POV: Interview with Rick Chiorando, Owner of Austin & Williams

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



rick-chiorandoWelcome to The Agency Post. Tell us about yourself.

Rick Chiorando, EVP and chief creative officer. I live in Glen Cove, NY, about 30 minutes outside of Manhattan, and I have a summerhouse in Southampton, NY. I’m married with five daughters (count ‘em…five!!!) and two dogs. Suki, a rescue, and Bruiser, who really isn’t the bruising type — he’s a very playful yellow lab.

I started my career five days after graduation from college and worked at a small design firm designing packaging. From there I went to Grumman Corporation and worked in their corporate communications group as a design director. I left Grumman for the agency side of the business and worked in a few NY shops before joining Austin & Williams 10 years ago as a partner and lead creative.

Tell us more about Austin & Williams and the type of work you do.

Austin & Williams is an “outcome-driven” communications agency. Our integrated scope of services revolves around one mantra: to deliver results. We’re all about being measured and held accountable for a return on our clients’ investments. Every day we are inundated with more than 2,500 marketing messages, so we made a corporate promise that anything we create and develop has to move the needle, create a conversion or make a shopper a buyer.

We have a diverse client base, but our core competencies lie within four verticals that make up approximately 80 percent of the agency’s client base. They include financial institutions, higher education, healthcare and professional services.

Nearly 50 percent of Austin & Williams’ clients are in the financial industry. How has the increase in competition between local and national banks changed your clients’ marketing strategies?

For the most part they haven’t changed. When we work with our clients to develop their marketing strategies, we make sure these strategies are rooted in our clients’ competitive differences and that it pervades across all customer touchpoints. To a great extent, that insulates them against deeper competition and enables them to continue to stand out. For example, most of our financial clients are community-based institutions and never lose site of that. Everything they do is geared toward the community, and they do their part to give back — from better rates and sponsoring little league teams to blood and food drives.

How has digital affected the way that a financial institution interacts with and markets its services to current and prospective customers?

Digital and financial services have become ubiquitous….online banking and bill pay set the course. Research and analytics show customers and prospects search for financial products and services online. Look at the growth of virtual banks as an example of that. We scour the Internet for high-rate CDs and low-rate mortgages. There’s not much traffic in brick-and-mortar branches anymore, and the smart and savvy financial institutions are using digital to build their brand, their customer base and market share.

Why is research such an important part of the marketing process for Austin & Williams?

It’s where we start. Otherwise you’re creating in a vacuum, and when that happens, all you’re really doing is creating “pretty pictures.” There’s no foundation, no starting point, no baseline to establish how well what we’re doing for you is working.

Research can turn up surprising results. Sometimes it shows exactly what the client believes is the perception of their business, but other times it can pull a 180 and be the total opposite. It’s a little of the “forest for the trees” syndrome, but research puts a pin in the map; it anchors why and how we attack that particular objective. It’s critical to know where we’re starting, but more importantly, where we’re going. We’re not afraid to be held accountable, and why should we be? We have a number of accounts that we’re celebrating a decade of working with while successfully growing their businesses.

Your agency has strong roots as a direct response agency. How does this expertise influence the way you approach digital campaigns?

Direct response is all about measurement and what we refer to as “the science behind marketing.” While the technologies have changed, the process hasn’t. It’s all about continually beating the control piece. Every digital campaign we develop has A/B testing incorporated into it. We monitor the program daily and adjust it as needed…I refer to it as “digital day trading.”

Many clients seem to believe that digital is the answer — that it is cheaper, easier and more effective. How do you think digital should be viewed?

Ahhh… the shiny object syndrome…Digital is just another bullet in the holster…and it’s not the panacea everyone believes. All marketing tactics have the ability to move the needle, but not as much as a very strategically thought-out, media-neutral integrated campaign. There isn’t a single silver bullet.

The perception is that digital is cheaper and faster, but that’s not necessarily true when it’s done right. Digital programs have to be monitored, analyzed, adjusted and reported…that level of service involves many hours and can be very costly.

I believe the perception of cheaper, easier and more effective comes from the ease with which someone can place Facebook ads, send a tweet, post a story to a website or contribute to a blog…their thinking is once they do that, it’s on autopilot, and that thinking couldn’t be further from the truth.

You are an advocate for helping to foster and train young talent in the industry. Why do you think agencies should invest in training and mentorship of young professionals?

Because people in a position to make a difference for young talent need to remember where they came from. They were there at one time, and they need to be the person that gave them their break. Everyone needs a chance, and when we as principals can’t take a little time out of our busy days to “give back,” we’ve lost sight of why we got into this business in the first place. Those people that we dismiss, that’s the future of our industry…they need to be acknowledged, embraced and given a chance, and it’s OUR responsibility to do that.

What is your advice for professionals looking to break into the advertising industry?

Break out! Don’t just put together a personal website, hit the send button on an endless stream of emails and wait for someone to offer you a job…it’s just not going to happen. Do something different that breaks through the clutter. Stay focused, follow through, do some preliminary research on the firm and the recipient of your inquiry. You’re looking for any advantage that will give you a leg up. This is one field where the way you search for work is a direct reflection of what you’ll do for that firm if hired. That holds true for your resume…lose MS Word format and make it concise, easy-to-read and most importantly, make sure it’s well-designed. It’s your first business card — make it a great impression.

Do you think the agency pricing structure is flawed? How would you change it to more accurately reflect the creative output and resources needed to produce great work?

I do…Simply, I believe what we do as an agency is still perceived and valued on an hourly cost basis. If we come up with a killer concept and it happened in two hours, some clients believe they should only pay for two hours worth of work. Alternatively, maybe we weren’t as efficient as we could be in producing a piece of work due to some set of circumstances. What we create needs to be value based: the brain power, the experience, the resources we bring to arms to produce that campaign. I believe that becomes a win-win for the agency and the client.

What trends in the advertising industry are you most interested in? How do you see the discipline evolving over the next three to five years?

Undoubtedly, it’s digital. Digital is transitioning, changing and evolving by the day. With the speed in which this discipline is moving, it becomes an elusive target that needs to be succinctly defined and all-encompassing. There are so many elements that are swirling around the “digital nucleus” and still so many more to come, it has become hard for people to truly understand what “digital” actually represents, how it all ties together and how each of the individual elements continually play into it. Of all the disciplines available to us, I’m not sure digital ever comes to rest. Case in point: If I had said print or broadcast, everyone understands it. It has a start and a finish, and it’s easy to wrap your arms around it. Digital…not so much! Not yet.

With all the balls you juggle day-to-day, what is your most rewarding part of the day?

That’s easy...It’s coming up with the BIG idea! Staring down at that blank piece of paper and waiting for that seed of an idea to grow into something amazing. I’m my hardest critic — what I create can’t be just okay. It can’t be ordinary, and it can’t be vanilla. It needs to be anything but ordinary, it needs to be different, it needs to move you and be unique, but most importantly: It needs to work! And the best part of this creative process is the presentation to the client or prospect. There’s not a more satisfying or rewarding feeling than orchestrating a presentation that leaves a room of people in awe.

I made a promise to myself when I first broke into this business: I never ever want to hear a client say to me “that’s it?...that’s all you got?” I want to hear, “this is brilliant, but can you dial it down a little?” When I hear that, I know I served the agency well and had a blast getting there.

One reason that you love what you do: Instant gratification! What you create one day is in the newspaper or on TV days later…it’s amazingly rewarding to see your hard work come to life and influence people.

Mentor: I have two. Egon Baron, my first boss. A German immigrant who came to this country with $100 in his pocket and built a great design firm. He held my feet to the fire and I learned from the best...a true baptism by fire.

The second was Andy Schmidt, a Y&R VP that was recruited by Grumman Corporation and took me under his wing. I was in my early 20’s, and he taught me how to interact with clients and make killer presentations. At that early age I had a problem convincing people twice my age to listen to my graphic suggestions and recommendations.

Must read book: “RFPs SUCK” by Tom Searcy.

Anything else you’d like to add? It’s imperative to be able to critique your own work, and if you think everything you do is perfect, it’s time to get out of the business. There’s always room to make something better, smarter, simpler!

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