Vaunnie McDermott: The digital future of advertising is human

Podcast Ep 156: Vaunnie McDermott, the head of ad agency Connelly Partners, says that no matter how digital the ads industry gets, the human touch will always matter.

In our latest podcast, businesswoman McDermott, managing director of advertising agency Connelly Partners Dublin, talks about how the ads industry has changed and how a more human-centric approach merging traditional advertising with digital technology is the way forward. She also talks about her colourful career as an entrepreneur.

McDermott has more than 20 years of experience working in the marketing and advertising industry. She didn’t take the traditional route into industry. After finishing school, she moved to France to work as an Au Pair in Paris for one year.

“90% of what is spent on advertising is wasted because it is neither noticed nor remembered. And that’s a massive challenge for advertising agencies”

She then did a secretarial course, and got a job as a legal secretary at Baker & McKenzie law firm in Paris. Christine Lagarde (ECB President) was a partner in Baker & McKenzie at the time, and sat on the social committee which Vaunnie was also on. She later went back to College as a mature student, completing a degree in European Business with French and German.

McDermott  then founded and ran her own business – Pinkie Hand & Foot Spa – taking the plunge into entrepreneurship from the hospital just after she’d had a second baby. The business had eight employees and a five-week waiting list at its height.

After running her own business for 10 years, she was recruited to Strategem in 2016 to drive new business. Vaunnie has been part of the management team at Connelly Partners Dublin since the Strategem buy out in 2018.

Ahead of her time


“And that’s when the magic happens. Because that idea has to be something that is simple. It could elicit a smile from a person but it must also be memorable”

Connelly Partners Dublin has continued to grow, invest and find success in Ireland since first establishing here in 2018. In just the past year alone, the agency has acquired ZOO Digital in a move that will see Connelly Partners’ Irish presence grow to 45 people with further plans to expand the workforce in the year ahead by 20%. The business also hired Eoin Welsh as Creative Director, an award-winning creative after an extensive career in South Africa, who returned to his roots in Ireland and who has joined the leadership team. 

The business’s Dublin’s clients include Bus Éireann, Expressway,, Boston Scientific (Global), Shannon Airport, Linked Finance, University of Limerick and the Gaelic Players Association (GPA). In recent months the business was named lead creative agency for the National Transport Authority (NTA), which is responsible for overseeing the delivery and development of public transport in Ireland as well as key active travel projects nationwide.

Recalling her time as an entrepreneur with Pinkie Hand & Foot Spa, she appreciates she was ahead of her time in that particular market. “I pretty much brought that market to Ireland. By the time I got out of there nearly every street in Dublin had two or three places. So the market totally changed. I really enjoyed it, especially at the height of what we were doing. I remember Harvey Nicks looking to see if we would open a branch in one of their stores. I remember thinking ‘I’ve done something right in terms of brand positioning.’ I was delighted with myself. I didn’t do it in the end, as financially it wouldn’t have made sense.”

After closing Pinkie Hand & Foot Spa, McDermott took a year’s sabbatical after which she decided to go back into the advertising world, gravitating to her current role as managing director of Connelly.

Her philosophy is that despite the increasing digitalisation of marketing, at its core advertising is about human behaviour. “At the end of the day, people do business with people. Advertising is for people, it’s for humans. So I think that no matter how much platforms change and evolve, at the end of the day we’re still doing the same job for our clients – to find a way that we can connect and engage and get you or others to change behaviour whether it is to buy something or consider something you hadn’t before. That’s our job. And that hasn’t changed. The platforms have changed but the core objective hasn’t.”

At the same time despite all the digital platforms, programmatic, social, podcasts, streaming, you name it, and the increasing granularity of analytics, money still gets wasted.

“90% of what is spent on advertising is wasted because it is neither noticed nor remembered. And that’s a massive challenge for advertising agencies.”

McDermott says the “defiantly” human-centric approach taken by Connelly Partners is to understand the audience and to do that it means having anthropologists working at the agency. “Their job is to study human behaviour in a category and by understanding that we can make sure our message is relevant to that person.”

She said the role of anthropologists was key to Connelly Partners winning the National Transport Authority pitch. “One of our people spent days on public transport, studying how people were using Leap Cards and her study led to insights that led to a lovely creative idea. And that’s when the magic happens. Because that idea has to be something that is simple. It could elicit a smile from a person but it must also be memorable.”

Making memories

Making something memorable is a particular challenge in a world where the average human is bombarded by messages on their smartphones, on social media, on TV, everywhere they go, to a point where their attention spans are no longer what they used to be.

“Digitally, there is a huge amount of platforms. But there is a lot that hasn’t really evolved.”

To counter this, Connelly has a number of strands to its business. After acquiring ZOO Digital last year it has developers, UX and user interface experts working alongside the aforementioned anthropologists and ad agency staff like planners and copywriters.

The company also has an office in Boston with more than 100 people as well as an office in Vancouver. The benefit of this, says McDermott, is that each office can draw on a diversity of skillsets and experiences. “It’s a bit like building with LEGO.”

McDermott points out that despite the growth of digital, marketers should still continue to make use of traditional advertising media like print, TV, radio and outdoor display. This she says is critical for a broader awareness of a brand amongst people.

“We use a term in advertising called brand salience. It’s about the likelihood of someone remembering your brand, and crucially when they’re about to make a decision.

“The job is to make sure that your brand is front of mind or certainly within the consideration set for people.”

Despite all the algorithms and platforms, advertising strategy needs to keep room for creativity and insight. “I think with our creatives number one it starts with understanding human behaviour, and number two it’s about understanding a sector. It’s about having a very strong insight.”

McDermott says that Connelly’s creative departments in Dublin, Vancouver and Boston work very closely and can draw on a world of insights and experiences. “It’s important to create a culture and a place where ideas can come from anywhere. So a lot of brainstorming goes in and there’s a lot of openness. Conversations are key.

“When we’re pitching for business or working on client briefs, we come together, we brainstorm and that’s how you keep the creativity alive.”

London digital billboard image at top by Eleni Afiontzi on Unsplash

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John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.