marc lewis Interview
Interview by Justin Small
MARC LEWIS, DEAN OF THE SCHOOL OF COMMUNICATION ARTS, TALKS ABOUT WHY COMMUNICATORS WILL SAVE THE WORLD, HOW CAPITALISM IS SELF-HEALING, HIS EARLY CAREER AS A DOT.COM MILLIONAIRE, AND WHY THE 30 SECOND SPOT IS DEAD.
Justin: I know a little bit of the story of your career, but it would be great to hear how you got started?
Marc: I’m born and bred in Croydon. I visited a fair few police stations in my youth, not that I was a terribly naughty boy, but I was a boy, I didn’t respect education at the time. My parents gave me a good education, but I didn’t respect that so I left secondary school with 3 U’s and an F in my CSE’s. I managed to get myself a job at a department store in Wimbledon, and one day in the staff canteen there was a copy of The Guardian newspaper which I’d never read in my life. I was much more into tabloids, mainly for the pictures, but The Guardian was there and I read it and there was a competition sponsored by the Guardian to win a scholarship. The brief was to create a political party and to come up with a campaign to market it into power. I entered it and won a scholarship to John Gillard’s School of Communication Arts and that’s when my real education began. I squeezed every single drop of opportunity out of learning under John. It changed my life, it truly did, in the sort of Hollywood sense.
Justin: What was it about the advert? Had you been thinking about getting into advertising?
Marc: Not really. At the time I was at the Royal Doulton Concession at Debenhams in Wimbledon, and generally what happens is mornings are busy because old women would come in and spend their pension on Royal Dalton figurines, and afternoons were quiet, you know - who wants to buy tableware or figurines after lunch? So I would normally stand around not doing very much on an afternoon and the competition gave me something to do, so I did it mainly out of boredom. I didn’t even think about entering; I did the work and I took it home and hid it in my bedroom. My mum thought I had a drug problem, so she was looking around my bedroom one day, looking for evidence of drugs and looking through my drawers (she would have been smarter looking in my books because that’s where I kept my Rizlas) and she found my entry and entered the competition without telling me.
Justin: So what happened once you graduated?
Marc: I got a lot of offers after I graduated. Although I’d had a couple of offers in the UK, I had two foreign offers that attracted me. I had an offer from an agency called the Ball Partnership in Singapore, and one from Leo Burnet in Johannesburg. It was 1994, Mandela was about to get elected in new South Africa, so I took it because of Mandela. So I moved there and got fired after three months. My ads were too rude and I was partnered with an associate creative director so I was well out of my depth. He didn’t want my ideas because he was so senior and I was a silly kid from school. I didn’t appreciate how to behave, and I hadn’t really learned the politics of agency. Another agency called Network, who were part of the TBWA group, hired and fired me, but I found myself loving South Africa. So I set up a little agency at my maid’s house. I was 21, and my first client was an American telecoms company called ILD (International Long Distance). They specialised in long- distance phone calls for expats calling home, and their brief was to get more customers. My interpretation of that brief was to treat it in the way that John taught me, which is to find the problem and solve the problem, and have a truly creative idea. In 1987, the South African government banned sex lines and I learned that my client’s technology was built out of LA, and LA was at the time the world capital of sex lines. So my initial thought was ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could get ILD to bring sex lines back to South Africa?’ and so I did that, and at 21 I became a millionaire for the first time.
Justin: You became a millionaire by routing LA sex lines to South Africa?
Marc: Yeah, quite literally. I used ILD’s technology of mirrors and switches and made it swap between telcos so that all you had to do was dial a short American number, and we mirrored it to a call centre in LA where call minutes were swapped with Telcoms in Papua New Guinea, Moldova and Sao Tome. That little innovation transformed my financial health and reestablished sex lines as a service in South Africa. The government then passed a law to ban the advertising of sex lines. My lines at the time were advertised in the classifieds of the dailies and weeklies, and sex lines are an impulse sell - you pick up the paper and your wife’s gone to the supermarket or whatever, and you’re home alone and you call a number and you have three minutes of satisfaction.
Justin: The original RedTube.
Marc: Yeah, and so my revenue dropped overnight because it was illegal to advertise my numbers, so I started a magazine to advertise my lines. My magazine was called Whore and it quickly became a very well sold magazine, which led to me owning a retail business called Whore’s Handbag, buying the rights to films and using the footage from those films in my magazines and pretending that those girls from those films were waiting behind a telephone. I sold that business two years later.
Justin: At 23 you were already made?
Marc: At 23 I thought I could live in retirement. I got a girl pregnant, which is why I sold the business. I didn’t want to be a father and have a child look up to me as a pornographer. That didn’t fit with me so I sold that business and I moved the mother of my as-yet-unborn child into my home.
Justin: So what do you do after that?
Marc: Well, after that I ran a comedy club, and through that, I got into video streaming on the internet. I ended up moving back to the UK and creating a piece of technology that plugged into the early ad management platforms, including DART, so that instead of just serving a banner ad, it asked what operating software and browser you were using, and what plugins you had onboard, and if you had the right set up it would serve you a ‘video banner’. So basically I invented the video banner. Two years later, I sold that business to Lord Bell for just over £20m. And then I was off at the races. In around 2000, I took a friend from Unilever out to lunch who was in charge of coupons, and I asked him what kept him up at night, what were his big problems? Something John had taught me was a concept called ‘problem finding’ - find the things that keep people up at night and then attempt to solve that problem. This guy, Ed was his name, told me that what was keeping him up at night was that, of the billions and billions of coupons he distributed, a load were being mis-redeemed, and this was costing Unilever hundreds of millions of pounds. I found that really interesting. So I created a portfolio of IP that triangulated mobile devices’ specific unique identifier and I solved mis-redemption. But really what I did was put together a portfolio of IP that made mobile payments possible at the point of sale. So a very valuable body of IP, and I really wanted to sell that invention to Motorola Ventures and Motorola Ventures really wanted to buy that portfolio off me. They made me a good offer and I was really attracted to it, so I said yes to the deal but my investors wouldn’t allow the deal to go through. I had lost control of that business and I had a bit of a breakdown. I walked away from that business. My wife’s family at the time had a farm, in Woburn, and I went and I had my breakdown on the farm, a great place for a breakdown.
Justin: When you say breakdown, what do you mean?
Marc: I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I felt cheated.
Justin: So depression?
Marc: Yeah yeah. I always say, that one of the great things about having a breakdown is you get a chance to put yourself back together again in a more complete way. I was a flash twat as a dot.com millionaire. I had a fleet of stupid cars, and I’m not a very good driver. I had Porsches, Ferraris, TVRs - all sorts - and I couldn’t drive. I had the flash house, flash holidays etc, but it’s stupid. Luckily I married a farmer’s daughter and she didn’t need any of that. It didn’t impress her, so we agreed she would support the change in my lifestyle and that’s when I phoned Sir John Hegarty and Rory Sutherland and asked them what they thought about me reopening John Gillard’s school. Sir John had been taught by John Gillard, and Rory had been very kind to me through my tech days and obviously, the two of them are leaders of our industry. Rory dared me to open the school and John supported me very much in opening the school. So the decision was made in 2008 to reopen the School of Communication Arts. It then took a couple of years for me to learn what I needed to learn to be competent at leading a school, and I took my first intake in September 2010.
Justin: And here we are today in 2018, as you prepare for the graduation of intake ten. That’s amazing. What’s really interesting to me about your school is how you define and teach ‘advertising’ - because the word is so linked to a dying communication genre, the 30-second TV spot.
Marc: You know, I’ve not always believed in advertising. I believe that advertising is what we do once we have worked out what the problems are, if we need to communicate them in a mass way. I think what was clever, amongst many things, about John’s school, was he that he called it the School of Communication Arts and not the School of Advertising. We are communicators first and foremost, and sometimes we communicate with an ad, and sometimes we don’t. At the SCA, we’re more interested in unlocking or creating value, and if we need to distribute the idea behind unlocking or creating value, we might turn to advertising, but we might use any number of techniques or tools also. What advertising did well, was it limited us to thinking about particular mediums and channels and so it restricted us, and sometimes restrictions can be very powerful in focusing creativity, but equally can harm creativity. What I like to tell my students on their first day of school is that we all win a lot of awards. On Thursday at D&AD we won the big one, so I’ve got no doubt that we’re going to win a lot of awards as students and they will go on to win a lot of awards as adults, but the one award that means the most to me that my alumni will eventually win is the Nobel Prize. I know it sounds stupid but I absolutely believe it.
Justin: The Nobel Prize for?
Marc: For peace. I absolutely believe that a brand at some stage over the next decade or two will make an investment in a campaign that brings water to ten million people or healthcare to ten million people.
Justin: And you would call that a campaign.
Marc: And I would call that a campaign. So you need to look at what is called the XPRIZE. A good example is the XPRIZE for space travel. Until it was put up, all space travel was controlled by national space programmes like NASA, and then a prize fund was established to encourage local entrepreneurs and innovators to look at a way to get spacecraft out into the outer atmosphere, back again, out again and back again. The result is that sometime next year Virgin will go on its first tourist space flight. What it shows is the idea of unlocking investment by brands to solve big problems.
Justin: But why would you give that responsibility to brands and not to government, or to the citizens?
Marc: The most powerful organisations are brands and not countries, so yeah, simple as that. HSBC or P&G have significantly more power than most countries, and they desire to do good.
Justin: You think they desire to do good?
Marc: I think it’s increasingly the way. Unilever a few years ago expressed their desire to be more socially conscious, whilst also increasing their profitability, and the two can and do sit very well together. Of course, the public can spot greenwashing very easily, but big ideas that unlock or create value are the opposite of greenwashing; they’re transformative.
Justin: That’s interesting because that takes us into a conversation about what the future of advertising is?
Marc: We are in the ideas business, and we lazily call it advertising. We may choose to do advertising and there are some people who can only do advertising, and those who do advertising as the solution to everything are really dinosaurs who are increasingly becoming extinct. If they can’t get to the heart of the problem and think about brand strategy, human strategy, communication strategy, if they can’t find a way of connecting those, then they’re dinosaurs.
Justin: That’s the struggle that most large advertising agencies have at the moment.
Marc: Yeah, that’s why we’re seeing them lose their money and you know, lose their names.
Justin: Can advertising help the world, instead of what some people consider it to be - an aider and abetter of the destruction of the world as we know it because of its symbiotic relationship with capitalism and hyper- consumerism which therefore makes it in part to blame for the mess we are in environmentally?
Marc: Well, I don’t agree with the question; I think there is an awareness now, for example, with plastics, that wasn’t in the consciousness ten years ago and that didn’t come out of government - it came out of powerful communicators. I signed off a number of campaigns that my alumni have done that have raised awareness, (for example, the issues of plastics in oceans.) The best example of that would be a former scholarship student of mine called Ran Stallard - she was at Ogilvy when she did an award-winning piece of work that raised awareness called ‘Ocean of The Future’. So I think that communicators have identified that problem and are naturally powerful storytellers, and are able to communicate the challenge using narrative that perhaps government and NGOs are less good at.
Justin: Well I’m not sure I agree with that, because I don’t see any action coming from that. Where does the action or behaviour change come from?
Marc: Well I think that the action comes from organisations hearing the feedback loops. A great example of that would be Iceland who have made company-wide commitments to eliminate single-use plastic and palm oil from their inventory. They wouldn’t have done that without there being a national and international debate around that, and that national and international debate wasn’t going to come from our environment secretary, it was going to come from powerful, persuasive, viral pieces of communication generally created by agencies that want to win a Cannes Lion.
Justin: Wouldn’t the environmental groups take issue with that, saying that ad agencies have changed the way we think about the world and plastics, when perhaps the environmental groups aided by agencies are ones that are driving it?
Marc: Possibly. My problem with environmental groups like Greenpeace, powerful as they are, is that their communication tends to preach to the choir. With a few exceptions, Greenpeace will talk to Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth will speak to Friends of the Earth or WWF will talk to friends of WWF. But in order for an idea to go from the early adopters to the massive passive - and government is only going to change its policy when we affect the massive passive - that requires the intellect of mass communicators, and those mass communicators are those who know how to build a brand for Kellogg or P&G.
Justin: I would say they’ve been doing the opposite for 60 years.
Justin: I would acknowledge that some of them are doing a little bit now, but generally agencies just sell whatever they’re being paid to sell.
Marc: There is a line in Luke Sullivan’s ‘Hey Whipple’ that talks about one of our responsibilities being to build factories, and I think it is so important we remember that the responsibility we have as powerful communicators, is that we are catalysts
for the economy, and we need to help feed growth, without which companies will fail, and countries will fail.
Justin: So consumer-led growth is something we should continue doing?
Marc: There is a well-trodden argument that says that can’t continue, and that’s the bit I don’t agree with. I don’t believe that can’t continue. Technology will save us. So for example, the amount of water that goes into agriculture or fashion is ridiculous - this t-shirt I’m wearing would have used gallons and gallons and gallons of water in its production. We have become a disposable society, and one could make an argument that WW3 will start because of water shortage. But there is another argument that says three quarters of the planet is oceans and we are seconds away in the great scheme of things from being able to take salt out of oceans and make the water drinkable, and we’re seconds away in the great scheme of things from being able to unlock solar and bring down the price of energy so that energy will be literally free, and if not seconds we are minutes away from being able to unlock lab produced meat to give us the protein we need to survive. So I don’t accept that we have limited resources.
Justin: Last time we met we had a very interesting conversation about capitalism as a kind of unconscious intelligence, that incorporates anything that challenges it, and moves wherever it needs to move to make sure it doesn’t get disrupted, like some kind of alien life form. So perhaps there’s no way of getting out of it, and eventually, capitalism will kill its own customer - us - by destroying the biological systems that keep us alive.
Marc: I don’t agree with that.
Justin: Well there’s a lot of data supporting the theory that we are close to reaching irreversible tipping points in relation to the earth’s environment.
Marc: I accept that, but I don’t accept that we won’t find a solution around that and that capitalism will kill us.
Justin: You’re saying, and I guess proponents of capitalism believe this, that capitalism will be able to fix itself i.e. it is self-healing?
Marc: Correct. It’s a semi-conscious thing. Solutions have value and the greater the problem, the greater the solution, the greater the value. Environmental concerns are a huge problem, therefore the solutions have huge value and huge worth - and where solutions have huge worth, great minds are going to be focusing on them. So is global warming real? Unquestionably. You know, unless you’re a Donald Trump, unquestionably global warming is there and it is real. Are we able to turn back the tide? Probably not. Will we find ways so that humanity can continue to survive and thrive in the light of a different climate? Yes. There will be countries that will disappear and there will be coasts that are completely different to coasts that might have been there when our grandparents were sailing the seas. Is that a travesty? No. What’s a travesty is if as a global populous, our life expectancy doesn’t continue to increase, peace doesn’t continue to flourish. I was reading a book, by Pink, who sighted that 2018 is the most peaceful time to be alive; have you read that book?
Justin: No, but I know the stats.
Marc: There is no better time to be born than to be born somewhere between the 1950s and the end of the 20th century. We hit the jackpot. With a couple of exceptions, and even in those places generally, the quality of life is better than it was 50-150 years ago. By and large that’s down to technology, so the best prediction of the future is to look at history, and if we believe in evolution and we believe it to be true that we came out of Africa and learned to stand and to walk out the
bush or jungle or cave and created fire and technology that has made our lives better, then we must believe we can continue on this path. I do. Of course, sometimes we’ve used those technologies for bad, so when we created fire, it massively changed our psyches and allowed us all sorts of securities, but it also allowed us to kill and future technologies will do the same. By and large though, they will unlock the good in people, because fundamentally humans are good animals and capitalism is a product of humanity and if humanity is more philanthropic than not, then fundamentally capitalism is a force for good.
Justin: So in some ways, you’re saying capitalism is ours, not a separate entity that we cannot control? I believe in that, and one of the themes of this issue 1 of the FSC Mag is that we own capitalism, and we can control the market by organising against it. If we want to stop brands using single-use plastics, we can disrupt their profits by turning away from them en masse, and this will force them to change or die.
Marc: Yes, I think so. But the force to organise sits with the communicators.
Justin: Interesting to hear you speak about this because you don’t hear many positive takes on the power of capitalism through technology to help us survive the next 50 years; it’s the opposite view generally.
Marc: I have a fundamental belief that human beings will solve these very big problems.
Justin: Within the current system.
Marc: Within the current system.
Justin: So coming back full circle, the view that advertising aids and abets the capitalist system - this is actually, in your view, a positive thing?
Marc: Yes. It totally can be, not always but totally can be. Again, humans are by and large good, positive. And that’s why I am positive about the future. Hate dissipates and cannot be sustained. We will always return to our humanity.
Justin: How many problems can a 30-second spot solve?
Marc: Just less than zero. The right way to behave is to take the CEO and the board out and go ‘What’s giving you nightmares? How are we going to make sure that your business is thriving in five years? What are the risks? Who’s going to disrupt your business? What are you hearing?’ But it’s very hard for an agency that is set in its ways, to behave that way. Advertising has always been about problem-solving, but unfortunately, many ad agencies got caught up in a kind of monochannel fever, which in an omnichannel world means they will not be around much longer. Those that can change will survive, and those that can’t will disappear. The 30-second spot is no longer solving any problems.
Abundance - Peter. H. Diamandis
Better Angels of Our Nature - Daniel Pink Hey Whipple, Squeeze This - Luke Sullivan