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Diversity Drives Creativity – with CCO Owen Lee

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If we want more tech wizards, more creativity, more diversity, we need to be exciting and fun again.

The creative industry used to be the 'best place to work.' Over time, that fun got diluted and the purpose of the whole industry arguably got watered down with it. We're not having as much fun anymore. And although it might be the wrong year to talk about 'fun,' being in the middle of a pandemic is precisely why it still matters now, more than ever.

It is one thing to hear it from the editorial department behind a creative network. It is entirely another thing to hear it from Owen Lee, Chief Creative Officer at FCB Inferno and a navigated creative expert in the industry.

For this Member Spotlight, we are learning more about the value of change, diversity and why taking risks matters, from the words of Owen himself.

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How did you get into the industry?

I came out of college in 1992 and the industry was in a terrible recession. Teams were working for nothing on placement to get into the industry (there was no placement pledge back then), and there were huge redundancies.

My creative partner (Gary Robinson) and I hatched an idea to do something audacious. We decided to do our placement and internship around the world to get noticed. No one had done it at the time, so we spoke to the creative directors who critted our book in London and asked if they knew people in the US and Australia. Dave Waters was particularly helpful putting us in touch with ex GGT creatives who had moved abroad.

So, after lots of faxing (yes faxes, there was no email) to contacts of contacts we got some interest. And the day after our graduation, our friends went on summer vacation and we set off on a round-the-world ticket we had bought on borrowed money. It was a great success. We did stints at Lowe and Deutsche in New York, but the real breakthrough was with Chiat Day. We became embedded in the Chiat Day network meeting Lee Clow and Jay Chiat himself who both admired what we were doing and we worked in New York, LA, Sydney and Brisbane and landed a job at Chiat Day London off the back of it. Not orthodox, but it worked.

Where are you based now and who do you work for?

I live in a little village in Buckinghamshire just outside London and work in Covent Garden for FCB Inferno.

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If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

An architect. I nearly studied architecture at university but re-routed to advertising at the last minute. Thank god, otherwise there would be a lot of dangerous buildings in the world - my attention to detail is terrible.

Can you explain your creative process?

Not really. I have always thought that creativity is about suspending reality for a moment and entertaining the ridiculous – ‘what if this could be that’, perhaps Up could be Down or Cold could be Hot. On the first day of art college we were told to go to a rubbish tip and come back with art. Fresh out of the structured, academic environment of a Grammar School that sounded crazy, but after a while we all started seeing stuff in the objects we found. Art college taught me how to think differently and freely and that is the heart of creativity.

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How has technology affected the way you work (if at all)?

It allows you to think bigger. Of course, it affects the everyday in terms of the mediums we use and the way we work. But more importantly it has broadened the way we think and what advertising can do. When I joined the industry above the line advertising was TV, Poster, Radio and Print. Now we create movements, build life-changing apps and create business changing ideas. If you are not excited about the possibilities of advertising today, you are in the wrong job.

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What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?

The people I work with. No secret at all. They bring an endless energy and a fresh perspective every day. The other day a team came to me with an idea and tone of voice which they loved but, they had no idea whether it worked. I didn’t either, but I knew that the feeling it created in all of us was something special and interesting and that means we need to pursue it as an idea. That inspiring. That’s a great job to have.

What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

I am proud of being a founder member of St Luke’s, the first advertising co-operative. I am proud to have been part of HHCL that won agency of the decade. And I am proud to have founded and run a top 50 UK ad agency for over ten years. But since joining FCB Inferno, I am most proud of the purpose-driven work we have done. This Girl Can was ranked one of the most iconic campaigns of the last 50 years. StorySign for Huawei genuinely transformed the lives of deaf children. Change Please and Pay it Forward for the Big Issue reimagined their business problem and created ground-breaking new business models. Project Literacy for Pearson convened a global conversation on the need to tackle illiteracy. And our work for Battersea and Barnardo’s has made those causes more relevant to a new generation. That all helps us sleep well at night.

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What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives looking for work?

Tenacity, attitude and drive have always been the markers of the creative industry. The creative side of advertising is still notoriously hard to get in to. But don’t give up. Study the great advertising that has been done, but don’t try and emulate it. Push your thinking and challenge us. Don’t be afraid to think different, look different or act different from the people you see in the industry. We need change to survive. 

What’s your one big hope for the future of the creative industries?

Diversity. 

Diversity drives creativity, and creativity can genuinely drive business. 
As an industry, we thrive on new, different, fresh opinions. In the 1960’s Bill Bernbach smashed the WASPish culture of Madison Avenue by employing the most diverse talent and he ended up completely reinventing advertising and creating one of the greatest agencies in the world. It’s a lesson, as an industry, we have struggled to learn, but we must in order to remain relevant.

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Owen Lee, Chief Creative Officer at FCB Inferno

If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

Bring back the fun. We used to be ‘the place to work’. If we want more tech wizards, more creativity, more diversity we need to be exciting and fun again. Then the talent will come.

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