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John O'Keeffe On His Best Creative Work & Supporting New Talent

With 22 D&AD Pencils to his name, there isn't much about creativity that WPP Worldwide Creative Director John O'Keeffe doesn't know. We caught up with him in the midst of New Blood Academy 2017.

Risk-taking and mistakes are a fundamental part of great creative work. What’s one mistake that you learnt the most from?

Not everything you do will be ground-breaking or award-winning or both. BUT it should at least be something you’d be prepared to stand by and defend. There have been occasions when, for lack of time or enough effort, I have either done a piece of work, or allowed something to go ahead that I’ve known wasn’t really good enough, but was nonetheless likely to get through the client. The reward for such a casual approach is twofold. Firstly, you will have to see the thing through, which can take months if, for example, it’s a film. But more importantly, it will exist in perpetuity as an example of what you are capable of delivering against a certain type of brief. Better to leave it, get a good night’s sleep, and go again the next day rather than settle for less than your best.

Can you think of any recent work that exemplifies bravery from a brand? 

It’s not that recent, but ongoing and long may it continue: “Compare the Meerkat” is my favourite campaign of recent years because I can imagine hundreds of clients who wouldn’t have bought it in a million years. Happily the one that mattered did, and it has been one of the most effective brand building campaigns in recent advertising history. The creative solution is a work of genius (yes really!), but the bravery was on the part of that client. Someone once said, “You get the advertising you deserve” and if that is so, this client deserves all the success they’ve earned. Simples!

What are you most proud of in your career and why?

I have done many things over the years that I’m proud of. Too many to recall (I’ve been around so long). The print campaign I did with partner Russell Ramsey, for Audi, is a substantial body of work. Putting my hero Ian Wright into conversation with Martin Luther King for a Kick Racism Out Of Sport initiative by a mobile brand (One2One) was also a memorable moment. But I suppose if anyone cared to credit my career with a defining campaign it would be “Keep Walking” for Johnnie Walker – still their tag line nearly 20 years later, on the end of many award-winning films and posters etc, and often described as the ‘benchmark’ for global spirits brands. Yes that’ll probably do.

Are there trends in the industry you’d like to see more of? Or trends you wish would go away?

I hate these questions. Mainly because I don’t think it’s my job to fathom what trends are in the ether. My job is to deliver ideas. That’s a trend that’s been in vogue for a million years and shows no signs of disappearing. There is an adage: those who can’t – teach. In our industry it is more: those who can’t – preach, and usually on the fairly pointless subject of trends, and trends that rarely pan out the way people predict. See what 2015 looks like in “Back to the Future” for details.

What is special about New Blood Academy and why is WPP supporting it?

Firstly the NBA (I don’t think you can have that acronym) comes under the auspices of D&AD. That immediately puts it ahead of all others, because D&AD is the most respected name in this field. Thus the best will be attracted to the best. The best students, the best scheme. So it makes eminent sense for WPP to keep as close to this endeavour as we can. It is not too apocalyptic to say that, without New Blood, there is no future for our industry.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in creative education right now?

My view for some time has been that we have over indexed on new technology and under indexed on creativity. This has led to something of a key skills shortage – a bland phrase that doesn’t necessarily do justice to the issue. I suppose an equivalent would be if the atomic industry had a really pukka I.T. department but couldn’t find any nuclear physicists. We need to understand and accept that, for millennials, digital platforms, memes, gifs, apps et al are hygiene factors. An ability to deliver a brilliant creative solution is not and never will be, and we need to get back to that core understanding and educate as such. As an aside – but a related issue – colleges separating out things like graphics and typography from an overall emphasis on the delivery of ideas do a disservice to students.

Meet the 50 future industry superstars who have just completed D&AD's New Blood Academy with WPP. Want to make a difference in our industry's future? Partner with D&AD.

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