Back in 2011 copywriter/art director John Ryland found himself laid off from the Martin Agency. Instead of shuffling around the freelance circuit or moving to another city with more options, Ryland struck out on his own, creating a custom motorcycle shop called Classified Moto. The shop has grown into an internationally recognized brand. If you are a Walking Dead fan you saw his work, as Classified made the bike that Daryl Dixon rode. If that isn’t enough to garner cool points, Ryland and company have just released their first episode in a web-series called RESTRICTED which you can watch below.
We caught up with Ryland to get his thoughts on advertising, entrepreneurship, and of course motorcycles.
How long were you working in advertising before you started on the second phase?
The Martin Agency was my first real agency experience. I was there for a little over 10 years. I started out in studio art, then got asked by the late Mike Hughes to participate in a Miller Genuine Draft pitch with my buddy Todd Brusnighan. Todd was a junior planner at the time, but our campaign ended up winning the business, so they kind of had to make us creatives at that point.
Did you have the idea of starting your own company and pursuing your own passions for a while before it finally came to fruition?
I had worked in publishing of some sort since the early nineties, but always thought it would be so cool to work at a big ad agency. So, getting a job at Martin was a dream come true for awhile. I was as passionate about ad stuff as I had ever been about snowboarding or racing cars or fishing or whatever. But right about the time I was getting disillusioned with advertising, I discovered motorcycles. I had taken myself off an account that I was super passionate about (BFGoodrich Tires) because I was all worked up over some typical ad drama. But that marked a big shift in my career. I started helping out on other team’s projects — copy writing, art directing, edits, color sessions and whatnot — whenever there was a personnel issue. One week I’d be shooting credit card spots. The next, I’d be supervising toilet paper animations. And I loved it. I was doing my job and keeping everyone happy, but I wasn’t invested in it emotionally. I guess that freed me up to get interested in motorcycles. So there was a year or so when I’d go home and build motorcycles and make things in my garage. It started to take off a little bit, and I was actually making some money at it. And yes, I started to wonder if I could somehow do it for a living. But I had three kids and could not, in good conscience, just quit and have a go at it.
Take us back to 2011. You've just been laid off, and you live in a city with not many other agencies to choose from. How did you go from that point to Classified Moto?
I can’t say the writing wasn’t on the wall back then. There was a new creative director, and a bunch of new designers and creatives were arriving constantly. The creative department was being completely remodeled (physically and metaphorically) and everyone was moving into their fancy new spaces. But there was a pocket of us tucked away downstairs in this creepy surplus-style cubicle area. It was all very “Office Space.” I was sure we were all going to get axed, but then one day they moved us upstairs. Back on the team! Then, maybe a week later, we got laid off. Haha. The day it happened, some website was at the agency interviewing and photographing the new ECD John Norman. He walked around the agency that day carrying the sledgehammer he used as a prop for the photo shoot. Nice. Needless to say, there were a lot of things bouncing around in my head. The sledgehammer might have sealed the deal, but before I left the building I knew I was done with that life. I mean, who was I to stand in the way of the agency being able to "best meet the changing needs of its clients while looking to the future"? I get it. I had been there a decade. I was making good money. I had a lot of vacation days. And, admittedly, I wasn’t willing to let advertising consume my thoughts anymore. I got a decent severance which ended up being the cushion that allowed me to go into business for myself. It was scary, but that made it possible. Don’t get fired. Get laid off if you can, kids.
If Harley Davidson as a brand is synonymous with "rebellion" and "freedom," what words define Classified Moto?
I wish we had good words! If there’s a word for standing by your admittedly polarizing design decisions, or not taking yourself too seriously, we’d like to claim those words. Also, at the risk of being too serious, “inspiration” is something we hear quite a bit. I think our bikes have a certain approachability that attracts people, or makes them think, “hey, I could do that.” Even though we want people to buy our bikes, we think it’s generally positive if we inspire people to go build something themselves. It’s a connection they have with the Classified brand, that could pay off at a later date, I suppose.
What was the motivation to launch RESTRICTED?"
Recently I came to the conclusion that we are functioning as entertainers. The vast majority of people who interact with our brand will never even buy a t-shirt from us, much less a $30K motorcycle. I mean, they appreciate us — they browse our bikes and like our posts as part of their daily routine. But without any direct link to sales, that behavior is a bit like applause at a free concert. So, we are choosing to go with the flow and see what happens. RESTRICTED is our first stab at turning content into a revenue stream. Eventually, that could mean YouTube ad dollars, but immediately, it’s more about sponsored content for shows like RESTRICTED. So that’s the business motivator, but creatively, I just love making stuff that I think will entertain people I like. I write what I think is funny or appropriate, but I keep in mind people I like, love, respect or whatever. A lot of times, I’ll say, “I bet so-and-so would think this was hilarious.” I think that’s important. (Because your friends might be the only ones who see it.) What we won’t do with the show is try to play to macho stereotypes and the other staples of gear head entertainment. I’m sure it sells something, but I hate that stuff. Don’t get me wrong, a good portion of our content could be described as “badass,” but not in an “I’m a badass,” kind of way.
What skills honed in advertising do you still use?
I think I learned unhealthy but useful perseverance habits in advertising. I feel like the extreme nature of ad deadline culture kind of toughens you up psychologically. Or kills you. But maybe my most often used ad skill is being diligent about not missing opportunities. In my advertising days, we did a lot of behind-the-scenes video and stuff like that, and everything was potential content. I’m sure this is even more the case in advertising today. But so often, the thing you didn’t plan is the best part. So, whether it’s designing bikes or doing the show, if something I’m seeing feels better than what I envisioned, I’m conditioned to go with it. It’s a vague answer, I guess. But that behavior definitely came from my ad days, and I’m glad for it. Also, learned the power of food as a motivator for the team. Need I say more?
What do you miss most about working in advertising?
I would be totally lying if I said I didn’t miss the paychecks, insurance and paid vacation. Owning your own business is hard, of course, and trying to make money doing something you love, is extra tough. (Or else everyone would be doing it.) But aside from that kind of thing, I would say I miss the exposure to a pretty vast array of new things. At an agency, there’s this large group of people with wildly varied influences and interests, and it’s pretty great. Even though advertising is this big commercially driven thing, so much real art and music and culture influences it. I definitely miss the sheer volume of exposure. I have to work a lot harder to find new music I like, that’s for sure. And if I didn’t have teenagers, I’d be totally out of touch with what is in at any given moment.
What do you miss the least?
The human element. And by that I mean some very specific, certain, exactly-this-guy-right-here people. There are great people in the business who I don’t miss because I stay in touch with them. But there are certain people who just seem to stand for everything I don’t want to be, and they rise to the top and stay at the top. Just gross, back-stabby, power-trippy, clichéd creepers who suffer from a very specific style of delusion. It’s like they’ve been in charge of things long enough, and enjoyed a sort of quasi-celebrity status long enough, and had people kiss their asses long enough, that they 100 percent believe their own hype.
I can understand if the above answer comes across as bitterness towards getting laid off. Fair play. But I think I saw maybe 13 or 14 rounds of layoffs during my time in advertising. And I felt the same way every time. You watch 20 people get the boot, seemingly to retain one or two “that guy”s — I’d say I miss that the least.
Finally, what inspires you more than anything?
Humor in the face of adversity. Hands down, that is the most inspiring thing to me, and the quality I admire most in others. I feel like people take themselves soooooooo seriously these days — as much when they’re on top of the world as when they’re in crisis. So whenever I see someone meet some serious shit with irreverence or humor, I get inspired. The business I’m in now (like advertising) is full of critics — usually semi-anonymous ones — who will just aim to crush your soul with their comments. I can choose to be the guy who gets offended, or I can be the guy who thinks it’s funny. I have a job that shouldn’t even be a job. So it’s all funny to me.
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