Sydney L!VE - Best of two worlds in a multinational, independent agency

Jason Pollock
By Jason Pollock | 23 May 2023

Ben Lilley, creative chairman of McCann Australia and founder of HERO, says being able to use the global expertise of McCann and the local focus of HERO is “the best of both worlds".

Lilley began as a copywriter at the likes of George Patterson Y&R, DDB Needham and McCann Erickson, before starting his own agency SMART Integrated Innovation in 2000.

“As a very hungry and creative independent agency, we were pretty lucky that we were able to grow reasonably rapidly,” Lilley said at AdNews Sydney L!VE, Indie-Pendence Day.

“I wasn't looking at selling, but in 2011 we got approached by McCann Australia, which while at that time wasn't as strong creatively in Australia, it was too good an offer to turn down.”

McCann offered SMART a seamless absorption – all that changed was the name, but the same clients and team members were retained. Lilley saw an opportunity to embed a lot of the independent and creative agency culture of SMART in what was “a tired network operation” at that time in McCann.

“We realised that we really wanted to reinvigorate McCann and the way to do that was by finding that blockbuster campaign,” said Lilley. That campaign came in the way of Dumb Ways To Die, a global phenomenon that ended up winning 28 awards at the 2013 Cannes Lions, including five Grand Prix, among many other Australian and global awards.

After departing McCann in 2018, he found he missed the creative agency life – the people, the clients, the work – and so he approached McCann with the possibility of re-joining. He ended up coming back to the fray as both creative chairman and the new owner of McCann in February 2020.

“It was obviously a very unique situation to be able to buy not just my first agency back [in SMART], but also the agency that bought my first agency, and a couple of other agencies on top of that,” said Lilley.

“In the two-year space that I left the industry, independents had come up from everywhere. What I found when I tried to pitch as an independent after taking over McCann, though, there was always pushback – ‘no, you’re part of this global network in McCann'. 

“The other challenge I had at that time was McCann was still very much a pure play creative agency. I wanted to be able to pitch for our clients that McCann didn't necessarily want me to, so we launched HERO.”

HERO came to life in October 2020, bringing together the national Australian and New Zealand offerings of McCann, Smart, The Red Republic, JSA Digital and Engine Room Productions into a consolidated group.

At the time, Lilley said that HERO exemplified the “agility and spirit of an award-winning independent network, integrated with the scale and intellectual capital of the world’s largest global groups: McCann Worldgroup and IPG. Hero delivers the best of both worlds: local smarts at global scale.”

At AdNews L!VE, Lilley said that HERO acquired technology and digital expertise, social expertise, data analytics - all of those areas that it can then wrap around that core creative offering. 

“Through HERO, we're able to pitch as a genuine independent agency and we finally had that integrated piece that I knew was going to be critical to be able to succeed in this market,” said Lilley. 

“We operate McCann as part of the global McCann network, but we operate HERO as a genuinely integrated Australian creatively led independent offering. It’s the best of both worlds from my point of view. That’s a pretty unique advantage.”

Thank you to our supporting partners: AMOBEE/UNRULY , Foxcatcher, PubMatic, StackAdapt. Associate partners: blis, JUSTEGGS, MIQ, Quantcast. And friend of AdNews: IMAA.

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