DEPARTURES MAGAZINE (the interview they didn’t run)

SS+K is proud to be included in the May/June issue of Departures Magazine. Departures is published seven times a year for Platinum and Centurion card members in 20 international markets. Unfortunately, I don’t possess either one of these cards, so I’m grateful for my affluent friends and acquaintances who scanned and pdf’d the spread for me.

As you can see from the photographs above (click on the thumbnails to enlarge), my partner, Marty Cooke, and I had the good fortune of being stacked alongside a small group of A-listers from the advertising and digital world.

First, I’d like to congratulate my fellow Mod Men — Benson Hausman of Kraftworks NYC, Jeff Goodby of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Jens Karlsson and James Widegren of Your Majesty, R. Vann Graves of Uniworld Group, Gerry Graf of Saatchi & Saatchi, and David Droga, Duncan Marshall, Andrew Essex, Ted Royer of Droga5.

Second, I’ve included an interview with Departures that the magazine didn’t run, but I thought was worth publishing here, at The Third Place, nonetheless. If nothing else, it’ll satisfy my mother and father, who I mention as personal heroes (love you forever mom and dad).

How and why did you get into advertising?

I never actually intended to go into advertising. I had my sights set on entertainment. In my junior year of college, I interned at Rogers & Cowen, an entertainment public relations firm, and thought this field was a good match for my personality but in my senior year, a close friend and classmate thought I’d be a natural in the advertising business and suggested that I speak to his father who was a senior executive at Ogilvy. I was ultimately hired into Ogilvy’s training program. I fell in love with the field.

 How long have you been in the field? 

Sixteen years. Yikes, my career’s old enough to drive in a farm state!

 Where were you before? (What other firm(s) or field(s)?)

I was the EVP, Executive Director of Digital at Interpublic Group’s Draftfcb.  I also spent seven years at Merkley + Partners, a division of Omnicom Co., as the Managing Director and co-founder of Merkley ID, the digital and design unit of the agency. And earlier in my career, I helped The Attik, a European graphic design and digital shop, plant a flag in NY, spent four years at SS+K (the early years), as well as Cliff Freeman + Partners and Ogilvy.

What was your first advertising job?

See ”love” above.

 Who was your first big client that first major get at your first job?

With a tiny but talented crew – and a duffel bag of luck – we took BMW Motorcycles away from mighty Fallon to nascent Merkley ID.  It was sweet.   

 Why did you leave Draftfcb and join SS+K?

I joined FCB before Interpublic Group merged it with Draft and was ultimately asked to design the combined company’s digital practice. This was very exciting because it meant building and managing a very large group and helping to launch the first global, behavior-based marketing communications organization. Eventually, I craved a nimbler, more creatively-focused organization.

According to one of the founders, I was still wearing my bar mitzvah suit when I showed up at SS+K’s doorstep.  Well, I was pretty young, & the place stuck with  me.  An eclectic mix of super smart people from advertising and, importantly, not from advertising, who together worked up an enormous head of strategic and creative steam to melt the hardest client problems.  The mixing up of disciplines, the relentless hunt for the best ideas, the loyalty to clients over disciplines (the answer to every question wasn’t a 30 second commercial!) made me a better communications person.   It was my professional home and it feels terrific to have come back with some skills and experiences, especially in the digital arena, that will add to that great eclectic mix.   

 I’ve dreamed of coming ‘home’ for a long time and when the opportunity to become SS+K’s President emerged, I jumped at the job.

Talk to me about SS+K’s Asymmetric Communications approach, if you would.

 If symmetric marketing is matching your competitor TV campaign for TV campaign, viral tactic for viral tactic, Asymmetric Marketing is about not doing what your competitor is doing. It’s about being where your audience is and your competitor isn’t. It’s about the element of surprise: being a welcome surprise to your target and an unwelcome one to your competitor. It’s Asymmetric thinking that helps SS+K market ideas like a rubber wristband for cancer and an interactive cinema game for a news site.

SS+K also handles crisis management, something you don’t see in a lot of other firms. What’s the relationship between advertising and crisis management?

 You’re right, most ad agencies won’t touch crisis situations because they lack the skills to do it, but SS+K’s political heritage makes it unique in most ways, including their ability to respond effectively even during the most difficult times.  From the client’s perspective, they’ve got a team of people who understand and helped craft and communicate their brand and that same team can help protect that brand when it comes under attack.  It’s a unique and incredibly powerful asset of this agency.  It closes the gap between a company’s marketing specialists and its corporate strategists.

What’s the biggest change in the industry since you started in it?

No question, it’s the shift of power from the marketer to the consumer, from top down to bottom up.  When I came into the business in 1992, no one was emailing let alone twittering. Just three big networks, a handful of cable channels, print, outdoor, radio and direct mail. Now consumers are the media and everything is social. Most marketers are still uncomfortable communicating in a world where they can’t control how and when consumers and other important constituents talk about their brands and issues.

What’s the future of advertising?

It’s vibrant and exciting but it’s also scary and unpredictable.  I run away from cocktail chatter about the end of advertising.  It’s not ending, but it’s morphing as rapidly as technology while retaining its necessary function as the place for creative and marketing specialists who lend their talents out to the needs of commerce.  If advertising was once a profession for c-students from the ivy league (Mad Men), and then a proving ground for the sharpest wits off the streets (DDB, Chiat), it’s now the place for marketers to find adaptable, savvy and creative people who can help navigate brands through social change and insane competition. 

 The advertising buzz words of late seem to be things like branded content, viral, media or platform agnostic, 360 degree branding, symbiosis. What’s next? What’s the next algorithm/paradigm?

 Buzzwords like 360 degree get overused and usually oversimplify what’s actually happening in the marketplace.  Eventually, everyone’s saying but not doing these things.  Of course interesting things are happening all the time and deserve our attention.  The pursuit of social movements, inspired by the meteoric success of the Obama campaign, is a perfect example.   Marketers from big CPG firms to smaller, challenger brands covet ‘Obama Marketing,’ They want less traditional approaches to communications and a hyper-orchestrated social media effort – campaigns that tap into the passion of target audiences and create movements. Something that feels organic to the community, spreads virally, looks effortless, is executed with surgical precision and monitored and measured throughout the campaign lifecycle. I’m learning more about how this magic works now because SS+K was the agency of record for the youth marketing vote working in collaboration with the Obama campaign team – a team SS+K was honored to be a part of. 

In my humble view, the people who figure out how to marry brands to social movements will define our industry’s next chapter.

You were brought in at least partially for your digital prowess and expertise, what’s the biggest way in which you and SS+K are moving the industry forward, reinventing it even? Can you point to a specific recent or forthcoming campaign or ad?

We’re much too modest to talk about reinventing this industry, but we’re doing some very cool work that combines elements including branded entertainment, social movements and technology that we’re hoping will have a major impact for our clients.  We’re also old fashioned in that we still believe that a campaign needs a big idea that captures the attention and loyalties of people who are being chased by so many other brands and causes, and the campaign we’re breaking for the Environmental Defense Fund this season is a wonderful example of how SS+K combines the highest standards of strategy and creativity with the newest trends in social movements and technology.  Stay tuned.

What defines SS+K as a shop? Why do clients come to you or pick you to represent them?

Intelligence, creativity, passion, integrity, honesty, and a non-traditional way of looking at the world. There is no house style at SS+K.

We have a wonderful public image and then there’s a larger, even better truth.  Clients and staff often come to SS+K because of what we’re not – we’re not a traditional agency.  To borrow a line, we think different.  It’s true that we’re unconventional and restless, combining the sharpness of a political strategist with creative excellence and technological fervor, but the larger truth is that the qualities that made SS+K home for me make it home for lots of other people, clients and everyone else.  It’s a place of supreme integrity and honesty. 

How would you define what you and your firm do and how that is different from other firms? How is your firm working to redefine itself—and the industry—especially in light of new media, new technology, and the current state of the global economy?

Again, we’re a little shy of proclaiming that we’re redefining the industry, but SS+K’s interdisciplinary teams have kept it unique since the doors opened.  Today, our ability to identify social forces in popular culture and to harness them to promote brands and ideas stands out as a powerful innovation.  I suspect that others will look to connect emerging social trends to their clients’ brands through every possible medium while giving people meaningful personal choices to make with their time (e.g., volunteer, advocate); their money (e.g., buy, donate), or their vote.  It’s not a simple process, but it’s the right one for us and for our clients, who work with us to measure and optimize our programs with discipline and open-mindedness.

What makes a brand great? What makes an ad or an ad campaign great? (How) Are the two related?

The example everyone cites is, of course, Apple.  The iphone’s a marvel and the campaign lived up to its product’s brilliant standard. It starts with the form factor – I love the way the iPhone feels in my hand. It’s ergonomically suited to my palm. The User Interface is ridiculously intuitive and the apps feel like small morsels of candy. I can’t get enough of them.

But really great campaigns alert you to something wonderful that wasn’t otherwise apparent. Nike produced a yellow wristband and, with the help of some fantastic marketing (including SS+K), turned it into a ubiquitous sign of commitment to fight cancer.  Pretty cool and on point of the social movement ideas that we believe will shape the future of our industry.

Who are your style icons?

To be quite honest, I’m not sure I have any. I like fashion – I always have – but more from an arms length approach. It’s not like I’m looking at any one person as my style icon; however, when a guy has a great sense of style I notice and respect it.

Who is your industry idol or inspiration?

I don’t have one of those either. The only idols/inspirational figures in my life are my parents, my brother, my wife, and my children. I’ve been told this is very hokey, but it’s the truth.

Is there something you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) sell?


What’s been your biggest blunder in the industry?

I’ve made hundreds but my favorite was when I was with David McCall (a founding partner at SS+K), presenting a campaign to a room of very formal people from a major financial services company.  It was breakfast and, as the lowest guy on the totem pole, my job included server.  So I shook up the O.J. to avoid serving the marketing director a glass of pulp, but the top  wasn’t secure and juice drenched her, from Chanel head to Prada toe.  I was mortified, especially when I saw that juice had also covered the board that dear old David was in the middle of presenting.  Not missing a beat, he took out his handkerchief to wipe away the liquid and said, “I’ve had lots of work rejected but no one’s ever thrown fruit at it before.”  Everyone laughed, but me.  I was too mortified.

If you were a Mad Men character, you’d be:

This one is tough because all of the characters are morally bankrupt and while I love the show, I wouldn’t necessarily want to emulate any of their behavior.

I guess I’d have to say The Don Draper who was killed in the Korean War and then had his identity lifted by an ad man.  At least that’s the only character that wouldn’t get me in trouble.

That said, the ‘other’ Don Drapper is a total fucking stud.

What’s the biggest misconception about the industry that Mad Men has helped propagate?

That ad people drink and fornicate too much.  Totally false. 

Truthfully, I love the show and I believe it conveys a period not only in our business but in our society, and while it’s wholly fictional, it’s so very captivating.  It captures a truth about a much wilder time.  It’s not the culture of today. 

But what’s the most accurate thing?

It’s true that the personal and professional intrigue at an agency can keep people from doing their best work.  That’s why you want to be at a place where the  intrigue runs low and where you can honestly say, “The guys running this place are as honest and decent as they come.”  It sets a standard for others.    

At your firm, what does cocktail hour consist of?

I’m working on that very point.  Orange juice, anyone?