Is the Neural Network the answer to McCann’s prayers?

You may not think there is much of a connection between a new car launch and what young McCann Erickson advertising executives get up to in a night-club.

But to Lee Daley, McCann Worldwide’s global chief strategy officer, making connections like that is fundamental to a new way of unlocking his agency’s intellectual assets, providing effective consumer insights at a fraction of their normal cost and repositioning the McCann name at the same time.

McCann has always been awarded penalty points in the agency world because of its sheer size. Its machine-like reputation probably dates back to a period of acquisition megalomania in the early sixties, when the agency was under the stewardship of Marion Harper. Result: it is valued for the sophistication of its global services and its account management skills, but rarely for its creative thinking.

In fact, this reputation is somewhat misleading. In the fifties, McCann was highly regarded for the quality of its consumer insights. Through Herta Herzog, director of creative research, it became high-priest to the mysteries of motivational psychology, the then voguish domain of Dr Ernest Dichter and the School of Motivational Research. It powerfully influenced the thinking of one Vance Packard, author of the Hidden Persuaders (1957).

In a sense, Daley is tapping into that “smarts” tradition. But his focus is on unlocking the hidden talents of McCann’s staff and thereby turning a perceived disadvantage, McCann’s cumbersome size, into an asset. “In a way, it’s simply a numbers game,” he tells me. “McCann has 22,000 employees worldwide. That’s a massive talent pool, but it’s fair to say we haven’t always exploited that creatively, partly because of our brand image. Compare that with so-called creative agencies, Wieden & Kennedy, Mother or whatever. Full of talent, no doubt, but a fraction of our pool.”

Ah yes, but how exactly does he intend to release that pent-up intellectual capital, and to what end, exactly? The answer is something called the Neural Network, a project Daly has been working on for about 5 years – and which now involves some 8,000 of McCann’s employees.

Expressed simply, NN is a kind of internalised social media platform (although Daly recoils in horror from the suggestion that it is Facebook for McCann). It builds up a profile which matches every employee’s formal status in the organisation with their private interests and areas of specialism outside their current expertise. It encourages the setting-up of special interest communities and dialogue between their members.

The advantages are clear. It’s a levelling tool in an hierarchical organisation, which can be used by management as a kind of crowd-sourcing resource or virtual pitch team. Also reasonable to assume, judging from the number of people who have volunteered to join the database: it’s quite motivating for staff – for whom it may open up new career opportunities.

The challenges are equally clear: it’s a levelling tool in an hierarchical organisation, about which senior management must initially have had considerable misgivings. Without suitable controls, it could indeed become a kind of office Facebook. And even when exploited professionally, anarchy might ensue if senior managers were allowed carte blanche in appropriating extra resources via the Neural Network.

For this reason, all requests are carefully monitored by a group of senior executives called “Neural Network Gods”. In London, the key executive is group chief Chris Macdonald. Others include Daly himself and McCann Worldgroup CEO Nick Brien. The process of control is still being mapped out as the Neural Network is gradually extended to the other 14,000 Worldwide employees.

Equally important, from Daly’s point of view, is the challenge of monetising ideas thrown up by the Neural Network as McCann’s intellectual property. As is well known in agency circles, ideas are what you give away in a pitch: it’s very difficult to patent them. Clients might well welcome the idea of a me-too Neural Network, persuade McCann to set it up, and then run off with it.

Daly has partly answered this problem by setting up a 3-year rolling contract with Santa Barbara-based IntroNetworks – the company that devised the software – which gives McCann exclusive licensing rights.

If other agencies want to jump on the NN bandwagon, they may of course do so. But they will have to build their own software, and that takes time. And time is what Daly hopes will give McCann its leading advantage.

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One Response to Is the Neural Network the answer to McCann’s prayers?

  1. […] heffalump of the world agency scene, has been telling my chum Stuart Smith about its new ‘neural network,’ a sort of Facebook for McCann employees although we’re not supposed to call it […]

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