John Mescall: ‘For heaven's sake, don't fit in’
Posted on June 07, 2018 | By Gijs de Swarte

The all-winning campaign 'Dumb ways to die' can not be left unmentioned, but the list of prizes and advertising achievements is far to long to include here. John Mescall, creative boss of McCann, the advertising giant with agencies in 120 countries, achieved it all by 'being different'.

John Mescall: 'I define creativity rather broadly. For me, it is the capacity to see possibilities that others do not see or do not yet see and thus solve problems. The latter is important to me. For me, creativity only counts when it generates effect.'

'The creative route was the only way I could take. My parents both worked at the tram company in Australia and I was the first in the family to get the opportunity to study. But from the beginning it was not a road without obstacles. I can remember that the nuns told the story of Noah's Ark - and that was that for the rest of the class. But I thought, this is a beautiful story but it is a little illogical. So I said, that must have been a very big boat - and then I noticed that they were serious about it. Slapped round the head and kicked out of class. That's sort of my life story. I never fully fit in.

At university it was the same. I studied economics and when it came to human behavior, sociology, I scored exceptionally high. But if it was math-related I was terrible. At one point, after a score of eight percent on a multiple choice test with four options for every question - a professor came to me asking, what are you doing? Are you doing your best to get kicked out of school? They had never experienced that, that combination of good and bad. So, I have to admit I was not suitable for everything.'

“Good creativity is pragmatism in action and the decisive ingredient in this is empathy.”

Think differently

'And then there was the advertising business, in which it is all about creativity. I started at some local agencies and thought it was all very interesting but had no idea what it was I was doing. People have limited time to explain things to you in the professional world but I was already used to figuring things out for myself, so that helped. And I noticed that everywhere you work, the emphasis is on how you fit in. But also - and that certainly applies to advertising - that if you do the best your can, a certain degree of individuality ultimately yields appreciation as well.

In advertising there always is a pressure towards the lowest common denominator, simply because the goal is to reach as many people as possible. But that lowest common denominator is by definition not special. If you naturally stay away from it because you think differently, or have taught yourself to think differently, that will certainly work for you. It did for me.

Do not fit in

'And then there is something else that helped. Because the mental conception of the advertising 'product' and all the work that goes into actually producing it are such important parts of the agency dynamic, it often is emphasized in conversations with the client. This is the big plan. We will make this and that, and it is fantastic. But it is not about that. I hardly talk about this with clients. What matters is the effect of what you create and you have to talk about that. And that means you always talk about people - how it affects them. Good creativity is pragmatism in action and the decisive ingredient in this is empathy. And with that we more or less have my philosophy of life; be yourself but do all you can to understand others.

'In my work now, I regularly sit around the table with the CEOs of the largest companies and global brands. And that is also what they expect from me; deep understanding of their problem and an authentic personal approach to it. Because of the social media it is more difficult to stay yourself nowadays then when I started but if you want to stand out, especially in advertising it is the only way. For heaven's sake, do not fit in.'