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As chief judge of the 2018 Radio Mercury Awards jury, Sean Bryan—co-chief creative officer at McCann New York—recognizes the innate ability of the radio airwaves. But he also acknowledges in this week’s Inside Radio Q&A that Madison Avenue tends to focus on other advertising platforms first, often working its way from TV, film, digital and social before embracing traditional AM/FM. He says, “We as an industry are not using radio as much as we should for brand building.”

Serving in his current role since 2012, Bryan is also Global Chief Creative Officer of m:united//McCann, a dedicated unit of McCann servicing the agency’s Microsoft account. He and creative partner Tom Murphy—who have been a team for 22 years—also worked together at DDB Chicago and JWT NY. Among award-winning campaigns, they created the Fearless Girl bronze sculpture on Wall Street for State Street Global Advisors, which has since become a global phenomenon.

And from Bryan’s corporate bio, this is too good to leave out: When not working in advertising, he and his wife Emily take care of two kids, 3 horses, 14 chickens, 3 goats, 3 dogs and a bunch of chickens. Bryan—a Harvard graduate in History and Fine Arts—and Murphy have also published four award-winning children’s books. 

With the Radio Mercury Awards call for entry period now open, Inside Radio spoke with Bryan about what’s different in this year’s awards, how to improve the quality of spot creative and why advertising is the coolest career in the world. An edited transcript follows.


The Mercury Awards honor commercials that are innovative, forward-thinking and expand the boundaries of traditional radio. Overall, what grade would you give the medium in terms of creativity and actionable messaging?

I think radio continues to be an important part of the mix. It’s a very efficient way to reach your audience with a message, however, I would say that we as an industry are not using it as much as we should for brand building. I think, unfortunately, a lot of brands consider radio part of the media mix as a means to push out promotional information instead of a means to build their brand and drive sales. Radio is very good for that.

I’ve seen how radio can actually build a brand and can change the way people feel about a brand—not just inform them about promotional information or what’s on sale this week. That’s what we’re trying to celebrate at this year’s Mercury Awards: using radio and audio in interesting and innovative ways that build brands and change the way people feel about brands.

And radio is such a flexible medium and frankly an affordable medium that as a creative person, you can play and experiment and try things.

What can radio do to convince agencies and advertisers to develop a sound strategy that includes radio/audio earlier in the ideation phase of a campaign?

One of the things we’re talking about this year with the Radio Mercury Awards is reflected in our current theme line, “Sound Makes the Story.” The fact is that very often we feel a brand and understand a brand with our ears first. We need to remind agencies, brands, production agencies, everybody, that radio and audio can be as powerful as any other medium and any other sense to connect with the hearts and minds of customers. That’s what we’re trying to celebrate with brands that have done that effectively this year.

This year you are introducing the “Game Changer: Most Innovative Commercial Use of Radio” award. Tell us what it’s all about.

That’s one of the things that I think Mercury is starting to do that will deserve a second look from the industry: to celebrate not just things that are creatively likeable or effective, but are creatively innovative. So it’s not just about the medium, it’s about bringing a concept out into the world. The Game Changer is about ideas that are pushing storytelling and pushing the industry forward.

While radio’s reach with Millennials remains entrenched, no doubt messaging to this demo needs to be different from, say 25-54. How do clients evolve the way they advertise on radio to stay relevant to the younger demo(s)?

It’s a question we ask across all mediums. You have a great big portion of the population that consumes messaging differently from previous generations. They also treat brands differently from previous generations, in that they like to associate themselves with brands whose values they agree with, whether it’s philanthropic or a tone of voice that makes a brand feel relevant.

You can’t just talk to this generation and expect them to listen and expect them to care. If you’re writing a radio campaign that just hocks your products and says, “Here’s a great deal on such and such electronics,” that in and of itself will not endear you to a Millennial audience. You have to have to have a point of view on the world that they’re going to agree with.

So how then does a Best Buy do that, Sean? How does a major retailer without a green footprint reach these consumers?

It’s a fair question and a big challenge facing our industry. I look at a campaign we did at my agency last year for a financial services company, State Street. They came to us with a new fund that invested in companies they believed had a higher representation of women in the C-suite and the Board, and built the “She Fund.” That led to the statue of a little girl right in front of the bull on Wall Street—and of course Fearless Girl was born out of that. So that’s an example of taking a brand with a fairly dry financial message and making it relevant to people’s lives.

Now what we need to find are the Fearless Girls for radio. It could be for a retailer, a wireless company, a restaurant… any of the advertisers on radio every day. How are they going to do something on radio that’s going to snap heads back—Millennials and otherwise—and say that makes me pay attention and care about this brand.

What suggestions do you have for local broadcasters to improve the quality of spot creative?

At the local level you’re working within a framework where you have to get stuff made affordably. You’re not dealing with the bag of tricks that a national advertiser could use, like a celebrity voiceover or lots of high-end music. But I do think it’s always the same question: How is this going to break out from the pack of other messaging that I’m hearing or seeing during the day and make me remember it? That could be because it’s really funny, or because it has my favorite song on it, because it’s talking about something I care about…

I do think at the local level, even if you’re just doing a local announcement about an upcoming show or an offer at a store, you have to ask yourself, how is this going to break through to my cousin who lives in Naperville. How will he remember it and remember liking it in the mix of messaging heard every day? It’s a hard challenge, even on a local level, to get people to break out of what they’re thinking and doing.

You’ve worked with the likes of Verizon/FiOS, Holiday Inn, Sony Ericsson and McDonald's. If you were to find a common thread in the advertising campaigns between these disparate national brands that connected them with consumers, what might it be?

The great brands and the great campaigns—whatever medium they’re in—are playing a relevant role in people’s lives. Some brands intrinsically do this and others have to fight to have a meaningful role. We have to show people that they should not only be aware of this brand, but care about it because it either has shared values or makes life easier or better or at some level is relevant for them. If you can get people to like a brand or feel like it is important in their lives, then you’ve established a higher order connection with a consumer. That’s a lot more than just saying that your cheeseburgers taste good.

You have to go to that: Why should they care, what’s in it for the consumer? If you can answer that question well, in any medium, radio included, you’re onto what could be a great campaign.

How and when did you know that working in advertising was the coolest career in the world?

I majored in History and Fine Arts at Harvard, with a focus on medieval art. There weren’t exactly a lot of corporate jobs for people with that major. Once I got a taste of this business and what you can achieve in a career working with talented, fun people with an ever-changing array of challenges, that was it. We actually have the ability to change the way people feel about brands and issues. It’s pretty much second to none in the business world as a way to make an impact and have an interesting and varied career.