Wood to agencies: Don’t give up on the big ideas

For the past year, Michael Wood has been learning about Canada's marketing landscape. A native New Zealander, Wood speaks candidly in his Kiwi drawl in his first interview with a Canadian publication. As Leo Burnett's Toronto managing director and EVP, he's charged with helping lead the agency's Canadian operation into the next generation of advertising.

For the past year, Michael Wood has been learning about Canada’s marketing landscape. A native New Zealander, Wood speaks candidly in his Kiwi drawl in his first interview with a Canadian publication. As Leo Burnett’s Toronto managing director and EVP, he’s charged with helping lead the agency’s Canadian operation into the next generation of advertising.

Leo Burnett has gone through some operational restructuring under Wood’s wing. For starters, there are more autonomous decision-makers at senior levels–16, up from four or five–in the agency’s new ‘hub structure.’ Essentially, Wood envisions an agency that’s nimble and flexible enough to encourage what he calls ‘big idea thinking,’ instead of just making television commercials for clients.

‘It has not been a 180-degree turnaround largely because the agency was far from broken,’ he explains. ‘I think we had gone from great heights in the mid ’90s – certainly in terms of profile and creative reputation – but overall business growth had tended to flatten out in the last couple of years. We had to change that.’

For Wood, there are some fundamental changes ad agencies and their clients need to make, such as opening a freer dialogue between the two so ‘big ideas for brands can generate very strong stories about them, which can create an enduring belief in those brands by the people who buy them.’

He’s been with Leo Burnett for over a dozen years, setting up offices across the globe (he’s worked in six countries on three continents), most recently in Taiwan, but some things apparently never change.

Since you’ve been all over the map, what insights have you brought to Canada?

One of the most important things is the realization of the benefit of diversity.

There are a lot of Canadians overseas. Yet, when I come here, it doesn’t seem like that is reciprocal. Part of it is that Canada is a developed market with a high talent base, yet at the same time, I would argue that so is Australia, so is the U.K. and so is the U.S. You’re seeing a greater influence in those markets of more international professionals.

There doesn’t seem to be all that many ground-breaking ad campaigns these days. Do you agree with that?

Certainly in the last while there is a bigger degree of clients that err on the side of safety. They continually talk about wanting to be different, and yet at the end of the day and given the very high level of researching that’s done in the Canadian market, you still end up back to an idea that’s most accepted by the masses.

In many ways, there is more concern – and this is collectively agencies and clients – at not getting it wrong, versus how much [of an] upside there could be from getting it really right.

There’s a lot of focus on ‘how can we make sure we inch the business ahead and don’t do anything that could be detrimental’ as opposed to asking ‘how could we completely turn this thing on its head?’ Some of it is driven by, particularly for the international clients, continuing pressure to be able to deliver results.

I haven’t been in a market before that has tested and researched as much as Canada. Research is designed largely to test against what is already known. Therefore, by its nature, it is more difficult to get feedback on a truly new solution.

How does that mindset change?

I think there needs to be more experimentation, and Canada is a big enough market to do this, either by using regions to experiment with different ideas, trying to do more in-market tests or basically allocating a portion of marketing investment to try new ideas. I think that’s something many markets seem to have lost.

You get a situation where budgets are a lot tighter and then experimentation is the first thing to go. Experimentation should be one of the last things to go, because in [it] may lie the idea that truly presents you with a competitive edge.

I’m not professing that people take the tried and trusted and throw it out the window – absolutely not – but there just needs to be more of an entrepreneurial mindset that’s continually pushing both agencies and clients to try new things.

I would be interested to know how many clients’ marketing plans look exactly the same this year as last year. Yet they’re continuing to expect growth.

They really have to start saying ‘you know what? We’re only going to be as good as the plans that we’ve got.’ If those plans are pretty much the same as they were last year with a variation of a different kind of promotion and maybe a new ad, then you’re pretty much going to get the same performance.

Does risk-aversion plague agencies the same way?

As an industry, I think all agencies have to go through changes. There is not a great desire to break out of the status quo, and then you get to a situation where we are talking merely about the execution.

Over time, we have seen advertising move down the food chain in terms of client responsibilities. There are other higher priority parts of the business on the CEO’s plate and therefore agencies are getting down to a brand management level, which again reinforces work becoming more executional in nature.

The focus today is on the execution of this year’s plans as opposed to partnering and creating ideas that can actually drive the business forward [over] a much longer term.

Could you give an example of a campaign that Leo Burnett has done that has practiced what you are preaching?

One that we’ve had significant success with is Visa. It’s been around for about six or eight months now. The core point or core bond that we believe connects the brand to consumers is about the confidence to live your life. The brand idea is that life is full of little moments, good and bad, where you are glad that you have your Visa card.

There’s one spot with a man driving to the airport, presumably on yet another business trip, but instead offers his wife a trip to Paris. Another has a guy in a bar and it ends with him buying a round for everyone there. The last spot centres on a lady who thinks she’s locked her keys in her car, she gets a coathanger to pry open the window, but finds out it’s not even her car.

That’s how we communicated the confidence strategy: the big idea is that no matter what circumstance, it’s a good thing to have your Visa card.

Are there any international campaigns that have taken that ‘big idea’ and communicated it to the masses?

XBox’s U.K. spot called ‘Mosquito,’ (produced by London, U.K.-based Bartle Bogle Hegarty) is an excellent example of leadership creative. It was a very unconventional approach. They took a leap of faith and it worked.

That leads directly back to the confidence between the agency and a client. I mean, they know their audience and knew the spot would resonate with them – it certainly got us talking and other people too. Some of us hated the idea that insects were playing and making music before humanity came along, others thought it was very intriguing and some thought the noise was too annoying, but people talked about it because it’s provocative.

It got to the core message very effectively, that life is short, so play hard.

What about Canada? Are there any spots that you think stand out?

I’ve been thinking about this and when I think about what really stands out in Canada, I keep coming back to the Bud Light campaign. It was very fresh thinking. The idea to extend this fictional place for the betterment of men [went] way beyond conventional advertising, and the Bud Light Institute has proven gangbusters for them. The requests for the CDs alone has been in the tens of thousands. That’s amazing.

It also stands out on an idea level, because the big idea was so good that you can keep executing spot after spot in a fun way. If you take Molson’s ‘Rant,’ by comparison, the idea to play on Canadian patriotism worked so well the first time – it’s true, the beaver is a proud and noble animal – but after that, well, it didn’t do so well. That’s the difference; the reason is because the big idea, patriotism, isn’t as strong as the Bud Light Institute.