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McCann’s Creative Mastermind Jon Elsom: “Being a Creative Director is Like Having 15 Different Jobs”

Everything you need to know about making the leap from Creative to Creative Director, wrangling clients and learning to love (and hate) other people’s ideas.

Jon Elsom is behind some of the most iconic advertising campaigns of the last 30 years, from Howard of Halifax and the C’mons for Vauxhall to recent Lion and Pencil winners for Google and Refuge, and many more. As Group Executive Creative Director at McCann, the prestigious global advertising agency, he works across global accounts, seven offices and over 550 people in the UK.

A multiple Lion and Pencil winner himself, he has helped the McCann network achieve the rare accolade of being both the most creative and effective ad network in the world.

The industry veteran now wants to share his experience with a new generation of aspiring Creative Directors. In the following conversation, Jon tells all about what it takes to create award-winning campaigns, how AI and personalization are disrupting advertising, and why it’s wise to make a fool of yourself when presenting.

Did you always want to become a Creative Director?

Originally I wanted to be a journalist. While I was looking into journalism jobs, I read about this weird, wonderful thing called advertising copywriting. It sounded interesting: you would write and come up with ideas, but you would also work with photographers and film directors.

So it wasn't just writing, it was making things. That sounded cool. It was also well paid (potentially) and you got to travel, which was exciting.

I called the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising), our governing body, and asked how to get into this industry. They suggested doing a creative course, which teaches you how to have ideas, design, and work with a partner on a portfolio.

I took the hallowed Copywriting and Art Direction course at Watford College under the late, great, utter genius that was Tony Cullingham, and I went from there.

What kind of people would you advise to become Creative Directors and who should better avoid it?

It's definitely not a job for the faint-hearted. You have to be comfortable having fewer ideas yourself, and learning to love - and hate - those of others. By ‘hate’, I mean quickly identify the chaff. Know what a good idea is, but also a bad idea, to stick it straight in your ‘mental dustbin’.

It’s a big leap from a Creative to a Creative Director role. It's not just one job, but about 15 different ones. There are so many qualities you need. For instance, you need to be outgoing. Not necessarily an extrovert, but outgoing enough to deal with people, talk through their ideas, tell them that some are wrong and why. So you have to be confident in yourself.

You have to be prepared to do less idea generation, which for some people is the job’s less appealing aspect. Sometimes you'll be what I call in football terms a ‘player manager’: both judging other people's ideas and still coming up with your own.

But there's equal, if not more, reward, in being a CD. You get a bunch of ideas from creative people; it's up to you to pick one or two crackers; you take them to a client and sell them; then shape and protect them and turn them into shiny things. What’s not to like about all that?

Another crucial part is whether you're going to do it on your own or with a partner. Often you'll be in a partnership of two, a copywriter and an art director. That's a big decision to make.

You are not always both ready, or even suited. I have been in more than one partnership where my partner wasn't ready for a CD role or wanted to do it. Sometimes you split up because only one of you wants to go into management.

So you may think “that's not for me”, which is fine. There are senior creatives who never wanted to be a Creative Director and are very well rewarded and paid. They prefer staying at the coalface, doing the ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that.

How do you give constructive feedback to your creatives?

It's all about candour combined with sensitivity and emotional intelligence. You need to be honest with your creatives. I like giving bad news first to the people whose ideas haven’t made the cut.

If I've shown a bunch of things from multiple creatives to a client in a meeting, I tell the people first whose ideas have been blown out. At least they'll hear it from the horse's mouth straight away.

Another trick is learning how to blow out people's ideas but keep them motivated. Show them the glimmers of things they've got in their work. Even if they're not quite a thing yet, you pick out faintly glowing embers from the fire of their thinking and show them they've got something.

Do you ever challenge the client’s brief and how can you do it without losing them?

There are tricks about things you should or shouldn’t say. When you get daft requests that may weaken the idea, you never say “We won’t do that because it's rubbish.”

You can be honest and say, “Well, the only concern about that is X, but we'll consider that and see if there's a way we can make it work.” Then you go back with something to the client that shows you tried to use their idea, but also something alongside it that's better.

Or you can be honest and say “We tried this, but it didn't work, and here's why.” You lay out clearly why it didn’t work and you show them the alternative. So it's about coming across as collaborative and always listening. No client likes to think they haven't been listened to or be told their suggestion is rubbish during a meeting.

Do you involve consumers in the process of creating campaigns?

For every new business pitch, we try to put different creative routes into consumer testing, often before we show the client. That gives us direction in terms of what’s resonating with people beyond our advertising bubble.

But it's also good corroboration for any creative route that we're going to show to the client in a pitch meeting. We can show it and say “This is really working, look at the comments in the group testing.”

And plenty of campaigns are still researched before going live. The trick for the agency and client is to know how to interpret the research results, and not let verbatims that might not form a consensus weaken the work.

How do you nurture a team spirit when working with talented but also selfish or ill-disciplined people?

It's a question of leading from within, rather than from the front. My preferred style of leadership is to be amongst them and lead by example in terms of how hard I’m working. If they see you work hard, they want to do that as well.

You always wonder how you can keep the energy going, that spirit of “come on, we're gonna nail this”. Eventually you realise that you are the engine room. You keep going and you stay positive, motivated and calm where possible. It’s okay to be passionate too. And that will rub off on the people around you.

How do you keep the work at a big agency like McCann fun, given the pressure and competition?

It's important to take breaks, personally and collectively. So do things socially together. This is a fun job. The contemporary way of working, especially post-COVID, means that everything is becoming more intense, with back-to-back teams and Zoom meetings.

So you need to step away from the grind. Just have some fun. Have lunch with them, take them to a show or an exhibition. Go on a boat trip. Have a big night out.

And also do fun things inside the office. Get people inspired by creative things, either directly related to the industry, like a production company rep coming in and showing a few directors’ reels for inspiration, or an agent bringing in amazing photography or something more laterally related to our industry.

Also make sure that the working environment is fun. When you become a Creative Director, another of the many hats you will wear will be as an office designer.

It’s good to have sofas around, breakout areas, books, communal TV screens to get off your laptop for a while. Also coffee areas, table tennis table, pool if there's space. These things are important to make it feel like a fun place to work, which an advertising agency absolutely should be.

Also, it’s interesting how hybrid working is reversing the long-held trend of open-plan spaces back into compartmentalized areas that allow for hybrid meetings. The thing is to have a balance, and make it constantly reconfigurable.

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What’s your secret to ‘pitching like a demon’?

There’s no silver bullet. In terms of pitching, there are some principles.

Firstly, organize yourself and your creative team to plan out the whole pitching process upfront. Make sure you have enough time for each stage and then immerse yourself into the client's pitch brief and their brand.

Get the creative team out of the office and experience the client's world. You've only got about three or four weeks in total, so do it quickly.

I love pitching because it's an intensified microcosm of the whole Creative Director job. You have to get a crack team together quickly and get them onboard and inspired, and keep them fizzing.

Then you get to a place where you have one amazing idea that you're going to lead with and you want clients to see. As Creative Director, you've got to see the big picture, but also the details. You have to step up out of it and think whether it’s all going in the right direction, while never missing a tiny little thing that could either ruin or make the pitch.

Towards the end, especially, you have to be obsessing over every little detail. Is everything as good as it can be? Is there anything you missed? What's the thing that could stop you winning?

I focus on that once I have got everyone up-and-running in the middle of the pitch process. I try to consider everything we haven’t thought of that another agency might.

What about ‘presenting like a guru’?

That’s a big thing for Creative Directors, because they do most of the presenting. It's a case of taking it slowly, not being daunted by it. There are a few tricks that you can employ.

Don't try to remember loads of things by heart. You can have entertaining slides that set up the idea beautifully. They give you prompts on what to say, even if it’s just a visual set of slides. So you use the audiovisual to signpost what you're presenting. Put all of your personality and energy into showing the work.

I also encourage people to make utter fools of themselves. It goes down well in the room if you're prepared to do that. I put on silly outfits, especially in pitch meetings or I do stupid voices. I’ve sung many times.

Being brave enough to play the fool goes down well, because it's like giving a speech as the best man at a wedding. As the CD, everyone wants you to do well and be funny. They're already on your side.

What changes in consumer behavior are disrupting the advertising industry?

We’ve adopted AI in a big way At McCann. It’s already transformed the way we are producing creative materials to inspire clients. Once the platforms sort the copyright issues for media, it’s going to transform the production of the end-product too.

Another thing that is growing alongside the AI explosion is the whole world of DCO, ie dynamic creative optimisation. Targeting people is becoming more effective and precise, based on things that we know about consumers, their predilections or habits, what they like to eat or which football club they support.

But also based on external environmental data. We can target a person in a certain place, and depending on things that just happened and are relevant to them.

People have been being targeted with banners for years and they are used to that. If you search for a holiday to Romania you keep getting banners about Romanian tourist destinations. I think customers accept that.

But consumers increasingly expect to get helpful stuff that's particularly relevant to them. So we have to make sure that we're turning up at those nudge moments where it’s most critical and alluring. We have to stay ahead of people’s expectations.

AI and DCO are fast forwarding our ability to make everything incredibly bespoke and personalised, as well as cut-through.

Give us three elements of a campaign that help win prestigious awards

Firstly, it needs to make sure that it provokes a reaction when people see that piece of work, like they have never seen it like that before. It's got to feel original, fresh, ownable, a completely new lens on something.

Secondly, it has to entertain you or move you. There's been a massive trend towards purpose-led ideas over the last seven years. Nearly all winning ideas at Cannes, D&AD or One Show were purpose-led.

But there has been a move over the last year towards other stuff, notably entertainment. It’s significant that Cannes just introduced a category for 2024 specifically for Humour. People are remembering that an award-winning idea can be entertaining as well as purpose-driven.

That's a good thing, because the advertising industry risks taking itself too seriously and always thinking that we're here to change the world.

We're not. We're here to grow our clients’ brands and sell their products. If we can improve the world while doing that, that’s fantastic, but it's both things that we need to be doing.

The third is to disrupt, not necessarily in a brash way. An ad can disrupt by being the most hilarious thing you've seen. It's nice to feel disruptive, to change the context of things, even if it's just the product’s context.

An award-winning idea is something that should stay with you long after you've seen it. The ultimate test is that advertising enters popular culture to the extent that you've heard about this idea or that and you want to talk about it in the pub.

Are there any differences between UK and US approaches to Creative Direction?

The principles are the same, and have been since McCann’s inception in 1912. I work for an American-owned organisation in the UK and I see no real differences.

Advertising grew up symbiotically in the UK and the USA, and could be said to have come of age with David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach simultaneously leading the charge in London and New York throughout the Mad Men era.

When I started, we were doing ideas on layout pads on desks. None of us had a computer. The only person who had anything like that was the creative department PA. So if you had to write a TV script, you wrote it by hand and you gave it to the PA.

Then the internet came along, later digital and mobile advertising, big data and social media. Now we’re having another massive revolution with AI.

None of these things has changed any of the principles of how to have and sell cut-through ideas and make people sit up and notice. No technological innovation has changed how agencies operate, other than learning how to draw in those new disciplines and integrate them together.

I hope I’m here and still doing it when the next big thing comes in.