m&k: Matthew Bull, you were born in England, grew up in South Africa and now live with your family in New York. Movement and change seem to be a constant in your life. How has that shaped you as a person?
Matthew Bull: Yes, movement does indeed play a big role in my life. The move from England to South Africa was formative. But we also moved around a lot within South Africa, I often changed schools, my mother had different partners, there was a lot of instability. I instinctively felt that I couldn't sink into a negative mindset. I had to face new situations, turn towards them; wanted to be part of the community I lived in. I was always interested in the people and culture around me. The constant change in my life was hard - but also great.
Why don't you tell us a little bit more about it?
Life gave me resilience and confidence. Every time I moved, I thought, "Oh, my God, will I ever be happy again? Will I ever make new friends?" The answer was "Yes!" every time. I grew from my challenges. And I can use the lessons I've learned in my job as a creative and consultant every day. I know about setbacks, I know what it's like to step out of your comfort zone - it takes courage and confidence. And a willingness to take risks, to venture into new territory.
You describe yourself as someone, who loves change, but values stability. Does that fit together?
Yes, in my eyes it is. One is values that I live by. Principles that I have. In relationships, for example. Have I still made mistakes? Yes, of course, I have also betrayed these values. That was bad for me, but above all for those around me. But the older I get, the better I manage to be the person I want to be. I value loyalty very much, both in my private life and in business. I've had the same customers and the same employees for years. We value honesty and trust.
Your resume as a creative is full of superlatives. You've won countless awards, you're one of the top five marketers in the world, what does that do to you?
I think I'm getting a God complex with age (laughs) …
Excuse me? (laughs)
I'm kidding. Oh dear, I hope my wife doesn't read the interview, she kills me (laughs). What I mean is, these things used to mean a lot to me. Awards, accolades; I wanted to be seen and celebrated. Today, I like to take a back seat. I'm proud when I can create an environment where creative excellence is possible. Awards are the appreciation for that. The team wins. In Cannes, I didn't go up on stage with AB inBev when we were named Marketer of the Year. I sent the team up and was happy. Everyone worked hard to catapult the brand forward like that. Their pride makes me proud.
Does your understanding of mentoring also have something to do with your own development?
Yes, you speak to something true there. I was bad at school - and it didn't get better the more I had to change schools. But then there was this principal, Warren Boden, who saw something in me and encouraged me. He gave me the chance I needed to blossom. We're still in close contact today. But also professionally, I didn't have a lot of confidence in myself, I didn't believe I was any good. I moved to the Hunt Lascaris TBWA agency. Unfd found my mentor. John Hunt. He saw my hidden potential, created an environment where I could grow and thrive. And look at me today, I've grown so much that I can afford a god complex (laughs loudly). No, seriously: I never look at people's career vita, always only at the existing or even the still hidden creative potential, that's what I learned from John.
"In Cannes, I didn't go up on stage with AB inBev when we were named Marketer of the Year. I sent the team up and was happy. Their pride makes me proud."
You started your career as a journalist. What made you switch to advertising?
As a boy, I loved watching commercials, it fascinated me. But I preferred to be a journalist. Write, do research. Until I realized that wasn't exciting enough for my character profile: I was a "bullshit artist" as a young man. I could "conjure up" the craziest ideas, stories and visions out of thin air and fascinate everyone around me with them. Imagine, I made my fellow students at boarding school believe that I would play for the Manchester United youth team! (grabs his hand in disbelief)
And from the "bullshit artist" have Made you a no-bullshit artist,
You said that well, yes, that's true. There is no bullshit with me. I'm strict in my work. My favorite phrase is, "You can do better." It takes time for me to be satisfied with the output, but it's worth it. Tough on the issues, but engaging in my dealings, that's my leadership mentality. People need a hug just as much as honest criticism. Then they can live out their creativity freely.
"As a young man, I was a "bullshit artist." I could "conjure up" the craziest ideas, stories and visions out of thin air and fascinate everyone around me with them."
If you look at your career in advertising with a distance: Was everything better in the past?
But no. I think everything is always good the way it is right now. When I first started, we created content for television, radio, print and outdoor. It was wonderful; everything was very simple. There was a language spoken, so to speak, that I understood. And then technology took over, the Internet came, then social media. In the beginning I hated it, because I didn't understand the new channels of communication. Suddenly, advertising was no longer a "one-way street," but a dialogue developed with the audience. But being me, I embraced the change and learned to love it. The creative possibilities are endless. Even now, with the emergence of "Web3".
In your opinion, is the "Web3" the future?
The technology isn't there yet, but that's only a matter of time. Tools such as AI glasses are still too heavy. It's like just before the emergence of the smartphone: Remembering
you remember the first cell phones? They were suitcases that you lugged around with you, and it's like that again right now. But there's a new world emerging, and I say, "Don't be afraid, get out of your comfort zone, get into change." There's only one challenge in doing that ...
And what would that be?
Creativity must not fall by the wayside. It is and remains the magic. After all, I work as a consultant for the client side, so I know that profit comes first for the client. But I don't compromise on creativity. Nor do I compromise on the social structure within the companies I manage - or for which I work.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
When I set up my first agency in South Africa, I brought in the most creative people. Women, people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community: it was like a little "island of the blessed" where we could escape the oppression of what was still a racist, homophobic, patriarchal world in many areas. We created an environment that was diverse and allowed creativity to run free. We had an open mind and an open heart. That's the world I feel comfortable in, that's the condition I set when I'm advising a company today and putting together the team.
What else is important to you so that you can really as an advisor in a project get in?
Once the creative environment has been created and the players feel comfortable, the customer needs to be willing to take risks. The courage to make mistakes, the courage to go out on a limb, to go out on a limb. Courage to try what seems impossible. But it is just as important to ask questions; to enter into a dialog. You can only do that if you ask "why".
When we ask ourselves "why" in conversation, we give the other person the opportunity to explain himself. And can thus also explain ourselves. In this way, we narrow the gap between us and begin to build bridges. In this way, we can make the world a little better in the best case.
How do you transfer your world view to the advertising?
Today, brands can and must engage in dialogue with their customers. Put a smart, empathetic person at the intersection of brand and community. When the shitstorm hits because we defend LGBTQIA+ rights or rethink the recipe for hamburgers, do as Michelle Obama said, "When they go low, we go high." Engage in conversation, take your counterpart seriously. That's what makes the difference. Put people at the interfaces who know their stuff, who have emotional intelligence. People who are interested in other people, who want to understand why things are the way they are. Honest people who don't judge other people, don't pigeonhole them and elevate themselves above them. Eye level, respect, trust, honesty: If we show this to people, to clients and consumers, then we have done our job. That's what I see as my job. The awards are simply a bouquet of flowers at the end of a hard day, a thank you. A symbol that we have struck the right note.
Let's take another step back. When you are hired, to turn a fire into a "love fire". make - what are the questions that you face with the team?
We start by becoming aware of what we want to achieve together. What is the vision? If I know where the journey is to go, then from there we go back to the beginning. To the core. What is the brand's claim? What has made it successful? We have to be honest: Is that core still relevant today? If we answer "no" to this question, there is a good chance that the brand or product will have to be allowed to die. This rarely happens, but it can happen if you analyze honestly and sincerely.
And when it's clear that the path is worth taking?
Then we take that core and connect it to consumers. Modernize the core, make it contemporary, and communicate it on all channels that are relevant.
"Magic without logic is meaningless, logic without magic is dull".
How do you do it?
Take our Cannes winner this year, AB InBev. The brewery. How did we make the Budweiser brand a "love brand" with the community? Today, material things are still important, but much more important today are intangible assets: relationships, "quality time." Perfect for a beer, right? (laughs) So I said to my team, let's figure out how to communicate this idea to consumers both logically and with a touch of magic.
So it takes magic and logic - in the Interaction?
Oh yes! I stole this from a wonderful South African advertiser. "Magic without logic is meaningless, logic without magic is dull." It takes both. Logic is the strategy, the core purpose, the promise. We have to nail that down, that has to sit, not for a few years, no, for a century. Big brands like Apple, Nike, they've identified that logic. Then we sprinkle the magic topping on it. The magic is what people turn to, what they stay loyal to, what they act as enthusiastic brand ambassadors for.
One CEO said of you, "Matthew Bull acts like an enema during creative Constipation." The creativity released but must also be distributed wisely become. How to reach your target groups most effectively?
(laughs) You actually need a smart sales strategy. You have to know: Brands and people operate in parallel. Brands are only as good as the people who talk about them. So we make sure we tell the story we want to distribute widely to the right person in the village. The one we know he or she will influence. Let's make sure our story is retold everywhere. "Word-of-mouth" is the safest channel there is. The modern village square is social media, the metaverse; after all, the village square today is always wherever the target group happens to be.
"A brand should be radically honest with itself and cover only those topics that are identifiable with its core."
The world today seems in many ways respect have gone off the rails. Can brands be an anchor for the Be society?
Absolutely. People are loyal when they trust. This applies to relationships between people, but also to relationships between people and brands. Brands should recognize that they have a responsibility. They can make people feel good, satisfy their need.
Is there anything brands should definitely not do?
Brands should not overestimate themselves. A brand should be radically honest with itself and cover only those topics that are identifiable with its core. Johnson and Johnson can talk about motherhood, that is their core topic; Budweiser can talk about community, but ... please not about space travel! (laughs) That's not something we would associate with beer. At the end of the day, we want to make life a little easier for consumers: A beer should refresh, a Kraft-Heinz product should nourish, a car should get them from A to B safely. That's it. Nothing more, nothing less.
Matthew Bull founded Lowe Bull South Africa and built it into one of the 50 largest creative agencies in the world. After 17 years, he sold the company, served as CEO of Lowe London before becoming Lowe's Global CCO. Bull founded The Bull-White House in New York, served as CCO of Mcgarrybowen New York. In late 2017, he founded SoloUnion.