James Ward, Anne Feighan, Chuck Meehan and Brad Emmett, the agency’s leadership team, speak to Addison Capper about rejuvenating the agency after it lost its biggest client, scooping up clients and talent during Covid, and why they’re much, much more than an automotive agency
In 2018, McCann Detroit lost its biggest client, ALDI. To put it in the words of the agency’s current president, James Ward, “a little bit of a turnaround” was required at the agency. James joined the agency from local Detroit agency Doner in April of that year, first bringing on Brad Emmett as one of the agency’s co-CCOs before solidifying the leadership team with the appointments of Chuck Meehan, the other co-CCO, and Anne Feighan, CSO towards the end of 2019. The crew quickly won US Bank as a client before picking up Spain-based energy company Iberdrola in 2020 - far from typical clients for a Detroit agency where, naturally, automotive clients are the driving force of the city's industry and advertising.
McCann Detroit does, however, boast General Motors as a client, which it launched a high profile Super Bowl spot for in February featuring a Will Ferrell mad at Norway's superiority over the United States when it comes to electric vehicle adoption. Keen to know about the process of getting to this point, how they went about rejuvenating the agency, and why they’re far more than an automotive agency, LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with James, Anne, Chuck and Brad.
LBB> Obviously a big piece of recent work for you was GM’s Super Bowl spot with Will Ferrell, who I imagine is quite a coup to get in a commercial. How did that come to be?
Chuck> From the very first script we realised right away that Will Ferrell was the perfect Pied Piper for this foray into international electrification. He just has an unbridled hubris coupled with that childlike enthusiasm of his. We never really considered anybody else but him, and it went from there and then we got the rest of the cast. But Will never does commercials, so we had to deal with that, Covid and the holidays.
Anne> But don't let Chuck fool you, he does a good Will Ferrell impersonation.
Chuck> We presented to his agent and he actually said, "you sound just like him!"
Brad> That actually helped a lot, because the main thing was seeing if Will Ferrell was even available. This was in December which was a late time to get a celebrity like Will Ferrell to sign up for something like this, especially considering we'd heard that he doesn't do Super Bowl commercials, particularly as himself. I think that made this even more special. It was a labour of love for Will because he's always been an EV advocate, and he was all in, it was so great.
LBB> As a team, you're fairly fresh - I think it was in 2019 that you all came together. Can you tell me a bit about how your leadership crew came to be?
James> I came to McCann Detroit in April of 2018 from Doner, where I'd worked with Brad and Chuck previously, and once upon a time met Anne there as well. So I came over first, and the agency had just lost its biggest client, ALDI, and suffice to say it was going to be a little bit of a turnaround. I had harbored a notion that Anne might join us, as she was already working at MRM, which is in our building and a sibling agency. Chuck and Brad were still back at Doner but I felt like this would be the leadership team that could provide a bit of a spark and help to take the agency out of the woods it had gotten into. And really in effect, although it sounds kind of trite to say, we had to think like a startup, which seems sort of paradoxical for a company called McCann. But nevertheless, we were like a startup and had to lean into that.
Brad> When I came aboard, even before Anne and Chuck, to work with James, we discussed how it helped immensely that it wasn't James and I getting to know each other. Right when I came aboard to McCann it was instant, we just got to work because we knew what we’re both about. That was really helpful. And then, of course, Anne came aboard, James knew her from Doner, and I worked with Chuck mostly indirectly at Doner, but we knew each other from our past as well, before Doner. The relationship between Chuck and I was already good so we knew exactly what we were about creatively about, so again, there was no guessing, we just knew it would work.
James> I knew what our talents were individually and that we had worked together in some form or other, but what's interesting is that it's really been in the last year that we've coalesced as a leadership team. I don't think it's accidental that the success we've had in the last year coincides with that. I was once in a pitch, not with this group, but the search consultant there made a remark that we were like five talented soloists rather than a band. It was a pretty scathing critique, but it reminded me that it takes some time for a team to really gel and start to hit its stride. I think that's what's happened with us in the past year, which is very gratifying.
Anne> I also think it helps that we had a very clear vision from the beginning. When I came on board, it was very clear that we wanted to do great work. McCann's mantra is 'creativity is the only way to survive', and Brad and Chuck really wear that in their heart and on their sleeves. We knew that was the mission and the goal at the end of the day, and that's what we all wanted to do, and to do it together. Having that clarity upfront was really, really powerful.
LBB> You mentioned that a turnaround was obviously needed but what were your steps to doing that? What kind of state was the agency in when you came on board?
James> Size wise, the ALDI business was winding down in 2018, and as I mentioned up front, that had been the biggest account in the agency. So with its exit, there was also the exit of a number of people. When that happens, obviously, it's deflating to culture, so there was a little bit of a need to encourage people to hold their heads up a little bit after going through some hard times. But in a way, it's no more complicated than starting to inspire confidence, which starts with the very next piece of work we were doing for other existing clients, and then you go out and win something. Nothing helps like winning to rejuvenate the culture and to completely instil some confidence in people that they might have been lacking. To a great extent there was talent waiting to be activated but it had been talent that had been through some hard times, and we're all people and frail in the way that people are, but to a great extent, is was just getting some swagger back, pushing creative to the forefront of everything that we do, and going at that with missionary zeal. Here again, it didn't hurt that being in Detroit, a challenged city, a city that gets up off the mats when it gets knocked down, it doesn't hurt that that cultural context existed, if we could tap into it in the right way.
LBB> You’ve touched on the vision but could you speak a bit more about it? Detroit is traditionally an automotive town, in terms of industry and advertising - how did this influence your goal for McCann Detroit?
James> Anne said it well. It started with the creative product, which in a way seems obvious, but it wasn't necessarily at the centre of the culture in the way that we wanted it to be. I don't think it's too simplistic to say that if you get the creative work right, everything else will follow. We've all worked elsewhere, which I think has been to our advantage because we've all touched a lot of different categories, we've been in different markets, so it's allowed us to credibly go and pitch non-automotive clients. And there's a lot of talent in this town, frankly, even though it's only understood one dimensionally as an automotive town. We have said to ourselves and continue to say so, why shouldn't there be an elite creative agency in Detroit? There's no reason, so we want to sort of force a reappraisal of what a Detroit agency could be. That's a very Detroit thing, too, to have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, Detroit is sort of a pugnacious town. There was an author from Detroit named Elmore Leonard, and he said that we can't get by on our good looks in Detroit, we have to work for a living, unlike other cities - and there's something true about that.
Chuck> We're not a car agency. We're an agency that happens to have a car account. But because of what we're doing for GM right now, we still haven't done a car commercial - the work we do is about change, it's about what their battery is going to do. There was a car in the Super Bowl spot, but it wasn't really about the car. I think we're in a very interesting position.
LBB> With that in mind, what kind of work have you done that really demonstrates what you can do for other types of clients?
Brad> US Bank is one of our clients, we launched a campaign for them recently with the tagline 'We'll get there together'. I think that's a great example of just doing great, smart work and flexing our wings beyond automotive. Bank advertising can live in a sea of sameness but we've really pushed this and we have a great client who allows us to do. We have a client named Shoe Carnival, which is a discount shoe retailer, and in that case Covid made us rethink how we were going to go into production, due to production limitations, and we ended up doing a great, really fun animated piece for them. So again, just flexing our wings. And I know it sounds cliche, but it really is about the idea. Car or not, just come up with a good idea and execute it.
LBB> Are any of you from Detroit? Or have a personal connection with the city?
James> Anne and Brad have a particularly scandalous connection. They both grew up in a town called Romeo, Michigan, and who knew it was such a wellspring of advertising?
Anne> We both went to high school together. Brad actually just shared some old yearbook photos with me the other day.
Brad> It's me, Anne and then Kid Rock is below us! [This is not true but Kid Rock is indeed from the same town.] In all seriousness, I grew up in Michigan but I left when I was 19 and went to New York and never looked back. But there's something about Michigan and Detroit that has a magnetism that draws us all back. It's really strange. I would have told you that I'm never moving back to Detroit or Michigan but then the opportunity came up. I realised, having learned the advertising trade in New York, I wasn't a car guy. So to your point earlier, I thought, well, they do car advertising there, but then I realised there were agencies, McCann Detroit being one of them, where it's not just all about automotive. I looked into it and headed it back.
LBB> You mentioned earlier that there’s a lot of talent in Detroit. Why do you think that is? Do you think it has anything to do with Detroit’s financial struggles and that breeding somewhat of a creative hotbed?
James> I don't think I'm alone in thinking this, a big part of Detroit's renaissance has been creativity. Yes, there's been a lot of private capital and the city reorganising under bankruptcy but there are a lot of pioneering creative spirits coming to Detroit and restaurants opening, weird marriages of technology and good old fashioned entrepreneurialism. As a cultural context for a creative agency, Detroit is a wonderful place to be because the whole city is humming with reinvention. The entire city is changing what its destiny might have been, and that's a cool context. And it does help. Once upon a time, maybe Detroit had a little bit of a stigma to it but in terms of attracting talent from elsewhere in the country, it's not a factor now at all. I like Brad's word 'magnetism', there's a certain beacon to like minded people who want to come here and do creative, wacky stuff.
Chuck> There's a light on our place right now. We just hired a CD team from New York, they came from Deutsch and Grey, we're about to hire another CD from Los Angeles and someone from Atlanta. In the past it's been a challenge to Detroit to get out-of-town talent here, especially at these levels, and we're getting that traction and interest, it's really exciting.
LBB> Can you outline the make-up of the agency in Detroit?
James> Well, the McCann Worldgroup presence in Detroit is over 1,000 people, but that includes our office, MRM, Commonwealth, which exists completely to serve Chevrolet around the world, and it includes Weber Shandwick. In total, we're a very big, capable presence in Detroit, which is great because it's not like we're some remote outpost, there's nothing that we can't do capability wise. But our little group within it, we'll be about 80 people this year. There's something about the culture at McCann that's great though. It's not just a business decision to collaborate across offices and function as a network; for some reason there's a real willingness and impulse to do that, and it seems better developed at McCann than other network places, therefore our size has not been a hindrance because we're able to plug into the bigger ecosystem very, very easily and frequently.
Brad> I'll second that, coming from the creative side. When I got to McCann Detroit, New York welcomed me with open arms. I knew a lot of people there from my past in New York, but they really were like, we support you guys 100%, we'll help you when you need us and get out of your way when you don't. They really, really stood by their word, it's been amazing. I've heard so many horror stories from other networks where it just doesn't work. Here it really does. Everyone checked their egos at the door, which was so refreshing, especially when you're trying to build something.
Anne> We actually practice it in application, we work hand in hand across the network sharing resources on GM and US Bank. We practice it, it's not just something that we talk about, we live it every day.
LBB> I saw you mention that Covid has pushed you to actually behave more like a network, which I thought was refreshing to read because the word ‘network’ doesn’t have the most positive connotations in advertising sometimes.
Anne> I think it's less about pushing us to behave like that, it's already a well honed reflex that we had, it just accelerated it, we just kicked into how we've always operated. We share resources, we partner across agencies - it's how we do business and culturally how we operate.
James> Part of it is just the human connection. As it relates to Covid in particular, we've all gotten closer in the last year, which seems counterintuitive given that we've been physically separated, but there's been something about the shared experience of Covid that has heightened people's empathy for one another, not that we weren't empathetic to begin with. We talk to our North American peers on a regular basis, and oftentimes it's just talking about what's going on, being supportive of one another. It's not just transactional behaviour across the network, it's more about just being colleagues, which is a nice thing. I think there's been a real conscious effort to support one another, and that aspect of the network has really come to the foreground during Covid, for sure.
LBB> I also read that you’re ‘able to see America from the inside out’, which I thought was a neat quote, especially considering much of America’s advertising still comes from either coast. Can you speak a bit more to what you mean by that and how it’s beneficial for you and your clients?
Anne> We see it as a complementary perspective to the coasts, particularly the big cities that you just mentioned. We see it as a version of America that's extremely relatable, more mainstream, it's taking the consumer and culture and our way of life and applying that to our clients and who they're talking to, and having a bit of a different perspective that is a bit more mainstream.
James> We've all worked on the coasts as well but I think the phrase 'complementary perspective' is a really good one because it's neither better nor worse but it is different. There is a certain lens that you look at America through when you're living and working in New York, and the America that we see tends to be maybe a little bit more, like Anne said, relatable on a grand scale. But obviously, if nothing else, in the last several years we've learned that there are multiple versions of America. But it's good, when we're with our peers in New York, we usually see eye to eye on most things, it's just that we're coming at it from a different vantage point, that's all.
Anne> I do want to add that I think that lens has served us well, especially with our clients like US Bank that is based out of Minneapolis. How they're wired as a brand and as a bank is very much in sync with who we are as an agency and how we see the world. There's a nice synergy there.
LBB> Chuck and Brad, I wanted to ask you about being co-CCOs, whereas most agencies obviously only have one. What’s that experience like? And is it beneficial?
Brad> Like I mentioned before, I've known Chuck, Chuck and I are like minded creatively, and also have different, strong but valid opinions on other things. I think our collaboration works. But it's not just our place, it's something that McCann believes in, the co-CCO partnership, and I think it breeds better work. It's also helpful to divide and conquer, which we do all the time, but we always come together at the end just to make sure everyone's on the same page for a successful product.
Chuck> It actually made more sense. Brad and I, as busy as we've been this last year, both said to each other, thank God I'm not doing this by myself. And it is kind of unique, because it is usually just one. We're in the middle of scaling this place, I don't know how either of us could have done this by ourselves. It works.
LBB> What do the coming months look like for the agency?
James> I hope it holds a reunion. Obviously it is all dependent on vaccinations and we'll obviously be prudent in terms of how we start going back to the office but it'll be nice to be collaborating in the truest sense of the word because even though Teams has been great, there's a bit of an X factor that occurs when you get in the same room. We've done a bit of it over the last several months in controlled small groups, but it'll be great to be living that dynamic again, day in and day out.
Anne> We couldn't have a proper post-Super Bowl celebration this year, whereas we would have usually been in the same room and had that water cooler talk. That's really important for us as an agency, to really celebrate and share our successes together and to continue to motivate and inspire us moving forward.
Brad> The Super Bowl gave our whole agency enormous motivation to continue to do great work, obviously. But also, we've hired so many people that I have only met from the waist up, so I cannot wait to sit in a room with these people and have a beer with them or whatever. It's been an interesting year to try to create culture via Teams. That will be a big, big plus as well.
Chuck> More can happen in the hallways in five minutes than two hours on a Teams call.
Anne> I'm also excited to see what kind of work comes next because of all the new talent that we brought on. There are some amazing people that have joined our team, and I just can't wait to see what they're going to create next.
LBB> It sounds like you've really been hiring quite a lot of talent recently!
James> Yeah, we went on a bit of a spree in the fourth quarter, and it continues, we still have some open racks. That's a thrilling thing, to be able to just be growing again, and bringing in different points of view and different personalities and seeing how all those things come together. Since we're growing and hiring, it's also an opportunity to continue to diversify our culture and employee base. The last several hires we made in the fourth quarter, about 42% of them were diversity hires. It was difficult when we were shrinking - it's obviously hard to shrink and diversify at the same time. So the growth in and of itself is thrilling but it also begets the opportunity to become a more diverse culture.
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