Mike Shackle: Building Promise on the ‘What If’ Premise
Posted on 2015 Jun,01  | By Jad Haidar

ArabAd had a lengthy and exclusive interview with Mike Shackle, Grey’s newly-appointed chief creative officer for the MENA region, about his seemingly relentless drive to inspire award-winning work and the passion he is renowned for communicating.



After graduating from school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had a job for a while selling washing machines in a department store before becoming a member of a catering company that provided high-end services to her Majesty the Queen as well as the British Prime Minister. It was a very exciting job that taught me a lot, particularly about advertising in what pertains to teamwork, immediacy as well as maintaining high standards of excellence. If you think about it, kitchen chefs work long hours under intense pressure, which is exactly the same in a creative department except that creatives do not have knives, which is a good thing!


At the age of 22, I almost had a fatal car accident in which I incurred a serious spinal injury forcing me to find a less physically-demanding job. During recovery I came to the conclusion that the only thing I am good at is drawing. My dad was running his own ad company and I worked there as a graphic designer for three years before flying overseas to take a position at an ad agency in Hong Kong. Some 20 odd years later, I had moved up the corporate ladder as well as worked in Singapore, Beijing and New York before going back to London. Most of the experiences I had were amazing especially when I took an agency that did not exist, employed people who had never worked in advertising and managed to win a D&AD and a Cannes Lion. Today, that agency is one of the top creative outlets in China.


I love being a foreigner in a place because it allows me to watch how people behave. When you grow up in a place, you at some point get used to it and it becomes normal so in a way you stop seeing. In advertising, it’s all about seeing what people are like. What I also love is being out of my comfort zone in that respect because it is stimulating in different ways. All these lend a fresh perspective and at times you also get to ask really stupid questions and get away with it while at others, these same questions introduce new insights.


Every country I’ve been in people say ‘things are different here’. But I actually think that the similarities are far greater than the differences. I also think that truly great work speaks to people on an emotional level, which is a scientific fact. Knowing that, it becomes easier to win peoples’ hearts through work that strikes that chord instead of appeal to logic and reason. You need to get out of the world of advertising and talk to people about life to acquire and maintain diversity. Otherwise, the outcome will be a new twist on an old song.


The secret to great advertising is finding the soul of a brand and then telling stories about it. When you do that there is an honesty that comes through that people react well and respond to. But when you’re lying to people by forcing things on them, everyone will eventually call your bluff especially today. That’s quite funny because in most of my spare time I write books and the only time I get writer’s block is when I’ve gone wrong in the story. In this case, the only way forward is back. The same applies to advertising. If you work on a brief and can’t hack it, you then need to go back and ask, is the brief right, is the insight right and only by doing so will you find the problem. It’s retracing the steps to find the right word or idea.


We are living in an age where almost anyone can bring an idea to life, which is why there is a huge volume of content coming out in different mediums. On the flip side, you get to see a lot more cr#p because there no longer is any quality filter. On the positive side, great diversity is to be had, which is why I think this is the best time to be in advertising. These two sides offer interesting challenges. However, I think that the key to any idea prior to execution should boil down the message back to its purest form. It’s like a great song originally written using nothing but an acoustic guitar. Now, if you started adding other instruments and layers, that song can only get better


I have the best job in the world because I love doing what I do, which is why getting up early in the morning is a joy. The biggest challenge is always the account you are servicing now. Adopting such a mindset will help you grow, develop and push yourself farther than ever. In that sense, I have no qualms feeling uncomfortable because that is when I challenge myself


I think every creative person has that. When you walk into a creative director’s office with ideas you’ve poured your heart and soul into, you’re actually laying a bit of yourself on the line and that never goes away. But, if you don’t risk failing then you’re never going to do work that counts. These instances of failure don’t make me doubt my abilities rather keep my abilities sharp and on point. Constantly questioning the work you do before showing it to anyone is key.


I dedicated my life using passion to communicate great work on my clients’ behalf. What I get out of it is opportunity to make stuff I love. Best of all, I occasionally get to tackle ‘impossible briefs’, which at times can feel like turning water to wine. That is when I find myself working in the ‘What If’ realm and that is magical because it opens the doors to the previously unimaginable