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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Dylan Cotter

BBDO Dublin’s Executive Creative Director talks dodgy jobs before his advertising career, iconic Irish brands and safe driving

5 Minutes with… Dylan Cotter

Some of you may not have heard of BBDO Dublin, but you probably know more about the agency than you think. Founded in 1966 as Irish International, they’ve been responsible for the communications of some of the country’s most emblematic brands for over half a century. Last month they rebranded as BBDO Dublin and took on a new CEO, Neal Davies, so it’s something of a threshold moment for them.

Executive Creative Director Dylan Cotter has been part of their creative department for nearly 20 years now. He knows the unique character of the agency and its clients as well as anyone.

As the agency moves into a new era with a new name, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Dylan to get to know the creative force at the head of this charge.

LBB> Your degree was in Philosophy, Economics, Psychology and Sociology. That's pretty broad! Was it hard to decide what you wanted to do as a job after that? When did you decide to make your career in advertising?
 
DC> It was accidentally the best possible grounding for a career in an ad agency, which draws a little on all of those in any given week... although at the time, I was gutted not to get into architecture, and in my runners-up prize of an arts degree I may have picked my classes based on which ones had the most favourable proportion of females to males. After uni I worked at various odd jobs for three or four years, from asbestos waste disposal to telephone tarot card reading (a scam that I’m ashamed of. I was looking for any work I could get. After that, advertising feels like bringing something quite pure to the world!). As soon as I found out there was a postgrad course in advertising, I jumped at it. I’ve loved advertising since I was a child. I just wish my careers guidance counsellor knew there was such a job, so I could have started earlier and been retired by now.
 
LBB> Let's talk about your agency's recent name change. Does it represent more than just being snappier?
 
DC> Yes. It represents a big step-up in ambition and in self-belief. BBDO is recognised as the most creative and effective network in the world – and we’re ready and eager to march under that flag here in Ireland. Importantly, the change of name is matched by a lot of substantial changes within the agency. New CEO, new head of account management, new head of social, new head of digital optimisation. And a lot of new in-house production talent.
 
LBB> Irish International's history goes back all the way to 1966. What are its most historic moments / campaigns since then?
 
DC> This place has been pumping out famous, contagious work since well before I was born. It’s hard to describe to an international audience the quality and quantity of iconic advertising that’s been made here. From my childhood I have a soft spot for the agency’s Barry’s Tea work, because it’s from Cork and so am I. When I joined the agency, we were best known for our Guinness work. In the last few years, I’ve been deeply proud of and excited by our work for the Road Safety Authority. 

 
LBB> And you've personally been at the agency for coming up to 20 years. What are the main shifts you've seen there in that time?
 
DC> Obviously there’s a kind of industry-wide answer to that question, which every CD everywhere will articulate. The stuff we make has changed; the way it’s made, distributed, consumed and responded to has changed. The remit of our creativity has broadened, wonderfully. But answering for this agency in particular, the changes we’ve made in 2017 eclipse all the changes of the previous 17 or 18 years put together. At the end of the day an agency is just a shed full of people. And we have been lucky enough to add such great people this year. That changes everything… it feels like a new agency. I am so happy coming into work everyday and so excited for 2018. 
 
LBB> Guinness is probably the most recognisable Irish brand in the world and its advertising heritage is famous. How does that affect the way you create for that brand?
 
DC> Well, for one thing – every Irish creative wants to work on it, and knows how high the bar is on it. Also, people come to it with an almost genetic understanding of what’s right and wrong for the brand. That said, I think it’s super healthy for the brand that the creative work is a joint effort between multiple BBDO offices – so you’ve got that genetic understanding, bouncing off and binding with fresh perspectives. That keeps the work true and surprising.

The Guinness work that we’re most proud of is social stuff. It’s usually about rugby. We look after a lot of social content. We have a team watching matches and looking for interesting moments that we can connect into the ‘Made of More’ platform. We’ll turn around a concept, get it to the client who’s also with us in real time to approve things, get it through studio, made and posted within a few minutes of the final whistle. It’s challenging, but it’s useful to have such a disciplined brand that people really understand. 
 
LBB> You're well known for your Guinness and Barry's work. Which lesser-known campaigns are you particularly proud of your work on?
 
DC> In the last few years we’ve won a lot of respect in the creative community and the client community for our work on PSA brands like the Road Safety Authority and HSE Quit, and a couple of super campaigns for EBS, an Irish mortgage provider. We’ve helped those brands to deliver on very ambitious goals, and we've won a lot of decent awards for that work, from D&AD to Epica to the Sharks. 


The HSE Quit campaign was interesting. In Ireland most of the quit smoking work is based on quite dark truths. It’s certainly a bit of negative reinforcement. We were interest in trying to find something positive to give to people because quitting smoking is really difficult. It just felt like giving people some positive reinforcement might be fresh. 

We dug around for an interesting nugget of truth that might sustain a positive message. We found that for the first time there were more people who had quit smoking in Ireland than there were smokers. So we turned that into a piece of film using ‘I Will Survive’ and we worked with Steve Cope, who’s got a lot of music experience. We cast real people who’ve quit smoking and had them mime to that song. The lyrics to that song, it’s like it was written to be a quit smoking song. It captures the journey so well.

There’s also lots of other work that I’m really proud of… I think we’re doing better and better work with Glanbia, and some deeply innovative social and digital work with Virgin Media and again with RSA. And I am proud as punch of the growing proportion of our work that we produce from start to finish in our in-house production company, House Party.

LBB> What does your typical day look like?
 
DC> I have a bowl of Flahavan’s porridge and a cup of Barry’s Tea, and then drive to work very, very safely… After that, anything can happen. Like a lot of creative people, what I love most about this job is that it never lands you in the same day twice. In the morning I might be getting to know all about the ins and outs of how a supermarket chain works behind the scenes, before lunch we’re testing new handgrips for a VR installation, maybe there’s a conference call with some of our shopper marketing clients around Europe, where we’re trying to home in on an idea that’s powerful in all kinds of different languages and formats… and inevitably the day is peppered with healthy argy bargy with creative colleagues where they’re wrestling me out of my comfort zone or I'm wrestling them out of theirs.
 
LBB> What's the key to getting the best out of creatives, in your experience?
 
DC> It sounds obvious, but I think it’s really important that there isn’t an agency style that everybody is forced to conform to. My job is to help all of the unique individuals in this department to achieve their personal bests here. Sometimes that means chipping in my own ideas, or getting quite pushy in my guidance, but more often than not it means putting the right people into a room together, with the right question, and then getting myself and everyone else out of their way for a few days. 
 
LBB> You recently asked Twitter why Irish people love whingeing so much. What's your theory?
 
DC> That was kind of random. I was in Dublin airport after a few days working in Switzerland, where the people were eerily positive; and I knew I was home when more or less everyone around me was bonding by complaining about whatever came to mind. Option one in my Twitter poll was “Good way to start a chat”. It only got 14% of the vote, but that’s my own favoured hypothesis.
 
LBB> Ireland is famed for its literature, music and comedy, but tell us something that people might still not know about the Irish market.
 
DC> Irish men are amazing lovers. Kind but powerful. We’re also persistent liars.
 
LBB> Outside of work, what do you get up to? What do you really enjoy doing?
 
DC> I write screenplays and make short films when I can. I love getting out of town, going out west, and being near the Atlantic. I spent a lot of my childhood on the islands off the west coast, and I need a fix of that every now and then to stay tall. It just resets your head. There’s an island called Skellig Michael where the last couple of Star Wars films were shot. It’s a stunning place - a pointy rock with a monastery on top. It’s hard to describe but it’s a transcendent kind of place. Back in Dublin, sitting in cafés people-watching is a simple pleasure that’s hard to beat.