McKechnie is fresh off a holiday in New Zealand and back in Cupertino, California, so Idealog made the call and got his perspective on his journey to and from AUT, what’s involved leading a 40-strong team of creatives at Apple, and what’s going wrong in the creative industries.
Idealog: So you were born in Nairobi. That’s quite a starting point for someone with a career arc such as yours.
McKechnie: Yeah, it is. It’s kind of a strange place to grow up, but my parents did a lot of travelling when they were younger, mainly through my dad's company. He worked for New Zealand Insurance so he moved through the company to different ‘hardship posts’ as they were called back in the day. One of those ones was in Kenya. We moved to a new country pretty much every three or four years – the Philippines, Manila. I have some good memories of those places, but again I was only there for about three years. Then we moved to Jakarta, Indonesia for a similar period, three or four years, before heading back to New Zealand, Wellington. My parents decided it was time for the kids to get a good Kiwi upbringing.
So you consider yourself a Kiwi?
Yes, but it’s a funny one. I definitely ponder on that one a lot. Where is home? For me especially I spent essentially intermediate, high school and university all in one place, in Auckland, and they are definitely your formative years, so that has the strongest bearing on where I call home. So, yes, I always call new Zealand home, although my wife is Singaporean and I worked in Singapore for many years, so I feel like Singapore is partly home too. I have a strong connection to Asia.
Do you think this amount of travelling has affected your world view and the way you think creatively?
Oh, totally. I think myself and my younger brother benefitted most from it. I think we were able to benefit from different cultures and the different experiences. When you’re younger you’re more flexible, more agile, and you don’t have such strong bonds with friendships or places at that age. Whereas my older brothers have mixed feelings about whether that was a good experience for them. I think they were at an age where they got moved a little bit too much in their teens, but it’s been really beneficial to me. Although I would say that as I get older it's harder for me to settle or decide where my roots should be. I’m almost in a cycle of wanting to be somewhere new or try something different every three to four years.
Were there signs in those formative years that there was a creative career waiting?
I’m not sure. I could probably look back and say there’s been certain things that have been very valuable to the way in which I've been able to apply things to the creative industry – adaptability and flexibility and being able to move between projects really quickly, absorbing information and then dumping it and moving onto something else. That’s the world that marketing and advertising lives in and I was always like that in terms of my interests. My parents would say ‘Oh you never stuck to one thing consistently’, which teachers and parents would see as a negative, but I tried everything. I tried every sport possible, I was always very experimental with just pushing the limits. I had a strong liking for photography and art, so that was always there, but I never really knew where to apply it necessarily. I was the singer in a band, I was musical, I used to write poetry and lyrics, and all of those things have become valuable tools as a writer and a creative in the industry. But I really struggled after high school figuring out what I wanted to do. There were so many things I was interested in, it was hard to find that focus to be honest.
But there’s always that pressure to ‘choose a vocation’ in your teens, right? Do you think that’s a misguided approach for parents and teachers?
I think so. Some people seem to instinctively know what they want to do. I didn’t feel passionately about one thing or another, I just knew I wanted to do something creative. In some ways I didn't really get a lot of guidance. The way that I ended up at AUT was more a process of elimination.
For example, in third form I took an art class which I was interested in, but at the end of that year my teacher basically told me I was crap, so that set me off on a different path. So I thought ‘Okay, obviously I’m not good, so I won’t take that', but what happened then was that when I tried to get into other creative industries, like photography, I couldn’t get into it because I hadn’t taken art class, and it was only open to the art students.
I was like ‘Well, why couldn’t I take photography, just because I didn’t take art classes?’ That pushed me into taking a photography course outside of school, and then that led to other things further down the track when I started wonder what I was going to do at uni. There were a whole bunch of places and courses that were essentially out of my reach. There were no real schools for creating a portfolio, or even if I wanted to go to ad school, those places didn’t really exist. But there were a whole bunch of things that led me to this. ‘Oh, I want to do communications’, and they were like ‘well you need to have done something in this area’. It was just like there was a whole bunch of prerequisites that eliminated my options in getting into a creative industry.
I knew that advertising had this design element to it, and I was always interested in graphics and advertising and it was probably very superficial. I didn’t really understand the true workings behind it, but I was like ‘Maybe marketing and advertising would be interesting and maybe there’s something creative that I could do in that’.
And that’s what led you to AUT?
Yes, and through that I very quickly realised that I was very good at understanding the whole business side of it. To me it’s just a lot of common sense, but I was able to apply the logic of the business world in terms of marketing and advertising as well as apply some of my creative flair. I was definitely more successful at AUT. Finally I was getting As and Bs and things. I don’t think I ever got an A at high school.
So what was the AUT experience like once you were there?
It was good. I think it really boosted my confidence in some ways. I felt like I really understood the subject matter and I was actually really interested in it. It felt like the real world. It wasn’t just theory. It always came across to me as being common sense. I pushed myself pretty hard for the most part. It was still university days and I’m sure I could have done even better, but I was still having fun.
I think I had a bit of success and some people who pushed me a little bit and said ‘this is great work’ and I think I just started to hone in on what I ultimately wanted to do, which was to at least get into some sort of creative industry and still quite naively didn’t really know what an agency was made up of either.
So what did you learn at AUT? Or was it just about getting that validation?
There was a bit of validation, but not necessarily in an overt way where I had really strong mentors. I didn’t have someone you could single out and go ‘this person was instrumental in defining my career or leading me down a certain path’. But I think it was the process of going through the curriculum that allowed me to see the areas that I was really strong in and the areas that I excelled in that enabled me to focus in a little bit more in terms of, ‘Okay, there’s an area that I’m really interested in and I’m really passionate about it, it seems to come naturally to me and maybe this is something that I could do as a job’. And that was probably the first time I felt really confident about my potential and the opportunities I could discover out in the real world.
AUT grounded me – in a good way – and scrubbed away those teenage years of cruising. My academic side hadn’t been triggered, but it was triggered at AUT.
So you ended up at the AUT co-op in Singapore?
I think that was really the biggest trigger for my career, doing the co-op.
So what did that involve?
The co-op is like an internship. You end up going into, in this instance, an advertising agency and you are essentially given a thesis, an assignment to do, and they give you projects over the course of the three months that you’re there, and you have to do, essentially, an analysis of your time there. That's considered one paper, one credit to your graduating.
And how did that experience affect you?
It was pretty transformative for me and it was a real shock to the system. It was ‘the real world’, and a lot of really applied learning, being exposed to real briefs and the workings of an agency. I got put through different departments and they really mentored me.
In what way?
Things like ‘If you want to be a writer then you’re going to need a portfolio, so we’re going to spend three months and make you a portfolio, so that if you leave here you can get a job at any agency'. It was really intensive. For me it was super-intense but I came out of it really energised and I had a portfolio. Then they were like ‘Well, we need a junior copywriter and we’re going to interview you and…let’s look at your portfolio’.
They looked at it and said ‘Great, do you want a job?’, and I was like, 'Yup, sure do'.
I stayed on at the particular agency for three years and then I moved on to another two agencies while I was in Singapore and I stayed there for almost eight years.
I spent a good year or two while I was in Singapore trying to crack the US market – a very, very, very difficult market to crack.
Why is it hard to break into the US?
Mainly just because people don’t want to sponsor a Visa and it’s just really difficult to get it. Also my portfolio was very different at the time from what US [creatives] put out. They were quite functional and one-dimensional in terms of what kind of portfolios the creatives were producing at that time – you were either a print guy or a design guy, whereas with my Singapore experience, given that it was a smaller market, I did everything. I worked in TV spots, I’d worked on a lot of design projects, I’d done a lot of direct mail, I’d done interactive e-banners, so my portfolio was kind of eclectic and a lot of agencies didn’t know what to do with me. But they knew that my design aesthetic was good and overall the ideas were great. In Singapore I did very well in terms of the whole awards circuit and I was named Young Professional of the Year and a bunch of other things. So people looked at my work and said, ‘Wow, you’re great’, but they just didn’t know where to place me within the current system.
When did you get your US break?
An agency in Boston, a very rogue agency, that had done some amazing work for MTV and Hummer, Cadillac, they loved my work. They bought me over and they hired me into the agency and I spent about 18 months there before I got basically headhunted to go to New York and join Young & Rubicam. So I spent the next five years in New York, at Young & Rubicam for three and a half years and then DDB New York where I ran the global business for Reebok. Then Apple called and that was what led me to moving out here.
And so what's the nature of your role at Apple?
I came to Apple to help build the Design Group within Marcom. The team is made up of a diverse mix of disciplines from various creative backgrounds. They've come from industries such as film, interactive, advertising, design, and fashion. We have some of the world's best writers, art directors and designers a team could ask for. So I run this team here with my partner.
How does the marketing of a tech giant like Apple compare with projects in other industries, Reebok for example?
It’s a completely different world. I think the reality on the agency side, when you’re a creative it’s a very focused role in some ways, because you’re still not really connected to the business. You can never be as close as you can when you’re on the client side. You don’t really understand all the issues and the problems and what’s driving the business and the needs and the changes that happen, and also your remit is just doing the best creative work as possible, trying to be highly original and pushing the boundaries, whereas when you go onto the marketing side you take on an added responsibility to the brand of doing what you think is the right thing to do, rather than just doing what you think is the coolest thing to do.
I think that’s a really important distinction because you could just come to Apple and be like ‘Well, we should do this idea because it’s really cool, and it’s highly original and it's going to win us a bunch of awards’, but that's not necessarily the right thing to do.
What is the right thing to do then?
Not just thinking about the advertising campaign. There are a whole range of other touch points that you take into account. All those different facets of the marketing. Yes, advertising’s one piece of it, but then you’re involved in the retail experience, you’re involved the events, the launching of new products, the packaging and what the aesthetic is for all the new product shoots. So you get involved in many other discussions that are less about ‘what’s the idea?’, and more about how you really position the product.
Is Apple unique in that respect? In its perfectionism?
I think so. For the most part there’s more of a respect for making sure we’re doing the right thing. When you’re in the agency world, people get onto a particular track or process in terms of creating work, and if the work’s not 100% right, often it’s just too late for either side to rectify it in terms of time and money. They don’t have the ability to just pause and go ‘Hey, you know what? This isn’t right and we shouldn’t do this. Maybe we should relook at it’.
If it’s not right you’re going to do more damage by releasing something that’s not good, whether that’s from a marketing standpoint or a product standpoint.
So are agencies missing the point here? Are agencies looking to do good work and not necessarily what's right? And does that affect the way companies interact with them?
Yeah, a lot of trust has been eroded I think. For the most part, I think the way the agency model is structured around remuneration and fees and things like that is definitely outdated. Agencies are paid either though production money or they’re paid an annual fee or monthly retainer, so the agency’s incentive is to create work, either around media that is not necessarily the right thing to do but gets them paid, or to create a lot of fluff work and spin to make sure they’re able to clock in enough hours to get their retainer. And I think that whole model just doesn’t lead to doing the right thing or doing the right work.
On the creative side, creative people haven’t been incentivised to stay at agencies. They jump around a lot because they go where the title is or where they can do the best creative work, so there is a very selfish, self-indulgent system in place within advertising roles, where you’re not really focused on what the right thing to do for a client is. Rather, you’re always, always trying to push through the most creative piece of work possible because that’s the thing that’s going to look best on your portfolio, that’s going to get you an award and going to get you your next job. So there’s automatically a disconnect about what people’s objectives are. And that’s throughout the whole agency at different levels. On the client side there’s a unified vision, you know what you’re doing and everyone rallies around that one goal. On the agency side, at every level there’s a different agenda. Whether that’s your CEO, your CFO, your chief creative officer, your junior writer, your mid-level creative, they’ve all got a different game and I think that’s part of the problem.
So is it a relief being at Apple in that sense? In the sense that you’re not in such a mercenary environment?
Yeah, definitely. It’s strange because I got to the point where, at DDB, I thought ‘I don’t want to spend another year of my life where I don’t really know what I’m fighting for’. Ultimately it wasn’t really going anywhere. Everyone was working towards different objectives, so what drew me to Apple was really the fact that I wanted to at least be able to put in the effort with a team of people where I felt that everyone had a similar objective at the end of the day. It feels very different. You can’t be indulgent at Apple.
After such a long time in the industry, where do you find your inspiration? Are there other industry players you admire?
I don’t look at the industry, in terms of advertising and marketing, and memorise who’s doing the coolest TV spots. I see it organically, and obviously I keep ahead of all those things, but that’s not where I get my inspiration. I don’t look at creative sites and say ‘Oh, look at this amazing TV spot; that’s giving me my inspiration today’. I look more for inspiration from the art world. I find inspiration from people who are doing interesting things. There are some artists I really love. JR – they call him an ‘art activist’ – he does amazing murals around different social causes. He’s definitely an inspiration. He does an amazing job of tapping into causes that are happening right now and amplifying the message through his art.
Daniel Arsham is pretty prolific with his artwork, but he also runs a company called Snarkitecture, and I like the fact that, as a brand, he’s able to build himself in a way where he’s got a very consistent look and feel, yet he’s able to still apply a similar philosophy to his artwork as well. He’s definitely one of the up and coming artists of our generation I think.
Last question. You used to be a surf lifesaver in Mairangi Bay. Did you ever save someone’s life?
Well, I saved my cousin when we were on holiday in the Coromandel once. He got caught in a rip and I helped him get out of it. I still apply that knowledge. It’s one of the number one things people don’t realise about rips. Don’t swim against it. Let it take you out and swim across, then swim back in. I tell every swimmer or surfer I meet that.
Does that apply to your career philosophy too?
That’s actually a good one, but mostly my philosophy is just common sense. Don’t be a dick. Be nice and firm with people, but let your work speak for itself. It’s the one thing most people forget coming through this industry. You’ll butt into a lot of people along the way and you’ll repeat those meetings. It takes a lot to build a reputation, but not much to pull it apart. I think you’ve really got to maintain a lot of integrity in this industry, especially when it’s often really easy to just take the easy route.