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.


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