Mariana O’Kelly. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mariana O’Kelly. Picture: SUPPLIED

In a constrained economy, and to remain relevant and keep ahead of the game, advertising agencies need to do things out of the ordinary. That’s the opinion of Mariana O’Kelly, executive creative director at Ogilvy SA, the recent winner of the Sunday Times Top Brands awards’ Robin Putter prize.

It’s not about making sudden changes, says O’Kelly. “Do one thing today that you didn’t do yesterday, and keep at it. This is what makes the change achievable,” are her words for 2018’s world of advertising.

At a Redzone breakfast event facilitated by Arye Kellman, the chief creative officer at Tilt, O’Kelly spoke about the industry, the agency and life in an era when advertising is not what it used to be. She said one has to reinvent yourself every day, be open to change and admit that no-one has all the answers. 

O’Kelly modestly describes herself as “the sesame seed on the bun that holds a giant dagwood together”. The agency’s success, she maintains, is thanks to a group of talented people.

Ogilvy SA has created a culture of encouraging people to be their best selves and of asking questions when uncertainty arises, she says. “Over the past year we have restructured the agency with a focus on simplifying, unifying and clarifying.”

In an era of uncertainty, the ability to adapt is vital. “One has to rise above what many are saying is the end of advertising, take the fear away from change, and learn how to adapt.”

Change is tricky, even more so when it does not resonate with clients who are married to a traditional way of doing the things that have always worked for them in the past. “Building partnerships with clients should always start with a good conversation. We need to understand the client’s key performance indicators, together with those of the brand, and straddle both of those worlds. As an agency, we need to try and fit into the client’s world, and then ask the client about its vision for the brand,” she explains.

It is these conversations that transform the relationship from that of client/supplier and allow the agency to move forward as partner. It’s about showing a willingness to try even if that means sometimes failing, she says.

She concedes it’s not always easy to move past the supplier phase and become confident enough to challenge the client. On the other hand, you need to know when challenging just isn’t working and when to let it go. “Pick the swords you fall on,” she says.

Due the pace of change, part of remaining relevant is having the capacity to be anywhere in a campaign, at any time. “Check and recheck that it still makes sense, know what is worth changing and what isn’t - there is no point in dying over a detail,” she says.

Over the past year, the campaign that has stood out the most for O’Kelly is the “Smash the Label” campaign Ogilvy produced for Castle Lager – which saw the beer being produced without labels in a bid to stand up against labelling in SA and eradicating labels that divide South Africans.  “This campaign is the perfect example of a long collaborative journey we took with the client, where we were able to plan ahead,” she recalls. “We wanted the campaign to become a platform we could build on, to set the stage so that others could dance on it, essentially,” she says. In fact, the platform is still going and still helping marginalised South Africans to have a voice.

The big take-out

If there is a recipe to success in today’s ad world, it is to embrace change, do something different every day and make emotional connections, says Ogilvy SA’s Mariana O’Kelly.

But it was also one of the most nerve-racking campaigns she’s worked on for a while. “Behind the scenes, we had a different launch plan,” she admits. But staying relevant is about checking in on what is happening around you on social media and making changes when needed to align with them. In the end the campaign launched just 24 hours after Ashwin Willemse’s much publicised disagreement with co-presenters Nick Mallett and Naas Botha, during which he accused them of patronising him. Willemse subsequently walked off the set. O’Kelly describes how agency and brand worked together to use the incident as a way to launch at a time that would be most relevant to the campaign’s messaging.

“Looking back, we know it worked, but aligning it to such a controversial issue took courage at the time,” O’Kelly recalls, adding that many agencies and brands would have shied away instead of looking to connect the dots between the brand and what was happening in popular culture. “We did have a litigation strategy in place, in case it all went wrong,” she laughs.

When asked about the high and low points of the past year for her, O’Kelly says her emotional responses are always related to people. “I dread the times when one of our team members resigns – and yet it’s also a bittersweet event, because it means we have given the person wings. Without people, you cannot build an agency. Awards are great, but at the end of the day you put them on a shelf, and you cannot have a conversation with them. Yes, they may become a source of return of investment to attract talent and clients, but striking the emotional connection will always be what counts.”

The same goes for consumers, she says. “We’re not speaking to an audience or an LSM group – we’re speaking to people. Moreover, we’re speaking to people who will give us only a few seconds to make or break that connection.”

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