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Mark Tungate 2024-02-20

McCann New York was named Agency of the Year at the Epica Awards. Shayne Millington, Chief Creative Officer, tells us how the agency ensures there are no brakes on creativity.


It’s not often that a single agency manages to reap two major prizes from a roomful of skeptical journalists. McCann New York pulled off the coup with relative ease thanks to two very different projects: “ADLaM”, for Microsoft, the Design Grand Prix, and “The Brake Room”, for Chick-fil-A, the PR Grand Prix. One saved an alphabet – and with it an entire culture – and the other gave the city’s hardworking food delivery couriers a shelter from the elements.

“It’s an honor to be recognized by the ‘truth tellers’ of the world, especially since our motto is Truth Well Told,” observes Shayne Millington, Chief Creative Officer. “It’s one thing to be honored within the creative community, but to have our work recognized by journalists who have an outside perspective gives us another reason to hold our heads up high.”

As we all know, McCann Worldgroup is a strong network (it was also Epica’s Network of the Year). But does the New York agency have a specific dynamic given its location?

“Well, we’re in the best city in the world – as any New Yorker will tell you,” Shayne replies, with a laugh. “It’s also one of the most diverse cities, which opens us up to so much creativity and talent. It allows us to see things from many different points of view. It’s really a beautiful microcosm.”

The agency strives to reflect that vibrant mix internally too. “We’ve never asked anyone to blend in or fit the mold. We like them to come with their unique talent and then raise that up. I often say it’s not a soup, it’s a salad.” She laughs again. “It’s maybe not the greatest metaphor, but you see what I mean? A soup blends everything together, where a salad is made up of distinct elements.”

Even on a computer screen, Shayne exudes the passion and enthusiasm of a natural creative. She’s also creative in her spare time, as a photographer. “Let’s say I dabble in it. I don’t want to say ‘I’m a photographer’, because it’s more of a hobby. But I do love photography. Even with my children, as they were growing up I always made sure they had a camera. I wanted to see how they were experiencing the world.”

She approaches professional creativity in a similar way. “What inspires me the most is getting out and talking to people. I really like to get to know them and connect on a deeper level. That’s what helps me create work that comes from different perspectives.”

There could hardly be a more different perspective than the “ADLaM” project, which sounds more incredible each time it’s described. In short, the Fulani people of West Africa had a purely oral language – called Pulaar – that existed as an alphabet only in a series of notebooks hand-written by two brothers. Microsoft and McCann learned of them and proceeded to digitize the alphabet, bringing it into the wider world and essentially allowing it to live.

“I found out about the brothers a while ago,” says Shayne. “They are spectacular individuals. They started creating the alphabet in childhood, so it’s something they’ve been working on for their entire lives. We reached out to them to find out what the main challenges were with the language and how it might be fully digitized and used within the community.”

She points out that this is the latest in a series of mindful projects Microsoft and McCann have collaborated on over the past five years – you may remember the Xbox Adaptive Controller, designed for gamers with limited mobility. It’s a co-creative approach.

“I don’t think there are a lot of client-agency relationships like this. The line between us is blurred, to say the least. On this project, for example, we needed type designers. We have type designers in-house, so they were able to work with Microsoft to optimize the alphabet.”

The challenge was to take the brothers’ hand-drawn alphabet and adapt it for maximum legibility. “We had to find out what the hang-ups were: for example, three letters might look too alike. And after all that, we had to bring the alphabet out into the community, to make sure people were writing with it. Otherwise, it would have sat dormant. So McCann Design created educational and learning tools for schools.”

From a language that was invisible, Pulaar became an alphabet that will enable novels, articles, poems, screenplays – the expression of an entire culture.

I don’t think there are a lot of client-agency relationships like this.
Once we understood what these unsung heroes were going through, it became something we couldn’t ignore.

Meanwhile, “The Brake Room” is an urban project that feels very New York. It also sprang directly from the client’s core values. “Chick-fil-A is family-owned company whose whole philosophy is around ‘care’,” Shayne says. “But ‘care’ doesn’t mean just caring about the food. With the rapid growth of food delivery, we started to think about how delivery workers were being cared for. They’re performing physically demanding tasks in often extreme conditions. So we gave them a place that covered the basics we all need: shelter, a bathroom, a coffee. Showing them that somebody cares.”

It's a very non-advertising solution. Or is it? “Today, if you’re a food company, the face of your company is increasingly the delivery workers. If you don’t care for all your staff, including your delivery workers, that’s going to impact the way customers experience your business. But the simple fact is that, once we understood what these unsung heroes were going through, it became something we couldn’t ignore.”

The initiative had such a profound impact that other brands have begun adopting the idea – and the New York City Council is looking into it as well.

Talking to Shayne, you’re given the impression of an agency that’s thoughtful on many levels, from the work it puts out to the way it treats its clients and teams. Earlier in our conversation, she’d summed this up. “We always say that our key values are generosity, kindness and ambition. And I think the strongest may be generosity. Generosity of time, ideas and spirit. That’s why we have people who’ve stayed here so long, because they feel as though they’re valued – and that they’re part of a community.”

The people connection, again. The agency may have a New York vibe, but it’s also embraced post-pandemic hybrid working. “Creativity needs flexibility,” says Shayne. “If we’re still having rich debates, and pushing the work, then we can be adaptable. But whatever happens, we need that moment where we challenge the work.”

This basically means getting together, scrutinizing the work, and asking if it’s the best it can be. There’s also a twice-weekly Cultural Resonance Committee which, as its name suggests, ensures the work is pertinent and respectful to its intended audiences.

“The only way of raising the level of what we do is to constantly challenge the work,” Shayne emphasizes. “That’s what makes it great.”

Award-winning, in fact.

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