Crisis and creativity
Quite tired up after spending long days and long nights in Cannes I waited for Mark Wnek in the cool light lobby of the Carlton hotel and somehow we ended up filming it in the darkest le petit bar without a flash on - to avoid all the noise of Spike Lee and all of Microsoft running around out there.
Mark Wnek: The Mad Men thing, yeah that was Jonah Bloom's idea. For AdAge he wanted to do something different, so he had us all illustrated in the style of Mad Men. I thought it was quite fun.
dabs: I love the show actually, do you watch it?
Mark Wnek: Oh yeah, it's great. It's fantastic.
dabs: What is the difference between US and UK advertising?
Mark Wnek: That's a really good question, I've been there for four years and I should be able to answer that question like really slickly... but.. it's such a very very tough question. They both have their really strong points. They both have big corporations that do a lot of advertising, there's a lot at stake, and everything has to be checked and double checked. And somehow in some of the big day to day work, something somehow I've always felt is lost, but there is always a kind of scale. And Americans kind of... are happy with their emotions and expressing their emotions, and aren't as ashamed of their emotions as the brits are, so although the work can be kind of... sanitized is to strong of a word, although the work can be kind of checked and triple-checked and maybe lose something, it does have that kind of scale and that kind of figure that English work doesn't tend to have. English work tends to be much more.. again cynical is much too strong a word, but it tends to have a kind of sharper wit, and be smaller, and more observational. Although in the current climate, where so many brands are talking about value, and prices, and things like that I don't think there's much difference between the broad sweep of English and American advertising. Fundamentally the difference is, I think, emotion. You know the Brits look at the American work, or most of the American work and they think [pulls awkward feel face], it's a bit [taps his heart] out here. Funnily enough my work always tended in that direction, so I feel very comfortable with that.
dabs: Lowe was a bit of a sinking ship when you joined and you've turned it around something amazing.
Mark Wnek: Well, I don't think it's quite fair to say that Lowe NY was a sinking ship when I joined, it was quite a big agency, but there were issues, that were kind of very deeply ingrained in there which were about to cause lots of problems. So Tony who you know is my global partner chairman worldwide kind of saw it coming, and put me in there. But yeah, then we did go through a very torrid time. Not least when we lost all our General Motors business in 2007, which was such a huge shock. In the UK as a top manager representative, you would almost certainly have suspected something, you're antenna would just, you know - but where we were, there was no signs, and no warning whatsoever. And the two brands that we had, were by anybodies standard the two best communicating brands that they had. So that was quite a shocker, when they realigned our brands into the Publicis network.
But what it allowed us to do, is what people are doing now, back in 2007, so that's why - knocking on wood (and he does) - I may be a bit smug now, we can kind of think that we've been there and we've done that.
dabs: ....It's like you have a leg up on everybody.
Mark Wnek: Yeah, we feel that we have a leg up and we feel that we have a business that is suited to 2009.
dabs: Yeah as now everyone else is feeling the pinch ...Which brings me to one of the twitter Q's, how do you keep creativity alive with shrinking budgets? (clip)
Mark Wnek: To be honest with you, shrinking budgets is what makes creativity thrive. The problem is, how do you keep creativity alive with shrinking budgets, and very nervous clients in the recession? I think that's the harder question, because you would think that the natural inclination is to take more risks in a dodgy economy? But that isn't necessarily what happens. Again, you tend to do a lot of stuff about value, about price, what have you. To be fair more clients are looking for different ways, different media, different platforms to advertise in so that's a place where creativity can be. It can be really excellent.
dabs: Yeah, the Titanium Lion, has become so much more... Bigger than the film.
Mark Wnek: And rightly so. I think the idea that one medium is somehow more award-worthy than another is so yesterdays thinking.
dabs: But is it also because it is, that's where the new idea actually happen? Because you're not stuck in the same .. OK here's a film [draws rectangle], here's a poster [draws square], you-know you're stuck fighting the same frame?
Mark Wnek: I'm not sure. No, I'm not sure I believe that. I'm old-fashioned in that first and foremost, every great idea, should be able to be expressed as a billboard. If you can express your idea as a billboard, and it's strong, then it's gonna be a great idea. The problem with TV is, they cost a lot of money. And clients aren't necessarily ready to experiment or risk, on TV. But they will do it in some of the other media. That's why I think that increasingly these great ideas, come from other media.
I mean, even if you talk about viral - which is a thing I hate talking about, because viral, the consumer decides if it's a viral or not. You can't say "I'm gonna make a viral film", that's like saying "I'm gonna make an Oscar winning movie" - yeah, we'll see about that. It becomes viral, when it becomes a virus and everyone catches the virus. That's why I hate talking about "viral". But we call it that, and when it comes to "viral", clients are more willing to do crazy things there, it's smaller, it's cheaper and that's why I think some of the great work comes from there. Increasingly.
dabs: Who do you think is going to win the Titanium, this year?
Mark Wnek: No idea. I think it's wide open. It's always wide open. Every year. When the Japanese barcodes won, that was, to me, pretty obvious. But otherwise, it's open.
Mark Wnek: Hahaha! That is a great question, I love that question. It's an ironic comment about myself. Being a dinosaur, being old school. Even on Adfreak, they call me "blabla the creative chief of Lowe the most active [finger quotes] traditional ad-person on twitter. And I was like, yeah, laugh OK, I don't see how you can be active on twitter and traditional at the same time, that's quite interesting.
dabs: in 2005 the Media Guardian asked you if you'd be The King of New York. Do people call you "Your highness" now?
Mark Wnek: Nooo, noo, Media Guardian, bless 'em. I do love New York though, I love America. I love America more than I love New York. It's a very very big place, and you have to pay your dues, and it's a very very tough place. You know a lot of people want to come there and work there, and I never quite understand why, or whether they quite understand why they want to come and work there. Because it is a very very tough place, and it's a very serious place in business terms, and it's a difficult place to do creative work - you really have to work very very hard. But I suppose people are attracted to the bright lights and the idea of it. But it's a tough environment.
dabs: Maybe people are attracted to the challenge, you-know, make it there blabla?
Mark Wnek: Yeah, make it there, make it anywhere, yeah I suppose so, but I think that for creative people, they would do much better really understanding what it is that they're getting themselves in for when they get to New York.
dabs: Yeah, it's also a very expensive place to be.
Mark Wnek: Yes, it's an expensive place to be, I have three little boys, age six, four and two, and it's also kind of ....smelly and kind of a noisy place for..for... Did I say smelly!? I did not mean that, New York's not smelly it's fantastic.
dabs: Everybody knows New York is smelly!
Mark Wnek: Nah, not where we are, not downtown. I do love America though. I'm Polish, and all Poles since birth are kind of indoctrinated about the joys of America. There's a slight kind of Manhattan thing of, groovy west village creatives in black t-shirts, that kind of say to you "oh, no, you don't wanna go out there, you won't like it, not Kansas", and I just find that unbelievable.
dabs: But then, very few people (and by this I meant europeans), like America, as much as they like New York.
Mark Wnek: I know, it's weird, I'm the opposite, I love America. Whenever I get a chance to go somewhere like Kansas, Cincinnati, Phoenix - Phoenix a lot at the moment - Chicago, I love it. I would gladly live in a small town in America, seriously.
dabs: Maybe you should open another agency, in Boulder!
Mark Wnek: Ha! Yeah Boulder is fantastic. That's kind of like Alex and his guys putting their money where that statement is and not just making that statement. You don't need to be where these giant conglomerations are, I don't think you need to, but you know.
dabs: You usually have the agencies (in the cities) where the clients are.
Mark Wnek: Yeah, but then not all ... not as many as there used to be are there. It was right for us to be there, all I'm saying is that, there's a lot more to America, than just New York. And if you're in American advertising, you really need to understand that. Sometimes you see scripts and you think; Wow, this has been written specifically for 2 million people, between 42nd street and Battery park. Is the lady in Albuquerque going to understand this? Which is the part of the job that I love doing, I have to say.
dabs: What has the question we used to ask : "What is, and who is it for?" been replaced with? ... Because the things that we sell are more services instead of products. So how do you define who the target is?
Mark Wnek: Wow. Uhm. I think defining the target market has now become everything. You used to be able to be relatively loose. And I don't think the planners and the media planners of the past will appreciate me saying that but, compared to what you really need to know now about people, about what they're like, where they live, how they think, what they read - it needs now to be so specific. Because the bizarre thing is, I used to write a column for a newspaper called The Independent, in London, and the Independent kind of prided itself on representing a completely new breed of person. And that new breed, they would describe as driving a BMW, voting conservative and having a Greenpeace sticker on their car - you know things that you just don't mix, and normally just wouldn't happen. But I think increasingly the world is like that, it's increasingly difficult to pigeon hole people, into the usual categories. Certainly as far as "who is it for", that's a really.. you know we have a thing at Lowe called "Context planning", and we believe in the context for everything. Context is a very important thing, and it's a very complex thing now understanding who the group that it is that you're talking to. You know, it's not like housewives between 18 and whatever anymore.
(rattles in the ceiling distract us momentarily)
Mark Wnek: Oh, we have mice. Ha-ha. But , if there's another question in your question, I think the whole of what interests me is what is the big idea, we've always talked about the big idea, and I remember a piece last year about the Geico campaign, which is a campaign I really like, Geico was one of them there was Apple, Geico, there were like four or five brands that were being considered for brand of the year in AdAge, I think.
One of the CMO's kind of made a comment about the Geico campaign that it shouldn't have been in there, because it's not a campaign it's all over there place, it's the Gecko, then it's the Beverly Hillbillies, then personalities, and his point was this is not really a campaign, it's several different pieces of work. And I strenuously objected to that. Because I just think the nature of what a Big Idea is in this world, is not what people think it is anymore. I do this presentation where I talk about the big idea in terms of an apple, where every single part of the idea is exactly the same as the other parts, no matter which angle you look at it from it's the same Big Idea. That's the old fashioned Big Idea. The new Big Idea - and then I show a picture of a fish - it's still one organism, but if you look at the dorsal fin, that's one thing, if you look at the tail fin, it's another, and if you look at the underbelly it's another. But it is still recognizably the same organism. And I think that's what's so brilliant about the Geico campaign for instance - there are others - they recognize that it's no longer such slavish uniformity, which is not kind of, my stock and trade. But it does allow you, when you get older you think so much better, so much more deeply and sensibly, becoming much more aware of who you are and what is right, you're starting to genuinely, as you have children and your children get older look at the world in different ways. And you look at brands in different ways. And the idea that you can turn around and say "that person is becoming less valuable" is completely insane.
dabs: Yeah, like experience doesn't count, and advertising is the only business where it doesn't count.
Mark Wnek: It's insane. It's insane. You lose, the business will really lose a lot. Going down that road. Not to say that one isn't stunned and staggered every day by people, you know I have the Miami ad School at my agency, Miami ad school New York is in Lowe. And every day I'm stunned with what they come up with. But, will I send them to talk to the global CEO of Johnson&Johnson? Probably not. I do that. So there you go.
dabs: There's room for both, you can't send a 19 year old to talk to the global CEO.
Mark Wnek: I think in the answer to your question, "in the future will X", I think the future will be very very interesting. I hope the future isn't about : "This decade that was in, and the next decade that's not in anymore, that's it" - I hope the future becomes a little bit more, somehow wiser and a kind of higher developed place, than that. Because that's our history isn't it? They fight against them, they're on top of them, they win, now they're friends and now everybody is fine. I think our children will not stand for that. Our children are completely different people from us. And they won't stand for that kind of world.
dabs: There's also all this thinking that because of the recession, OK, now we have to go back to the hard sell, now the soft sell - it just seems like, haven't we had that discussion for the past thirty years now?
Mark Wnek: I know, I know.
dabs: I dunno, I can see, like brands becoming friends, in a different way.
Mark Wnek: I agree. I just think it's in the hands of our children. Sorry to sound boring, I just think they're not gonna be as, based on conflict. And conflict resolving things as we are, I think the world is going to be a much happier place.
dabs: Are you like Jerry De La Femina, I drink it all, I eat it all I use only clients products? (clip here)
Mark Wnek: I would have to say given the choice, between all the people that I know, rather spend an evening with clients than with ad people.
dabs: You would? Why, are ad people just too cynical? That's what they say happens to ad people when they get older, they get cynical and you don't wanna do the..
Mark Wnek: I think it's because I'm lucky. I've got nice clients.
dabs: Hehe, good one. Good save.
And off he went to a nice lunch date with clients - which in Cannes (and at the Carlton Hotel - but you really have to work quite hard to find bad food in Cannes) means great food and wine. Thanks for the interview Mark Wnek, always a pleasure.