Roisin Keown: Running an advertising hit factory in Ireland

Small, flexible and fun, The Brill Building is the flip-side of a monolithic agency. Founder and ECD Roisin Keown tells us how she’s moving the needle.

yoluyla Mark Tungate , AdForum

First things first: Roisin Keown’s first name is pronounced “Row-sheen”. She disliked it as a child, but then pop diva Roisin Murphy came along and put it in lights. “I never thought I’d hear my name in the pop charts,” she says.

In fact, pop music is a theme of the first part of our interview, mostly because the agency is called The Brill Building. Sound familiar? In fact, it’s a building in Manhattan that became a vital component of the music industry; a warren of music publishers, agents and songwriters. “By 1962,” Wikipedia tells us, “the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses.” Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector and Liza Minelli are just three of the legends associated with the place.

Roisin says: “The mythology around the building was that it was a place where all the creatives were working together: the songwriters, the composers, the producers. They used to say that you could walk in with an idea and out with a hit single. When I started hiring my friends and talented creators I know, I thought it was a great metaphor for the way we wanted to operate. The idea that you can amass the world’s best talent and just make great work.”

It's also a nod to the fact that she started out as a music journalist: “Although I was less interested in the DJs I was interviewing than going to concerts for free,” she jokes. More seriously, while writing is a solo gig, advertising is a group effort. “I was drawn to the collaborative aspect of it. Working in a team brings out the best in me. And while in journalism you tend to specialise in a subject, advertising allows you to learn many different skills.”

 

More work – faster and better

 

Roisin forged her advertising career at the Irish agency DDFH&B – the Dublin outpost of the JWT network – where she worked alongside Peter Snodden, now Creative Partner at The Brill Building. (The agency later became JWT Folk and is now VML). She started as an intern and by the time she left, in 2018, she was Head of Creative. “That was very instructive for me, because I had great exposure to the JWT network, which helped me shape my approach and what I wanted to achieve.”

It gave her a global outlook and an awareness of the pressures that impact creativity at every level of the business, including shrinking budgets and tighter deadlines. There was also a sense of frustration about the way the traditional agency-client relationship, with its many layers and approvals, can be a barrier to getting the best work out.

Having tried to step away from advertising for a while, she quickly found herself taking on clients as an individual and working with freelancers to complete projects. One of these was the first hit of her comeback: “The Shop That Nearly Wasn’t”. A store staffed by – and selling goods made by – cancer survivors. It stormed the Irish awards scene and won double silver at the Euro Effies.

 

 

“All of a sudden we had massive proof of concept for the way I thought creativity should work, which was about creating more work, faster and better,” Roisin recalls. “The agency should be creative-led, agile in spirit, and the creative should always sit at the table with the client. That way the creative and the client have a joint sense of ownership of the work, but without the bureaucracy.”

 

Lean and effective

 

This concept became The Brill Building. A core leadership team of seven, but with a network of external talent, and 100 percent remote despite its name. “As far as I’m concerned, the office is a bit like a compact disc: it’s an outmoded delivery system. After all, what do you need in our business? Teamwork and collaboration. Those of us who are based in Ireland meet up face-to-face once or twice a week.”

Whatever happens next, the light touch must remain. “At the end of the day, advertising is a simple discipline: a great insight – the skill is in choosing the right one – a brand mission or purpose that’s strong, true and can be lived up to, expressed in a lovely creation that people want to spend time with, whether that's a film, an AR filter, an exhibition, or a newspaper. It’s only the people who make it complicated.”

The Brill Building has shown its model delivers, she adds, “consistently making award-winning work that is putting us at the top of local industry awards shows against much bigger and more established players”, as well as reaping international wins.

Take, for example, the “Paddy Irishman Project” with photographer Ross O'Callaghan for sponsor Tourism Ireland, a campaign that fought against Irish stereotypes as far afield as New York.

 

 

And then there was “The AR Lens to Save Lives”, for the Marie Keating Foundation, a Snapchat filter created with Meta that enables the early detection of lung cancer symptoms.

 

 

These two projects allowed the agency to dominate Ireland’s APMC Star Awards in April, reaping seven Golds, a Silver and the Grand Prix. “Bravery, innovation and creative excellence,” said the judges.

Roisin’s confidence in the future is justifiably high. “We believe we're building the best little agency in the world,” she says. “We want to make The Brill Building the place to do the best work of your career – whether as a client, part of our team or one of our creative collaborators.”

No matter how big the agency becomes, there seems little doubt that it will remain daring, deft, and just “brill”.