Q&A: Verizon's first CCO on building in-house creative, brand simplicity and agency collaboration

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(Photo Credit: Kari Orvik, Tintype Studio)
(Photo Credit: Kari Orvik, Tintype Studio)

The telco giant's new creative marketing unit will be "a central hub for excellence" and "innovation," says Andrew McKechnie, a former global creative director at Apple.

In-house agency units have become a popular solution for clients seeking greater control over their brand messaging—and their budgets. Verizon recently joined a growing list of brands investing in internal creative resources to create more of their communications in house.

The telecommunications giant recently hired its first chief creative officer, Andrew McKechnie. A former global group creative director at Apple, McKechnie was recruited by CMO Diego Scotti to build a New York City-based in-house agency in the Verizon Building, once the site of the company’s corporate headquarters, now in Basking Ridge, N.J. Since December, the landmark has been home to the company’s marketing department, offices featuring an open plan, lots of white and the latest in high-tech. The idea is to build "an innovation hub" that serves as a center for "creative excellence," says McKechnie, who began his job at Verizon in mid-February.

A copywriter by trade, McKechnie, who grew up in the Philippines, Indonesia and New Zealand, began his advertising career in Singapore, working for agencies FCB, BBDO and J. Walter Thompson before heading to the US to join Modernista in Boston in 2008. He later moved to New York to work for Y&R and DDB before spending the last three years at Apple, where among the campaigns he worked on included "Start Something New," a global initiative that showcased art people made using Apple products. "It was showing the potential of people," he says, a "human approach" he hopes to bring to Verizon.

McKechnie recently sat down with Campaign US to discuss his plans for the in-house unit, the evolving Verizon brand and working with a roster of agencies that includes McCann, R/GA, Weber Shandwick, Momentum and The Community.

Why move from a beloved brand like Apple to Verizon?
It was a great experience, but for a creative person, to come to a place like Verizon, that’s really going through a transformation right now is a rare opportunity. The brand is trying to move away from being seen as just a wireless telco, a commodity in some respects, to being more of a leading edge technology brand. A big part of it is, how do we bring creative excellence, and how do we start to tie all these things together to really communicate to our customers in a new way?

How do you envision the brand communication changing?
We’re trying to be more authentic and human with the way in which we talk to people, simplify our messages, and I think the way in which I can start to build out the group will allow us to start to thread those things together.

What kind of capabilities will you build?
The space is going to be an innovation hub for us, and we can start to build it in the way in which the business is starting to evolve and transform. The purpose is to really start to be seen as more of a central hub for excellence, and whether that’s the brand voice, the brand identity, the design aesthetics, the way that the brand feels ... essentially my arena is to try and bring that to life in a much greater way. 

Why does Verizon need an in-house agency?
We’re trying to build something that enables us to act more efficiently, be quicker to market, to be nimble, but just to be more proactive as well in the way in which either media starts to shift, or the competition.

Where will you begin?
Retail and areas where we can really impact quickly. I need to also meet all the business units and really look at the needs, and do it in the right way so that we’re building it for a real purpose. The point is not just to replicate a model that exists and then have redundancies and efficiencies. It’s much more bespoke.

How much of your production will you bring in-house?
I’m going to try and figure out where we balance those two worlds, creative ideation and strategy versus pure production. You need a bit of both. I think you dilute some of the power and the potential of the message, because you can’t sometimes control the production, or you aren’t able to react and act as quickly as we need to. As we try to be more efficient, more nimble, quicker to market, there’s going to be elements of production that I think we would want to bring in-house. What those are yet, I don’t know.

How will you work with the agency roster?
The agencies have a great skill set in various areas, and we’re going to continue to lean on that as much as possible. We’re going to move forward as another agency. We just happen to be internal, and we’re going to have a set of capabilities that we’re good at. All the agencies need to collaborate between themselves. We need to collaborate with the agencies in the right way. It’s a constant back-and-forth between all of us. I don’t see it any different. I want to be the best creative partner to the business and the best creative partner to our agencies.

What makes a good agency-client partnership?
It comes down to being true partners. The way in which people engage in the business problems, and really listen to what those critical tension points are, and apply their creative might and strategy to those issues, is where agencies play the most pivotal role. They can provide an objective point of view, but they need to have the right information to be able to impact the business. If you’re not close enough to it, and you don’t really get to the knowledge source, you’ll always be kind of like ships in the night, and just kind of missing the mark.

What were the greatest lessons from Apple that you’ll apply here?
The clarity of message, and the consistency, the focus on the small things, the details, are really, really important. Having a holistic view on what we do, and being able to also control it to a certain extent, in terms of the way in which we communicate with customers. Those are all really valuable lessons that I picked up along the way.