The Advertising Apprentice

June 18, 2010

Interview with an Adman – James P. Othmer (Part Two)

Filed under: Advertising — adamlauzon @ 10:00 AM

Today in part two of my interview with James P. Othmer, author of Adland – Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet, we learn about some of the dynamic individuals you can encounter in advertising, the controversial practice of pharma marketing, and we get to read about Othmer’s views about a New York agency that has developed their own unique approach.

Sit-back, grab a nice warm beverage (may I recommend a Starbucks Latte), and prepare to be enlightened…

It seems like you had, for a lack of better words, an interesting relationship with Mark Fenske. We’re first introduced to him in chapter 4 and then we get reacquainted with him again near the end of Adland in chapter 15. What can you say about the impact Mark Fenske had on your life (professionally)?

Before Mark came to take over the creative department of NW Ayer, I was a huge fan of his work.  He’d already done a bunch of award-winning stuff and had directed that much heralded and copied Van Halen “Right Now” video.  But when our CEO told me he was coming to our venerable agency, the first and oldest in the country, it didn’t make sense to me.  Not because of his creative skills, or even his management skills, which were interesting to say the least.  I was skeptical because his approach and our client list – AT&T, Folgers, Kitchenade – were not at all compatible. His first day he gathered us all in a conference room and basically told us we all sucked, that we were “all lost in the Nincompoop Forest” and he was the only one who could lead us out.  The younger creatives ate this up, but I was 35, didn’t feel particularly lost, and didn’t appreciate the condescension.  The funny thing is, despite my resistance to Fenske’s frequently boorish tactics, his presence did give my career a real kick in the ass.  I wrote some of my best ads ever for Mark and some of the most creative things I’ve done in or out of advertising.  Unfortunately none of them ever sold.  We lost AT&T and a lot of business around this time.  Fenske left soon after.  And within three years America’s first and oldest agency was no more.

When I visited Mark and sat in on his class at VCU I saw him with fresh eyes.  He’s an amazing teacher.  He’s still talented, original and demanding, and I only realized after hearing him drop one amazing bit of life and career wisdom after another on his students that he was in the perfect place, molding students in his image to go out and shake things up, to find places and clients that wanted to do their kind of work.  That night we had dinner and drinks and looked back at the time we spent at Ayer and for the first time I heard his side of things. Someone recently polled a bunch of ad creatives and asked if they’d rather work for a pleasant hack or a brilliant tyrant, and the tyrant won hands down, a fact that I found encouraging.

(The following question is based on your experience with KFC while you were with Y&R.) Why do you think that so often than not the client blames the advertising for sales not being up, and yet it’s a basic principle of any Intro to Marketing class that all it takes is just one of the marketing 4Ps (product, price, place, promotion) to throw the others off?

KFC was not doing well at all when I was asked to work on their business, and after 25 or more years it was primed to jump to another agency.  For the review, my team created a quirky campaign that I liked, but thought the clients would never buy.  Of course, they did.  I’d never participated in the franchisee experience until then, and it was an amazing and frightening phenomenon.  Once produced, our work was presented to the franchisees in Louisville, and they were not happy.  Not enough chicken.  Not enough price.  Bigger numbers.  Bigger logo.  Every week I sat with my team around a speaker phone only to be chastised for the company’s diminishing sales.  I protested to the client and to the agency heads but we were determined to retain the business.  So the new ads were slight variations on the old.  Sales continued to slip and soon they jumped ship.  When you lose an account, it’s a horrible feeling when you see the new work from the new agency and it kicks ass.  Not surprisingly, this hasn’t been the case with KFC.

In the chapter entitled Thoughts on Impressions, you discuss your views on pharma marketing. In this discussion you come to the conclusion that pharmaceutical ads should be banned. Briefly summarize your thoughts for those that have yet to read Adland. (I think it’s great for people to hear an adman’s views on these types of ads.) Can pharma marketing ever be a good strategy? (Similarily, I think sites like WebMD are also having negative consequences as people are misdiagnosing themselves before going to see their doctors and describing their symptoms.)

The US and, for some strange reason, New Zealand, are the only countries in the free world that permit direct to consumer pharma ads.  This may not be a popular stance in Adland, because there’s enormous money to be made making ads for boner pills and restless legs, but I think it’s out of control, the legal copy, the disturbing and absurd side effects, the questionable FDA situations and findings that come to light years later.  If I’d written an ad for a pill that ended up doing more harm than good, or, to your point, lead to misdiagnosis, or the unnecessary prescribing of medications, I’d need a prescription for anti-depressants.  I’d much prefer ads, paid for by pharma or the AMA, that simply say, If you don’t feel well, see your doctor.

On page 192, with reference to the purpose of research, you quote Ben Kline, chief strategy officer for Leo Burnett Worlwide/Arc, as saying on the topic, “We’re basically trying to figure out what people want and connect them to it in the most meaningful way.” Isn’t this the, albeit simplified, ultimate goal of advertising, to create a connection between the consumer and your client’s product/service?

In Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tennant’s informative new book The Age of Persuasion, the authors recount an anecdote from 1904 where ad pioneer defined advertising in three simple words:  “Salesmanship on paper.”  Today, the authors rightly note, that definition would have to be expanded to include all form of media, and perhaps a broader definition of salesmanship, but yes, despite all the guru-speak, it’s pretty much the same game.  The biggest differences lie in how it is played out with an ever-evolving set of rules and tactics.

I’m intrigued by your statement on page 227, “Nothing influences, shapes, and reflects the state of the global psyche more than advertising”. This view seems to reiterate a quote earlier in the book by Mark Fenske, who said, “Advertising may be the most powerful art form on Earth.” These views hold advertising to a high standard. Despite such advertising vehicles as spam, telemarketing, and direct-mail (junk-mail) advertising, do you think advertising can and does uphold this standard? Is it equipped to enough to continue to “reflect the state of the global psyche”?

I think advertising does reflect and, for better or worse, shapes the global psyche.  Internationally, our country is identified by our entertainment and branding content as much as it is by its ideology.  Indeed, some might argue that entertainment, branding and consumerism is our ideology. Brands are much more ubiquitous and as influential as any philosophy or intellectual pursuit.  From LA to Kabul, they have the ability to transfix, seduce and enrage.

Whether advertising is art is a separate issue.  Advertising might be the most persuasive medium in the world, but sorry, Fenske, it’s far from the most powerful art form.  And with modern art co-opting and integrating logos and branding to make ironic or satirical statements, the matter  blurs even more. I used to cringe when Fenske contended that we were making art.  At the time I was getting my MFA in creative writing at night at NYU, writing stories for EL Doctorow and Peter Carey and Susan Minot, and striving to make my own kind of art.  So the thought that an ad, no matter how entertaining, for a sneaker, or a long distance calling plan could be considered art, let alone a more powerful form of it, seemed preposterous to me.  Since then, I’ve come to realize that what matters most is whether the person creating the ad or the story or the art thinks it’s art.

Jamie Barrett, and the rest of executives at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners come across as a bit of an enigma, on pages 270-274. In an industry that’s so bent on figuring out what’s next, they seem to go about business as usual and when a response is required they come up with an intellectual, yet “street-smart” approach for overcoming the challenge, and in turn are rewarded marvelously. In your opinion, why don’t more agencies follow a similar approach in terms of stop worrying about the future and focusing on the now?

What impressed and continues to amaze me about Goodby is that they’ve been so good for so long and have grown and adapted under an enormous spotlight and on an increasingly large scale.  It’s one thing to implement change at a boutique and quite another to do it in the heat of a half dozen pitches while working on behalf of dozens of the world’s premiere brands. Rather than go off and buy some expensive and risky digital play, or farm out the things they don’t get, they seem perpetually determined to figure things out for themselves and to have confidence, as Jamie told me, in their ability to think originally and independently. The world would be a better place if we all did.


June 16, 2010

Interview with an Adman – James P. Othmer

Filed under: Advertising — adamlauzon @ 12:09 PM
Tags: , ,

After an unexpected two-month sabbatical from the Advertising Apprentice, I’m back. (In case you’re wondering, the sabbatical was the result of me starting an important new job. So my attention for the last two months have been almost exclusively on making the most of this opportunity.)

A few months ago after reading James P. Othmer’s Adland – Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet, I decided to try and contact the author and see if he’d be willing to do an interview with me. Sure enough, he was quite enthusiastic about the interview request, and below we have part one of my interview with James P. Othmer.

Othmer, by the way, has been quite busy lately, on June 1st Adland hit bookshelves in paperback form, and just yesterday Othmer’s second novel, Holy Water: A Novel, was released.

As I learnt from reading Adland, Othmer was not only a great adman, but he is an amazing story-teller. I have yet to get my hands on Holy Water, but I’m almost certain that it will be one of those books that you start reading and you’ll be hard-pressed to put it down until you’ve read the last sentence on the last page!

Without any further ado, here is part one of James P. Othmer’s interview with the Advertising Apprentice. And watch for part two of the interview, which I plan on publishing Friday morning.

Phil Dusenberry wrote, (the aptly named title of his book) “One great insight is worth a thousand great ideas”. What’s the greatest insight you had in your career?

I wandered along quite the non-traditional path before getting a job at a mainstream agency.  I worked as a sports writer at The Boston Globe and as an editorial assistant for a wine magazine. For Dell Publishing I wrote jacket copy for tawdry paperback books and was Kurt Vonnegut’s publicist for 18 blissful months.  My first screenwriting assignment was a freelance gig for a film for the NYC Hospitals called “Creating a Sterile Surgical Field for Gallbladder Surgery.”  All great experiences for a young writer, but when I started at NW Ayer I had a crude portfolio of book publishing and odd PQ (pre-Quark) spec ads I’d cobbled together without an art director.  I knew little to nothing about the way a big agency worked.  Strong writing and decent conceptual skills helped me get by, but after a lot of creative throat clearing I realized (painfully obvious insight alert!) that if I was every going to break out, I needed to trust my creative instincts and take more chances.  Rather than mimicking the work of risk takers in advertising and literature, I began to mimic the way they approached the work.  This didn’t come suddenly, and I imagine people starting out today are aware of this coming out of the gate.  But I wasn’t sure I belonged at first.  Only after letting it all hang out and doing work that made people squirm and laugh and think differently, did I get noticed, and more confident, and take even more risks.  My insight, or epiphany, was to simply have confidence in my ability. It took a while for me to recognize this with advertising, and even longer with my fiction.

Talk a bit about the one person in your advertising career that had the biggest impact, good or bad. What was it that made their impact so memorable? Do you still keep in contact them?

There have been a lot, including Mark Fenske, whom I’m sure we’ll discuss later.  But other than Mark I’d have to say my sister Karen and my wife Judy.  Karen was the first person to take the time to think about what an 18-year old wise ass with horrible grades might do with his life.  In ADLAND I recount the kitchen table conversation we had, and I have some fun with it, but the truth is she took the time to recognize some latent ability in me as a writer and cared enough to push me in that general direction.  When I got out of college and was having trouble finding a job as a writer of anything, my wife Judy refused to let me settle.  To make ends meet I agreed to listen to my father and get my union bricklayer’s card.  While waiting in the car on a cold winter day, my wife looked at the dozens of men hunched and waiting on line and told me if I got out of the car she’d never speak to me again, because I was a writer. Plato wrote in The Symposium that one of the greatest privileges of a human life is to become midwife to the birth of the soul in another. My sister Karen and Judy, my wife of 26 years, changed my life by taking the time to cultivate my soul and urge me to reach higher and one of the things I enjoyed most with younger creatives and now with emerging fiction writers is to pay that gift forward.

You spent 20 years in the advertising industry and then you experienced a paradigm shift when you landed the book deal for your novel, The Futurist. How much of an adjustment was it going from a hectic, very stressful life in advertising and barely seeing your family to enjoying the leeway offered by being an author being able to spend exponentially more time with your family? Similarly, while doing the research and conducting interviews for Adland, did you at all miss “what has been such a large part of your life for so long”?

Working as a full-time writer has been incredibly fulfilling and terrifying.  Creatively it’s everything I want for a career because, in addition to fiction, I’ve been writing journalism, non-fiction and, recently, some TV projects.  Seeing my kids and coaching Pony League and softball and all that is great, too.  But working alone, sentence to sentence, book to book, all essentially on spec, or dependent upon the acceptance of complete strangers, is a different kind of situation, a different kind of stress.  As good as the reception has been for my work, and as confident as I am that there soon might be a feature film version of The Futurist, I’m still in startup mode, and, truthfully, for this very reason I never did completely walk away from advertising.  I still do creative and strategic consulting and still enjoy it, under the right circumstances, very much.  The first thing I tell clients or agency CDs is, I promise I won’t write about it, unless you want me to!

Midway through Adland it seems a shift takes place from you discussing your experiences in advertising from a first person point-of-view to you supplementing information on certain topics by referring to other authors or by interviewing people and quoting former colleagues or people still in the industry. This seems like an interesting, and uncommon, storytelling technique.

Hah! Uncommon or terribly flawed.  Here’s my rationale for the structure: I had a nice but far from legendary career.  What I thought I could bring to the ad book canon is a sort of classic middle manager creative’s tale.  Not the tale of a guru or a legend or a CEO.  Oglivy or Della Famina or Mary Wells. Those books, while insightful, entertaining and valuable, tend to look down at the business from 37 thousand feet, or are intended to preserve one’s legacy, rather than offer a clear-eyed view of the industry.  I wanted to write something fun and provocative that someone coming into advertising might read and say, ‘So that’s the kind of shit that goes down…Those are some of the moral and ethical choices I might have to make…That’s one writer’s tale of what it was like, at least at a big agency.’

The other type of ad book seems to be from an outsider’s perspective, the event driven narrative of an embedded or dedicated journo, such as the amazing Where the Suckers Moon.  For the second section I decided to go back to the scene of the crime and take a look at advertising circa five minutes from now.  I wanted to satisfy my own curiosity and to look more closely, years away from my last full-time gig, at how the industry continues to shape and reflect our culture.  I also wanted to get away from the big dinosaur shops and Some people dig both approaches. Some wished I’d stuck with a straight adland memoir and had skipped the more journalistic pieces, and others could care less about my career but ate up the look at the idea factories and present day issues.

In the final chapter of Adland you state that during your “final years of advertising the most rewarding aspect of the job was trying to help younger people who you liked make sense of the process, telling them what (and whom) to watch out for and what steps were needed to make their idea better and maybe even the one that wins. (A large part of the reason I suspect you agreed to do this interview!) So for the young people reading what advice do you have?

Not just young.  I get more letters from people who have given many years to advertising and now find themselves on the outside looking in, or feeling that it’s passing them by.  Or they are disillusioned.  Some got depressed at while still at VCU’s Brandcenter or Creative Circus.  Others got inspiration from everything.  I recently spoke to the students at VCU and it was interesting, because the most brilliant ad execs in the world go down to Richmond to speak to them and, of course, to recruit.  The students had the best teachers and were surrounded by passionate, hungry and talented colleagues.  The thing that struck me about all this was that coming out of such a perfect creative/strategic environment, how would they deal with a serious dose of the incompetence, compromises and disfunction that plagues advertising (and most) industries?  I paraphrased a bit from the introduction to the book and asked, Would you work on a tobacco account? A military account on the eve of a controversial war? A petrochemical account?  A fast food account?  Does obesity run in your family?  Cancer? I told them, since they clearly had oodles of talent, that they should write the brief for their career before it starts because there will come times when they will be asked to do deception, evil, or worse, mediocre work.  I told them sometimes it will be easier to say no than others, depending upon your bank account, your age, your moral strength, and your place in the agency pantheon.  At one time or another I was asked to work on all of the above, and during my twenty years as a creative person I went from wide-eyed junior to golden boy to star to veteran to disillusioned has been, back (briefly) to golden boy and then finally to savvy and wise in-house poet.  Things change.  Some people are meant to be stars and some are meant to thrive in the middle and there’s no shame in that.  I scared the shit out of more than one student that day but a lot appreciated the candor.

(Come back on Friday, as in the second part of the interview I ask Othmer about the unconventional relationships formed in the advertising industry, the hot-button topic of pharma marketing, and his views on an agency that comes across as a bit of an enigma.)

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