A Storyteller's Perspective

MacDonald’s creative work is rich and varied. Samples include a a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade derived from the animated Christmas special Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus, which he helped create. Photography courtesy Matt MacDonald ’98.

July 15, 2014

By Susan Andrews

Watching the California Raisins sashay across stage to an altered rendition of the song “I Heard It through the Grapevine” or appreciating the creative genius of Little Caesar’s pizza commercials as a young boy, Matt MacDonald ’98 was fascinated by what he called “little movies.” He knew then what he knows now: Advertising can be more entertaining than watching many TV shows or a blowout Super Bowl game.

Today, he is an executive creative director at BBDO, the world’s second-largest advertising agency, leading the behemoth AT&T account. Before that, he was chief creative officer at J. Walter Thompson New York, rising from junior copywriter to CCO in just 10 years. MacDonald says he would not be where he is today without Bradley University and its championship speech team.

“The irony is that I didn’t even want to go to Bradley,” he said. “I grew up across the street. My parents and grandparents were proud Bradley graduates. I wanted to move to Chicago and be ‘creative.’ That would have been a terrible mistake. Fortunately, fate — and my mom — intervened.”

Traveling back in time, he said, “You would not say ‘that guy is going to lead anything, or let’s follow that guy somewhere.’” He credited his speech team coaches Dan Smith and Karen Morris, former directors of forensics; Dr. Chris Kasch, associate professor of communication; Dr. Ed Lamoureux, professor of interactive media and communication; and others for laying the foundation to his future. “My peer group also served as great teachers to me,” he said. “The Bradley speech team has this amazing tradition of seniors mentoring freshmen and an openness to saying what will make each member better.”

MacDonald, who served as president of the speech team, noted that he learned how to give and take criticism — looking at the flaws in his own work — which continues to be a key ingredient to his success.

For those who believe creative people can’t accept criticism, he asserted, “The most creative people I have ever met understand that the right word or a nudge in the right direction means everything.”

He believes, “The Don Draper / Lone Creative Genius thing is a bit of a myth. These days, advertising is a team sport, and great work is impossible without close collaboration with clients, media partners, even the people wearing suits.” To excel in advertising, MacDonald explained that you need a good deal of empathy for both what the client needs, but also, what the audience wants.

“You have to be empathetic to what is changing in culture all the time, which is challenging given the speed of new technology to the marketplace.”

Another monumental challenge can be determining the message delivery platform. “Years ago, you had television, radio or print,” MacDonald said. “Now, there are countless ways to tell a story, and finding the right way is critical.” He has had the freedom to produce a commercial, create documentaries for the film festival circuit, write a children’s book, create a royalty-free musical to promote theatre education in schools, and even make an animated Christmas special that airs annually on CBS.

Pictured above are two of many AT&T ad campaigns that were launched in 2014. Watch the “Building You a Better Network” series at bradley.edu/go/ht-BetterNetwork and the “Sing” commercials atsing.att.com.

No matter the delivery mode, MacDonald says his experience performing and competing on Bradley’s speech team taught him what moves his audience. “That doesn’t always have to mean moving someone to tears or laughter but rather creating an experience that makes people think or feel differently.”

The convergence of technology, entertainment, and culture was a critical factor in his decision to take on the challenge of leading AT&T for BBDO. “Mobile technology has the potential to change the world — just like the telephone did 100 years ago — which makes this an exciting place to be right now.”

He met his wife, Sandy, on Friendster, a website predating Myspace and Facebook. And he stays fresh by feeding his brain through experiencing the world, not sitting at his desk. He experiments with new technology and social platforms by diving in headfirst. “Last fall, I started a Tumblr about my twin daughters’ ridiculous demands called ‘The Junior Clients.’ They’ll hate me when they’re teenagers, but it was a good learning experience,” he added with good humor.

Regarding his daughters — who turned 4 in January — they don’t always get what their dad does for a living. “Last Christmas, we showed them the holiday special that I helped create, Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus. They were bored in 15 minutes,” he admitted. “I chalked it up as another valuable lesson in understanding your audience.”

— Susan Andrews