You previously served as head of strategic insights at JCPenney. What did you learn from working client side? Empathy for risk aversion. As agency folks, we don’t really understand how much of our clients’ personal compensation is at stake every quarter. At JCPenney, for the first time, I understood why clients would be likely to buy something familiar rather than something fresh. If an idea worked in the past, it feels like a safe bet. Our job as creative partners is to help clients understand why betting on something fresh is, in fact, a better bet with the potential for higher returns. But in order to convince them, we have to replace arrogance with understanding.
Why did you decide to return to the agency world? I love the range of problems we get to solve in the agency world. In any given day, we can go from Super Bowl ads to shoppable videos or food to laxatives—end-to-end marketing, as we like to call it. That keeps our minds nimble. Question category conventions. Talk endlessly about what makes great advertising—over beer, of course. Working in advertising is like being in grad school, except we have a little more money to buy better booze.
Data only reflects the past and present. It takes creativity to imagine a different future.”
You recently founded Wolfgang, a new creative consultancy and agency, with Mike Geiger and Colin Jeffery. What can management consultants and advertisers learn from each other? Consultants have a proven track record in transforming business. Advertisers have a proven track record in transforming brands. Great brands do both equally well. We were purposeful in positioning Wolfgang as a creative consultancy. We bring the rigor and appreciation for data that consultancies have—but that comes with the innate understanding that data only reflects the past and present. It takes creativity to imagine a different future and skill to create it. If consultancies can appreciate the limitations of data and agencies can see the immense potential in data, we can create ideas that drive both the brand and business.
What are your takeaways from the backlash following the Pepsi ad starring Kendall Jenner? These days, it’s cool for brands to have a purpose. And that’s the problem. Purpose is actually the opposite of cool. It’s inconvenient, requires tremendous sacrifice and is too earnest to be cool. It isn’t something you adopt for an ad. Better to admit to your capitalistic goals than to fake a purpose.
It seems that companies are under more pressure today to politicize their brands. Do you have any feelings about how they should or could be responding? A brand should stand for what it believes in, regardless of the shifting political winds. Flip-flopping is OK for a politician, but not for a brand.
What are the challenges and opportunities currently facing the advertising industry? Brain drain. Agencies have lost some great minds to Silicon Valley. For young talent, it’s much cooler to work at Airbnb, Snapchat or a start-up that promises to be the next big thing than to work at an ad agency. The hard work of making ads is not as rewarding as a content platform, free lunches and the promise of an IPO. But I do believe that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Working at an ad agency across different brands gives you diversity of thought and a broader portfolio of work. You can monetize that for the rest of your career.
What advice do you have for a young creative who’s just starting out in advertising? Some of the best creatives I’ve worked with have the perfect balance of pride and humility. They take pride in everything they create. That inspires belief in everyone around them. But then they balance their pride with humility. Humility keeps them open to suggestions that make their ideas better. It helps them recognize if they need to start over. It is both pride and humility in equal parts that make them great. Pride gives them the belief that they can be great, and humility helps them do what it takes to be great.