The CCO of FCB/SIX speaks to Addison Capper about the oversimplification of advertising, likening STI rates to stock markets for a new campaign, and launching McDonald’s famous ‘Our Food. Your Questions.’ transparency platform
In recent years, FCB/SIX has made a name for itself as one of the global leaders when it comes to engaging, smart and outright creative uses of data. At a time when the industry at large still seems to be wrestling with how to best put data to use in service of creativity rather than the other way round, this Canadian-borne outpost of FCB/SIX has framed its business strategy around doing exactly that - and to significant effect.
2018 saw the agency launch 'Destination Pride', a global platform for PFLAG Canada that reimagines the Pride flag as a dynamic bar graph that visualises the world's LGBTQ+ laws, rights and social sentiment. It was the most awarded Canadian campaign at Cannes Lions 2018. In 2019 FCB/SIX launched 'Go Back to Africa', a data-driven, Pan-African tourism campaign for Black & Abroad that transformed a racial slur into an empowering call to action. Both this and Destination Pride have been recognised at the Immortal Awards.
The person at the creative helm of FCB/SIX is Ian Mackenzie. Prior to joining the agency he held creative leadership roles at KBS and Tribal Worldwide. While at the latter he co-created and wrote the transformational ‘Our Food. Your Questions.’ transparency platform for McDonald’s, which began in Canada and then launched globally, and is still running today.
Ian and FCB/SIX's latest campaign is another playful take on data with an important message at its core. 'Publicly Traded' is a stock market-inspired platform for sexual wellness brand LifeStyles that uses real-time Australian search activity around sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to generate 'stock' chart visualisations, which drive dynamic online pricing for its products, making condoms more affordable when transmission is on the rise.
LBB's Addison Capper chatted with Ian to find out more about this campaign, his grievances with the oversimplification of advertising, and more.
LBB> You started your career as a copywriter - you were even named the best in Canada in 2014! But your recent career has had a particularly digital tinge to it, especially with your work at FCB/SIX. What has led you down that path?
Ian> I think I started in the industry at a time where the growth opportunities were in digital. Critical mass advertising was probably still taking the lion’s share of marketing dollars and revenue for agencies but the growth was happening with digital. If you were an up-and-coming copywriter around 2005 and you wanted to get in and make yourself useful, working in the digital department or on digital projects was probably a better way to do it than to try and battle your way in and make the next great print ad or get on a TV shoot. To some degree digital was maybe seen as a more tactical or executional, downstream discipline versus mass advertising. I think part of it was just pure economics - where was the growth and where could I make myself useful?
In some way I always had a bit of a bias towards complexity and systems and platform-type thinking. I guess you can apply that type of bias towards traditional advertising but I was always intrigued by the complexity of digital. Some of my early projects involved things like writing huge, 70-page copy decks for Honda - I started that way and it was then a matter of growing into how that all intersects with big ideas and other parts of advertising.
LBB> I read an article that you wrote last year that was titled "Simple Is Bad". Why is simple bad when it comes to advertising? Isn't a simple message the best kind of message?
Ian> Of course simple is incredibly valuable in many ways in life and our industry and the work that we do. But simplicity needs no further champions. It’s a well-regarded, well-protected tenant of advertising. But I noticed that it was, to some degree, being weaponized against specific kinds of ideas and, frankly, specific kinds of thinkers. It’s really easy to say to someone that’s presenting an idea, ‘oh that’s a bit complicated, we need something simple’. It can be really hard to ensure that the first expression of a digital idea is dead simple. If you’re trying to build a platform that does a lot of complicated things, the user experience down the road could be simple, but the starting point from where the idea originates may not be simple.
Maybe this simplicity bias is some kind of conservative reaction to disruption in the industry. A simplicity bias was very healthy for many years in advertising but as digital and data technology emerged as a disruptive force in the industry, and it was actually taking down companies and powerful people and revenue streams, it’s easy to say that it’s just not simple and bad and we need to fight against it. So it’s really a theory about how simplicity has been weaponized by a disrupted industry and that comes with some serious costs with regards to the types of ideas we have and the types of people that can have those ideas.
LBB> FCB/SIX's main focus is the interplay between data and creativity. Data still feels like a bit of a dirty word in some corners of the ad industry. What do you say to them? Why is data so exciting and how does it aid creativity?
Ian> I would acknowledge that there are some serious watchouts ahead for data and technology. It’s not a blind trust. We shouldn’t just pour data and technology over everything and not think about what some of the outcomes might be. But, what I hope to do is be a champion for more creative people actually engaging with these opportunities. There are so many great creative minds in Canada and further afield, and I think that data and technology in advertising needs those minds to be thinking about it more directly versus coming from a place of distrust. The more creative people that get involved will actually help steer it in the right direction. For me it’s an imperative of actually needing those brains thinking about data.
It’s also about merchandising complexity, data and technology to creative people. Being a champion and showing that if we work together we can do some really emotional, dimensional work that achieves business outcomes for our clients using data, technology and creativity.
LBB> Given the constantly shifting state of the current world, how do you see the importance of using data creatively for brands looking to speak to their customers in the right way?
Ian> At its heart, data can help brands be more useful to their customers. It does this either by helping brands anticipate and service customer wants and needs as they arise, or by providing utility – giving our customers something they can use. Among data’s other primary benefits is how it can help brands be more dynamic and relevant in the moment. With both Covid-19 and then a much-needed rethinking of systemic racism, messages that made sense three months ago can, a moment later, seem archaic. As the world re-evaluates what’s important, it makes sense that brands refocus on returning value to their users. Data is a key ingredient in designing a fair and empathetic value exchange.
LBB> You joined FCB/SIX in 2016 - what about the opportunity was particularly appealing for you? It was a transformational time for the agency - how did that play into your decision?
Ian> I loved that Andrea Cook had a vision. Her vision was around the future of advertising and I think agencies are nothing without a clear vision. So first and foremost I was attracted to the strength of the vision. And then the vision itself intersected with a lot of ideas that I had had about creativity and advertising, like platform thinking and the relationship between creativity and complexity. Even though I came up through digital agencies I was noticing almost a drift away from digital within the agencies that I was at. Even among young creative people, I would try and brief them on a programmatic banner and they would complain about having to make so many versions and would want to make a video to just put on YouTube instead. I felt like there was a creative move away from digital so to hear from a company that was going to go further and forge an even deeper path into it, that was exciting for me.
LBB> How has FCB/SIX shifted since lockdown rules came into play?
Ian> This has been hard! Hard on our people. Hard on our clients. Hard on our industry. We’ve had to work harder to do the same job. We’ve had to learn to be more empathic and patient with each other. We’ve had to find productive ways to work when many of the tools we’ve been using blipped out of existence overnight. We’ve had to discover that sometimes it’s ok to turn the Zoom camera off for a day or two. And in the middle of all this, FCB/SIX turned four. And while it hasn’t been easy, our team has done some of the best work of their careers, we’ve had our strongest award show season performance to date, and the agency is growing and expanding globally.
LBB> The agency's momentum has been quite incredible since you joined, with big projects like Destination Pride and Go Back to Africa. What have been your fondest memories of that time and those projects? And how have you gone about engineering that transformation?
Ian> We believe that the vision and capability of this agency can really provide a lot of value to our clients. We’re interested in expressing that vision through the work. A piece like Destination Pride was a long journey but built against a human truth around realities of LGBTQ+ travellers. We started with the human truth and then worked it through an iterative process until it emerged to something we were really proud of. That helped us uncover the theme of brand as utility. Brands don’t just have to say things, they can actually provide function and utility to their users and customers.
Similarly, Go Back To Africa was founded on a human truth around the gap between what Africa is really like and the notion of going there being weaponized against a community. We’re very trustful of a human truth when we see it. They can be very hard to come by so when we see them we try to fit the apparatus of the agency around them and build them out. And because we have a strong vision we’re able to ask ourselves questions as we develop ideas. We can say, we have ‘Go Back To Africa’ but how are we going to express that to the world? Then we get into ideas of utility and how data and technology can help, and then we iterate and build them. If we get it right, which I hope we did with those two pieces, at the end they look highly intricate but they’re really built one piece at a time. And I think that’s how we built the agency. One piece at a time. The work looks intricate sometimes, the vision may look intricate but it’s really just a bunch of people with a shared vision, trying our best. And the way we see it, we’re hopefully just at the beginning of this journey.
Go Back to Africa
LBB> Speaking of that journey just beginning, you've just launched 'Publicly Traded' for LifeStyles. Tell me about that!
Ian> We’ve just launched a digital platform for LifeStyles Condoms in Australia called ‘Publicly Traded’ out of FCB/SIX New York. It’s based on the insight that just like stocks, sexually transmitted infections are publicly traded. So we’ve created a new stock-market-like trading platform that tracks STI-related search behaviour for six sexually transmitted infections: herpes, HIV, HPV, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis. So, for example, if someone searches, ‘chlamydia’ or ‘why does my pee burn’, we collect that data for each of the six STIs we’re tracking, and then roll it all up into a single index, the ‘STI Index’. And that index drives inverse pricing of 30-pack bundles on LifeStyles’ Shopify page.
In some ways it’s a very classic data visualisation: a graph. What makes this interesting is that we’re taking something people are disinterested in – STI data – and transposing into a world where people love looking at graphs, the stock market. “Bringing the dead facts to life,” as Bill Bernbach once said. Then we’re targeting that data in fun ways at men who are interested in both sex and stocks. In a category that’s often focused on pleasure and performance, it’s great to be able to get to the real heart of why people should be wearing condoms: safety.
LBB> Let’s talk about your past a little. You studied visual performing arts. Firstly, why did that interest you? And how did it lead you to a life in advertising?
Ian> I’ve always been a writer. Before university I was interested in art too so I studied drawing, painting, performance arts and sculpting at the University of Toronto. But it was kind of like the ultimate liberal arts degree, I took English courses, political science, film and theory courses. I emerged from that as a “trained artist” and tried for a few years to be some kind of working artist, although I don’t think I really ever had a clear sense of what that might look like. Over the years I worked as a writer doing things like film reviews and some news reporting but found it quite hard to actually make a living out of it. Then I discovered this job called ‘copywriter’ where you could get paid a salary to sit in a chair and write, and that just seemed amazing to me. You could exercise your creativity for a salary - there weren’t too many opportunities to do that. I’d never really even thought about advertising but when I realised that you could apply your creativity and get paid for it, my mind was kind of blown. I worked my way in and here we are.
LBB> An older project I wanted to ask you about is 'Our Food. Your Answers.' That project was huge, garnering conversation globally in the advertising and the outer world. Can you tell us about the project and how it came about? Did you expect it to be so successful?
Ian> I started my career at Grip Limited and after six years I felt like it was time to move on. I started talking to Tribal DDB and their creative director LP [Louis-Philippe] Tremblay. They’d just won the McDonald’s business and they had an art director, Derek Blais, who was looking for a partner, and within two weeks we got a food quality perception brief from the McDonald’s. McDonald’s food quality perception was under attack, it was the Super Size Me era. The team at Tribal was really strong and we cracked this thing pretty soon into the process. It was one of those ideas where we brought it to McDonald’s Joel Levesque and in the meeting he was doing the proverbial hand slamming on the table saying, ‘we’ve got to do this thing!’ It was pretty crazy. There was a lot of risk at the time and it was a huge undertaking figuring out how we were going to answer all of these questions, and how we were going to tell the story with all these videos, and what we were willing to reveal about McDonald’s food. It turned out that really there was nothing to hide and the truth was going to be way more powerful and the only thing that was really going to be able to diffuse some of the myth. It wasn’t like on launch day that we just hit a button and solved everything, there was a lot of fear from all of us at the beginning that it wasn’t going to be successful. The questions were trickling in and it didn’t seem to be catching fire but then some of the videos began going viral and in the end we began to see the impact. But it was definitely one of the scarier ones!
LBB> What has been keeping you busy outside of work during lockdown? Do you have any new hobbies to tell us about?
Ian> Running! When the gyms closed, I laced up and headed out. All the runners out there know why it’s so addictive, but it’s also fun from a data standpoint. In terms of hardware, I use a Garmin Forerunner 235 to track my runs. The data (pace, route, heart rate, etc.) pulls into the Garmin Connect app, which I’ve also linked to Strava, which is basically a social network for athletes and their biometric stats. It’s amazing how shaving even one second off your average time can motivate you to push harder. The chase is real. Even when the person you’re chasing is you.
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