The Year of Living Fearlessly: How the McCann Machine Roared Back in 2017

Get to know Adweek's U.S. Agency of the Year all over again

(L. to r.) Chris Macdonald, president, McCann Worldgroup North America; Eric Silver, chief creative officer, McCann North America; Devika Bulchandani, president, McCann New York Kevin Scanlon for Adweek
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She arrived in downtown Manhattan in the middle of the night on an unusually warm Monday in March. Her 250-pound, 50-inch bronze frame was small enough to escape the gaze of most oblivious passersby, but she quickly became larger than life. And nearly every recap of this historic, tempestuous year will inevitably include her image. 

Contradictions define Fearless Girl. She is a paid promotion demanding corporate responsibility. She is a child highlighting injustices of adulthood. She is an analog work in an increasingly digital world. And her creator, McCann, had a year that can be seen as a similar study in contrasts—one of the world’s oldest ad agencies proving its relevance once again. 

Relatively few of the millions of people who have seen, shared and responded to the statue over the past nine months know she was sponsored by investment firm State Street Global Advisors, or made by the agency responsible for once teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony.

But Fearless Girl undoubtedly succeeded on multiple fronts. A true pop-culture icon, she overcame various critiques and controversies—including a challenge from the artist behind Charging Bull and a $5 million fine for alleged wage discrimination at State Street Corp., parent company of State Street Global Advisors—to raise awareness of women in company boardrooms and challenge the public’s perception of what advertising can and should be.

That perfect storm of influence embodies McCann’s current status as both tastemaker and prototypical ad agency, and it helped guide Adweek’s decision to name the Interpublic Group network as U.S. Agency of the Year for 2017. A slew of shops have released impactful, even groundbreaking campaigns over the past 12 months, but McCann made international headlines with its work while countering the industry narrative that the glory days of established, holding company-owned agencies are long gone. 

(L. to r.) Sean Bryan, co-chief creative officer, McCann New York; Joyce King Thomas, chairman and chief creative officer, McCann XBC; Gary Pascoe, chief creative officer, Commonwealth//McCann; Veda Partalo, head of brand strategy, McCann New York; Kelly Johnson, president, 215 McCann, San Francisco; Tom Murphy, co-chief creative officer, McCann New York
Kevin Scanlon for Adweek

Welcome to the machine

“We are not a management consultancy, and we are not an accounting firm looking to get into the marketing world,” says Harris Diamond, chairman and CEO of McCann parent McCann Worldgroup, which he has run since 2012. “We are, at the end of the day, people who take great pride in the product we produce, which is a creative product that moves hearts and minds to either buy something or like something more than they would have otherwise.” 

Diamond disputes the idea that the 115-year-old McCann agency is a “legacy” shop, citing a variety of multiplatform work over the past year before adding, “McCann is a machine.”

That engine’s 1,200-strong U.S. team started 2017 with an Albert Einstein violin tribute to Lady Gaga and ended the year by reuniting a teddy bear with his missing nose via the United States Postal Service. Along the way, it easily brought in more new business than any other American agency—despite losing Office Depot—thanks to a combination of successful pitches and growing relationships with clients like Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, MGM Resorts International and Verizon. 

McCann is larger and more labyrinthine than your average network, with U.S. divisions including major offices in Minneapolis and Detroit, along with the CRM experts at MRM//McCann, the Bay Area’s tech-focused 215 McCann and several units dedicated to single brands, like M:United (Microsoft), Commonwealth//McCann (Chevrolet) and Fitzco//McCann (Coca-Cola).

According to global chief creative officer Rob Reilly, those disparate divisions have come together in serving each client’s need for creatively driven solutions to unstable markets. 

State Street Global Advisors ‘Fearless Girl’ She was the most-discussed piece of advertising in the last year if not the last decade. Some might say she was overanalyzed. But she persisted to score millions in free exposure with a paid media budget of zero dollars and win 18 Cannes Lions including four Grand Prix. Perhaps most importantly, SSGA challenged 476 companies to put more women in leadership roles as part of the campaign, and 76 actively worked to do so, according to the client.
Getty Images

No ‘house style’

In 2014, Diamond recruited Reilly, a CP+B veteran, to lead his team with a simple proposition.

“[Harris] said, ‘I want creativity to permeate everything we do, I want McCann to be the greatest creative network in the world, and I’ll give you anything you need to do it,’” Reilly recalls. “It’s a pretty tempting offer, and he’s held up his end of the bargain.” The strategic shift may be best exemplified by the network’s decision to change its official tagline from “Transforming brands and growing businesses” to “We help brands play a meaningful role in people’s lives.” 

“We’re talking about an organization right now where everybody’s job is creativity,” says McCann New York president Devika Bulchandani. Everyone has a specific role, but Bulchandani emphasizes that “breaking down those silos has been the critical part.” 

Sean Bryan, who shares the chief creative role in New York with Tom Murphy, says the team went so far as to assemble a “pitch wall” in the center of the office atrium to remind staffers that each project is a communal effort. In another recent change, account leaders and strategists regularly sit in on creative meetings. “If someone can’t make that meeting, we reschedule,” says North American chief creative officer Eric Silver. “And once we sell an idea, there is not a more relentless agency on the planet.” 

Silver credits this open-ended approach with ensuring McCann has no recognizable “house style” while driving projects that range from Silicon Valley star Thomas Middleditch’s Verizon ads to a Nespresso campaign that followed George Clooney’s seamless cinematic journey from Psycho to Seabiscuit. It also helped Fearless Girl transcend her original, less-inspiring incarnation, in the concepting phase, as a full-size bronze cow. 

These changes haven’t just been internal. Bulchandani says clients have grown “braver” as their business pressures mount, noting that one client executive recently asked her to visit the in-house team and discuss “all the bad things that happen during a creative process.” 

Everything to every brand

This sense of shared risk played a key role in McCann’s biggest new business wins of 2017, several of which came without a pitch.

“I respect them enormously because they care deeply about our business and their craft,” says Verizon CMO Diego Scotti. “Rob Reilly [tells his team], ‘Guys, we’re not artists. We use artistic tools and artistry to drive business, but we’re here to make money for our clients.’”

The telecom giant consolidated brand marketing with McCann in a surprise February move that marked the end of a two-year relationship with Wieden + Kennedy. Hotel chain MGM Resorts International, which retained McCann in a 2015 review, also expanded its remit earlier this year with more promotional campaigns for regional resorts and casinos.

“I usually say, ‘They give a shit,’” says MGM CMO and chief experience officer Lilian Tomovich, a self-described “McCann lifer” who previously spent nine years at MasterCard. She calls the agency “truly media agnostic,” adding, “There’s nothing they haven’t been able to handle for us.” 

Microsoft corporate vp of brand, advertising and research Kathleen Hall says Reilly led a creative turnaround at McCann after he “set up the conditions that allowed people to be great.” 

“Our challenge is that we need to be able to execute around the world, and creative at scale is sometimes a hard thing,” Hall says. “But McCann has been able to sustain a boutique-like creative approach.” She credits that “magical combination” with facilitating work like this year’s #MakeWhatsNext campaign for International Women’s Day, which encouraged women to work in the sciences.

“We started on that journey together in similar places as great brands that needed to reinvent and renovate,” Hall says.

Old kids on the block

For McCann, that renovation included leadership changes. Most prominent among them were the promotion of former New York managing director Bulchandani to president, and the expansion of North American president Chris Macdonald’s responsibilities to include all agencies within the larger McCann Worldgroup network. 

The agency also poached former Droga5 head of business development Sean Lackey to serve as chief growth officer; named 4A’s veteran Singleton Beato global diversity and engagement officer; and promoted global CSO Suzanne Powers to lead strategy for all McCann agencies around the world. 

Macdonald has visited every office in North America at least twice this year. He says the network’s age and size ultimately work in its favor, citing “embedded knowledge, expertise and experience” as differentiators separating the shop from both established competitors and young, hungry challengers. “The way I see [McCann] evolve is that we are significantly more disciplined and focused on what our purpose is,” he says. “In the last three or four years, nailing down the fact that we have a clear mission in helping brands have meaning in people’s lives has been critical.”

2017 included some disputes unrelated to Fearless Girl. The agency survived a legal challenge to its participation in the ongoing $4 billion U.S. Army review as Verizon navigated the effects of its Yahoo acquisition. An MGM ad released in the wake of the October shooting in Las Vegas attracted some negative attention on social media, though the larger public response was, in Tomovich’s words, “overwhelmingly positive.”

Above all, McCann proved that a decidedly old-school name can play with the newer, more “agile” upstarts. In many cases, it can beat them at their own game.

“I always question when people say the legacy agencies are in trouble,” says Diamond. “The question is, can they be as creative? Can they be as quick to take advantage of the many platforms out there?” 

This year, McCann said yes … with no fear.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.