Nicole Taylor's bold ambition to break culture of conservatism at McCann

Lindsay Bennett
By Lindsay Bennett | 5 September 2018
Nicole Taylor

The Australian ad industry has lost its way. It’s become too conservative, too safe and led by too many semi-retired execs who are more concerned about self-preservation than pushing the boundaries, recently appointed McCann Australia CEO Nicole Taylor told AdNews.

Taylor has bold views on the industry, but more bold is her plans for McCann; an agency that in Sydney has failed to live up to its global reputation for a number of years and, in Melbourne, has been left a shell of its former self after an exodus of its leadership.

It’s a big job at hand for Taylor, but one she is prepared for, spending the last eight years at DDB, most recently as CEO of Sydney. She’s already proven, alongside chief strategy officer Fran Clayton who also joined McCann from DDB, she’s not afraid to shake things up. The industry saw the first sign of this with the departure of McCann Sydney managing director Adam Lee this week and three hires made in the Melbourne office.

“I want this agency to represent a more much modern perspective and we’re moving away from conservatism, which isn’t just a reflection of McCann, but as an industry we’re caught up in conservatism and defaulting to that culture,” she said.

“The industry has become way too safe. It’s been eye-opening changing jobs because I’ve been able to reflect and see things more clearly. Unfortunately, I’ve realised the industry has become conservative and the passion has faded. The confidence has faded and we’ve been confused. There’s an attitude that ‘good enough’ will do.”

‘Good enough’ is not something Taylor is willing to accept, which is why she made the decision to leave the stability of DDB and forge her own path within an agency where she can have more control in shaping the future – even if it “almost killed her”.

“I made the move to scare the shit out of myself, and for someone like me, who has had a beautiful, rolling career with great opportunities, I was so afraid,” Taylor admitted.

“DDB was my safety blanket and that stable environment was excellent to me, but when I cut that cord, I wanted to give this opportunity a red hot go because I was frustrated."

Taylor has taken inspiration from the New York offices of McCann, which is lauded as one of the best agencies in the region following an overhaul of its structure and leadership.

“McCann was known as a machine. It was very client oriented but quite a corporate environment so for the New York office to create good creative work, they had to build a creative culture. They didn’t fire everyone in the process, but a lot of people had to change and adapt to become part of their journey,” she said.

Taylor is hoping to emulate the model and success of the New York office, as the UK office has recently done. McCann London head of talent Rob Stone has been brought across to recruit talent into the group with a new Sydney managing director to be announced in coming months.

People can be fearful of the change that CEOs bring to agencies, Taylor admitted, but she won’t shy away from the hard decisions.

“The staff of McCann known I’m here for change but I hope it doesn’t have to be too radical. That’s not my wish, but I also know if we’re uncompromising, if we’re not bold around our choice, then we won’t create impact in the same way,” she said.

“There are people that are more open and ready for change and others that don’t want to be part of that journey.”

By breaking the mold of conservatism at McCann, Taylor believes it could have a wider impact on other Australian multinationals who are also plagued with a lack of confidence. It’s a big ambition for one agency’s overhaul to change the industry, and there’s no doubt the naysayers in the industry will challenge her vision, but Taylor’s confidence is contagious.

“In two years’ time if I fail miserably, I won’t regret it. I won’t regret it because every gut feeling I have says go hard or go home. I’ve got the fire in my belly and everything I’ve learned says now is the time to properly stand up,” she said.

“I want to create an amazing agency in 12 months’ time. I won’t be waiting two or three years. That’s not my kind of timeline after the choice I’ve made to be here.”

Clients aren't to blame for lack of creativity

Taylor doesn't buy into the idea that clients are too blame for the lack of creativity and bold ideas in the Australian ad industry. Instead, its conservatism, an overreliance on digital and short-termism, she explained.

"There is an entire narrative that clients aren't brave enough, which sounds ridiculous to me and I don't think it's true. Clients are craving creativity and they're asking for it, but we have to step up more than anything," she said.

"We need to stop blaming others. We could do with a dose of our own medicine and taking some responsibility in the process of putting great ideas on the table that truly make a difference."

Agencies may look the part, with their ping-pong tables and bars, but Taylor believes a lot of the multinationals lack the internal culture to make great creative.

“In the industry, there are too many conservative leaders protecting old models. They don’t want to take chances. They are often semi-retired people who don’t care as much as they should. They’re not as hungry as the industry demands or as interested in making a difference," she said.

"We're a creative agency. We should be the most exciting place you can come to, but it's almost like the rest of the world has moved on and that excitement lives elsewhere now. At McCann, we want more weirdos. We want more difference. We want it to feel interesting again, because I think we've taken the edges off."

Creating a new narrative

McCann has been defined in the last 12 months by the exodus of its Melbourne leadership, including Adrian Mills, Matt Lawson and David Phillips, who joined Deloitte Digital. A few months later, McCann national CEO Ben Lilley left the agency after 18 years. Lilley led the reverse takeover of McCann when the network acquired his independent agency Smart.

These top execs created the highly awarded Dumb Ways to Die campaign for Metro Trains from McCann Melbourne – a campaign that has become synonymous with McCann’s success.

Taylor admitted the departure of the Melbourne leadership has been “tough” for the agency but she’s ready to change the narrative and create a new story for McCann.

As for Lilley’s legacy, the former boss was focused on making McCann a full service agency, picking up AGL Energy’s media account in 2015 but losing the account this year. Taylor said media is “less of a focus” for McCann moving forward.

Taylor has become the one of just two women that hold a national creative agency CEO role alongside Melinda Geetz at Leo Burnett. Check AdNews later this week to read about Taylor’s experience as a woman in the ad industry.

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