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The Key to Success

We spoke with Paul Shearer, CCO and Creative Council Chairman of BBDO Europe, Middle East, Pakistan and Africa, from his sunny Dubai office, as he celebrated his agency being ranked 1st in the Middle East Region on the Loeries 2020 Rankings. Paul opened up about his own key to success, his take on creative excellence, and how to make the most of challenging situations.

With countless successes under his belt, including winning over 250 Awards, the pain and intensity are ever-present. What he showcases is a lesson in taking the path less travelled, always forging forward, utilising drive, courage, focus, digging deep and working relentlessly to make the world stop and think for just a moment. He manages to do this without forfeiting inclusivity and humility. He knows you can never do it all on your own.

Read the full interview below.

Paul Shearer

What is your recipe for success? How do you make it all happen?

I think the question of what the recipe for success is a difficult one. Obviously, I would love to have the formula but it really doesn't work like that. However, there are two things that I've learnt through my experience working in advertising.

The first one is hard work. When you're a creative person and in the position to work on a brief or a project, you should feel capable of that because you're in that position. You don't just wake up one day and someone puts you in an office and gives you a brief. The hard work involved and the success of the project - I mean success in terms of winning awards, high level award-winning work, I can only sum up by’s painful. It’s going through rounds and rounds, changing things, or even working on a project for a long time, then binning everything and starting again. The pain that you go through, is all about hard work.

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The second thing, which I always tell young creatives especially, is: the person who's written that brief, the planner, the strategic person, they are the key to success. This is because they know what the client wants. They know what the product wants. They know that if your work is good enough, your work will succeed in terms of effectiveness. So they are the key to the whole formula. Without them, you won't have success.

I always say “stick very close to the planner, make sure he, or she is your best buddy, and really treat them as your partner”. You'll guarantee success.

A lot of creatives just ignore the brief and run off into the wilderness and start thinking of crazy ideas and that never works. I learned that through my own experience, when I failed so many times, trying to do it all on my own. I suddenly realised one day that you can't do it on your own, you really need the strategic planner behind you. They are the voice of the client. One of the big barriers to success is when a client is actually buying your work and giving you money to produce it. You know that adage that says ‘you have great ideas and they end up in the bottom drawer’. You need the client to buy the idea, and the planner will obviously help you succeed in that respect. Don't rush, look at the brief and work with your planner. Then, of course the hard work. I’m not talking about “it was a long day and I feel tired”. I'm talking about weeks and weeks of pain and suffering.


Would you say that level of intensity you are describing was as strong when you started your career as it is now?

I think so. There's lots of elements to being a successful creative. You do need to go through that journey of learning and experience and seeing how great work is produced. Obviously you need to be in the right environment, the right agency. Some agencies are not built for the stuff that Wieden + Kennedy do, or BBH. But when you're young, you should have an intensity if you really have that passion for creativity. You need a deep passion to achieve.

When I was young, I was a very jealous creative. I was jealous of other people's work and other people winning. I wouldn't say I was a bad loser, but I wanted to be a winner.

Could you tell me a bit more about the culture at BBDO and how it's impacting the quality of the work being produced?

I think especially in a modern agency like BBDO, we're very inclusive. When I send an email out if the agency won an award, I always make sure that account managers, planners, everyone in the agency gets to see it because that inclusiveness drives the agency forward. It makes people realise that we're not just in it to win new business or make money. We’re in it to achieve something through our work. That really does make people feel that they're involved, regardless of who they are. A driver, account manager or a planner feel ‘actually, I contributed to that’. Cannes Lions were the first people to actually put account people and planners on the credits. I always thought that was a great thing. It really did make them feel that they were part of it and they are part of it. It’s not just enabling us to produce work. I've seen some planners and account people come up with great ideas that we've run with.

We all have to feel that we're part of that, which is very important. BBDO is all about that. It's all about that inclusiveness.

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What is your take on creative excellence? How do you define it?

I think for me, creative excellence is that kind of holy grail when you see a piece of work which is just flawless. When the idea, the craft is original, then it's effective. The whole world talks about it. I'm not just talking about the advertising world. I'm talking about the whole world.

I was lucky enough to work for Nike for a long, long time. When you produce, for example, the classic film for the football World Cup, a film where you were in the bar watching a game and it came on in the break and the whole bar stopped and watched the ad, that was that moment.

You could sit there thinking, I had a part in creating this thing and look at all these people watching, they’re stopping, they're excited by it. It was always more exciting than the football match itself. Then that piece of work went on to Cannes and luckily it won some awards. But you could look at that piece of work and see the 360 all roundness, the fact that everything was just perfect in it.

Obviously we were not all lucky enough to work with clients that give you that freedom and ability and finances to do something so spectacular. But when you see a piece of work, like the Burger King moldy whopper advert… I couldn't get to sleep when I saw that, I was so jealous! Obviously a few people might grumble about it, but I looked at that piece of work and thought, ‘that's pure, pure genius’. That type of work always makes me feel that's the holy grail of great work - everything just ticks the box.

I've also been lucky enough to work beyond Cannes Juries and D&AD juries, and you sit with other people who love the business as much as you do. When you see a piece of work and it’s an instant round of applause, it breaks down all those barriers and it doesn't matter what agency you’re from. You just see a piece of work and everyone has to kind of agree that you need to put that aside and say, this is going to win the Grand Prix.

So yes, that’s the key to great, great work.

Last year was a particularly challenging year for everyone. What adjustments would you say you had to make to the way you work, and what lessons have you learnt along the way?

Last year was very difficult, not just for advertising, but for the whole world and impacted advertising and our business a great deal. But I think the positive side is that it gave us a chance to take a pause and really think about our client's business. Obviously, we always think about a client's business, but for once, we could really put ourselves in their shoes. It helped us help the clients and forget about awards for one moment and actually think about how we are going to help this client survive, not just make money, but survive.

We actually did create quite a lot of great work out of that. So, even though it was a difficult year, we learnt and we grew and we helped our clients. At the end of that, I think our clients trusted us more. I believe that we've built trust through the climate that we had to work in.

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Where do you typically find the inspiration to fuel your creativity?

I think finding inspiration is all about the environment you live in. Last year, we were lucky enough to win a Grand Prix at Cannes for the region, the first Grand Prix for the region. People were asking ‘how did you do it?’ To me it’s very clear and simple. You look at the environment you live in. If you do a piece of work, say, for Snickers in the Middle East and the work is very American, even though it could be a great piece of work you will not win at Cannes because people will look at that work and they'll judge it against American work rather than Middle-East work.

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I always encourage them to look at where you live, the culture and find those amazing stories that are all around us. Because when you're on a jury in Cannes, for instance, the work that really interests you, that really inspires you is stuff that you don't know about. I think that's why South America and the Asian countries started doing really well, especially in Japan, for instance. Their work is very intense, it's very different and it stands out.

I always say that if you want to get inspired, find the stories that are in front of you. You might think that they are not interesting because the stuff is day-to-day. But when you're on a jury in Cannes and you see something from the Middle East that's inspiring, that’s an incredible story and effective, it moves you then you will tick that box and you will get an award for it because it is different and inspiring.

But it goes back to you really having to dig deep. The superficial things, the things on the surface of our lives are quite boring because everyone knows about them. You really have to find the stories that are different, that inspire people. I always say to the creatives, don't just look at the surface, go out there, dig deep, find something that no one knows about. Find incredible stories. That's when you get your inspiration, because those incredible stories will inspire people and drag attention toward your product.

Then I use The Work to look at trends and structure. What’s in fashion is important when winning awards. But the main value of The Work to me is in instant access to the right material. We don’t have time to spend researching stuff. The Work has done that for us. It’s brilliant.


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