Tuesday 23 July 2019

Creating a new force in advertising

Abi Moran has big ambitions for creative agency JWT Folk, born out of McConnells and DDFH&B, writes Samantha McCaughren

JWT Folk chief Abi Moran at her Dublin offices. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
JWT Folk chief Abi Moran at her Dublin offices. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

The days of Mad Men may be long gone for advertising agencies, but the industry still stands apart from the rest of corporate culture.

No more is this in evidence than at the offices of one of Ireland's largest creative advertising agencies JWT Folk, which is located in two period houses in Dublin 4's Northumberland Road.

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In the office of its chief executive, Abi Moran, sits Wolfie, her little pet Cavachon. Dozing on her desk chair, the small dog accompanies her to work almost every day, unless Moran knows she won't be able to get out for a walk.

Wolfie fits in well with the funky, bright and quirky decor of JWT Folk, which was born last year when two sister agencies - Target McConnells and DDFH&B - merged.

"If you take two competitor agencies and put them together, you are much stronger. The objective was to take the best of both," says Moran, a petite ball of energy who was raised near Manchester.

"The newly merged operation is more innovative and more profitable that the two previous operations." The company is minority owned by JWT, a subsidiary of global giant WPP, but also has Irish shareholders.

"As a business owner, you always look at how you grow," she says. "The aim was to create new competition in the marketplace. The objective was that we take the best of both."

DDFH&B was known for the effectiveness of its brand advertising and, says Moran, while Target McConnells has brought with it a strong legacy in data and digital.

The birth of the JWT Folk also meant the death of some of Irish advertising's best-known names. McConnells, established in 1916, had for many decades been at the centre of Irish advertising. However, it ran into difficulty in 2010, with DDFH&B buying the business.

But prior to the merger in 2018 DDFH&B had lost clients and revenue.

Meanwhile, Target McConnells was performing well financially under Moran's leadership with a new high-profile campaign for An Post and Vodafone's Team of Us campaign both scoring well for the agency.

When the merger was first touted in 2017, Moran was excited by the opportunity to work with DDFH&B's many high-profile clients. "The appeal of working on clients like Brennan's, Irish Life, Littlewoods, Mazda... , you say to the creative team, you've got a whole new portfolio - I think that's really exciting."

It was also an opportunity to reinvent the business in a fast-changing sector, "We created a new company with a new philosophy and a new point of view," says Moran.

Part of the reason JWT Folk exists is down to the challenges being faced by advertising and that fact that not all agencies have survived.

"It's like every industry," she says. "Media has gone under radical transformation, literally disruption. If I think of some of my clients, even car brands. And you think, 'everyone will want a car'. But will they? Will everyone really want to own a car in the future? That's going to have massive impact.

"The younger generation don't see the need to own a car.

"So every industry is facing disruption or has gone through it. Look at hotels with Airbnb, everything is evolving. Advertising has faced disruption, absolutely, but you need to evolve."

Big advertisers are also evolving and on the face of it at least, not to the benefit of agencies. For example, consumer goods giant P&G, which owns everything from Gillette to Pampers, has made some concerning decisions regarding advertising. It cut $200m from digital advertising spend in 2017 and has since slashed the number of agencies on its roster.

It might all seem quite gloomy but Moran has a different slant on P&G's strategy.

"They want to do fewer things really well. It's not doing absolutely everything and spreading everything so thin. It's about understanding the commercial objective and how can we reach that objective.

"P&G have been incredibly precise about measurement. A lot of advertising previously potentially wasn't measured in the past."

Although she heads a creative agency, she shares P&G's approach and says that measuring work is central to JWT Folk's approach.

"It may not be a sales metric, but everything is KPI-based. Every single campaign is metric-based.

"My advice would always be to ask what is the value of what you are doing? What is the commercial objective or what new market is this creating?

"Everything we have done since we've merged, is about creating value for businesses, growing businesses and its about driving growth. Everything we have here is geared towards this."

Moran was born in Zambia where her mother was a teacher and her father was a mineralogist. She moved to England aged four.

"We settled in Cheshire on the Manchester side, not the Liverpool side. Whenever I say I am from the Manchester side and lived in south Manchester, everyone immediately thinks I am a Manchester fan. But my family are from Liverpool."

She studied history and politics and "fell into advertising". One of her first jobs was a marketing role with Audi dealers but she felt she would like to get closer to the creative side of brands.

She then got a job at J Walter Thompson Manchester which had just merged with edgy agency Cheetham Bell, before joining another leading agency, The Chase.

After meeting her Irish husband Paul, she moved here and focused on branding roles before moving up the ranks of the industry to take the role of managing director at Target McConnells.

Although now heading a creative agency, she has never worked as a creative, something which does not put her at a disadvantage, she believes.

"I have always been an account manager. As much as I appreciate art and I love to be creative, and have only ever worked in agencies, I am an account-handler."

"I am very, very organised. As an account manager I was brilliant, was very task-orientated. My objective was always to deliver for my clients so they trusted me," she says. "Ultimately I know my own strengths."

Moran is particularly proud of a piece of research carried out by the agency Female Tribes which focused on 'what is means to be a woman in Ireland today'.

Aspects of the research resonated strongly with Moran, particularly commentary around the often negative reaction to women who display attributes typically associated with men, such as ambition. Psychologists Alice Eagly and Antonio Mladinic coined the phrase the 'Women are Wonderful' effect to describe the phenomenon.

"I could really connect with a lot of the analysis," she says of Female Tribes. "I'm incredibly ambitious. I am incredibly independent. I am incredibly determined. To become a CEO, you have to be driven," she said adding that of course empathy and other attributes were useful.

"But I still come across (the view) that men can do a certain thing, women still can't do another."

She says Address Point, a new service developed with client An Post, is one of the proudest parts of her career. It is a free personal address and mail collection service for people who are homeless or living in temporary accommodation.

"It does a strong job for the brand, but it also does something really momentous for the people it is trying to connect with."

It is shortlisted for an award at Cannes Lions, next week, the global awards for the creative industries.

"I just have everything crossed that we win there because it's so good. It's authentic. Ultimately, advertising can sometimes lack that - it can be a little one-dimensional."

One of the biggest influences on advertising in recent years has been the shift to digital. As with other industries, it brings with it both challenges and opportunities.

"Digital is constantly evolving and it is evolving at an incredible pace," she says. "I think, for example, sound is going to be massive.

"Apple AirPods are a step towards the normalisation of 'always-in' earbuds. Think of the potential of auto-translate and sound filtering. So how we use sound - and voice - is going to be really interesting."

But its not just digital that is changing advertising.

She believes another trend will be brands challenging stereotypes, giving the example of Nike's Dream Crazier campaign, which is challenging female stereotypes.

"So while yes digital is one evolution, there are other things coming as well.

"It's about understanding how the consumer engages with an idea and being really ahead of that."

JWT Folk is operating in a very competitive space, up against the country's leading creative agencies such as Rothco and Boys + Girls.

Moran is very encouraged by client wins, however, such as Horse Racing Ireland, Cairn Homes, Sony Playstation and Circle K's sponsorship work.

For Moran that is only the start of JWT Folk's plans and, as always, she doesn't shy away from her ambition.

Her vision for the company is simple.

"We want to be the best agency in Ireland. We want to define what great advertising looks like."

Curriculum vitae

Name

Abi Moran

Age

44

Position

Chief executive JWT Folk

Lives

Killiney, Dublin

Education

Lymm High School, Cheshire, England. University of Huddersfield, history and politics

Previous experience

Managing director, Target McConnells

Family

Married to Paul, daughter Kitty (7)

Pastimes

Running, tennis, listening to Audible and walking the dog.

Favourite film

I don't have a favourite movie but I adore going to the cinema as a family

Favourite book

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

"I read it in my youth and it never really left me"

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