Creative Women: Mariana O’Kelly

Mariana O'Kelly (17)


Mariana O’Kelly is an award winning Executive Creative Director at Ogilvy & Mather  Johannesburg. An inspired creative leader with a wry sense of humour, Mariana’s advertising career spans almost two decades and is testament to her passion for what she does.  Something of an anomaly in the ad world, where most senior creative roles are still occupied by men, Mariana proves that being a creative woman doesn’t in fact need to be proven – she simply does what she’s good at and the rest just follows, like receiving the Grand Prix Radio at Cannes Lions this year. 



What did you want to be when you were growing up?


I wanted to be lots of things. At first a ballerina. But as I loved mixing liquids together in exact quantities, I wanted to become a pharmacist at one stage as well.  Later on, I dreamed of becoming a conductor swinging my arms wildly in front of a massive philharmonic orchestra playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.



What are some of the good things and some of the challenges about working in the creative industry in South Africa right now?


A while ago I read on a friend’s Facebook status that he thought advertising had become a celebration of the small victories instead of the big ones. That nowadays we get so happy when a client lets us keep the track we believe in, or the way the end logo gets revealed, that we have forgotten what it’s like to celebrate the big victories.  Like when a big idea actually gets bought and the details are left for the creatives to craft until perfection. I liked his status that day.


I guess what is amazing about the creative industry in SA now is that there are so many talented peeps coming from all cultures and backgrounds. It makes for great insights and interesting stories. We truly are a creative nation.


Mariana O'Kelly (6) Mariana O'Kelly (12)


What three words sum up the creative industry in SA?


I briefed a junior copywriter to come up with a suitably concise response but I can’t bring myself to review what looks like a Photostat of the thesaurus.



The ad industry is renowned for burning up and spitting out creatives; how have you negotiated this to establish your long and successful career?


When I was in school, I took part in almost all sports, but I wasn’t good at any of them. I couldn’t get past third team – mostly got stuck in fourth team, in fact. So I learned that I didn’t have to be fast to take part.  Go slow and steady and you still make it over the finish line, and then you get to have ice cream. But, if you bullet to the finish, you may be number one but you often just end up vomiting on your teacher’s white trainers.



Why are there so few women in creative leadership roles in advertising?  How can this be changed?


I’m only on page 93 of Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Leaning In”. She seems to be quite an expert on these kinda questions. I’ll get back to you on this one.


Mariana O'Kelly (1) Mariana O'Kelly (7)


How would you define your leadership style, and what do you think makes for an excellent creative leader?


When I was little I loved to draw. But there were five kids in the family, so display space on the fridge was limited. I remember how invincible I felt when my picture was finally put up there, like I could take on the entire drawing universe. I don’t think this changes when we grow up. Creatives want someone to believe in them and their work. Then they want a space to hang their pictures and their stories.  I think it’s any creative leader’s job to help provide that for them.



You led your team to a Cannes Grand Prix win recently. What’s the key to a great ad?


That the team had fun on the brief.

That the solution is effortless and not trying too hard.

That it doesn’t feel like an ad, but a story.

That you can feel the solution, not think it.

That the brand is not an add-on, but integral to the solution.



What daily influences and inspirations feed your creativity?


I love observing my young twin boys. They can imagineer the most mundane objects into almost anything. Old washed-out towels can become battlegrounds and a half-eaten sandwich can become a vicious dog chasing an astronaut. The other day they played a game on a “PlayStation” they made out of paper, with all the characters drawn in detail on the “screen”. I try to look at daily problems the way they do, wandering through the forest of challenges and looking at what’s hiding behind trees and under rocks. I guess it’s about taking a daily dose of “what if” into your day.


Mariana O'Kelly (9) Mariana O'Kelly (11) Mariana O'Kelly (13)


With the rapid development of digital marketing, what does the future of traditional ATL marketing look like?


I believe most traditional agencies in SA have already evolved beyond ATL. But the problem doesn’t lie in coming up with ideas that can stretch. It’s executing these integrated, digitally-led campaigns that’s a problem, as they’re usually very costly and time consuming to build. Clients buy into them until they see the CE, then we end up going back to traditional ATL and banners on websites.



If you could dispel one myth about the ad industry, what would it be and why?


It’s hard to tell. When you are in the industry, you don’t always know what those on the outside believe. I would love to know though.



What do you love most about what you do?


Board meetings. They’re the best part of any creative person’s day.



Which female creative inspires you and why?


Peggy Olsen. She’s the best-dressed female creative I have ever met.


Mariana O'Kelly (16)Mariana O'Kelly (8)Mariana O'Kelly (15)



A selection of Mariana’s work:


More info on the campaign and full credits. 




 More info on the campaign and full credits.



More info on the campaign and full credits.


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More info on the campaign and full credits. 




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