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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with... Malcolm Poynton

The Cheil Global CCO on the joy of working for a 21st century agency, his love of art and the outdoors – and why you can’t Google life

5 Minutes with... Malcolm Poynton

The most thoughtful global chief creative officer working in advertising today? Malcolm Poynton may well be that. Whether he’s delivering a lecture on the history of brands to an auditorium of captivated juniors or pondering the seismic shifts rumbling against the foundations of the old school industry structures, he’s always considered. Perhaps that’s why he’s had such a fruitful time at Cheil, helping to cultivate the South Korean-headquartered network into a global network with creative impact. Working with a major client like Samsung, innovation and technology are woven into the agency’s DNA, but Malcolm’s never lost sight of the emotional purpose that drives what they do. Perhaps that’s because – between the flights from London to Seoul – he makes a point of getting out, immersing himself in the art world or, even better, the great outdoors. As he tells LBB’s Laura Swinton, you can’t Google life…

Malcolm is also one of the jurors in the upcoming Immortal Awards.

LBB> You’ve been at Cheil for three and a half years – what has that experience been like?
MP> It’s been three and half years now; it’s been amazingly full-on and it’s been amazingly satisfying with the creative progress we’ve made. It’s also been an incredible journey of discovering new and different cultures. Seoul is a great place; it’s very particular. It’s very forward-thinking and, I would say, progressive. And, increasingly, it’s a place that the fashion world has got their eye on. It’s just full of energy.

LBB> Since you’ve joined how have you been working with the various offices to get them to realise their creative potential. Offices like India, Hong Kong and Ukraine as well as London and Spain have been doing some interesting stuff over the past couple of years - how have you worked with the offices to unlock that?
MP> A huge part of the mission is to raise our game to make sure that we’re a true creative force globally, not just a huge office in Seoul. Today we have ten offices that are ranked in the top ten creative agencies in their local markets – and that’s from developing markets to huge markets like India and Spain. That comes from a true collaboration. I run a 60 day programme where we go deep on the creative development of work in the offices. We’re really focused on doing what we can to develop that work during the inception and creative development through to realisation, rather than just letting offices deliver what they do locally and learning from it later. That’s where the progress comes from.

LBB> I guess with Cheil, the client that springs to mind most quickly is Samsung, but how important has it been to push beyond that and grow other clients? And what are the other really fruitful client relationships Cheil has around the world?
MP> Samsung will always be super important for us as a network – not least because it’s so diverse and it’s such a fast-growing brand. 

That said, we run Adidas Football globally from Iris in the UK as well as Adidas Cricket out of India. We work with brands like GE and IBM out of Barbarian Group in the US; There’s LinkedIn globally from BMB in London. We’ve got other brands like Samsonite in Hong Kong and Chrysler in Seoul and of course Korea Telecom and more. We have a whole host of clients who we do work with beyond Samsung. 

LBB> Cheil’s put out some really inventive products with Samsung – what role does innovation play in the agency?
MP> I think creativity is changing. We’re really lucky because we’re the only network established this century, out of all the global networks. We don’t really have a lot of that traditional baggage; we’re talking about networks that are over 100 years old in many places and some of that runs deep in the culture. We’re a very young agency in terms of our talent as well as finding new ways to be creative and different.

We’re constantly curious about innovation from a point of view of developing thinking to solve problems – and our curiosity knows no bounds because we don’t have that media restriction. 

I think Barbarian Group have been very decent in a digital and tech space. They pioneered Cinder, which won the Titanium at Cannes and won every Grand Prix going. It’s been the benchmark of this industry putting technology into the market. 

We are very collaborative in how we work; we’re a network of specialisms, rather than just replicating ad agencies around the world. Between our architectural practice, between our deep technology understanding with Barbarian, between different specialisms, we have this constantly expanding reference point for everyone. It means that our kind of creativity inherently embraces innovation as part of what we do.

LBB> What innovation projects are you particularly really proud of?
MP> There are a couple of things – looking back a bit, there was the food safety bags for Tesco in China, which solved a real problem that a brand was facing. That was not about a media channel but thinking about how to solve a problem for a brand and turn it into something really positive. 

We have something really pioneering at the moment coming out of India that, for the first time, enables deaf-blind people to communicate through mobile devices using haptic feedback. It's called Good Vibes. 

And we also have a bunch of stuff that’s innovative in that it uses existing technology platforms, such as virtual reality, but pioneers new experiences. At Mobile World Congress we had a beta launch for our project The Moon for All Mankind. To date, only a dozen men have walked on the moon and this experience gives everyone an opportunity to experience lunar gravity. That’s pretty incredible, right? I think I was the first Kiwi to walk on the moon!

LBB> But the work that you do isn’t all about technology, right?
MP> From point of view, there have probably been a lot of digital agencies grow up in a way that doesn’t really appreciate the power of human emotion. To give a really simple reference point, most digital agencies call people ‘users’, which couldn’t be a more rational and demeaning but less appreciative of humans as emotional beings! 

We centre all of our creative efforts around ‘ideas that move’; to me that matters whether you’re doing something digitally or in film or in static media. If you’re not going to try and move someone emotionally, then the job’s a lot harder. Sure, there are roles and utilities for things like Amazon in the world and they might not be the most emotional thing. But we’re not in the business of building an Amazon, we’re in the business of connecting brands with humans, and humans are emotional beings. 

We saw from India last year that we ended up in a situation where Youtube awarded us for being the most viewed ad last year. And that is something that’s super important to us; we’re not an agency focused on being digital for the sake of it. We’re an agency focused on connecting people with brands in the most powerful way that we can. 


LBB> I’m curious to get your point of view about the shifts we’re seeing in the industry landscape, and where Cheil sits within that?
MP> As I said earlier, I think we’ve got the advantage of not being organised like one of those traditional agencies. We’re consciously organised to have specialisms – we collaborate. We globally bring talent together to answer whatever the need is for a client. Lots of the holding companies are trying that model; I was giving a keynote and came across some people who were in the middle of trying to make that work at one of the big networks. They were talking about how impossible it all was because even though they talk about creating one team for clients, the revenues are split. That’s how their businesses were built. The beauty of us is that we don’t have that baggage.

On the flip side, we know that we don’t need to set up 200 identical agencies around the world that can all do everything… We can bring together talent to work globally. And the local agencies can be really strong in their local market in a way that suits that market. That’s what I think sets us up differently. 

You’re right the industry is changing beyond recognition at the moment. It’s incredibly hard for the holding companies because they’ve got to change so far and so fast. The consultancies are very optimistic about how far they will get, but there’s further to go than perhaps they realise. And then there’s lots of exciting, small independents who are good at what they do – and frankly don’t need to concern themselves too much with all of that because quite frankly the world is big enough. There will always be a need for the independents.

I think we’re very different to the traditional agencies. And another agency that I’d call out, who are very different and different to us is R/GA. They’ve been very successful with their incubator model complementing the core business. They genuinely benefit from a focus on innovation in a way that other agencies don’t. So, there are some great micro-networks in that sense. There are shining lights out there, doing things differently.

LBB> So… change of gear, but before you got into advertising you were on the New Zealand Yachting team!?
MP> I was in the New Zealand yachting team and I just so happened to be able to attend as a reserve in the team. I was in the team for many championships and even competed during my time living in Australia – but sailing was a huge part of my life.

LBB> And how has that experience of being involved in sport at such I high level influenced you in your working life?
MP> Competitive sport was always a big part of my life growing up in New Zealand… we probably got a couple of school lessons in between all the rugby and sport! Inherently you take things that you might not realise at the time that help shape different attitudes and approaches. I think sailing is an incredibly strategic sport and no doubt a lot of that has informed who I am.

LBB> How did you get into advertising?
MP> I come from a family of architects. I began going down that path, but a summer job in advertising turned into my career and I never looked back. It’s so much fun and it’s constantly changing; every time you get a brief from a client it’s different. For someone like me who is kind of curious about things, it’s very satisfying.

LBB> Looking back, what do you wish you’d known when you started out? 
MP> When I look at it now, in a way I had no idea that these established great legendary companies in our industry were as vulnerable as  Pan Am was in the airline industry or Commodore was in the computing industry. I think I always imagined these big networks as being these invincible businesses and I guess it’s been really interesting to learn in my career that that’s not the case.

Everywhere I’ve worked has had something of a startup culture about it. I started out in New Zealand at a startup that sold to BBDO. I joined M&C Saatchi in the UK in the early days. Even at Cheil, I joined as it was expanding to become a global network.

But if someone had told me as a kid that all these big, established networks leading the industry were as vulnerable as they seem to be today, I think I would have had quite a different outlook on the industry. It’s interesting if you stand back outside of our industry and talk to analysts and strategists, these big holding companies are more vulnerable than you might realise – nothing’s a sure bet.

LBB> And looking back at the places you’ve worked, which ones do you think were really formative to the creative director that you became and the way you work?
MP> I think my time growing up in the industries in New Zealand and Australia gave me the ability to think far beyond traditional media. You weren’t just writing TV ads and posters. That was an important part of shaping my view of what creativity is. 

On the flip side of that, being part of the journey of getting M&C Saatchi started here and working on brands like British Airways and Sky Digital, introduced me to a totally different scale of the industry. Leading global brands was a very different experience and gave me a whole new reference point.

LBB> Another thing that I’ve read about you was a joke you made about how you wouldn’t mind living in an art gallery. I know the art world is really important to you. When it comes to art, how would you describe your tastes? 

MP> I find art such a great inspiration in so many ways. I sat on the board of the Institute of Contemporary Art in the UK for a number of years and spend a lot of time in galleries. It’s such a nourishing thing; it’s a spiritual thing, in a way. 

I probably have quite an eclectic taste in art. I have a real passion for a lot of New Zealand art, because that’s where I grew up and I can connect with my homeland through art, so I love having that around our home. I also really love contemporary art.

I think we’ve seen such big changes in terms of what is art. It’s an existential question that gets asked and gets dismissed very quickly because they’re not comfortable with it. But I love the fact that we’re changing what art is , what it means. We’re seeing a lot of art having meaning in new and fresh ways because our political landscape is changing. You get great, interesting and provocative artists like Ai Weiwei coming out of China. You get Grayson Perry doing his interesting work that contains a lot of social commentary around how we live in the UK. It’s important and it’s very stimulating.

LBB> As well as art, sport is a big part of your life…
MP> … That and getting outdoors, anything to be outdoors. I could live in a gallery as long as I could get outdoors! 

LBB> It’s amazing because I talk to so many creatives and ask them what they do outside of work and they so often reply ‘I’m always working’! What are your thoughts on that phenomenon?
MP> I think it’s quite concerning, the way the generation are so tethered all the time. It’s one of the frustrations in the industry that things are going so fast and the pressures on brands are so hard that it has turned into a seven day a week industry. That’s not healthy for agencies or clients. The balance has to find itself. 

But the flip side is that it’s also one of the most exciting things. You get to make more, more frequently and contribute more. It’s a Catch 22 isn’t it? You can’t have it both ways! But I think we do need to find a better balance for the generation of creatives ahead. I hear what you’re saying; there are so many creatives growing up who basically work and work and work. If you don’t get out, and you don’t discover what the world is like, how are you going to connect the brands to those people in the world? You’re not going to be observing who they are and what they do and where they live. You’re just going to be getting someone else’s version of that when you Google it and that’s not good enough. You can’t Google life!


Malcolm will be on the jury for the inaugural Immortal Awards - find out more here.
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