately prosper.
Creativebrief: What are your ambitions for FCB?
Martin McAllister: More of the same. FCB is a lovely place, full of brilliant people so I want to continue to work with big interesting clients. Just more of that.
Creativebrief: The interesting thing about the Huawei work is that the idea came from FCB. Do you plan to do more of that?
Martin McAllister: I think we do that across the board. If you look at Change Please which was for the Big Issue a couple of years ago where we took ex-Big Issue vendors and trained them as coffee baristas and started a fleet of coffee carts. That was an agency idea that we took to them, talked to them about, got them to part invest in and made a reality. Last year Queen Rules with Unibet, again, it was an agency initiative that we took out. I definitely think there will be more of that. It’s about finding the moment to do it well. You’ve got to do it across your biggest brands because you’re still ultimately a commercial entity. I’d love to see more of it continue to happen as it is already on BMW and Huawei. But if they end up being things that we do with smaller clients or indeed work with outside bodies on a project basis, that’s great as well.
Creativebrief: Something that we’re always interested in is outside the industry, who or what are you inspired by?
Martin McAllister: I am quite old fashioned in that I just like making things. I’d grown up in this scene where every single friend of mine was in a band and I had zero fucking musical talent, so I was not in a band. But I’d grown up making t-shirts and fanzines. We were just all making stuff, all the time. Then when it came to the point when I was getting a job, I stumbled across advertising and was like oh fuck, you get to make stuff with other people’s money, much bigger than I’d be able to ever do on my own! Recently I have reverted to drawing. I love life drawing. My wife always gives me shit because I always have a number of B sides on the go. A couple of years ago I built a thing called Smile Suggest which was a Google Chrome extension. It used the JavaScript library and your webcam and your browser so that anything that made you smile while you were on the web, it would bookmark for you, for a list of everything that made you smile. Years ago, when I was at art school, we found out that if you put anything in the post with correct postage on it, the Royal Mail are legally obliged to get it there. So, we put all sorts of nonsense through the post, leaves, packets of rizlas, pairs of knickers. We ended up settling on Polaroids. We started this blog and it ended up with people from Europe and China mailing us Polaroids and last time I checked a couple of years ago, there was a group on Flickr still doing it.

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