POV: Interview with Chris Conlan, Managing Director of LOVE Creative
My name is Chris Conlan and I’m the managing director of LOVE, a job I’ve been doing for nearly four years now. The agency’s based in Manchester, England, which for the creative industry in the UK is pretty unusual. The vast majority of the industry in the UK is centered on London, but we like the fact that we’re outliers. It gives us a different perspective and — so our clients tell us — being away from the more expected locations such as Soho and Hoxton makes us more grounded. I grew up in the suburbs of Manchester and am proud to call it home. It has a fantastic musical and cultural heritage, it was the birthplace of the industrial revolution, it (now) has two world class football teams and, most importantly for me, it offers a great balance of city life and close proximity to some beautiful countryside. Being able to leave my house at 8 a.m. on a Sunday and be climbing a mountain by 10 a.m. is a big bonus.
Tell us more about LOVE and the type of work you do.
LOVE has been in existence for 11 years now and in that time has worked with an impressive portfolio of clients, including Diageo, Nike, Umbro, Sony PlayStation, the BBC, Dr. Martens and Microsoft. We’re a broad church; we recognize that for a brand to be successful and to build strong relationships with its audiences it needs more than a cool ad campaign, a great retail experience or innovative packaging. In our work we aim to identify a brand’s positioning, and then we help our clients articulate this positioning creatively. We’re blessed with a creative department that can think strategically and strategists who can think creatively. That means the output of the agency is fused together at an early stage — we don’t work in a linear fashion where strategy is defined and then passed on to the creative team. It’s much more fluid than that.
In terms of the actual creative product, we call it brand activation. As well as defining what a brand should look like, behave like, sound like, we actually allow it to exist physically or digitally through a broad range of media. This might be a brand experience space like the Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai, a platform for an advertising campaign such as what we have developed for Sony PlayStation’s PSP or the brand activation around a running event for Nike.
In your opinion, what makes a brand successful? Unsuccessful?
Big question. And one without a simple answer, but there are definitely a number of traits that you see time and again in successful brands:
Investment: Not of the financial kind, but of emotion and time. Many other things make a brand successful — a superior product, great customer service, the identification of a gap in the market — but if you track back to the start of a brand’s life, there is nearly always either an individual or a small team who made a massive emotional investment in something they felt passionate about to make their product the best — the quickest, the tastiest, the strongest, the most ethical, etc. There’s always something there that they have been striving for. Financial reward is rarely the prime motivator. When it is, you don’t often get a successful, long-lasting brand as a result.
Authenticity: We talk to our clients a lot about this. Consumers are a savvy bunch these days. They know that with a suite of Adobe software you can create a brand — the logo, the website, the sales collateral — overnight. But what’s the thing that sets your brand apart? Why do you deserve my money more than the next guy? For us at LOVE, the brand that has the authentic story to tell wins hands down every time.
And it’s usually tied to the investment I talked about earlier. What we do well is help brand owners identify that authenticity and communicate it to consumers in the most interesting and entertaining way possible.
Successful brands need to look at the long game. They need to align themselves with a certain type of consumer behavior and a certain emotion, but they also need to be aware that the products they make will come and go. Look at Nike: they started out making sports shoes, which they continue to do very well. But they’re also active in digital sports now too, through innovations like Nike+ and the FuelBand. You could legitimately ask what business Nike has in making electronic gadgets, but because Nike has done such a great job of aligning itself with sports people constantly aiming to better themselves, we see its progression in technology as a natural evolution.
A brand such as Kodak on the other hand is one whose products anyone over the age of 30 reading this article will almost definitely have purchased. It was as much a part of our lives as Coca Cola and McDonalds. Absolutely ubiquitous. They were associated with a product though and not a behavior. The death of camera film has pretty much meant the death of the brand, even though the act of taking pictures and sharing them is more popular now than ever before. It’s easy to see with the benefit of hindsight, but wouldn’t it have been great if Kodak had identified the joy of taking and sharing pictures as its domain and gone on to invent a Flickr or an Instagram?
LOVE created the packaging for Nike’s LX collection and also won a D&AD Yellow Pencil award for your work on the Johnnie Walker 1910 Special Edition bottle design. What is your philosophy when approaching packaging projects? What are some of the challenges when working on these types of projects?
Well, I guess the first thing I should say is that we’re not a packaging design company. I know that sounds paradoxical, as you’re right, we did just win a D&AD Yellow Pencil for a piece of packaging design. We take a view of a brand as a whole and we define what is at the core of that brand. We spent way more time thinking about the brands — and Liu Xiang the person in the case of the Nike job — than we ever did about the packaging design. If you thoroughly understand a brand’s traits and its behaviors, it becomes easier to see how that brand should exist when it comes to its packaging. And what the packaging should be saying to that brand’s consumers.
With each of these examples there were of course big production challenges to overcome. Throughout its life, LOVE hasn’t been phased by producing the unusual or turning materials to uses for which they were never intended. This makes it possible for us to challenge category conventions and produce the unexpected. We were fortunate with the Johnnie Walker and Nike projects that they were both to be produced in short runs, but both clients recognized that their value also lay in their second, virtual life. Both objects are beautiful to look at and have a story to tell. People like to share a good story, so both of these have achieved significant exposure online for the respective brands (and LOVE, too).
What have been some of your favorite campaigns or projects you’ve worked on? Why?
I guess number one would have to be the Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai. The team that worked on this just nailed it. During the pitch process Dave Palmer and Chris Myers, Exec Creative Director and Design Director respectively, visited Menstrie up in Scotland to meet the Master Blender who creates Johnnie Walker. He introduced them to the way he teaches people about whisky, which he explained wasn’t a lecture, but a ‘whisky conversation.’ These two words became the core thought for the whole project. They shaped our approach to the pitch and the solution we subsequently delivered. It provided the client with a property that was luxurious — a big consideration for China — but also had a depth which spoke to the brand’s authenticity. The execution was then 100 percent contemporary in keeping with the most fashionable bars and clubs in the city. That combination of luxury, plus authenticity, plus contemporary was perfect for the brief. It was the catalyst for LOVE’s expansion into China, and it was the start of a great relationship with Diageo.
What do you consider the most important aspect of an agency-client relationship?
There has to be a shared ambition between the two parties. We have had some really tough times trying to persuade a client who just does not share our world view that an idea is right for his or her brand. If you and the client are trying to get to two different places, it doesn’t mean one’s right and one’s wrong. People are entitled to different opinions, and you can waste a lot of energy trying to change them.
We’ve learned to get better at identifying this early on in our relationships with new clients. The worst mistake you can make is to pretend to be a certain type of agency to win a new piece of business and then get frustrated when that client doesn’t buy some of your ambitious creativity at a later date. We would rather pitch an idea that’s true to our philosophy on branding and not be awarded the business than win it under a false pretense.
How do you think technology will enhance the relationship and engagement with consumers? What trends do you see evolving with technology in the advertising industry?
I’ll start with a personal bugbear of mine, which is the behavioral targeting of digital advertising. I can totally see the benefit of it to the marketer, and it can be targeted with Exocet-like precision — for which I have to take my hat off to the people who run these operations. My issue is that I now feel harassed by the virtual equivalent of pushy salespeople every time I go online. I was recently looking for some home furnishings online. Just getting an idea of prices. Now I cannot go on the Internet without being force-fed a diet of targeted ads about cushions, curtains, sofas, etc. Just give me a break! The irony is that I probably would have bought something from that retailer, but after being hounded by them for a month I most definitely won’t. Similarly, there needs to be a feedback mechanism when you have actually purchased something. I recently needed a new watch so compared prices on a few sites. I made my mind up and made a purchase, but now (in rotation with ads for cushions) I am plagued by ads for watches. I just got a new watch! You’re wasting your money! Leave me alone!
What I’m trying to demonstrate is that the industry needs to develop its artificial intelligence much further if it wants to avoid a big consumer backlash against behavioral targeting. Not only will consumers increasingly reject this type of targeting, but those who don’t will be faced with a growing inventory of ads for products they’ve already purchased (or rejected).
On a much more positive note, technology offers multiple opportunities to develop increased engagement and build stronger relationships between brands and their consumers. There’s been a lot of talk about linking the physical and digital worlds. Within LOVE, we dedicate a portion of our time to an R+D function we call LOVE Labs. One of the outputs has been a product we call MO. It allows the instant interaction between a person’s mobile device and a brand’s content — be that a website, a retail display, a brand experience space. We’ve done a few tests and are having some really interesting conversations with brands about the possibilities it offers. The great thing about it is that it lowers the barrier to entry between brands and audiences. Sure, brands can currently get onto a consumer’s handset at the moment through the means of an app, but this is costly and, for the consumer, a bit fiddly and time consuming if you’re away from home. I think we will begin to see a lowering of the barriers between different media channels in coming years — continued convergence of TV/web/mobile/physical experiences. Those brands that do the best job of reducing friction between each of these channels will be the winners.
LOVE opened an office in Shanghai this past spring. What prompted your team to set its sights on the Asian market? How has the Shanghai office been influencing your work and company culture in the United Kingdom?
LOVE had been considering expansion into new markets for some time, and the BRIC economies were those that seemed to offer our agency the best chance for growth. By coincidence, we were invited to pitch for a project in China (the Johnnie Walker House). Winning and then delivering this project proved to be something of a turning point for us. The project was one we are hugely proud of and there was a fantastic alignment between our views on branding and the ambition of our client Diageo as they look to build their presence in Asia. We quickly won more projects for additional clients in China and from that point on the question became ‘why wouldn’t we open an office in Shanghai?’
What trends in the advertising industry are you most interested in? How do you see the discipline evolving over the next three to five years?
It’s funny…to be honest, the trend that most interests us at LOVE is the move away from advertising! With a very few notable exceptions, I find the TV ad break a pretty dull place to be these days. It was the prospect of seeing an ad I’d worked on in a high profile spot that got me interested in a career in advertising in the first place, but now there are so many more interesting ways to develop a conversation between brands and consumers. This can be through physical spaces where, admittedly, you don’t get anything like the reach of conventional above-the-line channels, but the depth of engagement is 100 times greater. And if you give people a great experience, they tell others about it. And these days that doesn’t just mean a few colleagues at work or friends at a dinner party. When positive experiences are shared online through social networks, the reach they have can grow exponentially.
I’m also fascinated by how those conversations can become richer by handing a degree of control to the consumer. Give your consumers some control and — if it’s done well — they will become much better advocates for your brand than your best salesman will ever be.
Look, the reality of the advertising and branding world is that brands aren’t the ones wielding the power these days. The consumers are. It’s not enough for brands to paint a picture of an aspirational world and expect consumers to dutifully behave how brands think they should. Consumers have massive choice, and the democratization of the media means they have a voice. We’ve all seen instances of Facebook groups or YouTube videos forcing a change in a brand’s behavior, so consumers rightfully expect brands to offer them more in return for their loyalty. Our client Johnnie Walker is currently sailing a luxury yacht around key ports in Asia and hosting exclusive drink parties onboard to launch a new, super deluxe variant. There is a brand working hard to build relationships with its consumers.
I think over the coming years we’ll increasingly see the power of experiential marketing combining with other media channels to cement consumer relationships. Most importantly, brands need to be consistent across all channels. Too often these days you see a brand saying one thing on TV, then you see what’s happening on their website or in retail and it doesn’t stack up. Consumers don’t see media channels; they just see brands. So it’s incumbent on brand owners to offer a consistent presence and brand promise across all channels.
One reason that you love what you do: I love the fact that it’s such a fast-changing industry that I learn something new every day.
Mentor: I don’t have one individual who I consider a mentor, but there are a number of people I’ve worked for who come to mind when I’m in certain situations. The person who gave me my first break in the industry was extremely influential, and when I am recruiting new people into the industry I think of the way he treated me. There was a marketing director I had as a client. I respected him hugely, and he’s always put me through my paces in meetings, so whenever I’m preparing a presentation or reviewing someone else’s, I try to put myself in his mindset and ask the questions he’d ask to make sure there are no holes in my argument. All in all, I’d say there are about five or six key people from whom I’ve learnt a lot and whom I call to mind when I have to make important decisions.
I was once told by a boss that I “might be good at something one day, but it certainly won’t be advertising.” I’m pretty sure she didn’t say that for motivational reasons, but she inadvertently spurred me on.
Must read book: A series of books I never tire of looking at are Alfred Wainwright’s “Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells.” These will be virtually unknown to American readers, relating as they do to a fairly modest mountain range in England (the biggest we’ve got though, and a region of which we’re very proud). The man and his books are fascinating. He was utterly meticulous. He decided the task of writing seven books would take him about thirteen years and that is exactly how long it took — almost to the day. They are entirely handwritten and beautifully illustrated from his own memories. He has a style of writing that is both matter-of-fact and dryly humorous. Reading them is like listening to a BBC broadcast from the 1950s, and I view his books as old friends, reminding me as they do of many happy times in the mountains. Working in the fast-paced industry we do, I find it a good reality check to spend time outdoors…to think and to be inspired in an environment that has remained unchanged for hundreds, thousands of years. And Alfred Wainwright’s books take me there.
Music that gets you in your zone: It varies with the mood that I’m in, but looking at my most played artists on iTunes, it’s dominated by contemporary American artists with an alternative country/alternative rock leaning: The National, Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Wilco…that kind of thing. We sometimes have some pretty frenetic stuff on in the LOVE studio, but if I’m working I need music that is slow-paced. I save the faster stuff for when I’m running (which I don’t do as often as I’d like). I’m currently enjoying a nostalgia trip for British DJ and producer Andrew Weatherall.