Creative Lives — Ciaran McCarthy, Group Creative Director at R/GA, on recreating The Prodigy’s Firestarter and the essential reading for creatives
Ciaran McCarthy is a group creative director at London ad agency R/GA. For the past three years he's worked alongside Edwin Latchford on Beats by Dre – the audio titan that has since become North America and Europe’s top-selling headphone under the duo’s watchful eye. Despite having a background in graphic design (something that Ciaran feels kickstarted his career), writing is now his most vital skill – a feat particularly challenging in a bustling open-plan office. Ciaran splits his time between guiding the creative teams and management duties. Just don’t ask him about pivot tables…
Group Creative Director at R/GA (2014–present)
Beats by Dre, Air New Zealand, Coca-Cola, Guinness
Freelance Senior Art Director, Mother London (2014)
Freelance Senior Art Director, R/GA London (2013-2014)
Freelance Senior Art Director, The Brooklyn Brothers London (2013)
Senior Art Director, Host Sydney (2011-2013)
Art Director, Publicis QMP, Dublin (2007- 2011)
BDes Graphic Design and Communications, National College of Art and Design, Dublin (2002-2006)
How would you describe what you do?
For the past three years I’ve worked between R/GA London and LA on the Beats by Dre account with my creative partner, Edwin Latchford. Recently I became a group creative director and head of department; my role is split almost equally between management and creative direction. As a manager I develop and nurture the creative culture of the agency, from our internal process to bonding as a team. There are also the day-to-day responsibilities of running an agency: timesheets, allocations and conflict management. As a creative director I work across a broad range of clients, usually around four to five at once. I’m responsible for helping the creative teams create the best work possible. This usually involves me guiding or getting out of their way when needed and helping them sell brave work to the client.
What does a typical working day look like?
A typical working day is long and chaotic. I’ve been an early riser all of my life and I love the quiet of the mornings, before the rest of the agency wakes up and the emails start to come in. I usually wake between 5.30am and 6am and head to the gym. I find that exercise has a big effect on my stress and productivity levels, so it’s very important to me. After the gym I have a cup of coffee and write out a plan for the day. I attempt to stick to a calendar or diary, but usually fail around midday. Working hours are equally chaotic and vary a lot depending on the projects but I usually begin around 9am and answer my final email around 8pm. I’m lucky that have I don’t have that far to commute from the office (a 40-minute walk or a 5-minute taxi) so if I do work late I can get home relatively quickly.
“There is no better way to express an idea than through a simple drawing. I'll sketch out ideas for the teams or myself – they often laugh, but they get the point.”
How did you land your current job?
I started at R/GA as a freelance art director in October 2013.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
As I’ve progressed from being a creative to a creative director, I’ve found that I need to balance the time I spend in the office with the space I need to create work. When I’m writing or concepting, I will spend a lot of time in cafés, walking the neighbourhood around the agency or at home. I find it extremely difficult to focus in open-plan offices and I need almost total silence to write. But as a manager it’s difficult to leave the office for long periods of time and being visible in the agency is an important part of the job. Noise-cancelling headphones are a must so being the creative director on Beats has been particularly useful in this regard. This response is not sponsored by Beats!
How collaborative is your role?
At R/GA collaboration is an integral part of our culture and the key to creating the type of work we do. As a creative director a large part of my job is bringing our tech, UX, design and creative departments together to create great work.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I’ve recently been introduced to the world of spreadsheets and pivot tables (if you don’t know what a pivot table is, trust me you don’t want to know). I’m trying hard to enjoy them but I’m failing.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Last year we launched a new global campaign for Beats called Be Ready. Edwin and myself were creative directors and creatives on the project alongside John McCelvey and Hannes Ciatti. This was the last piece of work we did for Beats, and the most ambitious yet. We created two long-form films and an integrated campaign that launched simultaneously in the US and Europe. For the films themselves, we visualised the athletes’ pre-game zone by transporting them into two iconic music videos: The Prodigy’s Firestarter and E-40’s Tell Me When To Go. The most exciting (and stressful) part of the project was working closely with the bands and the original music video directors to recreate each shot as accurately as possible.
“Even though I trained as a graphic designer, writing is the most essential skill for my job, especially now I’m at a senior level.”
What skills are essential to your job?
For me it’s all about clarity and ownership of how your idea is expressed. Even though I trained as a graphic designer, writing is the most essential skill for my job, especially at a senior level. Being able to clearly articulate an idea in a compelling way is extremely important. It also helps to be able to provide clear and concise feedback to teams on their work. As an art director, a great working knowledge of the Adobe suite is essential. A lot of art directors will rely on designers to bring their work to life, but I’ve always believed that this is something you should learn to do yourself. Finally, there is no better or quicker a way to express an idea than a simple drawing. I'll sketch out ideas for the teams or myself – they often laugh at my drawings, but they get the point.
What tools do you use most for your work?
MacBook Air; iPhone 7; Adobe Creative Suite; Google Docs; Analogue; Muji black pens; Moleskine notebook.
Do you run any self-initiated projects alongside your job?
When I was younger I taught myself to code and I drew a lot. I’ve recently become more interested in agency culture and the ways I can create change. One of the projects on my agenda for this year is to help run an initiative that addresses mental health within the agency.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be a painter or an architect. I studied art at college but quickly switched to graphic design when I realised how much I enjoyed the technical side of the work. I plan on being an amateur architect one day when I can eventually afford a house.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Graphic design was useful for me when I started in advertising. A lot of art directors come via advertising courses and lack the design skills and thinking that I had. These skills helped me progress quickly and stand out amongst the other creatives. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t get to create the work much in my current role, but my knowledge of design and art direction help me guide the teams and work with directors and photographers.
What were your first jobs?
My first job out of college was as a 3D animator for a small company called Pixel Soup. I realised pretty quickly that the world of dark rooms and rendering was not for me and managed to get myself an internship at Publicis QMP in Dublin. I worked for free for six months and eventually, through a combination of hard work and grovelling, I landed my first job.
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career? There were two significant people in my career. Ger Roe, creative director at Publicis QMP, gave me my internship and my first job. Considering I had no advertising portfolio and I came to the interview with a sketchbook of half-thought out ideas, I still have no idea why he offered me the position. Hopefully I have done him proud. The second person is my executive creative director from Host Sydney, Leslie Ali. Leslie came to Host from W+K and DDB and she is the most inspirational person I know. She made me believe that with hard work and grit, anything is possible. She gave me more responsibility than I deserved at my level and accelerated my career by a good five years.
“I’ve never been good at conflict or confrontation. I’ve seen a lot of ideas I believed in die because I lacked the skills to protect and defend them.”
Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development?
The Kiwi Sceptics project at Host was my first significant piece of work. I won my first Cannes Lion (which was a dream of mine for a long time) and I was given a lot of responsibility and ownership for someone at my level. I believe that project set me up for the rest of my career.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
As mentioned, as I’ve moved up within the industry writing has become more important to me than art direction. About five years ago it was a widely held belief that creatives should be able to code. I learned to code but to be honest it never had a direct impact on the work that I do. The lesson I’ve learned is that it’s good to stay on top of shifting skill sets, but being able to concept and articulate a great idea is all you need.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
I’ve never been good at conflict or confrontation. Obviously I come across a lot of that in my current role but I’m working hard to fix it. I realised it was something I needed to address when I didn’t fight as hard as I could have for my ideas in the past. I saw a lot of ideas I believed in die because I lacked the skills to protect and defend them.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current
I’m not thinking too much about the future right now. I’ve always wanted to work as a creative director in a world-class agency, so my focus now is getting the best out my current role. I’m open to whatever may happen in the future but I imagine it will be in the world of advertising.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a creative director?
My advice is simple, read these three books: Talent Is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin, Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday and Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull. And remember that our industry is small, so work hard and don’t be an asshole.