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We talk to Sean Riley, McCann Health’s ECD for Singapore and Southeast Asia


This week we were lucky enough to speak to Sean Riley, McCann Health’s ECD for Singapore and Southeast Asia.

After the bitter realization that he would never be able to draw well enough to get a job doing comic books for Marvel, Sean tried his hand at advertising art direction instead. He spent the first half of his career in traditional FMCG agencies in Canada, USA and Australia – and the second, more enlightened half with McCann Health in Australia and Singapore.

AH: Please tell us a bit about McCann Health

SR: McCann Health is a rare gem. Like any multinational we have a strong business focus but in constant parallel to that is an equally strong focus on the creative. From the top down it’s acknowledged that high quality creative is our real currency even when the numbers aren’t there. Evidence of this is a 5-year internal and external transformation that is nothing short of shocking.
We are also the most connected agency I’ve ever worked in – all agencies talk it… but we’re living it. At any rate, they must be doing something right – this is my 14th year with McCann Health.

AH: Please tell us about a piece of recent work that you are proud of?

SR: I’m very passionate about all of our work but the Singapore Red Cross is a favorite of mine. We created a youth-oriented campaign about releasing the hero inside of you, through blood donation. Research showed us the personality traits that most appeal to the youth of Singapore and we built heroic characters with distinct personalities that fit those traits. The heroes were released over a period of time across multiple media and activities and the results so far have been great!

AH: Are there any projects you are working on that we should keep an eye out for in the coming months?

SR: We’re about to go into phase 2 of the Singapore Red Cross hero campaign and this part is going to be a lot of fun!

AH: Where do you look for inspiration?

SR: Like most of us, that spark of inspiration comes from without – from my wife and kids, from the people I watch on the bus every day, architecture, conversations…everywhere. The internal part is the magic though – how a mundane event sets that spark of inspiration off like a firework exploding inside your head – dozens of idea fragments flying in all directions and you desperately trying to capture and remember as many as you can.

AH: Do you think we sometimes use regulation an excuse to make work that doesn’t live up to standard consumer advertising?

SR: First of all, I don’t compare myself to “standard” anything. If I’m only average at it, I should probably be doing something else.

But to your point – we work in the most heavily regulated advertising space in the world. The rules often seem diabolical, determined to obstruct and short-circuit the creative process at every turn and it’s sometimes easier to roll over than to fight the good fight it seems you can never win. But there’s always a path. There’s always a way through – and the work we all saw at Cannes is proof of that.

Since Cannes there’s been a surprising amount of talk about why the US didn’t do better at the show. Most of the excuses revolve around ‘fair balance’ and there is often the implication that the rest of the world doesn’t have it so hard or maybe the US isn’t doing enough pro-bono work. This is bullshit and insulting to the rest of us – you get to advertise directly to consumers for crying out loud – no one else has that. And yes the regulations are tough but they’re tough everywhere, that’s a burden we all have to deal with. My advice to these people is to stop being a bunch of crybabies and get smarter about how you approach things.

AH: What is the single change you’d like to see in the industry this year?

SR: I think Cannes Health sent a wake-up call to a lot of agencies…I think we’re going to be seeing a lot smarter, more utility-driven creative this year.

AH: Do you look at other healthcare agencies around the world? Who do you think is making the best work at the moment?

SR: I tend not to look at what everyone around me is doing – it’s too easy to become derivative that way. Having said that, Langland do some beautiful looking work and I always enjoy seeing what they’ve come up with at the shows.

AH: What is the best piece of work you’ve seen this year?

SR: I’ve seen some nice work, but I don’t think I’ve seen the best piece yet. I’ll let you know.

AH: How do you compare the quality of creative work in healthcare Advertising vs Consumer advertising?

SR: It doesn’t compare. Overall, Healthcare creative is smarter and more targeted than Consumer any day. And let’s not forget that the volume of work churned out for Consumer advertising is many times that created for Health, with the absolutely brilliant work we see sweep the shows each year as an incredibly thin layer of cream on top. The mistake is in thinking that cream is in any way representative of the work below it – we all know it isn’t.

“Our” best work may not yet be entirely on par with “theirs” but it’s not far off.

AH: Who do you look up to and why?

SR: In life, I look up to my father.
In work, I can’t help but look up to my Global ECD – Jeremy Perrott. It’s his passion, determination and shear force of personality that have lifted us out of the mire of mediocrity that most health work is trapped in, and into the spotlight. That and a lot of swearing.
We (and I) would not be where we are today without his leadership.

AH: What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the industry

SR: I always look for people who have a personal connection to health and healthcare. These people can see the patient behind the data and the person behind that patient. They understand that healthcare is all about human stories.

My advice would be to explore and understand your own personal connection to health and bring that with you to every interview and beyond that – to every day on the job.

AH: If you could read an interview on Advertising health from anyone in healthcare advertising who would it be with? And what would you want to know?

SR: I’m not interested in what anyone in healthcare advertising has to say actually. What turns me on is learning something new – not affirmation of what I already know. The interesting ones are the people out there on the edge, making things happen and changing the world – whether its flat-packed bags that can turn any water into sterile saline solution or a couple creating feminine hygiene products out of virtually nothing in Uganda. There are so many incredible, inspirational stories about health out there – THAT is what I’d like to see.

AH: Did you see our World Top 10 how did it feel to see McCann featured as the second most awarded agency in the World?

SR: I loved that piece! What I loved most about it for us was that it showed a network where offices all around the world were doing brilliant work – not just one or two hotspots, the whole damn thing!

AH: Thanks!