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McCann And Microsoft On Keeping Innovation Alive In Long-Term Client Relationships

In the latest from ‘Convene. Challenge. Change.’, a series in partnership with the 4A’s, its president and chief exec Marla Kaplowitz hears from McCann and Microsoft about the secrets of their enduring client-agency relationship and how technology shapes their thinking towards creativity.

On conference stages and on our pages, the growing influence of technology on creativity has dominated the advertising industry discourse this year. And at this summer’s Cannes Lions, one emerging tech above all others stole the show – artificial intelligence.

So where better than Cannes to bring together a client with significant skin in the technology game, and their agency partner of almost a decade, to figure out how to make sense of it all? Enter Kathleen Hall, corporate vice-president, brand, advertising & research at Microsoft and John Dunleavy, president of McCann North America.

“The hard part for me right now is I am sitting on my hands, and I am dying to be let loose,” jokes Hall on generative AI.

“The power of AI to impact the world’s major issues is mind-blowingly great,” she continues. “[But] all you’re hearing so far is what’s the scary stuff? How might this not be good? At our beach house [in Cannes] we used generative AI with creatives who were kind of fearful. And they went from trepidatious to mad to joyful and ecstatic. Because it’s not about the tool, it’s about how good the person using it can be, right? … It’s still about the creative mind but it’s a new tool. It’s just too soon.”

Despite her company being at the forefront of this emerging technology, Hall is approaching AI gradually and sensitively for marketing purposes. This is indicative of the approach Microsoft and McCann have always taken over their nine years of working together, she says, where it’s never been about “stunty, borrowed interest, inauthentic stuff.”

Instead, explains Dunleavy, the agency is challenged to be innovative but not merely for innovation’s sake. He says: “Kathleen has a great way to push us which is to say: ‘Who’s going to care about this? Is anyone really going to care about this?’ I think that really helps us focus the work and keep pushing the boundaries.”

Both credit the longevity of their partnership, which began in 2014, to the candor they can share with one another. “One of the things we appreciate from Kathleen is that directness,” Dunleavy says. “We’ve always got clarity on what’s going on and what we need to do. And that kind of transparency, clarity, and directness leads to trust which is the foundation of most relationships.”

Hall’s advice for others is to give it time to develop the chemistry. “Oftentimes, bridging from the pitch process to the reality, it may not be the same players … it takes a while. It’s a team. There are different positions people need to play. And you need to make sure you have the right people and positions, which took us a little bit of time to figure out. Nobody’s right or wrong or good or bad – it’s fit.

“Your batting average goes up over time. Like, the wheat from the chaff happens faster. The tone and manner and personality have been developed. Then it’s a question of, where’s the innovation, where are you taking it?”

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