The FCB Inferno CCO on smashing the agency model in the ‘90s, then pioneering a truly integrated model on the hoof and creating tangible societal progress through communications
If you look at a catalogue of FCB Inferno’s top accolades in recent years, a narrative soon starts to emerge about the kind of advertising the UK agency does best. Since Owen Lee was made chief creative officer in 2015, the agency has won 27 Cannes Lions including a Grand Prix and the inaugural Glass Lion for Sport England’s pioneering This Girl Can rallying cry in 2015. The following year brought another Grand Prix for Project Literacy for Pearson, and accolades have kept coming for campaigns like Change Please with The Big Issue, the agency’s work with children’s charity Barnardo’s and the creation of Story Sign for Huawei, helping deaf children learn to read through technological innovation. You could say Owen’s earned a reputation for leading an agency dedicated to improving the world, not just its clients’ bottom lines.
Before joining FCB Inferno, Owen was one of the founders and creative chairman of Farm Communications, a top-50 UK advertising agency with clients including Daimler Chrysler, the UK Government and Nestle, and before that he worked at some of the UK’s most iconic agencies as one of the founding members of St Luke’s, the first advertising agency cooperative. He also put in a good shift at HHCL & Partners, contributing to it being named Campaign Agency of the Decade in 1999. This year he’s an Immortal Awards juror, too.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Owen to find out more.
LBB> Where did you grow up and what form did your creativity take when you were a kid?
Owen> A classic English village in Kent, complete with village green claiming to be one of the first places cricket was ever played. As little kids, my dad used to teach us how to draw the crazy ideas in our heads. My sister, my brother and I would sometimes spend the entire day drawing in the summer holidays. No social media or Xbox back then.
LBB> Your first years in advertising were at iconic London agencies of the ‘90s including St Luke's and HHCL. What do you think of most when you reflect on those times?
Owen> The fun we had and the brilliant people I worked with. The lack of division between disciplines. No matter whether you were a planner, a creative, an account person, whatever, we all wanted to challenge how everything was done. At St Luke’s we were hell-bent on smashing the agency model, at HHCL everyone was only interested in radical advertising solutions - even the clients - it’s what they came to us for. It felt like we were trailblazing and perhaps we were - perhaps that’s why we were named Campaign Agency of the Decade. Fun times!
LBB> What first attracted you to Inferno back in 2012 and what was it like later joining the FCB network?
Owen> In 2012, I moved my agency, Farm Communications, into Inferno. I had already worked closely with [CCO] Al Young at HHCL and he has always been a guiding light and when I met [CEO] Frazer Gibney, I met a force of nature with an endless appetite to drive the business forward. In 2014, Inferno was one of the first acquisitions made by Carter Murray as global CEO of FCB. Both passionately believe in the power of creativity to transform client businesses and know it is the lifeblood of our industry. That’s critical in an ad industry CEO.
LBB> And what have been the biggest changes in the agency since then?
Owen> We’ve been lucky. We cracked the genuine integrated agency model early on. We had to. We were invited to pitch for the entire UK BMW business within six months of coming together with DraftFCB. We didn’t have time to overthink it. We just did it, effortlessly criss-crossing integrated disciplines in a bid to win one of the biggest pitches of our lives. It was a shock result, taking the business from agencies who had held the business for close to 40 years.
Then a few months after that we created This Girl Can for Sport England. We won a whole host of awards including a Grand Prix at Cannes. And we were lucky enough to win another Grand Prix the following year with Project Literacy for Pearson. This was followed by creating Change Please with the Big Issue, a coffee brand that helped get the homeless off the street, award-winning work for Barnardo’s and the creation of Story Sign for Huawei which helped deaf children learn to read by translating children’s books into sign language. Our reputation for creating purpose-driven work has moved from third sector and government behavioural changes ideas, to transforming big commercial business.
LBB> I know you're a passionate advocate for the value of long-term brand building, rather than just increasing sales or awareness. Why is that so important?
Owen> It has been proved time and again that if you build the brand, sales and awareness will always follow. At FCB we talk about Never Finished ideas, ideas with a constantly evolving narrative. The best brand ideas keep asking what’s next and keep moving forward. Like people, that’s what keeps brands interesting. If the brand’s story ends, then so does the brand.
LBB> And what brands do you think have historically been best at playing that long game?
Owen> Oh, this is where every agency person names the brands they work on and it’s never that helpful. Think about the brands that have endured. The brands that have moved with the times and have found a way to move their own unique story forward.
LBB> You've welcomed brands looking beyond simply commercial goals and aiming to change perspective and behaviour too. Where do you think the marketing industry is on that journey and what would you like to see next as that trajectory continues?
Owen> You would expect the chief creative officer of an ad agency to make the argument for brands with purpose, but it is no longer an argument just put forward by ad agencies or marketers. In his 2019 letter to CEOs
, Larry Fink, CEO of Black Rock, argued that profits and purpose are inextricably linked.
And the global pandemic has thrown this into even sharper relief, the way brands have behaved throughout the Covid crisis has done more to define them than many millions spent on advertising. Purpose has never been more important. Consumers now demand it and what’s more, when a brand has a purpose and they commit to it, it becomes a guiding light in uncharted territories.
LBB> FCB Inferno's work for Battersea was some of the most welcome content when we were in the darkest depths of lockdown. What was working on that campaign like and what were your aims?
Owen> Lockdown was extremely hard on many people, but one of the lighter, more heart-warming behaviours we noticed was people sharing wonderful moments with their pets. We wanted to celebrate what rescue animals do for people and how you may have rescued them, but in a time of the greatest stress, your dog or your cat rescued you right back.
LBB> The journey that the agency has been on over the years with Sport England has been an emotional one that the industry has celebrated. What are you most proud of there and what do you think is most noteworthy about those campaigns?
Owen> For all the barriers that it has broken down, all the taboos it’s tackled and all the industry awards it has won, the thing that makes most proud about This Girl Can is the human impact it has had on women and girls across the country and beyond. Three million women are now more active as a result of the campaign and simply putting a This Girl Can logo on a poster in schools, increases the number of girls who do after school sporting activities. That’s the power of purpose-driven advertising.
LBB> Finally, what's been the biggest impact that 2020 in all its horrors has had on you? Have you found any positives, personally?
Owen> The resilience, positivity and talent of the people I work with has genuinely exceeded my wildest expectations.