Interview by Mark Tungate
McCann Worldgroup in Europe has enjoyed an extraordinary year despite the turbulence and uncertainty that have roiled the region, perhaps best symbolized by the Brexit trauma. Regional president Pablo Walker greets the end of 2019 with equanimity and optimism – while remaining realistic.
As 2019 draws to a close, what have been the highlights for you from a business point of view?
For me, as this is a people business, the most important thing for us is that we’ve been able to retain and nurture all our talent. Normally when you’re doing well – and we are – there’s a risk that you will lose some of your best people. But we have retained all our key talent, so that’s something I’m very proud of.
The second thing is that we’ve also retained all our major clients. And we’re growing, so our organic growth from existing clients is healthy.
The third point concerns our reputation. We won more awards in 2019 than in any other year in our history. We won European Network of the Year in Cannes, European Network of the Year at the Effies, European Network of the Year at Effie Europe, European Network of the Year in WARC, European Network of the Year at Golden Drum, EMEA Network of the Year in Campaign magazine – and we’ve just heard that we’re also EMEA Network of the Year at the Epica Awards. So there’s nothing missing, I would say!
Normally you are strong in either creativity or effectiveness – but to be number one in both is incredible.
Since your arrival in Europe from Latin America five years ago, what changes have you seen in the way the network operates across the region – and what contribution have these made to its performance today?
Today I would say that we have more “holistic” talent. People who are capable of speaking the on- and offline language, and who can work in areas where we weren’t present a few years ago, such as e-commerce, content, data or CRM.
We also have a close-knit community today. Five years ago our departments and countries worked in relative isolation. Now we really work together as one region. What this means for our clients is that we can put at their service the best people from across the region – not just from their market. We’ve held boot camps for clients involving talents from five or six markets; we also have some creative committees involving people from three or more markets.
This exchange of talent is also important for training purposes. Our four main communities – creative, strategy, digital, and business leaders (essentially account people) – regularly exchange best practices, not only within their own groups, but with each other.
Additionally I would say the tools we use across the network give us an advantage. To mention two very important ones, the first is our operating principle, Truth To Meaning, which is about finding creative solutions to genuine business problems, based on facts. In that respect we’re helped by Truth Central, our research unit, whose studies uncover a great many insights for our planners and clients. It helps us understand consumers not just within individual countries, but regionally and globally. It’s a great resource for our people and clients.
To add a final advantage, I’d say “speed” – we work much faster now.
Does that come from technology, or the way you work?
I think it’s both. But the important factor is attitude. It’s the attitude that opportunities must be seized and clients’ problems solved – today. And of course you often use technology to do that.
You’re responsible for something like 44 countries across the region. Which of these have you seen developing dramatically from a creative and business perspective?
This is a difficult one to answer. It’s like my three sons: I don’t really want to highlight one or another, because they’ve all given me something to be proud of! The number of countries contributing to our Effie performance, for example, has grown to 16 this year. And if you look at our creative performance, Israel, which had not been in the spotlight before, produced the fantastic "ThisAbles" campaign for Ikea, which won everything. Integration in Spain is fantastic. We won some big clients in Germany, but also in Romania. Honestly I’m proud of everyone.
After a turbulent year across Europe – including the Brexit saga – how are clients faring and what is their state of mind regarding the months to come? What are the most important services you as a network can offer your clients during such times?
One of my learnings since coming to work in Europe is that the markets are so mature here that, whatever they’re going through, they manage to grow their economies in a reasonable way. Compare that to Chile, my beloved home country, which is facing something similar to last year’s “yellow vest” movement in France – except the unrest in Chile has been caused by an increase in the subway fare. Despite the problems in France, its economy moved forward. In Chile, everything has has slowed down significantly: the economy, industry…solutions will take longer to be agreed. In Europe we experienced Spain without a government, Italy without a government, the uncertainty caused by Brexit in the UK – but in each case their economies continued to move forward. Our own growth as a network has outperformed the region's every year since 2015.
What we must do for our clients is remain very close to the consumers, to understand their intent. We must always go to our clients with concrete information about consumers – not just “we think” – which is why Truth To Meaning and Truth Central are so important. A deep knowledge of consumers is the only guarantee of successful strategies.
Our industry has evolved tremendously over the past few years. Mobile, branded content, experiential, design…all of these are now elements of our world. What marketing communications trends should we be paying close attention to in 2020?
Sometimes I thank God that I’m not a 25-year-old entering this industry, because it’s extremely tough in terms of the breadth of knowledge you need. But to answer your question, there are two or three things we need to keep an eye on.
The first is data privacy: it’s going to be extremely important not just in 2020, but in the coming years. Consumers are now well aware of the value of their information – and are becoming more demanding about what they receive in return. Along with GDPR, this puts an obligation on us to treat consumers’ data correctly.
We also need to be aware of the way commerce is changing. There are new touch-points and opportunities, for example shoppable posts. The idea that you can buy something within a message, at the moment you see or read about it – even in a news article – is very interesting to us.
Another point of interest is Gen Z – and the younger Gen Alpha – a generation creating more content than ever before, which of course is attractive to brands. We’ve been talking for a while now about influencers with millions of followers, but there are also people who have a point of view within a niche group, and are very important within that community. They’re part of a valuable ecosystem, but harder to reach.
Climate change and the future of our planet dominated the headlines this year. What impact has this issue and other social issues had on your work, your clients and the ways you partner with them?
Certainly a lot more work has been and will be purpose-driven. Our own research shows that 96% of Europeans believe companies should be required, by law, to protect and conserve nature. And in our 2018 “Truth About Global Brands” survey, 81% of respondents said they agreed that “global brands have the power to make the world a better place”. This year, 72% said they were open to brands playing a bigger role in society.
These are big percentages. Obviously part of that is about recycling, using less plastics and so on. But there’s also a social role to play. Look at the example of "ThisAbles" – clearly it helps disabled people, but it also generated sales. Another good example is L’Oreal’s anti-ageist “non-issue” of Vogue, which became one of the best-selling issues in the history of the magazine.
The point is that you can use a commercial brief to address a social problem. In the past, generating sales and helping society were treated as separate goals, with separate budgets. But no longer. They are connected. The truly effective campaigns generate goodwill and sales.