Make Your Passion Your Life’s Mission

business lunchRon Elgin’s 2nd Commandment—passed down at Seattle’s Capital Grille

Frankly, during our meeting it was a challenge to pay attention to anything beyond the reach of my plate—Capital Grille’s signature lobster and crab stuffed shrimp. But midway through lunch, reaching for an unusually large prawn, my mother’s wise voice sounded in my head. “Don’t pay attention to the food you eat when you’re with important people. Pay attention to them.”

Pushing my plate of prawns aside, I resumed the task of mining for gold with Mr. Elgin.

(Me) What do you like best about this business?

(Ron) I got into this business initially because I found out I could make decent money doing something I thought might be fun. I thought I’d play around in the ad industry until something better came along. Now, 45 years later, I think I’m ready to admit there isn’t anything better. For me, at least.

I’ve loved the challenge, the opportunity and variety of sitting at a breakfast meeting with the CEO of one of the world’s largest cruise ship companies devising strategies to sell more world cruise cabins at $64,000 a pop. Then an afternoon meeting with a one-store McDonald’s owner helping with his local store marketing plan pushing dollar coffee. Then spending the evening hours with a charitable group developing a pro bono campaign to help the impoverished in Africa. In this fast paced, ever-changing business if you find yourself doing something the same way as before, you can be pretty sure it’s yesterday’s news.

It’s been said that advertising is a young person’s game. In a sense, that’s true. But I think when a person is constantly in search of the next fresh idea or new trend, the very act has a way of keeping a person young irrespective of their age. To be successful in this industry you must always be one step ahead of the present. I don’t think the readers of your blog have time to read the thousands of little things I like best about this business but if anyone ever wants to hear more I’m always happy to share.

(Me) I get the notion of being as ‘young as you feel.’ But tell that to a 40 or 50 something Account Executive in a tech start-up, where most of their co-workers are in their mid-20s riding skateboards to work with boa constrictors in their messenger bags. Then add to the quirky culture the cold reality that many of these younger people have cut their marketing teeth on social media and ROI-driven analytics, where breakthrough creative may be treated as an afterthought. How do you stay passionate in that scenario?

(Ron) It’s been a while since I was on a skateboard and I’ve never liked snakes, but I think you’re missing the point. Understanding why people in their mid-20s are riding skateboards with boa constrictors in their messenger bags is crucial to those of us who may need to deliver a relevant message to that audience.

As to your cold reality comment, when I first got in the business TV was still considered so new and different that creative had to be done by specialists. A few years ago, creatives working in the ‘new media’ space tried to shut out their traditional counterparts with the same ‘they just don’t get it’ attitude. Today’s most successful agencies have once again overcome that provincial thinking and you know how, Phil? With the Big Idea. It always has been and always will be about breakthrough creative—not about the tools used to implement the idea.

(Me) From a financial standpoint how does an agency executive thrive in the current environment?

(Ron) Today’s agency executive must keep in mind the words of the World’s Most Interesting Man. “Stay thirsty, my friend.” A former boss used to say that in this business if you’re not growing you’re dying. However, the growth must be appropriate to the vision and mission of your company. If you stray from that, surely you will become lost. Of course the growth must either be profitable or provide a clear path to profitability.

I realize in the current environment it can be difficult if not impossible to grow the business under any circumstance. When that’s the case, the alternative becomes mandatory. Yes, I’m talking about layoffs. They are the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in business. But the fact is no one can stay in business very long when they’re bleeding. I’ve seen too many agencies go down the tube because the executive in charge was either too optimistic, too good-hearted or too timid to take appropriate action in a timely manner. In those cases, everyone was a loser.

(Me) Tell me about the dark side of this business. And please don’t say there isn’t one because I don’t know of a single agency person who isn’t sporting at least a few bruises, some with permanent disabilities.

(Ron) To me, nothing was ever darker than having to tell one of my employees, one of our family members, that I could no longer afford to help them feed their family, keep a roof over their heads, provide the many necessities of life. I always took that very personal. After all, if I hadn’t failed at growing the company fast enough or wasn’t smart enough to make a better profit I wouldn’t have had to say “I’m sorry…”

Next week, Commandment #3—Be kind To Thine Advertising Brethren, featuring Ron’s biggest career mistake, close encounters with VIPs, the mark of true character and more.

The Power Table At Capital Grille

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Ron Elgin’s Three Commandments of Advertising

IF YOU’VE SPENT ANY TIME AROUND SEATTLE’S HIGH-FLYING AD AGENCY SCENE you’ve heard the name Ron Elgin. Power broker, philanthropist, husband to the divine Miss Bonnie—whatever you call him, he’s earned a fitting reputation as Seattle’s patriarch of advertising.

Over three decades, mostly in the role of Chairman and CEO of DDB Worldwide-Seattle, he’s assembled legions of account teams that have helped build some of Seattle’s and North America’s most respected brands—Microsoft, Holland America, Jansport, McDonald’s and many others.

Two weeks ago I caught up with Ron at the venerable Capital Grille to learn about re:Connects, his new marketing talent consortium and, well, to reconnect. As his company name implies, no one does it better than Ron Elgin.

What he shared with me on a deeply personal level during our whirlwind visit still has me dizzy.

Ron’s insights and personal disclosures were so engaging they must be shared with a broader audience. He consented to this blog post about our lunch and generously added a few color details in an email the next day.

Ron’s wisdom could and will fill a book (which is at about page 160 in its current draft stage). His career take-aways are a primer on “How to thrive anywhere in the agency world—Seattle, San Francisco or Singapore.”

Here’s the first installment, Part 1…

COMMANDMENT 1—Foster Thy Dream Team

Me: While waiting for our salads at the infamous power table (explained in my Commandment 2 post next week) I leaned forward in my chair and asked: “Ron, if you remember back in the summer of 2000 I flew up to Seattle from East Texas to job hunt. Among the dozens of agency presidents I reached out to you were one of the first to give me an interview. Why?”

Ron: The day we opened our agency 30 years ago I made it my business to seek out the most talented people I could find. You may have come from obscure East Texas with precious little “big” agency experience (by your own admission), but I saw someone with potential. I’ve learned that great talent and potential can come from out of nowhere, and I’ve seen some of the best agency people take long and arduous routes to get here.

Me: Up until your recent retirement DDB experienced over three decades of brisk, steady growth. How did that happen?

Ron: I’m going to give you several answers, not because I can’t decide but because good, sustained growth is hardly ever the result of one factor. The first strategic decision was to always try to hire people better than ourselves. We didn’t need to make heroes of ourselves when other people could do it for us. The second was to vow to never to work with or for assholes. Irrespective of how much better than us they were, if the person could not fit within our culture they could not be part of our family.

As far as clients go, it didn’t really matter the size of their budgets. If they were not good people they couldn’t become part of our family. The third decision was to give equal respect and consideration to all marketing and communication disciplines.

A marketing challenge is rarely met with a single discipline. But when a single discipline overpowers the process, the results are often disappointing. So embracing and integrating every relevant discipline in this new era of advertising is critical.

Next week, Commandment 2—Make Your Passion Your Life’s Passion

Written by Phil Herzog, SmoothStone Partners

Authenticity—The Ultimate Brand Aura

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In William Shakespeare’s As You Like it one of the scenes in Act ll opens with a monologue and the phrase “All the world’s a stage.” The speech goes on to eloquently liken the world to a stage and life to a play.

Personally, I’ve found the notion of life playing out on the world’s stage a dead-on analogy in a number of contexts, especially in business and commerce. In fact, five years ago I felt so strongly about the role of “theater” in the world of sales and marketing that I built my company on the premise that to break brand parity among competitors–to capture the attention and emotions of your target audience–you must create a sense of theater.

Nowhere on Earth is this more evident than Las Vegas, the convention capital of America. But beyond the decadent casinos and bawdy shows, what I experienced last week in Vegas was a curious intersection of old-school fun and urban funk. What’s that?

Interbike, North America’s largest annual bicycle show.

While attending Interbike to present a marketing campaign on behalf of the International Light Electric Vehicle Association (to help independent bike dealers sell electric bikes), I had time between seminars to stroll the exhibit hall aisles among the 11,000 attendees and 3,000 exhibitors.

What I witnessed those three days in mid-September were the newest fashions, gadgets and innovations for an ever-evolving mode of transportation and recreation–that archetypal pedal-powered vehicle commonly call “the bicycle”.

Whether you were a recreational mountain biker, ebike commuter or shaved-legged criterion racer everyone felt a special vibe, a palpable “cool factor” in the air. Between the latest fashions in herringbone clip-in cycling shoes, Spandex knickers, neon CoolMax socks or the freshly minted 1000 watt e-bikes,e-trikes and e-unicycles, heads were turning everywhere.

Until you wandered over to the Urban Yard. That’s when most people stopped dead in their tracks.

Set amidst exhibit hall mayhem was a visually modest 50 x 50 foot island of quiet confidence and authenticity. It was the exhibit space for one of Interbike’s brightest stars: Chrome, arguably the hippest brand of the planet for messenger bags and too-hot-to-handle commuter fashions, footwear and accessories.

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What makes Chrome so cool? What’s the secret sauce that drew crowds to their exhibit like moths to a headlamp?

Authenticity.

Perhaps it was the legions of professional messengers laden with tats and-gauges from San Francisco’s Battery Street, sitting around Embarcadero-imported picnic benches waiting for party time. Maybe it was the assembly line of seamstresses who were feverishly stitching custom messenger bags for the ever-growing, ever-gawking crowd waiting patiently to grab their iconic piece of Interbike history…living proof that they were actually there. At Interbike 2012 in Las Vegas. And to boot, they even got a handmade Chrome messenger bag, the ultimate bragging right for anyone riding BART, Seattle’s free zone buses or the Bainbridge ferry.

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Whatever it was, the Chrome’s brand magic served as a clear message to the likes of Timbuk2, Pearl Izumi and Cannondale: This new kid on the block is leap-frogging over incumbent metro bike apparel and accessory brands with a quiet authenticity mixed with a dash of gritty, street-cred attitude.

How did Chrome pull off such a surprising David-and-Goliath feat so quickly in an over-saturated market?

In my opinion, real authenticity and the cult following generated in a great brand’s wake begins with the author—the founder of the company.

In Chrome’s case, that would be Mr. Steven McCallion.

Amidst the merchandising chaos I visited with Steve and his lieutenant Adrian for a few minutes at Interbike. In my exchange with both guys it took me no time to realize this whole scene had little to do with selling stuff to as many people as possible. For them it was about embracing a lifestyle, a calling to provide a super-quality product with a great back story for every Chrome customer to make a subtle statement about who they are and what they’re about. For the Chrome executives it was about projecting their personalities into the marketplace as an extension of the brand…

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Very smart, very funny, very unpretentious.

And did I mention the most important thing?

Very real.

You can’t fake authenticity unless your company or your brand exudes it from the core.

As they say…“An apple never falls far from the tree.”

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The First Guy Naked Wins

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Before you get too excited let’s establish something up front. This post is not going to feed your sexual fantasy. It’s the title of a book my friend David Hazard and are writing on the pandemic of white collar depression, invading the boardroom, bedroom and beyond (a later blog topic).

It’s a title, a subject line that’s intended to tease you, to lure you in. Call it a hook, grabber, tease. But whatever the name, it’s got the power to grab your attention and keep it there until the advertiser, author, publisher or producer can take you to the next step in the sales cycle: consideration.

Since the dawn of man nothing has done this better than the second most popular word or concept in the English language. The magic word?

Sex.

To make a point about how sex is used in entertainment and marketing to capture and keep an audience on the edge of their seat, I give you the wholesome version of this, done tastefully, exceedingly well (Parental and clerical warning: this may not be suitable viewing). Do I have your attention?

Here we go: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsMN1ywJkQY.

What’s this video about? Fashion, if you’re a designer. Bras if you work for Maidenform. Heaven or a peculiar glimpse thereof if you’re clergy. John Mayer or J-Zee if you’re a John Mayer or Jay-Zee fan. For a junior in high school boy (or girl for that matter)? You’re getting warmer.

If you’re a Shania fan you’ve already seen this video. If not, feast your eyes on this:  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqFLXayD6e8)

Look into her eye…what is Shania saying to you? “I want you?”
But here’s the problem. You can’t have her. Nor can you have big muscles in 30 days. Or a 32 inch waist at age 40 (25 if you’re a woman). Or a waterfront home. Or a perfect marriage.

Here’s another one: Look at the massive smile on Shania. What’s she saying now?

To set the record straight, in my opinion none of these video images is about cleavage or a suggestive “lie with me” message. They’re simply images of breathtaking beauty and fashion. What’s not to love about that?

Oh, one last thought. What’s the single most powerful word in the dictionary, far surpassing sex?

Free.

It’s lured you and legions of others into watching countless videos and listening to downloaded songs (that 10 years ago would have cost you thousands). But don’t be fooled. Like the free oil check and full service at the gas pump, that’s going away soon, almost as quickly as it entered the mainstream marketplace…my next blog topic.

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Praise For Pandora

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In the wake of my last blog post (Beating The Digital Download Devil) I got a flood of emails protesting my position on the evils of digital music. In fairness to my detractors and to balance my indignation over the gobs of money sifted through the hands of hard-working artists, writers and composers and funneled into the pockets of the late Steve Jobs and company, I shine a promising beam of light—a beacon of hope for today’s topsy-turvy music business—on one of my favorite digital music brands.

Pandora.

What’s cool about Pandora? Perhaps the better question is…What’s not cool about Pandora (aside from the increasing proliferation of disruptive ads)? For over 100 million subscribers the notion that we’re beating the “pay for play” system by devouring an uninterrupted stream of free music seems delightfully naughty. Or consider that as subscribers we have instant access to well over a million groovy songs representing over 80,000 artists.

Last year alone Pandora served up over 4 billion music listening hours to aficionados like you and me. To date, they’ve delivered over 50 million mobile app downloads in the us alone. Here’s the best part—they’ve compensated music professionals with over $300 million in cumulative royalties to artists, labels, master copyright owners and the immortal SoundExchange. Sounds like redemption doesn’t it?

Personally, the thing I think is coolest about Pandora is it’s hip founder and CEO Tim Westergren. Aside from the fact that, post- IPO, he’ll never need to work another day in his life, he really loves and understands music. It’s written on his heart, it’s etched into his mind, and he’s devoted his life to making fabulous high fidelity music accessible to the masses. Free of charge, albeit with a few gratuitous ads springs sprinkled in after each music set.

He knows what I want. What’s that? To customize my music intake based on my favorite artists, genres and musical eras. Where else outside the digital world can you listen to a playlist of LMFAO, Katy Perry, Renee Fleming, the Beatles, Eisley, Death Cab, Glenn Miller, Coldplay, Bruno Mars, Ariana Grande and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—in that order, or shuffled, whenever, wherever I want?

Exactly one year ago to the day I received a nice personal email from Matt Nichols, Pandora’s VP of Marketing (and two days later from Tim himself). Both responded gingerly to the constructive criticism I offered after hearing a poorly executed ad.

Here’s what I said…

“I was disappointed to hear an ad that came on during my Beatles Radio Station today while riding my motorcycle up here in Seattle. It was a fabulous ad for Godiva Chocolates and was beautifully timed the day before Valentine’s Day. But the ad failed to include a call to action which you could help every one of your sponsors develop by adding a 10 second tag to EVERY ad from every partner/sponsor, like…to get your exclusive “I Love You” Pandora/Godiva Chocolate Gift Set click on the banner ad now or go to Pandora/Godiva.com and use promo code PAN at check out to redeem your discount and get three free months of Pandora One (credit card required).”

Then the PS.

“Sorry if I sound pushy and maybe I am a bit. It’s only because I love Pandora and the whole notion of the music genome project—that of profiling music, dissecting and categorizing sound and style elements within—is incredibly technologically innovative. Your marketing should be every bit as innovative. Even more so. And that means continually testing, validating and rolling out new messages and offers that optimally engage and activate your listeners. My two cents anyway.”

Want to know their reply?

You’ll have to log onto my upcoming post “Trouble In Tech Paradise For Entertainment Companies” for more ups and downs in digital music for the likes of Rhapsody, Spotify, GrooveShark/TinyShark, Slacker and other category leaders.

In the meantime, keep filling your head and heart with great music. BTW, do check out Spotify when you get a free minute. It’s one of my other favorite music portals.