This Man Gets in People’s Heads

Fast Chat with McCann Erickson veteran Kevin Allen

Kevin Allen began his advertising career in account service but made his mark as a pitchman for McCann Erickson, helping win accounts such as Marriott, Lufthansa and, most famously, MasterCard. He also worked for Lowe before launching consultancy Kevin Allen Partners in 2010. In a new book, The Hidden Agenda, Allen, 58, asserts that emotional connections are the key to success—whether pitching accounts or restocking airplane bathrooms, which he did in college as the “TP man” (as flight crews called him) for Marriott In-Flight Services.

Adweek: What do you mean in the book when you urge people to “think like a shrink”?

When we get into a business environment, we think, right, OK, now, it’s market share and brand this and blah blah that. And somehow the human element of the agency selection decision all kind of goes away. I’ve come to realize that the emotions that are tied up in the selection decision are even greater than what one person goes through as an individual. You don’t suspend human desire just because you’re in a business setting.

Are you surprised that MasterCard’s “Priceless” campaign, which McCann created in a pitch battle, has lasted 15 years?

Yes. Very few of these things become part of popular culture. I don’t think anybody could have predicted that. But I think perhaps we as an industry lose interest and patience with our own ideas a heck of a lot faster than the consumer does.

You called the old McCann gang an “eclectic group of loonies.” What did you mean by that?

I meant that in the warmest, most affectionate way because I did and do love that team. What was remarkable about what [former CEO] Jim Heekin achieved was not this sort of cookie-cutter “McCann guy” but, rather, this extraordinary diversity. He always understood how to field a team: Nina [DiSesa] who was a larger-than-life yet warm person who brought humanity to the group; Jonathan [Cranin] and his crispness; Nat [Puccio] and his passion; and Margie [Altschuler] and her persistence. Everybody brought something very special, and yet everybody was so wildly different.

What do you think about McCann today?

In a hundred-year history, there are ups and downs. McCann has had its moments of blazing glory and moments of disaster, even going back to [ex-president/CEO Marion] Harper, when he was tossed out of the company. …What the company always needs to do in those [down] times is examine what the strength of that brand is among the sea of agencies. Grit, competitiveness and being a winner is what the DNA of that place has always been about, and I believe still is. You can never, ever be something you’re not. You get found out really fast.

What did you learn from your college job as the “TP man” for Marriott?

I had this perception that the joy of work and the pride in what we do is obtained from having meaningful jobs. You know, “I’m an ad guy, I make ads,” and all this other stuff. The people that I worked alongside of were all the same from the point of view of coming home and having what I call the 6 o’clock conversation, saying, “Guess what I did today?”

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