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Why Caring and Creativity Work Hand in Hand for Ben Lilley


The owner of McCann Australia and founder of independent agency HERO shares with Esther Faith Lew his perspective on campaign effectiveness and the pitfalls of perfection

Why Caring and Creativity Work Hand in Hand for Ben Lilley

How does an entrepreneur define risk? Well, a successful one like Ben Lilley, owner of McCann Australia and founder of creative indie HERO, frames his perspective on the positive outcomes he wants to achieve. When Ben first decided to launch his own agency, SMART, back in the day as a young, ambitious creative, he was faced by naysayers who advised against the folly of leaving a cushy job at George Patterson.

“I didn't really see those warnings given to me as being risks, so I wasn't afraid of failing. I was even told I was delusional starting my own creative agency, but it’s all about taking calculated risks in a way. I take into account the potential downsides, but I also absolutely, fiercely, focus on the potential upsides and work out how I can turn them into reality,” says Ben.

Ben walks the talk in being a fearless visionary on his entrepreneurial journey, buying back his agency SMART from IPG, together with McCann Australia’s operations a month before Covid lock-down, and launching HERO in 2020 to integrate his independent suite of integrated agency offerings

While the pandemic couldn’t have been predicted, Ben’s timing couldn’t have been better. It was the right time to leverage on the increased need for digital technology and platforms as the pandemic drove brands and companies to the digital and virtual space. “As McCann in Australia didn’t have a local arm of the group’s digital marketing agency MRM, I looked to acquire award-winning developer B.B.E. to have in place digital technology capabilities.”

Recognising the need to build up a suite of services that would complement McCann’s Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane operations and its PR business, Ben blazed a trail with a series of acquisitions to boost agency expertise in brand and digital consulting, brand strategy, production and media planning. 

Additionally, the launch of HERO became the integrated offering that works alongside McCann, and also as a standalone independent agency. Ben also transformed SMART into a brand innovation consultancy.

“We offer the best of both worlds. The nimble and entrepreneurial approach of an Australian independent as well as the leverage of an international network. We are plugged into two global networks – McCann obviously, and as an extension of IPG in Australia,” says Ben.

What’s the Secret to Longevity in the Business?

For Ben, it boils down to one thing: caring. “I think caring is the most important thing. Caring about your people, your clients and the work you do.” Besides the obvious need to be passionate about the work, Ben shifts the perspective to a deeper level that speaks of authenticity towards clients and colleagues alike. He shares that his proudest achievement is to see those who've worked for him – and alongside him – thrive in their careers.

Ben also believes that the key to success is to have a deeper understanding of creativity. “It’s not just about believing in creativity because belief and hope aren’t enough. You have to understand just how exponentially powerful creativity is as a force. It gives our clients exponentially better returns on their brands and in their businesses.”

HERO Agency of the Year

While others may be daunted by the choppy waters of an ever-evolving industry, Ben is proof that focusing on the upsides amplifies the power of successful manifestation. Thus, the phenomenal growth of new media channels and platforms competing for consumer attention present opportunities, not challenges. “The media landscape is constantly changing and evolving. And some people find that terrifying and exhausting. For me, I find it invigorating to know that we’re constantly presented with new creative opportunities that our clients can benefit from,” he says.

Navigating the Marketing Minefield with Wisdom

Listening to Ben talk about the need to differentiate between “advertising effectiveness” and “the creativity of effectiveness”, I’m struck by the authenticity of his perspective. It’s  not about hyperbole; it’s not about over intellectualising. He cuts through the clutter to get at the heart of the matter: What do consumers want? He also acknowledges the need to be brave about trials and errors.

“There are some clients who want the most perfect strategy, the most perfect answer, and the most perfect media plan and campaigns that achieve results. But then, I think more enlightened marketers are prepared to invest in the best answers they can find, but also invest in a degree of trial and error as they go about building their businesses and their brands.

“Because, you know, creativity is not a precise and perfect science. In fact, even the metrics around media and channel planning are not a perfect science either. So you have to be able to embrace a little bit of the unpredictability that comes with both the creative and strategic/planning process, and to work with the client to optimise their marketing spend. Even that is an iterative process.

“One of our HERO clients, Toyota, presents a good example for this. Toyota practises the principles of kaizen, which is about continuous improvement. And that's exactly how the very best creative campaigns and marketing plan should be approached as well. Not with the intent of trying to achieve immediate perfection because it doesn't exist, but to continually improve on success, and to be prepared for failure as well in some aspects. The key to success is to recognise and stop whatever’s not working,  and to reinvest in the things that are working,” says Ben.

What, then, are the traps that marketers and creatives have to avoid while pursuing this exploratory, iterative approach?

“A trap to some marketers is that they try to chase accountability or predictability over efficacy. Because, you know, there's the great saying ‘not everything that matters can be measured; and not everything that can be measured matters’. But there are some clients, for example, who are very fierce advocates for just the channels that you can measure, and they take comfort in the fact that they can measure the outcomes of those campaigns,” says Ben.

“But, as a result, they then ignore or don’t invest in areas of spend or areas of media that are harder to measure, but which could actually be exponentially more impactful for them. So, I think in some regards, the explosion of digital media and channels has been hugely transformative and hugely beneficial for brands and marketers. But it has also been a trap in terms of what marketers see as perfect accountability, or perfect predictability, and at the expense of other channels and brand-building activities that we know are equally as powerful, if not more, but are harder to achieve the same immediate measurements or accountability for.”

Look at Societal Shifts, Not Just Trends

When asked about trends that he reckons would impact agencies in the new year, Ben stresses that while trends have value in presenting opportunities, they are not as important as societal shifts.

“I think what's more important are societal shifts that we see happening around us. A very powerful one right now is that of diversity, equity and inclusion. It is critical that all enlightened brands and businesses be at the forefront of this shift and really embrace it. That's a more powerful platform because of the way it connects directly with what is happening in people's lives. It’s more than just about purpose.”

He elaborates that while the agenda of “embracing purpose” has led to some really good work from agencies, there has also been “wasteful and frivolous work” resulting from it. “A campaign can become so purpose-oriented that it may have nothing to do with the brand or product that the marketer is trying to advertise. This leads to a backlash where consumers become cynical about that brand and reject it rather than embrace it.”

The importance of having a genuinely progressive and inclusive, evolving society and community is critical, and it is something that the power of advertising can create as an agent of change. “But it’s not just about trying to create ads that look like a ‘United Colours of Benetton’ ad. It’s about doing work that genuinely embraces and advances the cause of diversity, equity and inclusion. I think it's critically important,” Ben concludes. 

This is the legacy Ben will leave behind at a deeper level beyond the business empire he has built up. That and the successful careers of his running mates and colleagues who have launched their careers with him in Australia and have gone on to bigger roles within the McCann and global IPG ecosystem. Even to launch entrepreneurial agencies of their own.

HERO Sydney Xmas Party


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Genres: People

LBB Editorial, Tue, 10 Jan 2023 03:16:32 GMT