Fuck The Big Idea | Nick Law in 3 Parts, Publicis CCO
Updated: Dec 19, 2021
Nick Law is the Chief Creative Officer at Publicis and a leading voice for global advertising. A career that included 18 years at R/GA, where he rose to Global Chief Creative Officer and then Vice-Chairman, his ability to recognise how creativity must adapt to technology and has earned him international respect from creatives.
Nick will be speaking at our Cannes Lions fringe event this year as part of our ‘Meet the Legends’ series. To dig a little deeper into Nick’s stance on the current marketing climate, Studio had the opportunity to steal an hour of his time and flesh out a little of the character who has lead a career through the most turbulent, but exciting, periods of advertising. Speaking to Nick, it is clear he values the importance of creativity within medium. He’s driven by execution and connecting disciplines, rather than the grandiose ‘big idea’, which he believes is becoming more prevalent than ever in this mobile-first age.
PART I: THE IDEOLOGY
What is good advertising for you?
So I used to have this framework, which was the simplest way I could look at both strategy and creative. I would start by asking the question of the strategy; is it true and relevant? There are plenty of strategies that feel right for the audience, but are not true for the company. Or that they’re promoting a truth about the company that the audience doesn’t care about.
From a creative point of view there are just two things I ask for. Is it clear and is it interesting. I know that seems very obvious, but I see work all the time that is really well thought through and makes perfect sense, but it’s really fucking boring. Then I see work which is really crazy awesome, but I don’t know what they’re trying to say.
It’s the most simple way to look at advertising, but there is a logic to it. And it’s surprising how hard it is to get all those things locked up.
Using the music industry's relationship with streaming platforms as a successful example, you've spoken about how the internet is the foundation in which advertising needs to be rebuilt on. How has the industry had to change over your career?
Well the industry hasn’t changed enough, that’s the first thing. Also, our industry is wildly diverse in comparison to what music sells. The reason the music industry was the first to be disrupted is because a single sound file can be shared over a dial up modem, so it was the first media to whizz around the internet freely.
What we sell is more complicated. If we were honest about where everyone is now, it’s the internet. The Internet won. And if you were to refine that you would say; not only did the internet win, but the best version of the internet won, which is mobile.
Backing up from that, and if you’re honest about your creative craft, the stuff that you do should work on mobile. Obviously the world is more complicated than that, as marketers there’s a whole rich variety of ways we can engage people. But the most pervasive media is mobile. Why mobile is interesting is because everything is collapsed into that screen. You can go from a swipe to a transaction, to creating your own content, connecting with a friend - there’s so many contexts jammed into one thing.
How can the technology be harnessed?
What the industry needs to understand is that you need to get back to the fundamental truth that you can’t be creative without technology. I think the mistake the industry made was allowing for too much infrastructure to be built around broadcast, which fueled to the separation of media.
Then creative began thinking about their work, not as narrative scripts on TV, but as big ideas - which is a mistake. I think the industry forgot that you can’t be creative without execution. Then they came up with the myth of the big idea, and what you have is young teams in agencies that spend all their time writing scripts to describe a big idea, but never showing a connection to a medium.
This is important for Whalar, because your community is really honest about the medium. Their relationship to the medium is that they’re being creative within a medium. And how your creativity is completely dependant on the medium you are using. I use this example often;
> If the technology at your disposal is sand and you’re going to draw something in that sand with your fingers, as you’re coming up with that idea, you’re recognising the limitations of that technology. You’re not going to draw a really fine, detailed illustration in the sand because it won’t support it. Your creativity is dependant on the technology at your disposal.
The problem with the big idea is that it separates creatives so far from the mediums that are important - you’ve got young people at agencies who don’t know how to tell an Instagram story. Or at least they don’t think that it’s any different from writing a script and slicing it up. So we have this amazing period we’re going through where the mediums are proliferating. And we are failing to master those mediums because of this Biblical faith in the big idea.
How do we conquer this?
As creative people, let's get back to our tools and recognise these mediums. For instance, my opinion is that Facebook and Google shouldn’t be coming to us with best practices. We should be mastering their mediums, taking them places that they never would have imagined, and then going back to them and telling them what they should look like.
Facebook telling us what best practices are is like Kodak going to Scorsese and telling him how to tell a story. Or it’s like when Edison invented the gramophone, he thought it was going to be a talking machine and it was going to be all around orachories and sermons - but that’s not how that technology was used in the world. So as creative people right now, we’ve got to recognise these mediums are being pushed forward by teenage Koreans in a bedroom, and not people in Madison Avenue.
And what is that down to? Is it stubbornness, nostalgia for the past…?
Muscle memory. And also agencies should be creating more capabilities. When I say capabilities, I mean stating, We’re going to hire people and structure teams around AR, around modular storytelling, whatever - that’s what we’re going to do. But instead, they think that as long as they can come up with their big idea it can be extruded into anything.
The problem with that is we get paid for what we deliver. So when a client says I think we should build a brand for ‘Voice Activation’ purposes, they’re no longer looking for an agency. So then you find agency fees are shrinking, not because the clients aren’t spending money, but because they’re spending money elsewhere.
Instead, potential clients can then find a little startup in Brooklyn that has ‘Voice' figured out. But the challenge of that is it’s really hard for a client to manage all of these different creative assets. Especially if they don’t yet have a sense of their brand. But in my experience, and this was definitely true of R/GA, it’s a lot easier to go from practice to theory than from theory to practice. In the end, theory is at the surface of practice because you learn more from making stuff than by imagining stuff. So the option with platforms like Whalar, is that it harnesses all the practical experience and turns that into strategy.
You’ve said before that the agency world mistakes practice for principle?
That’s another way of saying what I’m saying. They think an anthem film with a tagline is a principle. They think it’s a big idea that’s immune from execution. But actually, it’s practice. It’s the thing they don’t think of as technology, like broadcast, because it was invented before they were born - and somehow it’s primal. But it’s not. In fact, if you go back to when TV became a mass media reality in the US, for the first decade of its existence, people thought it was a dumping ground for shit. Like people say about the internet now.
I even remember as a kid, it was don’t watch TV, don’t sit too close to the TV. Now people are saying, please go watch TV and get off Fortnite. Because the new thing is frightening and that new thing is technology. Which is absurd; it’s all fucking technology. The shoes I’m wearing are technology. If we’re really so scared of technology then I’m taking my shoes off now. Because I’m not connecting with the world like I should? It’s just fear of the new.
PART II - THE CAREER
In your current role, you’re managing a variety of teams, how do you implement these changes on such a large scale?
First you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to make. However, in addition to creating something for broadcast that could appear across any screen, you’ve got to start thinking about other methods of reaching people. Whether that’s through a conversational interface, or AR, or in-game advertising, or whatever it is. You diversify and build new capabilities around that.
I think each agency is in the process of identifying capabilities. In some cases, and this is for the benefit of a holding company model, connecting with a part of the holding company that has mastered that capability. For instance, if I’m a more traditional comms agency, and I want to make sure that my communication is more modern, then there’s a good chance I’m going to need an experienced designer because almost everything is behind an interface now. There would be great designers in the agencies within the network that I could reach out to if we don’t have the specific expertise.
That’s where the holding company model begins to make this transition easier, because you can tap into different areas.
What have you found the best method to amalgamate data and creativity?
In many cases, we need to use very simple language and recognise how the relationship between them works. We’ve just been talking about the relationship between creativity and technology, and recognising that technology is a condition of creativity - you can’t be creative without technology because you need a medium.
For data, I would describe that as extended experience. So if I am a creative person prior to the data revolution, and I’m noticing at a shop that everyone is buying pastrami all of a sudden, and sharing it with their kids, then that’s going to inform how I communicate with parents.
Data is just augmented experience. The trick is to figure out what the behaviour is that the data represents, and triangulate it with other data to come up with thoughts. We’ve always been doing that, it’s impossible to be creative without experience. Good creatives have done a lot of work and seen stuff fail. They’ve also seen stuff go well, they’ve had conversations with people, they’ve gone to museums, had fights in pubs, spoken to their nans - and they’ve synthesised all this and it comes up as a magical leap. But the fuel of it is data, it’s personal data - so why wouldn’t you want to extend that?
Also, it doesn’t mean you pay attention to all the data. Maybe because you’re a creative and intuitive person, you choose a particular set of data and combine it with some learned knowledge. That fight I had in the pub isn’t going to help with my typography.
I just think that’s it not that frightening. What’s hard is figuring out the signal from the noise. But how we would use data is really simple, it’s just someone else’s experiences that we’re trying to ingest.
Scaling a little back to your career, you’ve described it as a ‘Daisy Chain of Risks’ could you elaborate on that?
I guess that’s a little bit of post recognising. At the time, my decisions didn’t feel like a risk. They were me being curious as a creative person. I started in design and moved to London. Then moved to advertising which, within the design community, seemed like an appalling and immoral thing to do. I thought it was interesting because it was a collection of different creative skills.
All these things were pretty siloed. Even the early internet, which was my next step in the startup world, was very separate to advertising or design. They were just different worlds, reality hadn’t collided into each other like it was now.
For instance, a concept in design is very different to a concept in advertising, which is very different to a concept in the early internet. And at the time all these creative tribes would look at each other with such deep suspicion. Advertising people would look at design and say Helvetica’s not a concept. Designers would look at advertising people and reply; Well I don’t give a fuck about a tag line. Then the interactive people would say None of this matters. Then advertising people would get interactive and say, How is a navigational structure an idea?
So each career decision I made would leave behind another world. But of course in the end, through dumb luck, they all converged on the internet. So it all connected and that was very useful for my career.
So in those earlier days when you were first looking at advertising on the internet, did you have any idea of how big it could become?
I started at R/GA in 2001. R/GA was like a lot of digital agencies of the time, in that they built websites. So the skillset you needed was design, because the web at the time was a hyperlinked brochure. We didn’t really think about advertising. There was this emerging, annoying thing called a banner. But we were designing websites, it was something worthy, it was called utility and we thought advertising was beneath us. In the same way designers looked at advertising in the 1980s.
Looking back, the web started to eat everything. As the web ate things, it became our medium. We didn’t have this mythical Big Idea to look at, we were just practitioners. So we weren’t distracted by some crazy notion of an unattached big idea because we were living in this medium and trying to master it as it changed rapidly.
PART III - THE COLLABORATIONS
Then we started to do things like Nike iD.
Suddenly you can take the internet, put it in a sensor and stick it in a shoe… You could see every time something required a new capability, and because the pipe didn’t get big enough until later, it wasn’t until the web became the best place for storytelling that we became more of what an advertising company looks like.
A creative environment that was just designers, became a creative environment with designers and storytellers. The combination of those created new concepts, in the same way that when Bernbach connected art directors with copywriters he got new types of work. You start to mix these different talents, you get fresh work. The medium forced us to have different capabilities, adding those capabilities to work together forced us into different solutions. So there’s this virtuous cycle, and it goes back to where we started, which is we were creative people you understood that our creativity could only be expressed by specific mediums. Once you accept that, and you start exploring the limitations of those mediums, then you start doing interesting work.
So what we became was a digital agency first, or how does advertising work in this medium? Then social became such a huge driver of storytelling, and the best storytelling in social actually worked in TV a lot better than traditional, because it was pre-qualified with luxe. We had this ability to stretch up. Also, similar to before, you can become more strategic by making stuff. You can’t get better at making stuff by being more strategic.
Following on from the point you made about Nike, as a client you had a very fruitful relationship with that brand whilst at R/GA. How influential was that relationship to your career.
Very influential. The thing about being in an agency is it’s a service business, there’s an exchange between what you think you should be and what your clients want you to be. The best relationships are when you learn as much from the clients as they do from you. In the case of Nike, we learnt a lot. It changed our agency. It changed how we thought, in the same way Beats by Dre did later on.
Nike helped us think about how to build a brand with amazing services, not just with shoes and apparel, but with services. And Beats By Dre helped us think about storytelling from the bottom up. It was creative storytelling that just lived in the stream vividly.
Beats by Dre were born in this digital and social age, so in that sense were they very malleable to these ideas and strategy?
They were malleable to their ideas. My point here is that Beats influenced us as much as we influenced them, and I think the reason that worked is that they were a little startup. They didn’t have a lot of money and we were prepared to work with them. We were prepared to be scrappy and it just turned into a good formula.
Looking forward, what do you want to be engaging with?
If you look at Publicis, it is unique in the holding companies in that it was this full stack of capabilities. It stretches from marketing to social, to service design to business transformation. On one end of the spectrum you’ve got a Saatchi, or a Leo Burnett, and on the other end you’ve got Sapient. There isn’t any other holding company that has the consulting or tech muscle of Sapient so, for me, the opportunity there is how do you connect these different aspects for clients in a meaningful way.
There are legacy clients where the ability to influence their company just by advertising is limited by their business model. So they would need a consultative beginning of the relationship that would end in marketing.
To bring that to influencer marketing, it is maturing but still very much development. Where do you see influencer marketing going in the next five years?
It’s going to change, but at least it’s going to change based on how people are using the internet, not based on a powerpoint chart. I think right now, the benefit of influencer content is that it’s a simple truth. I’m going to pay attention to someone I like, who is my friend - at least I imagine them to be, rather than a brand. Our success on Beats By Dre was based on this social flywheel when you start getting content from your friends. I’m going to open something if it’s from Jake (Whalar’s very own Business Director), but I might not from a brand, even if I’m a fan of the brand. With Jake, at some point we're going to speak again and I’m going to want to know what he sent me.
Content is more potent when it is being shared compared to when it is being shared top down from a brand. That doesn’t mean you don’t do both of those things. There are still places where brands need to say - this is who we are, we’re here to help you. But it’s a lot easier to love something when your friends love it.
The most powerful collaboration you’ve worked on?
Apple and Beats by Dre from when I was at R/GA. I think now that I’m at Publicis it’s probably a different set of client. The difference is that R/GA grew in size with a lot of their clients, now I find myself working with larger, more mature clients. It’s different. In some cases you have more clients, in some cases less or move a little bit slower.
Given that I spent seventeen years at R/GA and only one here. I would say Beats and Nike were the biggest influence.
Nick reminds us how creativity may be the spark, but technology is the match.