'We've just opened the tap': McCann's Doubal and Thomson on boosting creativity across the UK

It once had little to be desired in terms of creative reputation, but McCann UK's CCOs have reinvented the agency as a place with no creative limitations.

Last time Campaign interviewed Rob Doubal and Laurence "Lolly" Thomson, it was 2010 and the pair were creative directors at Wieden & Kennedy London, which they had joined from Mother earlier that year. 

At that point they’d already achieved considerable success, including recognition from Cannes Lions, D&AD and Campaign Big Awards among others, and their careers looked set to go from strength to strength. But if you’d suggested to them then that less than two years later they would be the newly installed executive creative directors of McCann London, they’d probably have produced a reaction memorable enough to form the basis for a classic ad campaign.

The positions had been vacant for a long 18 months, since the departure of Simon Learman and Brian Fraser. During that time, the ship was sailed by Linus Karlsson, a founder of Mother New York, who joined McCann in 2010 as chief creative officer for both New York and London – an appointment that was crucial for attracting the interest of Doubal and Thomson, who calls Karlsson "a hero of ours", mentioning in particular his work for Miller at Fallon Minneapolis.

The pair met Karlsson for breakfast, and "he basically dared us", Doubal says. "He said you guys would be losers unless you ran your own agency." Their hesitation would no doubt have been shared by many of the other creatives that were approached about the job: McCann was seen by many as somewhere that creative inspiration went to die. 

But Karlsson’s gambit obviously worked. "We talked ourselves into this job," Thomson recalls. "We weren’t sure if we wanted it or we were ready for it. But the more we talked to each other, the more we thought, ‘fuck it, if we can make McCann work, if McCann can be a success…’"

Doubal (left) and Thomson

Doubal and Thomson give the impression of guys who have spent plenty of time trying to make each other laugh over the years, but who have worked together long enough for the pressure to do so to have worn off. 

In the spiciest moment of our interview, Thomson, discussing the background to their partnership, says: "I’ve known Rob longer than I’ve known my wife." (He has just become a father for the second time, while Doubal has three kids between six and nine). 

"And we always joke that the sex is far better with me, don’t we Lol," Doubal retorts. Cue awkward embarrassment from Thomson, as though there’s a time and place for these bantz and it isn’t in front of the journalist.

Asked if they’d ever take a leaf from the book of Adrian Rossi, who split with his creative partner of 20 years to become creative chairman at Grey London, they walk through the benefits of being joint creative chiefs. "To be a CCO on your own is daunting," Thomson says. "Singular creatives, it takes longer, there’s more procrastination, there’s no one else on your level to say ‘that’s shit, that’s good, let’s move on’."

Being in a pair "cuts out all the not making a decision," Doubal adds. "If you have a small doubt somewhere and you’re on your own, you’ll just carry that doubt everywhere." He goes on to say: "We’re actually quite an intimidating team if we both believe the same thing." And at this point, they both begin roaring like lions. 

What is a poster anyway?

Since taking up the challenge to reinvent McCann London as a creatively led agency, they have brought in no shortage of gongs. In past years, it has has been dominated by Xbox, which has bagged them 34 Cannes Lions, including 2018’s inaugural Grand Prix in the Creative Ecommerce category. This year, though, McCann London entered work for five clients and won Lions (12 in total) for all five: Xbox; L’Oréal; BreezoMeter and the British Lung Foundation; Vice Media; and the Peter Tatchell Foundation

None of the winning work could conventionally be called an "ad campaign". In BreezoMeter and BLF campaign "Toxic Toby" (main image), an animatronic teddy bear was strapped to lamp posts around London, referencing tributes to those killed in road accidents to draw attention to the deadly effects of air pollution. L’Oréal, meanwhile, partnered with Vogue to release The Non-Issue, a special publication designed to fight back against the underrepresentation of women over 50 in media.

All the winning work, in fact, is in some way about challenging or extending the expectations of a medium or creating a new way to engage with consumers. It’s this kind of thinking Doubal and Thomson see as key to their success – and it’s also why they have no time for any notions that advertising or creativity are in crisis.

"It’s a perception thing," Doubal argues. "People seem to be doing less great work. But if you look at the best work, it’s excellent. It’s more possible now than ever."

"The Gaydr" campaign for the Peter Tatchell Foundation

Thomson jumps in: "When people say that, it’s around TV advertising and posters. But if I take out TV and posters, I go wow, an advertising company made that, they did that amazing thing.

"The tough bit is to confine yourselves to the remit of what your marketing briefs are," he adds. "You’ve got to look at what you’re being asked, and then really question that to evolve the ask. The best ideas go beyond that: well, this isn’t a poster, this is an experience or a TV channel." This can be seen in work like "Survival billboard" for Xbox, one of the most striking "poster" campaigns of recent years.

The UK's awards haul from Cannes was down this year (albeit from a strong 2018), but Doubal doesn't think there's anything to worry about. "There’s always gonna be ebbs and flows," he says.

But he thinks the decline may be partly due to the UK being some way behind the US, which dominated Cannes this year, in embracing purpose-led work. "The UK has struggled a little bit – the British are slightly more cynical than the American market," he says. "If you’re not doing work with purpose your company isn’t understood to be contemporary or relevant."

There was one big exception to this: Burger King's "Whopper detour", by David Miami, in which the fast-food brand used geo-targeting to offer a Whopper for one cent to consumers already in or near a McDonald's. 

Burger King's skill has been to "leverage the zeitgeist and culture and then stand on its shoulders", Doubal says – as well as recognising the benefit of "going at McDonald’s consistently. They choose their enemy well." He adds: "I think their marketers are trusting their agency to do what comes instinctively." 

Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome

In January, the duo’s contribution was recognised when they were elevated to chief creative officers for the whole of the UK, adding responsibility for helping drive the creative output of McCann’s offices in Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Milton Keynes. (The latter three are run collectively as McCann Central, which is also in the process of opening a fourth office in Leeds).

While London is still the engine of critical acclaim, McCann Bristol picked up its first Lion this summer for its reversible poems for Refuge (pictured right). Velocity, the group's dedicated outfit for Vauxhall based in Milton Keynes, won another. Last year, McCann Birmingham won three Radio Lions, including a gold. Awards for Manchester have included a silver and bronze at the IPA Effectiveness Awards last October, when McCann was also named Effectiveness Network of the Year.

Doubal and Thomson agree it can be hard for regional offices to get noticed – but a single famous piece of work can put a smaller office on the map, Thomson suggests. "A few years ago you’d have said the same thing about Melbourne and Sydney – and then Melbourne did "Dumb ways to die" [the public safety musical animation for the city’s Metro Trains].

"The whole reason we believed we could do this job at McCann was that where we grew up, in independents, you know that the best work was just a group of people – it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re working on if you have that right attitude.

"Our roles in the UK, a lot of them are just encouragement, a little prodding and belief, to say look, we can work together to get some excellent work, and that will change reputations very quickly."

"Famous work has an effect on clients," Doubal adds. "People in times past maybe thought, I can’t do famous work because stuff like that doesn’t come from Birmingham. It’s an attitude thing. In many ways we’ve just opened up the tap, which is part of our eulogising role."

Thomson acknowledges there is still "a slight perception-reality gap" around the agency’s creative credentials among some in the industry. But he says: "If you met myself, Rob, Theo [Izzard-Brown, chief strategy officer] or Sheryl [Marjoram, CEO as of last month] and look at the pedigree of where we’ve come from, you go, oh right, I get it now. It’s about following the people, not the agency’s reputation."

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