Tim O’Kennedy lays out his plans for D&AD

Tim O’Kennedy is taking over as chief executive of D&AD during exciting but challenging times. Lynda Relph-Knight spoke to him about globalisation and seizing the opportunities created by the digital revolution

‘I’m Irish and we like a fight. We like a cause. D&AD is about causes.’ So says Tim O’Kennedy, a passionate adman-cum-sailor who joins as chief executive next month, filling a post laid vacant when Michael Hockney departed the organisation suddenly, in March 2007.

And O’Kennedy is likely to get his heart’s desire. Without a public-facing helmsman, D&AD has lost ground in design, despite consecutive presidencies by designers Dick Powell, Simon Waterfall and Garrick Hamm, and he will be pushed to restore faith in the organisation that, above all others, upholds creative excellence. Nor has D&AD fully embraced product and environmental design as a foil to print and moving image.

Meanwhile, the ad industry – arguably the backbone of D&AD – is floundering. Recession has hit adland hard, but so, too, have technological shifts in communications and diverse new platforms, as well as growing cynicism among consumers. People won’t just buy because of a good ad now. They want to be engaged in the process – in the ‘brand environment’.

Downturn notwithstanding, this move has slightly shifted the balance between advertising and design in clients’ boardrooms. For D&AD, it has blurred boundaries and potentially reduced income from the formerly lucrative UK ad community.

O’Kennedy – an adman, most recently at Wieden & Kennedy in Amsterdam, with a celebrated interior designer mother, Clodagh O’Kennedy – is circumspect. Stressing he is not in post until 3 August, he says, ‘The first thing I have to do is to understand D&AD,’ adding, ‘There seem to be some on-going debates’, the first being ‘to what extent it’s a church of many faiths’.

The process of listening has only just begun for him, but he believes that, yes, it should indeed be a church of many faiths. It’s just a question of which, and in what measure.

Then there is the issue of D&AD’s increasing globalisation that has raised hackles, particularly through its awards. Should it be British or international? ‘If we are to reflect great communication arts, we can’t do it in a walled garden,’ says O’Kennedy. Until recently, a big concern for D&AD was the state of its finances. But thanks to the supreme efforts of Dara Lynch, finance director and acting chief executive, her team and successive presidents, O’Kennedy doesn’t face that challenge as he might have a year or so ago. Lynch – and chairman Anthony Simonds-Gooding – held out for the right person, rather than rush to fill the gap left by Hockney, and financial stability has been achieved in the intervening period.

Batting off quips about D&AD’s Irish mafia, O’Kennedy cites Lynch as a significant reason for taking the job. ‘She gives me confidence that the wheels aren’t going to fall off once I leave the office,’ he says, describing his role as outward-facing, ‘getting out there to further flung places and asking, “What does this mean?”’, and providing continuity.

So what is on O’Kennedy’s embryonic agenda? Well, digital communication for starters. ‘The most dynamic aspect is the evolution of digital arts, so a key task is to ensure that D&AD is future-proofed,’ he says. ‘The connected world creates better opportunities for creativity, not just new platforms. Maybe we can be more conceptual about the space a brand lives in.’

This, he maintains, includes 3D design. ‘I believe that, in one sense, everything is about communication, so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t fit in in D&AD,’ he says. But, with ‘general instincts [that] are reductionist rather than additive’, nothing is a given.

O’Kennedy is positive about the future, however, seeing the digital revolution as a huge opportunity for creativity. ‘It might create a golden period for communications,’ he says. If so, we can expect D&AD to ride that wave.

TIM O’KENNEDY CV:

  • Early 1980s – joins Saatchi & Saatchi London, following which he is hired by Jay Chiat as one of the first account planners in US advertising
  • 1988 – joins Wieden & Kennedy Portland
  • 1990 – is appointed international marketing director at Nike and later joins Lowe Group Europe as chief operating officer
  • 1998 – becomes a founding partner of marketing agency Circus
  • 2005 – moves to Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam as managing director, where he remains until the end of 2007
  • August 2009 – joins D&AD as chief executive

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