Any day now, Professor Tracy Tuten’s new book, Advertisers at Work should be released. Tracy conducted interviews with a host of professionals in the business, among them Mike Hughes, president of the Martin Agency; Luke Sullivan, chair of the advertising department at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD); Susan Credle, chief creative officer of Leo Burnett; and, surprise, me.
Thought I would post some of my long interview (in which I shared way too much, fortunately none of it damning) here.
To Tracy’s credit, she did ask some good questions and got me to tell some old stories ranging from how I got into the business, the journey from reporter to creative director to innovation chief to teacher, and even what I see in the future for agencies like Mullen.
A few soundbites.
On how Mullen built an agency in the middle of nowhere with a handful of people who had little agency experience.
We successfully created a culture that was inherently entrepreneurial, that embraced change on an ongoing basis, and that was rooted first and foremost in creativity. Those qualities served us well as the world changed around us.
We were big believers in rights and responsibilities, so we actually give people more rights and decision-making authority than they might get at the same age or with the same title in a lot of companies, as long as they were willing to embrace the responsibility that went with it.
As a result we attracted a certain kind of person. We never, ever attracted people who wanted to be tenders or simply maintain the status quo. We tended to do a really good job of attracting people who wanted to take over, who wanted to build things, who wanted to make stuff, who wanted to assume that level of responsibility. That kind of person perpetuates our culture today. I think you could make an argument that the most valuable asset our agency has is this culture.
On the future and change
Many people believe that traditional media will become less important in the future than it’s been in the past. But when you look at the actual numbers in terms of where dollars are spent, there’s a tremendous amount still spent on traditional media, tv especially, and no real sign of it diminishing.
Another question is whether clients in the future be more inclined to want integrated agencies that do everything well? Or will they want best of breed, specialist agencies that do social or digital or something else?
Mullen may be at odds with the majority of people who think the specialists are still the way to go. But we believe that you can’t be best of breed if you’re not completely, totally integrated; you need hyper-bundled services because everything is interdependent. How can you have traditional advertising and not provide social media, digital, platforms, apps, and mobile. They all have to work together seamlessly.
When you ask where Mullen will be in the next four or five years, we’ll still be in advertising. We’ll still be an advertising agency. We will still be rooted in creative ideas. But we will apply those ideas to more new places and platforms — to mobile and social and community. The way in which we [create] will be informed by technologists and developers and programmers, not just writers and art directors.
I am also a big believer that the future creative person will come from areas other than the world of writers, art directors, and the traditional craftspeople who’ve defined our product in the past. Just look at the biggest creative forces of the last three or four years. Who are they? They’re Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and Steve Jobs. Programmers and nerds have changed media and content more so than communicators.
On rituals that inspire creativity
The only ritual I have is to seek collisions. I recently read — it might have even been a Steve Jobs’s quote –that when you ask creative people how they do what they do, many times they can’t actually explain or give a reason or rationale. He argues that what creative people inherently do is combine things in different ways in order to create small explosions or yield something that is an unexpected result of two things. The create collisions.
Also, if you read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, you get the same lesson. Johnson demonstrates that cities are more creative than suburbs. [And he explains] why New York is more creative than Paris. It’s because Paris pushes the congestion of the new city out to the ring and they try to preserve the history of the old city, and as a result they have fewer people, less diversity and lack the collision of ideas and thinking that is evident in a city like Shanghai.
You see the same thing in a way in companies like Pixar and IDEO and other creative companies that now work in purposely congested environments. My ritual is to mash up things that don’t belong together, that come from different places. It might be literature and advertising, or physical space and theater, or sources of content from different disciplines, or even just the people that you try to interact with and engage. I prefer to hang out with developers, journalists, even venture capitalists than with traditional advertising people.
On what’s next for me
There are three things that I’m interested in. I would love to do more work with start-ups, something I am getting a taste of with Springpad. I’m still interested in changing this industry or helping it stay caught up and relevant. And I have become really excited about teaching, which has been a result of doing an executive-in-residence at University of Oregon, co-running the BDW workshops, lecturing in a bunch of classes, and teaching a full semester at Boston University. Teaching is something I am really drawn to.
I am flattered that Tracy included me in her new book. You can find the rest of my rambling interview in this PDF. Enjoy.