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Holding your nerve: Boots’ CMO shares his insights on producing great creative at McCann webinar


McCann Leeds hosted another in its series of Creative Courage events this week, welcoming Boots CMO Pete Markey to speak on his experience of holding his nerve in creative.

In his article published on Prolific North recently, Markey explored the things which have taught him the importance of holding your nerve in order to create content which is effective, memorable and powerful.

Learn more about Creative Courage here.

At the webinar he was joined by Toby Southgate, Chief Growth Officer at McCann Worldgroup; Gavin Shore, Executive Creative Director at McCann Leeds; and Coral Cranmer, Head of Strategy & Planning at McCann Leeds, to speak to marketers on a number of lessons his experiences over the last few years have taught him.

Holding your nerve

The webinar kicked off with an introduction from Southgate, who welcomed Markey as a “leading light of a new generation” of marketers, and previewed the talk that was to come, before handing over to Pete to provide a run-through of his philosophy and ideas.

Markey got things started talking about a more negative experience, which taught him about being firm – the launch of a new sub-brand with the Post Office through an advertising campaign.

Following a successful Christmas ad, the same format was used in an ad launching Post Office Money, but ended up pushed and pulled by competing interests to the point where it ended up arguably squeezing too much into 30 seconds.

As Pete said, “the best creative ideas aren’t a compromise.” Instead, achieving success requires hard conversations with stakeholders, who sometimes need to be told that certain contributions can’t be added to a campaign.

Asked how he came to learn what the right thing to do is by Gavin Shore, Pete said the rule is not to be overconfident – something that may have happened following the success of the Post Office ad the preceding Christmas.

The overarching rule Pete emphasised was to “be clear what the role of the creative is”.

Be prepared to be wrong

The next point Pete made was that you have to be ready to be wrong – something he learnt leading marketing at MORE TH<N. When he arrived in the role, a classic campaign featuring the dog Lucky was its most memorable, and it was suggested that they bring the character back.

When considering ideas for the next campaign, one treatment featured Lucky the dog, but another was more out-of-the-box – featuring More Than Freeman, voiced by an impressive impressionist from the USA. It was thought the first would be the clear winner – but research showed that people were not fans of bringing the dog back.

In the end, they made an iconic advert featuring the ‘voice’ of Morgan Freeman – something of an homage to the Shawshank Redemption – and Pete learnt to know when to go with a better idea.

Of course, “research doesn’t answer everything”, but it helps make up minds – especially when trying to get an idea over the line with decisionmakers. Markey said “as consumers, we like to be challenged by creative” – we need great agencies to push brands further.

Be adaptable and champion great work

Looking at his time at TSB – which only came to an end recently with his move to Boots – Markey discussed the most recent TV campaign featuring David Schwimmer in his first UK advertising campaign. Quite different to what came before for TSB, this campaign exemplifies both bravery in the creative chosen, as well as a necessary adaptability in the face of COVID.

TSB was focusing on a brand repositioning at the beginning of 2020, and went into the year fairly overconfident. They had a strapline in mind, but a competitor came up with something similar, meaning they needed to work with McCann on something that sent the same message but wasn’t as similar – settling on ‘Life made more’.

He noted that so many banking ads simply “describe the category” rather than showing what differentiates the brand – focusing on ISAs and current accounts, not what that brand can offer.

They had chosen David Schwimmer as talent already but when travel shut down completely through COVID along with social events, their scripts featuring Schwimmer at parties, barbecues and so on became obsolete.

They championed what they saw as great work and successfully adapted the campaign, instead making the star travel round in a campervan and go to outdoor locations for segments which could be produced in a socially distanced way. In the end, this was the most-researched campaign Pete says he’d ever worked on. And even though it launched as the third lockdown began, it beat every brand metric set by TSB.

The session closed with questions from the audience as well as some from the panel, who had also been contributing throughout. Coral Cranmer asked if Pete’s now doing more research than ever seeing as things have changed so much. “Listening is more important than ever,” he concluded.

The session was brought to an end by Toby Southgate, who pointed out what people could learn about the difference between “using research to make decisions or using research to inform decisions,” before summing up.

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