Mike O'Sullivan is Irish but has lived in New Zealand since 1994. In this time he has been the Executive Creative Director of Saatchi & Saatchi New Zealand, Colenso BBDO Auckland and Publicis Mojo Auckland. He is globally recognised with numerous awards, has sat on most global award juries and held a place on the Saatchi Worldwide Creative Board. In the last 10 years he has been named Australasia's Top ECD 5 times by Campaign Brief magazine. Photographer Phillip Simpson met Mike in his latest role as ECD of communications agency Droga5 and spoke to him about the challenges and opportunities presented to creatives by ever changing technological advances.



Phillip Simpson: What are the benefits of working within a smaller communications agency like Droga5, compared to the big brand advertising agencies you have historically been associated with?

Mike O'Sullivan: Most good agencies are built on clients needs and expectations. In the traditional agency relationship there is a lot of time, process and hierarchy involved. But there is now a breed of client that doesn't want to pay for eight staff to be working on one piece of their business. They want to work quickly and collaboratively.

Many of the bigger agencies are struggling to deal with the change to digital by scale. They can get so fixated on just running stuff that they don't actually stop and learn. A lot of the younger, newer, smaller shops are more aggressive and forward thinking

We like to think of ourselves as a business consultancy mixed with creativity. So we have a much deeper relationship than just doing ads. That means you can have fewer clients, because you are much more deeply ingrained in the organization. So our model is quite different from a lot of the agencies.


Do smaller agencies with less hierarchical structures tend to grow with success into the megaliths they sought to differentiate themselves from?

A lot do, but some manage to keep the spirit of it and that's a lot to do with the leadership. Often what happens is that smaller shops get bought out, a lot of momentum is gained and then they put somebody else in charge. And that's when they tend to become monolithic. But if the people who have created the culture stay running the company, then the spirit will usually stay true.


What is your main source of inspiration and information?

Most of the knowledge I get is from twitter. Because people out there are so prepared to share stuff they see. You can very quickly find out what is current and cool at the moment.


Consumers now spend their time viewing content across an ever growing range of media. How do clients and agencies need to adapt to reach their target audience?

In the past you had a captive audience who had no choice but to have messages forced on them, but the comms world has lost control, because consumers now control. They have a multitude of devices, lots of different platforms, lots of different interests. It's a huge period of change and adaptation. It's a scary time for many, but creatively it's a good time, because we have to make stuff that people like. I call them ‘destination ideas', where people are drawn in. That's not just around ads or TV commercials, but may involve creating an app that people will use every day, or creating an online experience that's better than they've had from anyone else. It's making agencies and creative organizations understand consumers better and go a bit deeper.


Are there core principals around getting peoples attention and loyalty that still apply no matter how fragmented media become?

There are key participative things that humans will gravitate towards. For example getting something for free or cheaper, voyeurism, vanity, game play, competition. The challenge is in how you wrap up these ideas so the client will buy into it and you will get the maximum participation. When it comes to viral stuff you have to let it be sex, violence or unbelievably funny... which usually involves sex or violence! You have to break a lot of rules in ways that you could never get to do on TV.

If you create a bit of content the consumer can manage, then they can form the future of the next step. However it's hard for a lot of clients to hand control of their brand over to the consumer. Often their response will be 'Our corporate culture is so not in this space. It's clean, it's community focused' etc.


Can you give an example of say a viral promo where the client took a big risk and it worked brilliantly well?

There's an example that we did for Elave in Ireland. They make body creams and moisturizers that contain no parabens or sulphates. We did an ad that was basically a piss-take of the Ponds Institute, where everyone was stark naked. We got the CEO to be in the ad as well. Naked. A brand that does something as audacious as that is interesting news. The moment that hit the net it took off. It went everywhere and got millions of hits. Brand recognition went through the roof.

Truth, simplicity and showing that you get people are the key things for brands. You can't lie anymore, or very quickly you can be in the news for all the wrong reasons.


In an environment in which the boundary between producer and consumer is becoming increasingly blurred, what place will remain for crafted photography?

You need to separate the different sorts of content. A lot of the content that's out there is going to take 60 seconds of my time, it's not telling a story. Sure everyone's got a camera and a camera-phone, but the quality is crap. On YouTube, 90% of the stuff may be functional, but it looks terrible.

Clients more than ever want to tell stories around a brand and when they do that they need to use good images. That's what creatives, photographers and directors do.


Do you believe consumers actually care if the images look good?

I think they do, because they care about the story. So make a story that people want to hear the next chapter of. For example, on the net recently a girl resigned from her job using 20 stills. It was a hoax used to demonstrate the viral power of the internet. The photos looked like somebody had knocked them off, but only a proper photographer could have done it.

With products, clients still need to control how that product looks. Photographers create context, mood, appetite. Consider a bottle of beer that's been shot on my iphone versus a bottle of beer that's been backlit and spritzed. The latter tells a story... 'This beer's been in a fridge. It's really really cold. It's going to refresh your thirst'. That's the thing that YouTube people can't do. That's the bit where the craft won't die.


What new opportunities will arise for photographers as content becomes increasingly viewed via devices like the iPad and smart-phones rather than print?

Currently a lot of this stuff is driven by IT expertise. A coder or digital person comes from a very nuts and bolts background. That skill set is very different to that of someone who can capture a moment in time in a picture. At the moment there are lots of digital guys making devices. There are lots of craftspeople not understanding devices. Bring the two of them together and what appears to be a real negative is actually a huge opportunity.

Photographers should be embracing the technology, developing new techniques and going to clients with their view on how it's done and do it at the right cost. If I was a photographer looking for work, I would position myself as a person who can make beautiful images, but I also do it with a point of difference and a total understanding of the potential for it to move and come in with a knowledge of devices, touch-screens, apps, etc.


In a future scenario in which billboards, for example, may contain images and text that are updated remotely by media companies in response to say current affairs or consumer responses, what are the implications for rights clearances in the underlying imagery?

Any organization will have to get rights clearance for any image they use and the list of (distribution) channels will just get bigger and bigger. Agencies will still have to deal with release forms and ensure that where they have placed an image it is being paid for.


So no matter how responsive a campaign is made to appear it will still require meticulous planning in advance.

Absolutely. But even if the client has paid for twenty different agreed uses, I don't think you can control it once it's gone out (online). Once the consumer has it, they can do whatever the hell the want with it. YouTube you can't control. A screen in a supermarket or a billboard company, you can. If the client has not paid to use your image on the billboard, you are owed money.

Perhaps this is the place of photographers agents now. As we move from images being used in one or two media to fifty or more, maybe their role is around charging for it, monitoring it, sorting talent fees, etc.


In the early days of the internet, photographers tended to charge little for web uses, then found it hard to back track as the web increased in dominance. As we embrace new technologies it seems essential that we charge appropriately so we don't fall into this trap again, particularly given the considerable production and post production time involved.

I agree. The more money that goes into (a shoot) and the more money that gets made from it, the more suppliers need to make sure they get paid for it. If you provide added value, clients will pay more money. To differentiate yourself you need to have added skills and be quite anal about how you charge.


Should the photographers who make a transition to moving image form collaborative partnerships, so that their imagery is married with the skills of people who truly understand narrative and storytelling?

That's exactly what needs to happen. This is the collaborative era, where people with different skill sets should work with others with different skill sets to make great things.

A lot of the static media are becoming movement media. There will probably be lots of stills around, but there is definitely going to be a growth in movement media. If you are a storyteller who can make stuff look good then it makes sense. Having said that, I'm not saying everyone has to go out and become brilliant comedy directors. Some people will get left along the wayside because they don't have a passion for it. You need to have a voracious interest in what is happening and work out a little bit every day I think.

It is hard to move from working with still images to creating entertainment at 25 frames per second. The way you do it is around storytelling, humour, intrigue, narrative.


What is a good example of this?

I'm not keeping an eye on the ad world so much anymore, but one I think is particularly good is the Old Spice commercial. It's a mixture of good old fashioned film-making and social media strategy. It's telling a story in the ad form and then extends it by asking 'give us your take on the story'.

What they did is allow people to ask him a question. They had a creative team writing furiously and then they'd record a response and send it back. It was a dialog with the Old Spice guy and the universe.

Sometimes a technique will creatively just knock you sideways, like the Philips Carousel commercial. If a photographer came in with this in their book I'd have to use this person. Developing new techniques is not an easy thing to do in stills, I get that, but where photography or direction meets idea like this you go ‘wow, this person is like-minded!'


To summarize, how should photographers position themselves to turn the challenges of technological change into new opportunities?

For photographers the key is to stay good at what you already do, but re-invent. The smart money in image creation is to skill up so you're cost relevant, easy to work with and have a view of consumers. All the added value stuff, that will make photographers future proof.





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