In-Depth: James Kirkham at Leo Burnett Worldwide

by Jessica Ramesh

James Kirkham is Global Head of Mobile and Social at Leo Burnett Worldwide and also Co-founder and Managing Partner of Holler, the highly regarded digital strategy agency. James has given talks and seminars at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity and regularly speaks at conferences including The Guardian Changing Media Summit. He’s also contributed to the Sunday Times, Broadcast and Creative Review. He’ll be among the speakers at the Figaro Digital Marketing Conference on 17 July 2014. We caught up with James to chat about comedy, heckling, mobile and the big issues at Cannes Lions 2014.

At Cannes this year you gave a presentation exploring the relationship between advertising planning and stand-up comedy – not two fields we traditionally associate with each other. What’s the connection there?

Yes, we spent 45 minutes dissecting them both. Comedians and planners both have to craft their insights and hone their delivery. Our former head of planning used to be a comic and he noticed a lot of very startling similarities between the two! One of the interesting things we were thinking about was the way comedians love being heckled. A good heckle can be very creative – it really sparks the imagination.

In this post-Oreo, ‘always-on’ world, brands obviously get heckled as well, but they can respond in a really smart, relevant, reactive way. That’s very much one of the things I’ll be touching on at the conference: how to remain creative in our post-‘always-on’ world. 

There’ve been huge changes over the last few years, but with those changes come massive opportunities. Analysis which used to take three days, you can now get in an hour on Facebook. That allows you to put your money where your mouth is and work on the fly. Having things siloed in an agency no longer makes sense. You need your analysts sitting next to your creatives so that when you see something catching fire, you can react. 

People always cite Oreos’ Tweet at the 2013 Super Bowl as this great, disruptive moment, but it goes back further than that. There’s a wonderful example which we showed in Cannes. In 2008 one user thought they’d found a bug in EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Golf game in which Woods seems to walk on water. That got posted on YouTube, but then EA shot back with a video in which Woods takes off his shoes and appears to walk across the water to take a swing. EA’s comment was “It’s not a glitch. He’s just that good.” 

All of that came out of what was basically a heckle, but it’s a great example of that reactive, always-on approach. One of the things I also want to touch on is where that leaves us now. Brands are now much more democratic, but creativity still needs to win. 

Every year Leo Burnett run a series of predictions about the issues likely to be big at Cannes (and beyond.) Broadly speaking, what were some of the overarching themes you picked up on there this year?

There was very much a nod this year to what I’m going to call ‘beautifully made stuff.’ Things like Volvo Trucks’ ‘Epic Split’ video [this year’s big winner at Cannes, in which Jean Claude Van Damme straddles two reversing trucks] is just a brilliant piece of film. It’s interesting how, in our new media world, film is so lauded again. 

Everyone’s talking about mobile, of course. I had a lot of quite lively conversations in Cannes about this, and the good thing is that mobile is no longer considered some mad, new dark art that you need to master. Instead it’s something you need to be considerate of as one of the places where your stuff exists – all the time. There’s been a tendency in years gone by to segregate it but that’s not the case now. Mobile is just a platform that things exist on. Communications don’t necessarily need to be wildly different for mobile, but they need to be respectful of it. People are generally tuned into that now. 

But then, to be honest, the word ‘digital’ is almost ludicrous now. What isn’t digital? It permeates everything. For all the segregation and compartmentalisation you may want to do, everything now has to fit together. It’s about a brilliant, beautiful idea that captures someone’s imagination. Digital, mobile, social, interactive, cyber – it can be quite difficult to see the dotted lines between these things now. They’re just the fabric of our world and I think that’s something that was reflected at Cannes this year. 

So though we talk about the distinctions between online and offline, the answer might actually be ‘no-line’?

Exactly. You talk to a teenager now and they don’t know what ‘online’ is. That’s not how they think about the world. It’s all just stuff, in places, on their terms.

Interview by Jon Fortgang