The Advertising Apprentice

May 22, 2011

Interview with a Journalist Ad Man

Filed under: Advertising — adamlauzon @ 7:12 PM
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Before we get to today’s entry, I strongly recommend that you all get out and see POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at product placement in the entertainment industry from the same guy that brought you Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock. I saw it last week and was thoroughly impressed by the way Spurlock documented making a movie on product placement, that was funded entirely through product placement.

For today’s entry I interviewed Globe and Mail marketing and advertising reporter, Simon Houpt. In the interview he reveals some great insight on how you can become a better writer, the perpetual marketing machine that is Richard Branson, and the importance of social networking websites. You can check out Simon’s articles on the Globe’s Marketing page.

For over ten years you covered arts and culture in New York for The Globe and Mail, then in the summer of 2009, you said your goodbyes and moved back to Toronto to become the Globe’s resident advertising and marketing expert. What was that transition like?

Probably easier than I had any right to expect. You have to remember that. two years ago, both media and advertising were suffering terribly from the recession and a tectonic shift in media consumption patterns. Some people, though, were energized rather than scared by the changes that were afoot: In the same way that smart ad folk saw the new environment as a place to take risks, I came back from New York to a Globe newsroom that understood the need to experiment, to try lots of new things. You could say that assigning an arts reporter to cover marketing is an unusual move. I think it was an inspired one that recognized what marketing has become.

In addition to being a writer for The Globe and Mail, you’re also an author. Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft was published in 2006. What are some of the things people can do to improve their writing?

That’s tough: Every person has his or her own process. But in general here’s what I think works: Reading great writers. Writing a lot. Reading what you write (that sounds obvious, but it’s not). Writing a lot more. Editing yourself like a hellcat. Writing some more. Also? Be scared of being satisfied with your own work; you’re probably missing something.

In November 2009, you spent a day observing Richard Branson, a man that you described as “a perpetual marketing machine”. Talk a bit about that experience and describe for us what it’s like to be in the presence of such an icon.

In a job like this, every so often you’ll meet a person and grasp immediately that you’re in the presence of a genius, someone with a God-given gift of marketing greatness. Richard Branson is not one of those people. He’s shy. He’s not a natural orator. At this point, I’m not sure anybody ever disagrees with him, which strikes me as dangerous: how can you be innovative in that environment? At this stage of his career, Branson frankly seems like an actor who’s tired of playing the same role over and over but can’t say no to the money. So his days are filled with variations on the same themes: charity, business, casual sexism, mildly outrageous behaviour.  I think he’s bored by it, actually.

Conversely in the fall of 2009, you were able to escape the hectic pace of Toronto for a day and visit scenic Prince Edward County where Ian Mirlin, Geoffrey Bailey, and Brian Harrod reminisced about agency life in the 1960s and ‘70s. Between Mad Men and advertising legend Jerry Della Femina’s From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor, what is it about that era of advertising that makes us yearn so much for it?

I’m not sure we yearn for it as much as we have a deeply ambiguous relationship with it; I don’t know anyone – man or woman – who actually wants to return to that era of casual racism and pathetic gender inequality. Still, we’re all nostalgic creatures, and we like how the advertising game was far less complicated back then, even if we didn’t know it at the time. And watching from a remove of four decades allows us to revel in the sense of certainty and discovery of that era, as well as the dramatic irony of knowing how it all turned out. Also? I hear they used to make the drinks strong.

You seem to have a pretty active Twitter account, in that you post several tweets a day. Is it now integral that advertisers use social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to reach an increasingly fragmented audience?

If you want to have a conversation with your consumers – sorry, your fans; er, I mean your friends – you need to do that through as many channels as you can manage. But each channel needs to have a unique voice. I don’t envy a CMO who has to navigate that environment.

I’m going to put you on the spot with this one, but what does the future have in store for the age of persuasion? If you were a gambling man, what is the one trend you’d bet the house on?

Are we still in the age of persuasion? I thought we were in the age of discussion / dialogue / conversation / content-swapping / mashability / consumer empowerment.

Finally, in the nearly two years you’ve been covering advertising and marketing, you’ve had countless interactions with people from all walks of the industry, based on these interactions, what advice do you have for the future advertisers and marketers out there who want to break into the industry?

Thoroughly educate yourself about the industry – not just about the trade, but about what’s going on in the industry, every day – and be enthusiastic about any and all challenges or opportunities that might come your way. (This may seem obvious, but I meet lots of students who don’t even regularly read industry coverage.) If you do get a job, you’ll work for slave wages at first, but you should view it as part of your continuing education that happens to come with a small salary. And you’ll count yourself lucky, because there’ll be a dozen people who wished they were in your position.

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