How the humble toilet can help flush out marketing gems

Dave McCaughan, managing director McCann Worldgroup Hong Kong, also known as Mr. Underpants, had a long and unusual path to a career in advertising. A regular speaker about the history of men's underwear and the role of the humble toilet in the modern world - he tells Jennifer Chan how diversity made him a better planner.

You started your career as a Yogurt maker, how did you ended up working in advertising?

The short answer is “by accident”. I wouldn’t say I “started” my career as much as I “fell” into a lot of jobs until I found my calling. I started making Yogurt when I left school at 17 because it was a job. I ended up doing a lot of things until I answered a wanted ad 13 years later for a job at what turned out to be McCann Sydney, not knowing it was an ad agency, or what they did. Fortunately along the way I had accrued a couple of degrees - including one in political science where I had written a paper on the famous “It’s Time” campaign McCann had completed for the Australian Labor party in 1972. Somehow that was all I knew about advertising, but it turned out enough to get me started.

How did your days working as a children’s storyteller, a menswear salesman and butler to a mad Italian duke prepare you for life as a planner?

Every experience teach you things. Bring a children’s librarian and storyteller for a decade was a lot of fun and it certainly taught me a lot about audiences, stories and getting attention. I learnt my most valuable lesson when I asked a very experienced butler for advice. He told me the meaning of service – everyone is really a servant and providing good service is a true pleasure; also good service always comes if a master never has to ask any questions. That might sound extreme  but when you take on board that advertising is indeed a service industry and that we all really do know that when we provide what clients need without needing to be constantly guided, that advice make perfect sense.

You have said on many occasions that the humble toilet is one piece of technology that defines the modern world. Is that a wider argument about how homogenised global culture has become?

No. What I talk about a lot is that people in our industry usually don’t understand technology. They get carried away with the latest thing and seem to believe it has “changed the world” without thinking through what really does make a difference to “people” not to “consumers”. Toilets are a good example of technology that really has and does change lives and cultures.

I’d say cultures are no more homogenizing than they were during the previous period of globalization in history. One of the lessons about studying toilets is that you do learn that certain technologies come to symbolize modernity and progress at different times to different people, and then develop their own cultural role.

Most people around us take toilet for granted but half the world’s population does not have a modern toilet. Now that was a technology that did change, save, extend lives. Toilets have come to symbolize more than anything where your family sits in terms of health, wealth and modernity.

But just like TV sets or mobile, once everybody all have one you develop your own cultures as how you use it, how it fits into life and how your culture changes in reaction to it.

How critical is creativity in a technology driven society? Or is it more about insight and understanding what makes people tick?

It’s never about one or the other. The act of deriving an insight is itself one of great creativity. Not the “insights” too often quoted at the beginning of every meeting and end of every piece of research. Real insight, drawn from multiple sources and extrapolating “facts” into something new and interpretative takes a great deal of creative thinking. What we sometimes call “creative” work is drawn in a similar manner. If you take a realistic view, the technology age in media began in the 15th century and ever since then people have had to be very creative to get their  messages, offers, brands and products recognised and understood.

Maybe more important than the technology is the growth of distraction and like everything else today’s interpretations of technology speed up all processes. But being creative has and always will be the core of getting people’s attention, their desire to find out more and to share.

Are you optimistic about the future of advertising, particularly as social and personal media continue to grow and grow?

I guess the real questions is why should you not be optimistic. Advertising has been around for an awfully long time and has managed to adapt to all sorts of media. The last time I looked up the meaning of advertising it said something like “the business of persuading people to buy”. A simple Saturday browse through my social media certainly seems like a lot of that going on.

Of course the way we advertise is changing. But then it always has. Look at those early radio and television sponsored programs, think about those stories of the Pompeii Prostitutes sandals.

The problem is that when journalist ask questions like this they are usually interpreting advertising as being content that is sent in a one way manner from “brand to consumer”. If so then that just means they don’t understand it has always been about creating messaging that attracts attention, delivers and encourages a change of behaviour.  All the modern interpretations of social and personal media are as full of advertising as any other medium.

When I am asked about social media and it’s place in peoples lives and marketing I usually talk about toilets. I have this seemingly goofy speech about  “My mum’s throne room” that explains how important toilets are in people lives, how they become the benchmark of social achievement, arguably the most important technology at home, and how they have been a primary social medium for millennia. And they have been a great medium for advertising (ever read the graffiti?).

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing McCann Worldgroup Hong Kong in coming years?

People, education and consistency. Talent, it’s retention and development are the key to any business and so our focus is going to increasingly be about making sure we have people equipped to understand the opportunity our clients are looking for and how to execute them effectively.

Of course we will also have to shift our thinking to deal with a world where the old marketing models of focusing on “youth” are not enough and maybe wasteful when the real opportunities are with the aging population, understanding that “consumers” is a lazy way to think about “people” and what the difference is. Coming to grips with the shifts in technology that allows us to change the way we execute ideas.

But maybe the biggest shift is to realise that great creativity is the ability to attract interest and not the use of the latest fads.

I saw a great presentation earlier where someone talked about the shelf wobblers and how it effects the sociology of shopping. We have to think about the creativity we can bring to every aspect of communications.