Campaign UK Team
Aug 28, 2014

'Our product is applied creativity; the better it is, the more we sell': John O'Keeffe

WPP's worldwide creative director talks to Kate Magee about Cannes, creativity and why he must learn to use provocative soundbites

'Our product is applied creativity; the better it is, the more we sell': John O'Keeffe

What does winning Holding Company of the Year at Cannes for the fourth year in a row mean to you?

I seem to recall an "…of the Year" hat-trick in a previous life not ultimately proving to be as significant as I thought it might be. Perhaps "four" is the magic number. We’ll see.

With all due respect to others, Cannes, as the only really global show across categories, is the main event. So naturally everyone wants to win. Anyone who says different is a liar, mad, or destined for sainthood.

Winning, especially after a long period of not winning, gives everyone a lift. It creates momentum. And, for us, that momentum has translated into greater effectiveness scores and incredible new-business results. It’s a sort of win-win, win-win situation.

Rationally, just to keep my feet on the ground for a moment, while it’s a good indicator of the current strength of the team, equally importantly it tells me where perhaps we might be able to improve, and what I might want to focus on in the year ahead.

How do you set creative standards when it is so subjective?

My problem is that I have never really believed that it is all that subjective (perhaps that is a yet-to-be-discovered, creative director gene). Really great ideas tend to commend themselves to everyone who sees them.

Perhaps subjectivity comes slightly lower down the food chain. If you find yourself saying "this’ll do, won’t it?", maybe that’s a debate. But, even then, I guess simply saying "um, no it won’t" removes the subjectivity. Doesn’t it?

Is creativity important for creating shareholder value?

Since WPP moved up the creative rankings to the number-one spot, I believe the share price has trebled. I leave people to draw their own conclusions.

For those who cannot, very simply: our product is applied creativity. The better it is, the more we sell.

The more we sell, the better our financial performance. The better our financial performance, the more value we create for shareholders, of which I’m one. So I have a vested interest in an ever-improving global creative product.

How does WPP measure creativity internally?

With regard to internal creativity, I’ve overseen the WPPed Cream Awards for the past five years ( Unlike, hmm, shall I say "many" or "most" internal awards, I try to ensure that they are not an exercise in self-delusion.

So, where possible, we don’t actually need to judge the categories. WPPed Cream is timetabled so that we can hand out the gongs to work that has succeeded against the client brief and won awards in the real world. So our past two WPPed Cream "Advertising" Crème de la Crème awards went to previous Cannes Grand Prix winners.

Do you try to position each network differently?

I don’t try to position anyone. Our big four ad groups, for example, were around long before me and I suspect will be around long after I’ve gone. All the operating companies have their personalities, and long may that continue. I just focus on pushing the creative side of things, which is where my place on the huge WPP Venn diagram intersects with them all.

The virtuous circle I strive to create goes like this: if our agencies are the most creative, our agencies will be the most attractive, so we’ll get the best people, so we’ll be the most creative.

Do you notice any geographical trends in the creative departments?

No. Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough, but I tend to feel at home discussing ideas in any creative department. Cultural sensitivities, for example, are silly to ignore but generally easy to grasp and work with. Actually, such differences are often overstated. Just look at how well Graham Fink is doing in China.

I think globalisation and social media have had a positive impact in terms of pointing out our similarities and bringing people together.

I’m hopeful that, in the geopolitical arena, young people will use it to turn their backs on decades of conflict and mistrust (and I might develop that point in my Guardian column).

Joe Pytka recently said all holding companies are ‘intrinsically evil’ because they are only interested in profit and it is easier to be creative at an independent agency. Do you agree?

I must learn the art of the provocative soundbite. They always get coverage, no matter how ridiculous, and, anyway, I don’t think I’m in Campaign enough. I’ll work on some and get back to you.

Regarding Mr Pytka: Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Ford, Shell, BP, HSBC etc. are not art collectors. They don’t engage with us – and others, independent or not – for the entertainment value. They are successful global enterprises that want best-in-class marketing solutions to drive their businesses forward. And all have had award-winning creative work from WPP agencies, which is a reputation we’re happy to maintain.

I just need to turn that into something short and pithy!

Do you think creative departments are too distant from the media strategy?

There is a division between media and creative, but that has been the case for some time. I do not think it is realistic, or necessarily desirable, to bring them back together, mainly because both are so much more complex now. That’s especially true of media businesses where new niche specialisms seem to appear almost weekly.

Media companies are also increasingly creating content, a lot of it very good (the cheeky monkeys). I do think creative and media needs to work together as closely as possible – and as early as possible – in the process. Happily, within WPP, I think we are very geared towards co-operation. And, in my role, I can help in that endeavour.

What are you doing to encourage more women to join creative departments?

As an industry, we deprive ourselves of half the available creative talent if more women do not join creative departments and, indeed, lead them. However, I am not a believer in positive discrimination. I think it’s patronising.

But, on a more encouraging note, WPP is doing a lot of work this year with D&AD (sponsoring The New Blood Academy), and with The School of Communication Arts, which I know is not the answer to your question.

I would just observe that perhaps the balance is changing. I see an awful lot of good student work, and much of it comes from the increasing female contingent. I hope and believe that this is an unstoppable trend.

Do you worry that the most creative people are now being seduced by other careers – such as working in the digital start-up scene?

I can barely sleep nights.

Do you think the continued pressure on cost is making clients more fearful about running with big, brave creative ideas?

There has always (rightly) been pressure brought to bear on costs. There has always (rightly) been pressure from creative people to try to do the best work possible. I suspect that, for all the presumed antipathy in that combination, these two forces create the circumstances in which great work happens.

Do you miss the actual craft and being hands-on?

I would if I was. But I’m not – so I don’t.

What does the future hold for creativity?

The answer to that question 50 years ago, and 40 and 30 and 20, was: "Who knows?" Isn’t that great!

(This article was first published on

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