Q&A: Publicis Groupe creative chief Nick Law on leadership, Marcel and the future of advertising

By Stephen Lepitak | -

Publicis Groupe


Nick Law article

November 7, 2018 | 14 min read

Leading the creative proposition for the world's third-largest advertising agency network is Nick Law, who is homing in on a year since he announced his intention to join Publicis Groupe from R/GA. He was also this year's chair of The Drum Advertising Awards and took time out following the judging to talk about effective leadership of creatives, his own expectations of the company's new AI tool Marcel and his vision of the future of the ad industry.

What advice would you give to other creative leaders when it comes to leading a team?

Our industry is unique in that we have to manage very difficult people, creative people are pretty idiosyncratic. Often when you hear their backstory you find that creatives have led a strange life and the advertising industry, in general, has been a great dumping ground for dysfunctional and strange people. And so that is the trade-off that you need to figure out the level of talent and how difficult they are.

So we need to get better at understanding how to put people in the roles that will make them successful. I see this all the time where people [are] saying: "I can’t deal with this person. They are a pain in the arse." And they need to understand that their job is how to make this person productive. It’s not to make them happy, because there are a lot of people in this industry that will never be happy. There is a limit, of course [but] there are some people who are just too psychotic, there are a lot of people who are just a little bit different or they will process the world differently.

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So part of managing creative people is to figure out how to make people successful and connect them with the right people and get the chemistry right. You have to manage idiosyncratic people and match all your Lego pieces in interesting ways. A lot of it is curation and being sensitive to what they are trying to do.

The old world of this tyrannical creative director is done, for practical reasons as it’s not good to just be a dick to people. Your job is to get the best out of people and to do that you need to know what they are like as humans and to get them working in the right way. We forget that sometimes, especially in the race to become consultants. The last time I checked, consultants made their money by mitigating risk, and you don’t mitigate risk when you pull in brilliant people who are a little bit crazy, but you create something else and that’s the value of our industry.

How do you do that though when also working for a client who may want something contrary to the idea the creative puts forward?

That’s interesting because at the same time that the media and the software that we have at our disposal has become so specific and so contextual and so broad, we are thinking about where should a brand live? There was a time where if you made cigarettes or you made jet airlines, a TV spot or a print ad was the best way to reach people. Now, if you are going to advertise those things you are going to use completely different tactics, media plans, channels. So if you are matching talent against those opportunities then you really have to think about that.

I have worked with people who I know I would only put on a premium brand because a refined sensibility and there are other people who have a broader sense which can reach a different audience. It again goes back to curation – how do you match talent with opportunity? How do you figure out what is best for a specific client and then get the right people in? It’s a lot more complicated than people think. It’s not just getting interesting people to create stuff that matches a brand, but the magic is more complicated than that.

How are you going to build that ambition and a global creative team through Publicis? Have you begun that yet?

I have begun it, but I have also been involved in a lot of pitches and stuff with a lot of different people across a lot of different agencies, while actually working on stuff which is always useful. Out of all the thousands of entities within Publicis, there are places that don’t need my help, they are pretty smart and already doing great work. I don’t want to pretend that I’ve come in to redesign the holding company but that are some pieces where I can help.

I can definitely help with having a broader understanding of creativity. So in brutal, simple terms, how do you make all the pieces more modern versions of themselves and then how do you connect those pieces and capabilities when appropriate because there are times when you need that. Part of what I’m realising now is that in many cases, the thing that straddles the many capabilities of the advertising and digital world is experience design. If I want a big comms agency to become more modern we need to make them understand that the stuff that they are making is going to live in other people’s interfaces, in the stream of modern marketing. And to understand how that lives in those interfaces you need to understand experiences and understand how things work in media systems and have a fluency in these new templates.

I look at the other end of the spectrum at Sapient where they are actually building software and where that software meets the consumer, it needs to be branded and beautifully designed as an experience. So you are either doing great experience design for your interfaces or you are helping work on other people’s interfaces – so in the end, and I’m being very simplistic here, I see experience design as a broad array of disciplines to connect a lot of things and to connect pure storytelling with software and utility, and connect social with VR. If I’m looking at talent across the board of all these agencies, I would say that the deficit is really great experience design.

What is advertising to you?

Advertising in the past consisted of media but we had an explosion and the media of the past was one-direction where you received it, you read it, you watched it, you got it in the mail. It wasn’t really viable as there was no interface between you and what you were getting that you could input into where you could stop and share or contribute anything.

In the past it was 'How do you tell people what a brand represents and about the products you are selling?' Now you still need to do that but you also have the opportunity to enable other behaviors and transactions. You can get people to use the service you are creating or you can get people to share that they used that service to their friends and so their friends are going to pay attention to it because they didn’t get it from a nameless company. So there are all sorts of ways that you can manipulate the media and the software to make sure you can sell shit. Or you can get people to understand that it is there and that it’s all connected in this six-inch screen in your hand, that’s why you can go to watching a video, to buying something, to sharing with your friends – it’s very hard to provide advertising in that context. It might be the first thing you see and the first thing is so connected to the last thing you do so it’s really hard to unpick it.

That’s why if we remain in these silos and we decide that advertising is only telling stories about brands, that’s not how we fit from a media perspective. When we talk about whether advertising is a dirty word now, it’s not, it’s a part of a larger thing.

A lot of your own success has been down to your embracing the change of the industry. What makes you so passionate about advertising still?

I was never an advertising fundamentalist. I’ve always been a bit of an outsider because I haven’t come from advertising but as soon as I left the design world I became an outsider because I was always happy, not by any great design but more by chance where I skipped around different industries and enjoyed that. So I don’t feel like I am defending any legacy because I don’t have any great affection for how things used to happen in this industry because I wasn’t around then.

I also think that as a creative person, I have never separated creativity from execution. Execution belongs in the medium and all mediums are technology so I don’t see the difference between broadcast, print or AR. There’s a difference in what you need to do for those technologies but they are all technologies. It’s not like all of a sudden technology started with the internet. Technology started with a piece of charcoal on the wall of a cave and your creativity was defined by that medium but it’s always been that way. New mediums offer a new opportunity which are different. That’s why the apologists say things like; ‘It’s still the same.’ It’s not really any more than writing on a scroll with a quill is the same as a printing press. In ways they are interesting and you need to refine how you think about them.

The reason we look at ads before the Bernbach revolution, a print ad in the 50s was an advertorial explanation with an illustration of the product. There’s no play between the word and the image, it’s very simple. And one of the things that the Bernbach revolution did was, not just take advantage of these new technologies like broadcast, but it innovated the structure of the team in a way that all of a sudden, print was different. Legacy mediums change; television advertising is different now because of the web and these things start to influence each other and the grammar you need for the web demands something that TV is now borrowing. I don’t know why people are so scared of technology, I don’t understand it.

Where do you see the advertising sector going?

There is still this legacy thinking and then there are lots of interesting creative people doing interesting things – some of them are in advertising and some of them are in adjacent industries. We talk about influencers – these are just people who have access to mediums and audiences in their own right.

If I am going to an advertising university, I can learn more sitting in my dorm room playing with Quicktime and all the software [so] why would I leave my dorm room and go and learn how to kern? I’m being facetious, there are still crafts that are important, but I feel like there are more creative people than ever now with the democracy over the tools of creativity and the ability for people to distribute [their work].

Ultimately those people who are teaching themselves will come into creative departments more. My kids spend so much time watching YouTube videos of Fortnight, celebrities and young chefs making stuff – they love it. The truth is that the quality of those tends to be good because if you have millions of people doing this, the best will rise to the top. We have more people working in the creative world than ever, we’re just blind to it because we keep reliving the creative revolution.

What will Marcel mean to Publicis and advertising widely?

It’s really an enterprise tool that is trying to replicate a few things that existed in the civilian world right now and inside the walls of the industry, these practices haven’t seeped. So this is an attempt to create a connected community in a creative agency that can learn from each other. Where the software will be intuitive enough, it will connect you to the people you need to work with or the work you need to look at or the things you need to do. Either way, it will be a little bit more efficient and you become more creative when connected to different people as a rule. To me it’s a tool that won’t replace anyone, it’ll just make us a little bit better and we will look back in five years and wonder what the big fuss was. I do believe that.

It’s important to us, but in the end, the hysteria around it has been a little bit mystifying. I guarantee that there were advertising practitioners who, when TV came along, freaked out. They said ‘I can’t believe this thing, it’s ruining creativity, people can’t write anymore.’ And I also guarantee that when Bernbach brought up the art directors from downstairs and said ‘alright copywriter, you’re no longer the only creative in the building, you’re going to work with the art director’ – you don’t think that for the first year, the copywriter didn’t look at the art director and asked ‘who the fuck are you? You’re not conceptual.’ There is always this fear of change and this disregard for the thing you don’t know.

What is next to come in advertising?

There are so many opportunities right now and there could be one whole branch that you go to which is just content, and by that I mean film or VR experiences, the stuff that you may have previously only associated with Hollywood. There’s going to be a close connection with that world, with amazing creators of that content and then on the other end of the spectrum we are going to start seeing AI augmenting creativity instead of replacing it with conversational interfaces and more predictive stuff.

My problem with the adtech world is that we keep talking about the pipes and not the stuff going through it. I have a problem that agencies are still being told by Facebook and Google about best practices but we should be telling them what best practices are. We should be doing it based on the fact that we use their formats, experiment with them, we have mastery of them and create a grammar. It’s not like the broadcasters have been giving us best practices of how to do TV – we mastered that. We should be doing the same thing and I fault the ad industry for that.

Young creatives should be dying to get hold of Oculous and work in new formats to experiment with them and then go back to Google and Facebook and the rest to show them what they are doing. I know Facebook and Google would prefer that because they don’t want to have to convince agencies to use their formats.

If our industry doesn’t create these best practices then other people will, and already are, so we need to pull those people in and I think that’s going to happen.

To purchase tickets to attend The Drum Advertising Awards, where AMV BBDO's Rosie Arnold will also be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award, go to the dedicated website.

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Publicis Groupe is a French multinational advertising and public relations company, and is the oldest and one of the largest marketing and communications companies in the world, by revenue, headquartered in Paris.

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