You’ve been a TV and film writer in LA. You created and then sold a successful new model advertising agency in New York during the economic downturn of 2008-10, then had success as a full-time and part-time agency creative director in New York and Portland. What does Boulder have to inspire creative ideas that you don’t find on the coasts?
Boulder sets people up for success in a few ways. For one, it’s unapologetically filled with things to do that are not work related. It’s also seemingly an enclave for artistic and brilliantly smart people. As a result, the modus operandi for many locals is to get their work done perfectly and quickly, to support their work-life balance.
Second, clients and potential clients love to come here. I only have to look out my window to remember why. And being in the middle of the country means most work trips are less taxing and a reminder to clients and potential clients that we’re never more than four hours away, and often a lot closer.
Creatively, I don’t think of the past as myopic and then upon coming here I saw the light. Rather, it feels like the creative attitude and perspective here feels more freeing and conducive to risk-taking.
What from your work in entertainment transfers over well for advertising?
A few things. Being a storyteller and having the ability to craft a narrative is invaluable these days, when brands want to expand their relationships with consumers and pervade their lives as much as possible. Long form is a perfect complement to traditional advertising that can do exactly that. Secondarily, pitching jokes, storylines, and concepts, whether in a writers’ room or in front of a producer or studio executive is a huge part of being a burgeoning writer in Hollywood. And being good in a room there absolutely transfers to the advertising world. You need to be equal parts writer, director, narrator, and of course, psychologist.
What lessons did you learn from your own start-up experience that you use every day?
The value of self-PR. We started MIR with six dollars for a domain name. We were forced to because Omnicom had a hiring freeze in 2008 and wouldn’t hire us to be an organic part of TBWA\Digital Arts. So, we became a two-person agency partner/vendor. As we made a name for ourselves doing solid work on top clients, we cultivated relationships very carefully with members of the press and on social media.
Realized we were in the shadow of every successful agency (big or small) in the city. People wouldn’t think of us unless they knew us.
Out of sight meant out of mind, meant out of business. We wanted people in New York and the business everywhere to literally turn a corner in the city, turn a page in the trades, or click on a link and be confronted by us. “Who the hell are these MIR guys?” was the intended effect. And we were successful with that. Never forget your number one client.
What is the best advice you ever got in your career?
Shockingly, I got the same advice - nearly verbatim - from two of my heroes, 3,000 miles away from each other and five years apart. The first was when I worked freelance on Nike at Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, in the summer/fall of 2011. I was given an office but also a workspace with a big white- board wall, right outside Dan’s office. There I was early one evening, working my way through pages of what was somewhere between UX frames and actual copy when Dan walked out of his office for the day, looked at my mess and said, “What the fuck is this?” I toplined it, he understood, and said, “Well, enjoy it.” I think he could feel my passion, even if he couldn’t care less about it. Then in 2016, Lee Clow was in the Chiat office for a public coffee talk with Rob (Schwartz). I had an idea for an internal project and told Lee about it. He really liked it. But he seemed to like my excitement even more. And like Dan, he said, “Enjoy it.” Looking back, I think both relish their past. We all do. Days we say suck in the moment and then look back on with fondness or sometimes even envy. Nothing lasts forever. And when you’re gone, you’re gone for a long, long time.
Tell me about your leadership style?
I’m an instinctual, fostering roamer. Let me unpack that.
First, instinctual. There are CDs (some I’ve worked with) who love to wait until the day before a presentation to pull everything off the board and start over. That isn’t me. While I always try to push further with the work, I am very trusting of my first instincts, at least in how they dovetail with planning and the psychological way in to the creative executions.
Second, I’m a fosterer. Yes, I’m a creative director. I’m a control freak. But I love recognizing and developing talent, and I like to give them the latitude to show what they can do.
Unlike some creative leaders who lock themselves in their offices when they’re around, I like to roam, talking to people whenever I can. SRG has an incredible culture and it can’t function properly with individuals or entire groups or disciplines working in isolation.
Do you have creative principles?
I have three:
- Find and expose the relatable social truth through the creative because, if people can see themselves in the work, they can see themselves using the product or service.
- With the insight, channel, execution (or all three), be disruptive, go against the grain.
- Be unexpected enough that the press has to write about it. What’s the headline?
What is the work that you are most proud of?
Picking favorite children? Cruel. I’ll name a few: At TBWA\Digital Arts + MIR we created a brand from scratch for Nissan Renault that rallied the cause for zero emissions and laid the groundwork for the release of the Nissan Leaf. It was called “Journey to Zero” and won a bunch of digital awards. What I look back most fondly on most was the all-star senior team at Digital Arts we worked with, who I still call friends. Head creative was Colleen DeCourcy and the ECDs were future Apple creative Scott Witt and Squarespace CCO David Lee.
In 2015, I returned to TBWA\Chiat\Day to work with my good friend Rob Schwartz. The first assignment I got was to creatively lead the pitch for GoDaddy. I’m super-proud of the work and where we took that brand, which until that time had been 100% associated with misogynistic non-sequitur creative and we re-educated the world about exactly what the brand was: the biggest facilitator of small business in the world. I also am super proud of the Cannes-Lion-winning Michelin work I started with an international TBWA team before I left for SRG.
And at SRG, I’d have to say I’m most proud of the work we’ve done for the Brewers Association, taking on big beer. In addition to the award-winning design of the BA seal, we took a small budget, a huge idea (AB-InBev is buying up independent craft breweries, let’s turn the tables and buy them – the largest crowd-funding effort in history) and got exposure to over a billion people within three weeks.
What is your dream client? And why?
The next one. New challenges, problems, and puzzles to solve. (And that’s not to slight the great ones we have right now.) But to be fair, the typical answer is right: a brave, intellectual, multichannel-savvy client, potentially with deep pockets.
Who has influenced your career the most?
Wow, tough. I thought about Rob Schwartz, Dennis Ryan, Lars Bastholm, and Steve Wax, all mentors and friends who showed me how to succeed and not be an asshole. And I thought about Colleen DeCourcy, whose killer confidence and resolve has been a yardstick for me since we worked together. But when it comes down to it, I have to say Wally Wohl, my father. A copywriter/AD hybrid, he worked on Madison Avenue in the late sixties at JWT and early seventies with David Ogilvy before moving to Los Angeles where he opened the Dancer(DFS) office to pitch the first American Toyota account, which they won. Dancer later became Saatchi. He was also a commercial director. So, I grew up around advertising and on commercial sets. I saw his career grow, I saw success, I saw failure, and I saw how you can respond to both. It has absolutely informed who am I am and how I do what I do.
When you are interviewing someone for a job, what is the one interview question you always ask?
I’m assuming we’re talking about creatives that I’m asking, so it would either be to name five movies they absolutely love or three pieces of creative that they wish they’d made – one a simple copy line or visual, one a video/film/spot, and one an engaging, interactive experiential.
What is your favorite thing about how advertising has changed?
Context. Advertising really hasn’t changed that much in my mind. A big idea still works if it’s relevant and relative to the audience. But if you don’t understand how communications and context has changed, it doesn’t matter how big and right the idea is, it’s akin to screaming it in a language the target doesn’t understand. I love how the expanse of context in channel and data give me new ways to sell. I could always sell a Porsche with an image or a tagline. Now I can sell preorders for a Concept Porsche by delivering the test-driving experience within a console game to a 30-something who always picks the Porsche when she plays. Or I can geo-locate an opted-in, hand-raiser millionaire I know is ready to buy a new car in the next few months and have a professional driver in a 911 Turbo S peel around the corner, pick him up, and give him the ride of his life.