Y&R’s Global Chief Creative Officer, Tony Granger, is in no need of any introduction.
Nurturing talent is actually easy.
Michael Weinzettl first interviewed him nine years ago, back when he was still ECD of Saatchi & Saatchi, New York. A lot has changed in the meantime and we therefore thought it time to revisit Tony, surely one of the most famous and well-respected admen worldwide.
Hello Tony, Lürzer’s Archive last spoke to you back in 2007. You’ve since become Global Chief Creative Officer of Y&R. What were some of the main challenges facing you when you took over at Y&R?
When new leadership comes into an agency, they inevitably find three kinds of people. The first are “yeehaws,” the enthusiasts. They are excited about the change and eager to be part of it. The second group fears change and they worry about their roles, their future. And the third group is covert and cynical. They say they’ve seen it all before and believe that, if they put their head down and wait, it will pass.
And really, no matter where I’ve been, these three camps always form. So the task is simple. Take the people who are psyched to change and make their enthusiasm infectious. Take the worriers and make them realize that they have nothing to fear, that change is not only good for the agency, it will benefit them personally. And take the third group and make them advocates. Cynics can be turned, and they make the best evangelists. But if you can’t convert them, you have to let them go because cynicism is like a dark cancer in an agency.
In your position as CCO of Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, you took the agency to the number one position at Cannes and turned it into one of the top US agencies. Whatever happened to them after you left? In terms of top creative work, they are nowhere to be seen today. Is there, perhaps, a lesson to be learned?
I feel affection for Saatchi & Saatchi and its people, but I haven’t been there in eight years and I am not really scrutinizing the state of their work.
In which way, would you say, has creative advertising developed over the past eight years? What are some of the developments/changes you have witnessed?
We live in a social economy. People’s opinions matter — in real time. Content matters. More precisely, the quality of content matters. I don’t have to tell you there is an explosion of content. In a single minute last year, there were 422,340 tweets, 44.4 million WhatsApp messages sent, 400 hours uploaded to YouTube, 205.6 million emails sent, 3.3 million Facebook posts, and 3.1 million Google searches. And that was last year. I imagine it’s even more now. Has to be.
Tools that used to be in the hands of professionals only and cost kazillions of dollars are now in your back pocket. The iPhone 6 shoots higher-def film than can be seen in many lounges around the world. People have more ways to connect, share and discuss ideas than ever before. And through real-time data, we have the ability to target and to optimize more than ever before. Ten years ago, people would turn on their TVs and lean back. But now they are leaning forward, more active, more participatory, more engaged than before. And the media and screens are connected and all of this has unshackled us from the 30-second spot while at the same time giving us new creative freedom with film that is more immersive and interactive. Storytelling prevails.
Can you tell us about the various agencies in the Y&R network and let us know how they are doing in terms of creativity? There are surely some outstanding ones when it comes to creative work and some that are still on the way there. How do you assess the quality, as well as potential, of the various agencies – perhaps classified by continent – in the huge network whose creative output you are in charge of?
When I started here eight years ago, I was very conscious of coming to a network with an amazing creative heritage. Y&R is the first agency started by a creative person and when I first started in the business, I vividly remember looking at Y&R’s work and being in awe. So, coming in, I felt propelled by our creative legacy.
What I found at first were a handful of offices that were doing great work, winning at Cannes. The goal was to get better every year — it’s a process and you have to create the right environment for great work. Year on year, we have improved. Every year more offices are recognized for good work. Last year, we had 21 offices that were Agency of the Year in their countries. The number of Lions we won also jumped by 30% to 89 — and we had more offices winning than every other network. The last four years we’ve been the #4 agency network at Cannes. And, as the work gets better, we are also seeing a real rise in the number of Effies won. Last year we won 42, which made us the #5 agency most-awarded with Effies. We are just fanatically focused on the work and hope to be up again this year, too. Our dream is to be number one, the most creative, the most admired, the most progressive agency in the world, and we won’t stop until we get there.
Can you tell us about some of the campaigns created at Y&R – since your arrival eight years ago – that you are particularly proud of?
This year, Y&R New Zealand launched the McWhopper campaign. We created a print ad, backed up with lots of shareable content, in three newspapers. In the ad, Burger King offers a “ceasefire” to McDonald’s in the burger wars for one day to raise awareness for Peace One Day. It’s an absolutely audacious idea, with a great sense of humor. And it had tremendous legs. It became one of the biggest viral ideas in the world, tapping into the DIY culture that generated all sorts of homemade McWhoppers everywhere. There were close to 8 billion media impressions, $144 million in earned media, and a 40% increase in awareness for Peace One Day. So that was exciting for us.
Last year, our agency in Turkey created the “Between Us” campaign for Vodafone in Turkey, which won a Grand Prix in Media at Cannes. Our agency in Turkey created a campaign to raise awareness of an app that was created by Vodafone to help women in the face of domestic abuse alert two trusted people. And, of course, in order for it to work, we had to reach our target secretly and not expose the app’s existence. An enormous challenge, but we reached 25% of all women with smartphones in Turkey. And, of course, there’s always a special sense of gratification when something we do helps someone in need.
I could go on and on.
What are some of the main differences between the job you held at Saatchi New York and as Global CCO at Y&R. Is one of them 1000% more air travel?
In many ways, the jobs are quite similar. When I was running a single agency, I applied some fundamentals. You aim to create intimacy, so people know each other and want to collaborate. But you also don’t want people holding hands singing Kumbaya — the competitive spirit goes hand in hand with creativity. And it takes a relentless focus on improving month on month, year on year.
These principles are still relevant — only writ large. Moving into this job, which depends much more on influence and guidance than being hands-on all the time, means you have to know when to be at 30,000 miles above or three quarters of an inch. I’ve always believed in giving people the space to do what they think is right. So I see many similarities. It’s really a question of scale.
Where do you call home nowadays?
I live in a penthouse in New York City right across from Wall Street, a beautiful old building that vibrates history. That is, in fact, what I love about living all the way downtown. There’s so much history there. I can walk out of my building and see Wall Street, which is so iconic. If I walk just down the street, I pass where Washington was inaugurated and, nearby there, the Fraunces Tavern is where the revolution against the British was plotted and hatched. Still today, I feel a palpable excitement emanating from the neighborhood’s early origins. It’s uncanny.
I love New York. It’s my home.
You have always been a great inspiration to younger creatives and some of those under your tutelage – I’m thinking of people like Erik Vervroegen or even our very first Lürzer’s Archive “Student of the Year” award-winner from 2005, Menno Kluin – have, as a result of working with you, grown into top creative directors over the years. What, would you say, is the secret formula that you instilled in them?
To begin with, I think it was an advantage to have come up through the ranks in South Africa. Because I had always been used to agencies that weren’t hierarchical and I am who I am today in no small part because John Hunt was so enormously generous with his time. So when I got here, I didn’t know better and always embraced the interns, the junior staff, the people just starting. Nothing completely altruistic about it – spotting and nurturing talent is an important part of my job and the better the people I have around me, the more I learn and the better the agency’s work becomes.
Nurturing talent is actually easy. The idea is to make people aspire to be great and then knock down walls around them so they can have at it. I’ve always been a very competitive person by nature, always wanted to be the best. So I gravitate towards people who are competitive, who have fire in their eyes. Talent is one thing. Having talent and ambition is quite another. I would far rather have someone who is seriously ambitious and a hard worker and hungry than somebody who’s got lots of natural talent but is lazy.
There’s a golden thread that goes through people who succeed. They know the business well, they are prolific, and they don’t sleep. That’s every creative business, really. I have a friend in the music business, very successful, and he was sitting at an industry dinner with a real luminary songwriter. And he asked her, “How do you do it? How do you have one success after another?” She told him, “I write a song every day. When I’m sick. On vacation. Over the weekend.” That rang true to me. You have to be a relentless hunter of ideas. You have to be less precious about them, and if you are coming up with 365 ideas a year, chances are you’ll have some good ones. Not quite a formula, but something to live by.
How do you see the role of digital/interactive advertising nowadays? Has it become the lead medium, with traditional media such as print and TV/film playing second fiddle – especially in the minds of younger creatives?
First of all, let’s not talk above the line, below the line, online, offline. Let’s not talk traditional and digital. Of course there is digital, everything is more and more digital. But if you think of it as a sidebar, as anything other than integral to everything you do, you’re making a mistake. I was with a prospect the other day and he said, “Your business must have changed so much in the past five years.” And I said that it had but it also hadn’t. What’s changed about our business is how we connect with consumers, how they connect with each other, and with brands. What hasn’t changed isn’t the importance of how we speak to people, finding insights that can be leveraged, crafting a great story. These are all more important than ever before. And none of the media have disappeared; they simply evolve and change shape.
You’re a well-known presence at the major advertising festivals around the world. So I’m sure ad awards are important to you …
Awards are absolutely important. Our industry produces so much crap that awards show us what we can do. They show us our better selves. Awards inspire people to join our industry. They are meaningful to clients.
Now, are there too many? Absolutely. But there are few that are very important like Cannes, because you can learn so much there, listen to all kinds of interesting speakers, and get a glimpse of what’s great in the future.
Who are some of the leading figures in the advertising industry today that you admire most?
It would be remiss of me not to talk about Dan Wieden. When you look at the work that comes from Wieden, it lives on the edge and always pushes the edge out. David Droga has built an amazing business, especially out of New York. Every list I make must include John Hunt, who has been a mentor for a long time. Finally, I also have to count John Hegarty, because he was the one who fused planning and creativity into the industry standard.
You’re very interested in music, you have mentioned that Jack White is one of your favorite contemporary musicians. Who else is there, what to you is the best music around in 2016? And do you still have the time to really listen to a lot of it?
Music is a playbook to your life. I grew up in the 70s, and I listened to T-Rex, Uriah Heep, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath. David Bowie was a huge influence for me. I was a little late for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but still like them. I loved punk, the Sex Pistols, the Clash. And I loved obscure bands like Pink Fairies and Hawkwind. So those are my roots.
I’m still finding amazing bands. There’s a European band, the Blues Pills. The Struts out of London are bringing glam back. I like the swamp rock blues from Elle King. There’s a resurgence of real bands, real instruments being played live in a studio. People are using tape again to record, and the music feels organic again, not like it comes out of a can, perfect and overpolished. One of the things I loved about the music of my youth was that it was often done in one or two takes. It was before you could slice and dice a soundwave and make it come in on perfect time. Music is so much better when less processed, less packaged, less perfect. It makes it more human, more authentic. You feel it more.
I know you’re a huge Star Wars fan, and so is your son. What did you guys think about The Force Awakens?
I’m a big Star Wars fan, always have been, always will be. Disney taking it over has been good for their stock price and will make them galactic boats of money. But I have to say I watched The Force Awakens on Imax 3D in LA and was completely blown away by it. The new Star Wars is true to the originals, much to my complete relief.
What, if there is such a thing, does a typical week in the life of the Global CCO of Y&R look like?
I was attracted to advertising because I couldn’t imagine myself doing one thing, being a banker or a realtor. I have a very short attention span, but also the ability to hyperfocus and if I were going to school now, I’d probably be a real candidate for an ADD diagnosis.
But what pulled me into advertising seemed perfectly suited to my temperament. You can be a banker one day, sell diapers the next, and wine on day three. I love the variety. Being a creative director embraces my short attention span and my love of deep diving into something. One day is never the same as the next. I’m in NY probably just one week a month. I’ve become very good at packing and unpacking. I don’t believe you can run a global network from a command center. You have to go out and meet clients and people. And it’s important to experience the culture and issues that are facing each country, so you really have to spent time in local markets. My favorite is to speak to taxi drivers because it’s the best crash course in a city’s culture.
How do you manage the exchange of ideas within your network? Do you have get-togethers of all the creative directors from Y&R at which you discuss the agencies’ creative output?
From the first minute I got here, my goal was to build a global creative community – as I mentioned before, one that was both competitive and collaborative. We get together regularly and we roll up our sleeves and deep dive in the work. We get to know each other through the work, through these intensive sessions. And people become friends, they connect and start trusting each other’s opinions. They get to know who to ask for what, who is smart at one thing, who always has a point of view on another. The real takeaway for everyone has been that it doesn’t show weakness to ask for help - it shows great confidence and strength. So I am really proud of what we’ve built here and it works.
Since this issue of Lürzer’s Archive is going to be distributed at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival, can you tell us about your Favorite Cannes Festival Moments? You’ve been an avid follower and participant of the festival for many years.
I’ve been in this business for 35 years and I’m more excited now than I’ve ever been. And going to Cannes always ramps up my love for the business. Every year, you see there are new ideas and new ways of doing things, and it’s often very exhilarating to be in the swirl of things there.
One of the first times I went to Cannes, I was still living in South Africa and definitely not earning very much money. But I managed to bring my wife, Claire, and we were very careful and frugal about where we spent our money, especially since the rand, which was our local currency, didn’t go very far.
Still it was lovely. The quintessential memory is going to Mougins, which is about 20 minutes from Cannes, rich with art history and still today a vibrant art scene. We sat at a bistro, La Place de Mougins, shared a meal and discreetly sipped vodka from our own flask. I don’t think I’ve had a meal that was lovelier. And every time I go to Cannes, I bring my creative board there and it is still an amazing place.