Sean Boyle, EVP and director of strategic planning at Publicis Dallas, on why overreliance on data will keep brands from creative greatness.
Q: Storytelling—what can brands do to get it right?
A: I have [an] aversion to how quickly certain terms can become cliché. Storytelling is one of them. There’s a quote I like from [cartoonist and author] Hugh MacLeod: “Authenticity is the new bullshit.” There are so many buzzwords right now. Agencies and brands go on about how much they believe in storytelling—then they put up the most insipid, asinine PowerPoint presentation you’ve ever seen. There was a time when brands were able to get by saying, “If we can throw enough of this stuff at the wall, some of it’s going to stick.” Not that everything you do has to be quirky; but now it’s more a question of: Are you brave enough to lead change in your category?
Q: You once said that if there were more startups, we could “ fix advertising.” Describe what you think is the role of startups in the advertising world?
A: Advertising has become a big business with five or six holding companies globally that are basically money-making operations focused exclusively on the bottom line, which is expected. That means the sausage factory is producing slightly less consequential content because corners are being cut. When you talk about startups, they’re usually set up because someone had enough or feels like they have a better way. That kind of purity needs to come back.
Q: You used to lead global planning at JWT New York. What does it take to plan on a global scale?
A: It’s about stripping back to what a brand stands for. For example, I worked on the Halls account in North America, where it sells big in the wintertime when people have colds. But what most people don’t know is that Halls is the biggest-selling sweet in the world. In Brazil people use Halls in nightclubs to initiate kissing. So what does Halls do as a global brand? That’s where the planner needs to work it out. It’s about helping a brand manage what it stands for globally, but that’s not as daunting as I could pretend it is. You have to believe in the local market.
Q: Is data the great panacea of our times or are people too obsessed?
A: Most forecasting work tends to drive brands towards mediocrity, towards a rational explanation for everything they say and do. But great work is about showing people something they didn’t expect to see. That’s the sort of stuff they remember.
Q: You love to travel. What’s the best place you’ve visited?
A: I made the decision when I was about 18 never to get married or have kids. I still have a large number of friends in Ireland that did the normal thing—college, job, kid. They always ask me this question. Traveling down a river in Vietnam or driving through Xi’an in China, where you might be the first Irish person who’s ever been to that city—the world shrinks and you feel humbled and very lucky to have this sort of life and lifestyle. But as for the greatest places, one at the top of my list is the Taj Mahal. Going back to the idea of storytelling, the Taj Mahal and the love story behind it—that’s a genuine example.