Creative Conversations With Chaka Sobhani & Mark Elwood
Leo Burnett global chief creative officer Chaka Sobhani and London ECD Mark Elwood talk about their relationship, agency culture and the importance of awards
12 July 2022
It’s been over a year since Leo Burnett’s CCO Chaka Sobhani stepped up to add the global CCO role to her brief. Fortunately she had already hired Mark Elwood from MullenLowe to be her ECD, supporting her in the London agency.
We sat down to ask the pair about life at Leo Burnett under their stewardship, what they dig about each other and how the populist creativity mantle is driving creative standards at the agency.
What the video and then read the rest of the interview below:
Tell us a bit about the culture at Leo Burnett.
CS: One of the key things for me has always been about the culture of Leos, which is based on kindness and generosity. And we've got to a really good place in terms of populist creativity as a way to explain our culture and the type of work that we get to. Our culture is massively, massively important in terms of attraction and retention of talent.
This is an incredible place with a massive heart in terms of taking care of its own. And it feels genuinely like a family. I think there was a perception that Leo Burnett was this big sprawling place but we’re much smaller than people think. And yet we have these massive clients. We have a partnership with clients, built on trusted relationships, there's not adversarial thing, because we're just not built that way as people.
We have a bunch of extraordinary people here but they come from ordinariness, who value the important things which are always the smallest things in life, but who have genuinely bonded together and take care of each other. That is beautiful and massively important to this place, and the work that you see coming out of it. That's why the agency's got a whole a lot of heart in it. And a lot of joy. We're not a cynical bunch. We're just not made that way.
ME: It’s got soul, this agency, but also we make big work for big clients, you know, we're not monkeying about on the edges making small stuff. We've got a real making culture and we make a lot of work, and our bar’s really high. And I think that's something that doesn't get recognised about Leo Burnett, you know, it's been a real eye opener for me since I joined nearly two years ago.
How are you keeping your creative culture going and organising your credit department in a world of hybrid working?
ME: We’re back in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursdays, but not pressuring people to do that. We've got the Pregnant Man pub downstairs that we all can go and hang out in as well after work. The balance has now tipped to only a few people maybe being left at home. And that's causing a problem the other way, because really you don't ever want anyone to be left out. So we're having a conversation at the moment trying to work out what's the next stage of hybrid; you're struggling to add value if there's seven people in the room and one person on screen that you can't particularly hear or who might not feel like they have the confidence to actually speak up.
CS: Hopefully one of the things that we got right was listening to people and making sure that we were always asking ‘How's everyone right now, you feeling up to it?’. Out of the tragedy of the pandemic has come some good because it’s changed how we work so much for the better; it's been wonderful in terms of treating people like bloody grown-ups. This next bit is just figuring out that we are better together and we are also better when we have moments to ourselves. So it's got to be a hybrid of all of that.
We’re figuring out what are the moments when we definitely go ‘right, get the work up on the walls and we'll have the conversation in person because we'll get there far quicker’ but also ‘let’s look at meetings overall and realise we don't need as many’. We’ve all got much more of an open mind now about how we work and it's just gonna keep moving and evolving.
ME: Before we probably wouldn’t have been constantly thinking about the staff’s mental health or how they're feeling or looking out for each other as much as we do now. It’s made us much more tactile, in the right way – as an organisation you listen more now.
What makes your relationship work so well?
CS: This is gonna sound so obvious, but I think the key thing in great partnerships is communication, and very luckily him and I are both over communicators. And I think we're both quite practical and very clear about dividing and conquering. We've all had experiences where you can start trying to cross into each other's lane, which I think you can do a point, but there has to be clarity about it.
ME: I completely agree, our relationship is incredibly honest and our roles are really clear. Chaka goes out a lot of the time and I go in. Chaka is incredible at new business, incredible with our client base; she’s incredibly charming. And I go in, making sure that the department’s running well. And we meet in the middle on the work. When there's day to day work, Chaka doesn't need to see everything that goes through - that way madness lies. But after this interview, we're catching up on Christmas, which is an enormous thing that Chaka obviously needs to be involved in; as soon as we've started to shape the work, we get to Chaka early so she can shape it as well. But we have shared values around the work and the people anyway.
You talk a lot about Leo Burnett as the home of populist creativity. What work from the last 12 months encapsulates that best for you?
CS: Do you know what, I don't mean to sound cocky but there is actually quite a lovely abundance of riches at the moment - some amazing stuff on Kellogg's, McDonald's is just, you know, one of our absolute joys to work on and the gang who work on it are just fucking awesome; Skoda's popping; we've got some great stuff coming up for Premier Inn. We’re just in a really fruitful phase, and sometimes that happens.
But I still think the McDonalds work - for a brand that size, and scale and familiarity, which could just become wallpaper – that’s the one that when I look at the breadth of work, the breadth of thinking, the different places and spaces that we're starting to play in, it makes me incredibly, incredibly proud.
ME: For me, robots [the Purr and Grrr Robot Brothers starring in Skoda’s commercial for its Enyaq iV marque] was incredible. It’s just in such difficult category to get good work away in. And you know, automotive is very cookie cutter. So when you look at the craft and the cinematography and the ambition, I think it's such an incredible piece.
CS: It was literally all shot remotely. Frederic Planchon was in Paris, the rest of us on these different pods tuning in, listening to someone shouting on the set…it should have had all the ingredients of it not turning out as brilliantly as it did, but it bloody did - all credit to everyone involved.
We’ve just had the Cannes Lions Festival. Are awards as important to you now as ever?
CS: Of course no one should ever create work for awards, that's absolutely mental. You create work that is of the greatest creativity and hugely effective for your clients. And awards are a wonderful by-product of that. They’re an almanac, in terms of the history of our times, and I think it's really important to be able to look back across the body of work. And it’s incredibly inspiring - inspiring personally, inspiring for the agency, inspiring for our clients. Awards should always be in the pursuit of pushing your creativity and pushing what you can do with your clients.
Are juries very good at recognising and rewarding populist creativity, though?
CS: I think on the whole brilliant creative people want to just reward and award the best creative work, whether it's mainstream, or whether it's niche - a great idea is a great idea. I think there's a bit of a snobbery around, you know, certain brands, and about the work that they produce because it is mainstream. But hopefully the majority of people can argue the point for big mainstream ideas.
ME: The only thing that frustrates us collectively is when you realise something wins a lot of awards, but hardly anybody’s seen it. The point of great work, surely, is that people have seen it. But the other big point that I learned early on in my career is did it really work? You know, that's been a perpetual conversation for the last 20 years or more.
CS: That’s not to say that every single piece of work that's awarded has to be populist. That's crazy. But I think it's just the acknowledgement of who you're creating for, where they are and being true to that. So it can be a really small, niche group of people and you can make the most incredible piece of work, it can be so arch, it can be difficult to get into, even sometimes a little bit inaccessible as long as it's right for the audience.
But when something doesn’t resonate with its target, when people don't care for it or have no emotional connection with it, no response to it, that’s what can happen when we get stuck in the echo chamber of creating and rewarding work for ourselves as opposed to for audiences.
Do you spend much time right now thinking about Web 3 and the metaverse and those creative opportunities that might lie ahead?
ME: It's interesting. We've had a lot of questions about this, particularly from a lot of our bigger clients; they're going ‘OK, we need to do something in the metaverse’. So there is an appetite from our clients across the board to do work in the metaverse. And that's great because that that means we’re pushing on an open door into something that creatively we need to explore. I'm quite enjoying that conversation; we’re all going on the journey together.
CS: Every few years, something new pops up, right. And I think the mistake or the madness is to think it's a silver bullet. It's not a silver bullet. It's an incredible and brilliant addition to our playground, it's additive. It doesn't mean the old ways have to be thrown away. And as with anything that's new, you're not experts from the beginning; so we're gonna fuck it up a bit at first. But for us to be able to get to great creativity on those platforms, we’ve got to be creating for them now, and going into it not having to have all the answers. We’ll sort of hold hands together, we'll try stuff and we'll see what works and have some fun with it as well.
What do you think are the biggest challenges to commercial creativity right now?
CS: I actually think we are in a really vibrant time. Over the last couple of years we were stretched in dramatic ways and it was fantastic. We had to be reactive, we had to listen, we had to create really quickly, which was so invigorating. And I think our clients, and us, we all got better as a result. And I've really enjoyed that. The challenge is to stop the comfort back in and comfort, as we all know, is the enemy of creativity. We don't want to go back to the way that it was but we're not exactly sure what this new frontier is going to be. It's scary but it's just an evolution.
ME: Obviously the cost of living crisis is going to affect how commercial creativity works across the board. All of our clients have been affected, not just by the pandemic, but now by the cost of living crisis coming through, and by the war in Ukraine. And all that's going to change the creative landscape as well.
So as an agency, how, how can you respond with your clients to that kind of cost of living crisis point?
CS: I think one of the things that we collectively got better at was, instead of assuming we knew how people were thinking, we listened to how people were thinking. This thing that brought us all together over the last few years, well of course not everyone had the same experience - of course they bloody didn’t. The poorest of poor people suffered more and obviously wealthier people also suffered, but often in a very different way.
I think the imperative thing going forward, for us and for our clients, is that whatever our ideas are, wherever all creativity shows up, it has to be a true reflection of how people are living their lives. And if it isn't, it's going to be so offbeat. I love that, because the stakes are high. And it also means you just cannot be a wanker. I love it because it keeps you honest. And again, if you marry that back to who we are as an industry and how we're made up, well if we're made up of only one set of people who have no understanding or access to those other lives, we’ll fail.
We talk about DE&I and the absolute bloody necessity of it, it's imperative for our work, it's imperative in terms of how effective it's going to be and how good it's going to be.
Chaka you're held up in our industry as a role model and that's a big privilege and responsibility as well. How aware are you of that and how does it impact what you do?
CS: I do have a responsibility, and I take it very, very seriously, as a brown woman, a queer woman. Also I have two young daughters, and I'm very, very driven by making sure that in some small way the world they come into is different to the world that I walk through. At the same time as a creative person you don't just want to be defined by the fact that you're brown, queer, and a woman. I get asked questions about me and who I am and while I'm incredibly grateful to be asked and to have anyone want to listen to me, you want to be defined as more than that.
But at the same time, you want to make sure you're contributing as much as you can. It’s so important how I turn up as a woman and what I do for future generations - I don't mean to sound grand. At the end of the day, it's what you've learned, and hopefully what you add that’s important, but occasionally you just want to get a balance and talk about the work you’re doing as well.
I think it's really important for women to hear women talking about creativity, and hearing strong, powerful fucking voices. I make sure I listen to amazing women and ask their advice on it but I always want to make sure that I'm talking about the work as well.