#04: Web Summit 2022: Interview with Graham McDonnell, VP of Brand and Creative for TIME.

December 14, 2022 / 7 min. read

Grilled by TechBBQ #04

Exclusive interview with Graham McDonnell, VP of Brand and Creative at TIME.

Web Summit connects people & ideas that change the world.

I attended Web Summit, one of the world’s largest tech conferences, representing TechBBQ and Danish media.

Thanks to its size and profile, Web Summit attracts some of the biggest names in the technology sphere. I had the opportunity to interview some of these speakers, who kindly took time from their busy schedules to share insights from their lives and experiences.

In 2022, November 1-4, the conference had over 71,000 attendees from 160 countries.

"GRILLED by TechBBQ" aims to inspire and connect Nordic audiences with voices from the global tech scene.

As the Global Head of Brand and Creative for Time, and former creative director for the New York Times, Graham McDonnell took on the spotlight at the completely packed “Content Makers” stage at Web Summit 2022. The Award-winning creative director has 20-plus years specializing in immersive, meaningful stories for brands across digital, social and film. Photo: Web Summit / PR

Exclusive interview with Graham McDonnell,
VP of Brand and Creative at TIME:

In a perfect world, branded content is content that looks like, sounds like, and feels like the native content of any particular platform.

Interview with Graham McDonnell:

Keyvan Thomsen Bamdej:
»Great meeting you, I think our audience would really appreciate knowing more about branded content and the work that you do at TIME. Could you please introduce yourself?«

Graham McDonnell:
»Yes, well, I'm Graham McDonnell. I guess my technical job title is VP of Brand and Creative at TIME, but that's kind of broad and ambiguous. My role is to find the best creative solutions for the creative challenges that we come across. My career path has been quite erratic over the years. I started out in the music industry, moved into the film industry, kind of settled in the design industry. So now, I'm trying to touch on all of these different bits of my experience to come up with the best or most relevant solution to the problem.«

Keyvan:
»So, what is it that you do exactly?«

Graham:
»Technically, brand content falls into the sort of umbrella of advertising. But my job is to make the things that we create actually hold some value. Sounds easy. It's a lot more challenging than you think because obviously, it can be hugely beneficial if content from a trusted publisher talks about your brand, product, or service in a generally engaging way. And this is why brands come to publishers like TIME, in order to co-create content of that nature.«

Keyvan:
»I see. Could you please elaborate?«

Graham:
»So, I've been doing this type of work for nearly 20 years now. I spent five years at The New York Times' T Brand Studio, which is a custom content studio that is a unit of The New York Times and produces paid native advertising for the newspaper. I started working in London, then moved to New York. And the last couple of years, I've been working at TIME.«

Keyvan:
»What is that like?«

Graham:
»It's great. TIME is becoming a 100 year-old-brand in 2023. Definitely, in the last couple of years, we have become an independent company again, and there's been a lot of effort into reestablishing the brand perception in the minds of audiences. You know, TIME is obviously known for TIME Magazine, which is rightly like an institution. But what else? How can we reimagine TIME for the next hundred years? What does it mean? And a lot of our departments, like TIME Studios and the Web3 division have been kind of very much innovating in their spaces to kind of make sure that people do not only think about the physical magazine.«

Keyvan:
»How is it to work with a brand this old, and wanting to innovate and keep things fresh and at the same time respect the history of the publication?«

Graham:
»Well, I mean, it would be a huge mistake to just disregard everything that the TIME brand has built over the last hundred years. There has never been any attempt to do that. But I guess it's just leveraging the strengths of a brand. We always say, especially over the last couple of years, it's a little bit like working at a startup at TIME: You're encouraged to move quickly, and act on ideas that you have. We just so happen to have the power of a 100 year-old-brand behind us. So, that does open up a lot of doors, and as a creative person, I get to explore different areas, which is essentially why we all get up in the morning.«

Photo: Web Summit / PR

Keyvan:
»What fascinates you about your work?«

Graham:
»I've learned how to make sure branded content campaigns have the best chance of success. But what fascinates me is how often brands sabotage their own chances by making just absolute basic errors. As mentioned earlier, in the beginning of my career, I was a designer, and a freelancer. Here, I pitched for a project for this recruitment company who wanted a new website. And in the first meeting with this very animated guy, he was like: "We don't have any job applicants, but we are superstars!" He then had pictured himself a space theme, and was obsessed with Sci-Fi. So, he wanted a little mechanical bird to fly around the website and give the users advice on life. And his idea was when you landed on the page, it would be pitch black. And just as users are about to leave the page, this little glimmer of light would appear... Needless to say, you know, I politely declined that job, but like I say, the majority of my role is to help brands understand how to get out of their own way. Because a lot of the time people start with good intentions.«

Keyvan:
»So, how do good intentions turn into a mess?«

Graham:
»Well, a lot of brands got all of the ingredients for a really solid piece of brand content, but as it goes through production, all of the good elements start to get diluted down. More opinions get thrown into the mix. Someone from the legal department gets involved, the CEO sees the content, then the next door colleague, and suddenly you have too many opinions about the font, the plot, the actors, and everything else. By the time that it actually gets to launch, you end up with a very different end product to the great idea that you had in the beginning.«

Keyvan:
»What is branded content, in a nutshell, if you had to define it?«

Graham:
»So, in a perfect world, branded content is content that looks like, sounds like, and feels like the native content of any particular platform. Except the particular brand has paid the publisher to make sure that the content promotes their product or service in a particular way. It has to have the same quality, the same style, tone, standards that the audience have come to the platform to consume.«

Keyvan:
»What do you appreciate the most about your work?«

Graham:
»I'm quite lucky. Working with my creative team is great. They have a very collaborative way of working. Like the Strategy teams and the Project Managers. Everyone is pretty much in the mix together. So, it's great, you know, to have a single vision for a project and have everybody sort of drive towards it. I guess, the most rewarding thing for me is that my work day is so diversified. So, one day, I might be working in Augmented Reality, the next day, it's a video film. We just shot some amazing films for Audi in Mexico and Germany. Next day, I might be working on a visual print for any number of brands. So, my work is so varied, and I think that it definitely keeps me sort of invigorated and interested.«

Photo: Web Summit / PR

Keyvan:
»So, how come you feel that way?«

Graham:
»Looking back at my career, there is a reason why I have bounced around so much. I get very easily interested in this new shiny thing, and then, you know, bounce to the next thing. And even when at work, we've constantly got any number of projects on-the-go. I find that, if I'm forced to sort of work on one thing, I find it quite difficult. I'm much more efficient when I've got 700 deadlines and, you know, things are moving one hundred miles an hour.«

Keyvan:
»That’s super interesting. So, tell us: How did you prepare for this year's Web Summit and your keynote talk?«

Graham:
»When I was reflecting about the topic, and what to cover at my talk at Web Summit, I saw quite a lot of these similar kind of talks offer like, you know, "Top 10 tips" or guides on "How To Do Things Well" in regards to branded content. In fact, some of the best advice to share is "What Not To Do", and pitfalls to avoid. So, my talk goes into how to avoid making terrible branded content, which is like, you know, what I find is, you've got a lot of good ideas that get thrown into the mixer, and by the time they're actually launched they are relatively diluted. So, it's like, how can you avoid all of the things that chip away with what could be a good idea in the first place?«

Keyvan:
»What type of conferences do you attend, and do you enjoy them?«

Graham:
»Yes, I enjoy conferences. It's mainly because of, sounds cliché, but the people you meet. Definitely, some of the best collaborators that I've worked with throughout the years are all here at Web Summit. Also, I spoke at KIKK Festival in Belgium in 2018, which is an international festival of digital and creative cultures exploring the crossovers between art, science, and technology. The guys at Dark Duck Studio, a production company located in Gothenburg, Sweden, that create commercials, SoMe content, TV-broadcasts, and motion picture, are also brilliant. I've worked with Green Chameleon, which is an Award-winning design agency based in Bristol, UK, on a number of times there. The connections at these conferences have now become some of my very good friends. It's definitely great fun.«

Keyvan:
»You probably also get insights from attending a conference such as Web Summit, but what specifically, and what type of inspirations do you draw on from i.e. Netflix to always keep your creative toolbox intact?«

Graham:
»I would say that I probably spend a significant amount of time every day just surfing the internet, you know, just see the different creative vendors that you work with or the ones that you aspire to work with at some point. And just generally, keeping one eye on what everyone else is doing, to both recognize the craft of competitors and to see what you can improve yourself, at the same time. Also, it makes me reflect on how to solve a particular problem that we have, and for a creative person, I'm also quite OCD at certain things. So, I've got a folder structure of inspiration of WebGL, NFT, Design, films, and so on. My my memory is quite bad, so I have to stay organized.«

A quick backstage profile photo of Graham McDonnell at the interview booth in the Media Lounge. Photo: Keyvan Thomsen Bamdej / Bamdej Communication ApS

Keyvan:
»Who are your competitors at TIME?«

Graham:
»I mean, that's an interesting question, because I see it from two different sides. So, obviously the company that I work for, TIME, you might assume that their competitors are kind of other publishers, and that they are in a certain sense, but also, you could say that any entity that is competing for audiences' attention is our competitor, so Netflix, YouTube, TikTok, and you know, influencers, as such.«

Keyvan:
»Are you active on those channels?«

Graham:
»Yes, we are on all of those channels. So, I'm always on the lookout for sources to try and see what's working and what isn't. I don't know if competitors are the right word here, but just see how other creatives use the space and how they shape a story and communicate.«

Keyvan:
»Could you name some of the companies that you are inspired by?«

Graham:
»Yes. Well, we just did these films with Audi, and a production with Spindle, an award-winning studio based in London, representing a progressive and diverse roster of directing talent. They have got a roster of amazing directors, and I've worked with them in previous companies in the past too.«

Keyvan:
»Talking about innovation, how do you implement some of your inspirations?«

Graham:
»Well, I always try to remind my team that we have to think of the story first, and then how to tell it afterwards. I think, it is a really important point to make. So, when you have a ton of inspiration, work on the story first. You can't start with the container, because then you're constantly trying to fit the content into the shape. Whereas, if you just allow the story to grow organically, then just think what's the best vehicle to make the story digestible and interesting to tell. That's usually the best approach.«

Keyvan:
»What platform should our readers go to, in order to learn more, if you could name a few?«

Graham:
»I'm always pretty active on Twitter and LinkedIn, where I usually post my latest projects. So, that's usually a good to place to keep yourself updated on our work.«

Keyvan:
»Finally, what are you planning for the celebration of TIME's one hundred year milestone?«

Graham:
»I can't reveal that much, but it's definitely going to be a good one.«

About TIME:

TIME is an American news magazine and news website published and based in New York City. For nearly a century, it was published weekly, but starting in March 2020, it transitioned to every other week. It was first published in New York City on March 3, 1923, and for many years, it was run by its influential co-founder, Henry Luce. A European edition (TIME Europe, formerly known as TIME Atlantic) is published in London and also covers the Middle East, Africa, and, since 2003, Latin America. An Asian edition (Time Asia) is based in Hong Kong. The South Pacific edition, which covers Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, is based in Sydney.​

Keynote by Graham McDonnell at Web Summit 2018

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