Having recently taken the postition as CEO of one of the world’s largest advertising agencies, Universal McCann, we chatted to the South African powerhouse, Daryl Lee, about his favourite local ad of all time, truth in advertising and how to power dress.
GQ: Global CEO for one of the world’s largest advertising agencies – that’s a pretty powerful position, tell us about your South African background.
Daryl Lee: I was born in Zimbabwe and moved to South Africa when I was a kid. I grew up in Durban in a suburb called the Bluff, which was good preparation for the cut-throat world of business. As we used to say, “we’re rough and we’re tough and we come from the Bluff”. Although, I have to say, I am not very rough.
Do you have any favourite South African ads?
Growing up I loved the PG Tips tea ads with the chimps on the sailboats. I thought they were hilarious. The Vodacom “Yebo Gogo” ads were great because everyone could relate to them, across cultures. And of course, who can forget “It’s not inside, it’sonnnnnnn top!”.
We were supposed to meet up with you at the Cannes ad festival last year, but missed you by a few hours. What was your favourite piece of work you saw there and why?
I loved “Dumb Ways to Die” (watch below) and not just because it came from McCann Melbourne. It was perfectly crafted content, with a really smart social strategy around it, and advertising to amplify it. This is the new model of branding today. It’s also a very funny and catchy song about death, which is no small feat.
Were there any prominent trends you noticed in the work and do those relate to any trends happening in the world at the moment?
We are seeing brands showing their social conscience more, which seems to be a global trend. Like Coca-Cola’s “Small World Machines” (see below) that connects someone in India with someone in Pakistan through an interactive vending machine that gives them each a Coke when they do a task together. [Essentially] Coca-Cola is helping to bring cultures in conflict together, in harmony. A big trend that we talk about at UM is making brands matter.
Your career appears to be rooted in strategy – how did you make the shift to your current position?
I was always a very business-savvy strategist, having started my career in McKinsey, so it was a more natural transition for me from CSO to CEO. Having said that, I have a boss who respects strategy and was looking to put strategy at the heart of the company. So I was also lucky, I guess.
In your speech on the thought leadership programme during Ad Week you spoke at length about truth in advertising, but advertising is an industry in which there are plenty of people you wouldn’t believe to be very honest – what is your take on that perception?
There is some truth in the perception, but the ad industry is changing fast. The old strategy of “perfuming the pig” just doesn’t work anymore. People will find out the truth and punish brands that hide it. More and more brands are opening themselves up and being honest about their ingredients, environmental conditions, labour policies, packaging and nutrition information. With millenials being such a socially conscious generation, brands have to be more comfortable with the truth. Just like politicians do.
Truth is something that is easily translatable in traditional advertising – a simple message, simply told – how does truth translate in the more complex world of non-traditional and digital advertising that we’re moving towards?
I think social media and digital in general is even more appropriate for truth-telling because you have the opportunity to tell your full story, and get people to comment on its accuracy. The internet is very democratic.
Rumour has it that McCann Worldwide is under a creative revival – is this true?
What is your part in this revival?
I am the global CEO of Universal McCann, the media company that is the sister agency of McCann. We work closely with McCann on big brands, like L’Oreal Paris, Coca-Cola and MasterCard. Today it is very hard to separate the message from the medium, especially in digital and content, and so we are integral to the creative process. UM is a company full of very curious people who like to shake things up a bit so I would like to say our part is always to be a catalyst for creativity, no matter who we work with.
Is there any ad that you’ve been involved in that you’re incredibly proud of?
I worked on the IBM e-business and e-culture ads in the 2000s, and I am proud to say I did that. They were ads that helped IBM connect with people again as a brand rather than a big corporation. I was at Ogilvy at the time and we had a world-class team working for a client that wanted the best, and our work reflected it.
You obviously spend much of your time in some very important meetings with some very important people – can you tell the GQ readers what the best way to make an impression is?
Be prepared. I spend a lot of time researching the clients and partners I am meeting with, and ensuring that what I have to present is brief, relevant and interesting. And don’t take yourself seriously. I find the ability to laugh at your mistakes and admit vulnerability is the best impression you can ever make.
How important is it to power dress?
It is important to have a style and to have your own style. You have to stand out in some way or another. Not by looking ridiculous, but by looking distinct. It’s as important as brushing your teeth. It shows you care about your identity enough to figure out how to show it off.
Do you have any power dressing tips our readers should know about?
1. No double-breasted anything – ever. And, no tuxes. 2. Cufflinks are a great way to show some flair. 3. Wear purple often.
Your preferred suit brand?
Boss (fits tall, skinny men very well), and Burberry is my number two.
What is your favourite ad of all time?
It would have to be the 1984 ad for Apple (watch below). It was only on TV once, but is still the most talked about ad of all time. It’s so brave and beautiful, as all great advertising should be.