Creatives Roundtable

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John Boiler, Co-founder/CD 72andSunny; Mike Byrne, Creative Chief/Partner, Anomaly; William Gelner, GCD, BBH/N.Y.; Nick Law, CCO, R/GA; José Mollá, Co-founder/CD La Comunidad; Duncan Marshall, CD, Droga5; John Norman, ECD, Wieden + Kennedy/Amsterdam; Benjamin Palmer, Co-founder/President, The Barbarian Group; PJ Pereira, ECD, AKQA; Jeremy Postaer, ECD, JWT/N.Y.; Leo Premutico, ECD, Saatchi&Saatchi/N.Y.

Creativity: Define the job right now. How has the job changed since you started?

Nick Law: Everything has changed. The one constant is that there are creative people, but how you describe that creativity depends the discipline. In advertising I could recognize a creative person by their ability to absorb a brief and get it through to a punchline. In interactive, there are a lot of other creative aptitudes. I think the sort of thing that we expect back from creatives has changed drastically and become much, much broader somehow.

Jeremy Postaer
Jeremy Postaer
Jeremy Postaer: I totally agree. I was a GCD at GSD&M right as Crispin really exploded. Then I took a two-year sabbatical, which I highly recommend. When I left, art directors were sort of the stars. Now, writing is very important again as websites have the potential to be stories that you have to write the hell out of. When I first started working for Ty [Montague], he dumped a five-page thing on my desk and said, "This is a treatment for an idea." And I said, "OK, this job is a lot harder now."

John Boiler: It seems it's going to be defined wildly differently in all our separate companies and ultimately what everyone seems to be talking about is convergence.

Benjamin Palmer
Benjamin Palmer
Benjamin Palmer: I kind of figured out advertising after I figured out the internet, and the more work we've done, the more I've had to retroactively learn skills I would've had if I'd come from the other direction. You have to know how to use every possible medium. We've accidentally made TV commercials because we did stuff for the web and they were put on TV. The best idea for a beer company was to make some interesting videos, so we did and we put them on the internet. There's no normal place to start anymore.

Duncan Marshall: It's true. Clients are asking for a lot more. To them, the best idea wins. It's not so defined anymore. Traditionally in our jobs, you'd get a brief for TV, but now it could be anything, a cartoon, a building, a show.

Benjamin: You [to Jeremy] have one of the hardest jobs in the room because it's the least easy in an organization like JWT to start [things like] that. I know Ty and that's a hard fucking job. You're part of this big machine that does certain things in a certain order. It's easy for me because we're controlled chaos, just a bunch of kids who know how to make stuff and have ideas. So if we want to do something, we just go do it and there's nothing in our way.

Jeremy: But it's still fun, the business is more interesting now.

Duncan Marshall
Duncan Marshall
Duncan: Turning big agencies around, unless every single member of that organization is committed to change, you're shafted, really, because it just takes one blood clot.

Benjamin: Last year, Nielsen started releasing internet ratings. And now they can measure how much time people don't pay attention to TV commercials. My theory is once they have a year's worth of data on the internet and how much time people don't spend on TV, that's the report CFOs will read and before they make any decisions.

Nick: I think the knee-jerk reaction from the traditional agency world has been, "Let's do the narratives we used to do on TV, stick them on the web and make them mildly interactive." So we've had this proliferation of interactive stunts that don't really look at the medium in a way that is profound and interesting. But that's one slice of what interactive is. It could also be a robust application that changes the way people behave with a product. We're realizing that TV's not going to work anymore, so what is going to work in this new space? I don't think we've got that answer yet.

Duncan: We certainly haven't and I think people are chasing interactive the same way they chased the traditional business. Kids are on MySpace so agencies are charging into that arena, but I asked my daughter how her MySpace page was going and she said, "No one does that anymore." The really smart advertising and marketing people are going to be the ones who figure out how to stay in one place and get people to come to them. That's an easy thing to say but tricky to do.

Leo Premutico
Leo Premutico
Leo Premutico: It's empowered all of us frustrated creative types because it's put an emphasis back on ideas. You have big clients with a big media budget, but you can put a commercial on the internet without any budget associated with it apart from the production spending. So they're suddenly saying, "OK, give me something entertaining."

Nick: But there's this other dimension. An example is the Nike Plus website we did. That it's really a product extension. It's not advertising, really. And it's not even marketing. Now we can help in not only telling the story but changing the product. You only come up with stuff like that if technology has a seat at the table and it's not the last step in the chain.

PJ Pereira: The funny thing is maybe two years ago, you [Nick, Benjamin] and I wouldn't even be here. I was talking to friends, and it's pretty scary, every brief they've gotten in the last two weeks said to do something viral. I think the last thing we need is to make the web become the new TV.

John Norman: I think our job has actually gotten harder. You have to focus more on ideas. Nike Plus—we're actually launching that in Europe right now. And it would be great to have more communication with you guys [R/GA], the ones who did it. You can have great ideas but you have to find what will add everything up to find true insight to solve the communication problem.

Jeremy: Where does craftsmanship fit in? We still have to care about what we do.

John B.: I taught a couple semesters at Art Center and late in the term there were some basic principles [students were] missing in craftsmanship that they're just not teaching anymore because there's a sense of entitlement, "I'm gonna be the idea guy."

Duncan: What was the flipside? If they weren't spending time doing craft, what were they spending time on?

Benjamin: We find a lot of people who love to make things. Most of them had never worked in advertising. They have to have a kind of OCD, like they'll lose sleep to do this because they have pride in what they do. That's how I am.

Mike Byrne
Mike Byrne
Mike Byrne: I met a guy last week who when he was 18 got a DUI, ended up going to the army instead of jail. Then he decided to design tattoos and did this documentary on this Christian rock band he followed for two years. He's never done an ad and I'm going to hire him. For me, that's the future, self-made pioneers who are ambitious, have an incredibly strong work ethic. No matter what formula you're in, whether it's Anomaly or a more traditional place, it's about the people.

Leo: You want to hire someone who can do something that no one else can, for a rare quality. And as much as we're talking about how much the industry's changing, we all work in the business of creating needs. There's a proliferation of internet shops that've just started up, who just don't fuckin' get it. I deal with so many and it's a very frustrating experience because they don't get the importance of having an insight.

Nick Law
Nick Law
Nick: It's a very recent development in the interactive world to have big brand ideas. But I think as we're going forward, there'll be no such thing as an interactive agency compared to a traditional agency.

José Mollá: Internally, do you see comps anymore? As a writer I used to present ads all the time. Internally it doesn't happen anymore, never, ever.

Nick: We prototype our ideas because a lot of the stuff we come up with, we need to prove to ourselves that it works. Unless we prototype, we're not going to create that thing that no one's ever created before.

William: There's all this talk about media neutrality, but there's really no such thing. You can come up with an idea, but until you express it in some form, whether as an application or piece of content, you don't know if it's any good.

Benjamin: I don't have any respect for just an idea, either. You have to be able to fuckin' pull it off, man. We always come up with work that we can make ourselves.

John B.: We are regularly shooting stuff ourselves, cutting it, and actually, even on the Zune launch, some of the best stuff we did, the producer had shot it and cut it.

Duncan: The other thing you've got to remember is that the moment you've done a job for a client that costs 10 dollars, they're never going to want to pay more than 10 dollars.

PJ: That's usually what they mean by "viral"—cheap.

Benjamin: Figure out how to do it yourself but have it be great. I got really frustrated when we did stuff like Subservient Chicken and realized how really difficult it is to get video to match seamlessly. So I spent a year learning Shake in my spare time, I taught a bunch of people at the office how to do that, and now when we have an idea that we want to do, we know how to do it well.

John N.: It's a perception with clients, though, if that is premium enough. If you look at Goodby and Wieden's in-house Christmas films they're produced really well and are funny, but clients' perception is, am I getting my money's worth?

Duncan: You see a lot of production companies are now trying to reinvent themselves as ad agencies and content generators. You have CAA creating ads and content. Everyone is chasing the same dollar now. I guess what we have as advertising people, more or less, is that we know brands.

John Boiler
John Boiler
John B.: Yeah, but they're learning. Right now advertising people maybe have a better background in building sound strategy based on a long-term destination. But I see a lot of interactive shops, production companies, bolting strategy on—mostly bad, but sometimes not.

Nick: It's happening the other way too, traditional agencies bolting on interactive. If you're creating products, applications, if you're telling stories, if you're creating communities, you all have to understand brands. And it's not going to come from just one of the disciplines. And not one agency's going to be able to do everything.

John B.: And a client only has so much bandwidth. They're not going to want a whole bunch of partners who want to do the same thing for them. They're going to identify, "You are my strategic partner, and you are my creative partner."

Benjamin: They actually want the account service more than anything. What keeps companies on as agency of record is that the clients have the same people to call all the time.

John B.: I find that less and less though. Aren't they just migrating toward the best work that gets results for them? Look at Wieden and Nike, right? There are fractures in that long-standing relationship. I see those relationships eroding quite quickly as clients look for the best solution.

Benjamin: We're not the agency of record for anyone. We still just do projects, campaigns and specific ideas, because otherwise I don't think we'd be any good. It's a short attention span and I think that keeps us energetic all the time.

José: That's because you're always dating with clients, you never get married.

PJ: One of the buzz words today is convergence, but sometimes I think the opposite is going on. One of the coolest parts about the times we're in right now is that every agency's trying to come up with a different model. This is awesome to be able to sit around a table where everyone has a different way of doing the work. We don't need to become one thing.

Mike: I think what a lot of places are trying to do is instead of just getting that fee every month and the, "Thanks for building our brand," is say, "No, we want a piece of that. We want to partner with you. Let's do this together." It's kind of the way the communications business should be. Our luxury is that we started that way and people come to us knowing that's our deal. It's harder when you're already established and trying to work your way into that.

John B.: Right now we're designing a line of shoes and apparel for And1 and we're going to see it all the way through marketing, into retail and the ad campaign. We were invited in because we happen to have some great shoe designers who were from Nike. I'm as invested in that thing as anything, ever. At the same time, we have a big issue in building that brand credibility again. I get excited about that in a way I don't get about a compartmentalized brief.

José: What's the compensation in the interactive space? What's the model? How much do you charge for the work?

Benjamin: We do real math. We have a creative fee for just being clever. And then in terms of making things, we charge by the hour like production. How does everyone else charge? If somebody tells you what the problem is, can you just say, "It's going to be half a million dollars to solve your problem?"

Duncan: With technology changing so fast, especially online, all these things are so trackable, so I think compensation is going to become more and more linked to results.

Creativity: William, Axe's Gamekillers, that's going to be a TV show, right? Do you have ownership in that, as an agency?

William Gelner
William Gelner
William: Many of our clients, not just Axe, are actually encouraged to hear that we want to invest in something to get a piece of the backend, whether it's an entertainment property or a product. It goes back to what you guys were saying, in that you become a partner, not an expendable vendor.

John B.: TV people are opening that door for us, because they don't want to pay for production. "Go ahead, branded content guys! Spend all your money! You'll be rich!"

Benjamin: We're trying to come up with the ideas first, half the time. We built our own internal idea network, and we've had some success with having an idea, realizing, "That would be good for that brand," and then approaching them with it. It's fun and it works because you start with a pure, good idea and find a home for it. Does that work for other people?

William: That's when it works the best, I think. We have a division of the agency called Zag, and we basically create products, ideas for products. And all people are charged with coming up with ideas.

John B.: We had CAA call us right before the holidays and they want to represent us because we've got all this content now. But the deal is just where everything goes bad. Wieden for years wanted to get into doing content but never could because the deals always got convoluted in the triangle between creator and client and the platform.

Benjamin: They do talk a lot before they actually do anything in Hollywood. And they haven't heard of the internet yet, either. They have it on their Blackberries for when they're in traffic but that's it.

Duncan: We've hired writers specifically because I couldn't sit down and write a 12-part series. It would take too long and I wouldn't know, structurally, how to do it.

Benjamin: But why even go to Hollywood? We could totally decide right here that if we want to do something, let's just not do it in Hollywood. Then it'll become something that everyone's comfortable with not coming from Hollywood and then we can do it right, and it'll be awesome.

John B.: I think they're scared shitless that that's exactly what we're going to do.

Creativity: We have a really international group. Do you guys think U.S. advertising can learn anything from the way things are done in other countries? Or vice versa?

José: My experience in Latin America is that there's always room for intuition. Things are not so planned and rationalized. I think here in the U.S., sometimes it gets just too logical. Human beings are emotional people and there has to be some room for emotion. Not everything can be researched.

Leo: I think the riskiest thing clients can do is not take risks. They're in an environment now where you can be seen by the world and not spend anything on media.

Creativity: To bring it full circle, how do you describe your job as creative director?

Jeremy: My job is to try to bring everything I learned from my past experience in a small, entrepreneurial context to a big place that moves in a different way. And to try and get people who are risk-averse to understand that, as one of you guys said, the worst risk of all is to not take a risk.

Benjamin: My job is to inspire people and come up with ideas and be part of the future. I think the most important quality to doing a good job in any creative industry is to be excited about it. So I'm excited about it and I make sure other people are excited and when that happens, things work.

Jose Molla
Jose Molla
José: You have to be a cheerleader to motivate people, a shrink to listen to how they feel, a father to give advice, a spiritual leader. You take on different roles. It's a little bit of everything and that's what makes it interesting. It's also interesting to me how just a few clients understand that agencies run on motivation. I keep telling them listen, sometimes one phone call—"Hey I saw this and liked it"—can mean so much. Great clients are the ones who understand that.

Nick: To create work that is coherent and useful.

Duncan: To have ideas and help other people have ideas that will get other people to engage with other brands because they want to as opposed to because they have to.

William: It seems in this atmosphere of change that people have two responses: "Shit, I'm scared" and "This is amazing." My day-to-day job is to take those two types of reactions and somehow deal with them, like Jose said, and play all these different roles to harness that in a way to create content for brands—either for clients or from scratch—that people actively seek out and want to engage with.

John B.: Facing internally, we started our business to create a platform where people can come together and reach their potential creatively. To unleash creativity without regard to departments. Facing outward toward what we're doing for our clients, we have high-falutin' ideas about most of our clients that we can make them more culturally significant for a longer period of time and make money.

Leo: I guess what [Jan Jacobs] and I are trying to do is set examples for the teams and encourage them to set examples for the rest of the department. A lot of agencies talk about "our model," but it's the work that dictates what sort of agency you are. I think in the States our guys don't get a chance to make mistakes, and don't have the luxury to learn from those mistakes. So we just have to get them to be brave.

PJ: Most of my time I spend trying to understand from the creatives or the planners or the account people, people from all over the agency, what's just trendy and what's really going to work for that client. So I just try to use my intuition and give my opinion on that.

John Norman
John Norman
Mike: Somebody once said your job is to get your client promoted, and I sort of believe in that. And you just want to create a culture where you like to go in everyday. You hire people that inspire you and you inspire them and you enjoy what you do. And you can put food on the table. You all judge me by the work, I'll judge all of you guys buy the work, and you try to create great work. . .That wins Effies.

John N.: The most effective thing I can do is be an eager student. If I can help filter in learning from the world to everyone else, that's my job right now. My job at Wieden is to be a student of what's going on.

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