POV: Interview with Tom Geary, Partner & ECD at School of Thought

tom_gearyTom Geary has been doing this gig (advertising) for a while. On the good days, it’s still the best job ever. There have been other kinds of days, of course — mostly when he was working for some enormous agency-holding-company-slash-city-state that seemed to be more about maintaining the status quo than doing what was right for the client and for those who worked there. This is a large part of why he wanted to open his own shop (again).

Tell us more about School of Thought. How does it differentiate itself from other agencies?

I think there’s this fallacy that shops need to be “positioned.” We’re a challenger brand! Pull out the SWOT chart! Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe our new business efforts would be more successful if we were positioned in a niche: Nobody knows left-handed agnostics the way we do.

To me, once you get past a certain level of capabilities, it’s all about the people. If you like Paul Venables, you’re only going to find him in one place.

Here, we’ve got a small, nimble team of outstanding people. All smart, all creative. Nobody else has this team, and we’re not going to give them away.

Personally, I am very, very passionate about wanting to move the needle for our clients. I think that’s rare in a creative. I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in this business who is as truly interested as I am in our client’s success — particularly for those clients who are willing to meet us halfway and truly partner with us. Are we always right on the first get-go? No, of course not, but we won’t stop until we get it right.

What advantages do smaller shops have when pitching or working with clients?

I was at McCann with 600 other people. Ogilvy New York was even bigger. It was mind numbing with constant meetings and layers upon layers of people. I once sat in a meeting with 44 people. I kid you not — 44 people. I counted twice.

Finance managers. Traffic managers. Project managers. Interactive producers. Integrated producers. Where did the project manager’s role end and the integrated producer’s begin? Nobody knew.

I think it took two weeks to open a job jacket. In four years, as a senior creative leader, not once did I meet with the media team on a project. Think about that. Media is arguably just as important to our collective success as the creative, and we weren’t working together?

To me, that’s just crazy.

There’s something about the culture at big shops that, in my eyes, perpetuates the status quo.

And yet very, very few clients need this kind of army. We handled $125 million worth of work with two or three creative teams.

What brand needs 500 ideas? You don’t. You need a few excellent ones.

If I were a client, I would question whether hiring an entire skyscraper in Manhattan is really going to be the best thing for my brand.

Ultimately, at McCann, I had significant success when we were able to get a small team working autonomously. There were fewer layers and fewer meetings. We were more nimble, and the clients responded in kind. That’s how we created Ms. Dewey.

Some of the work I did for the Microsoft brand, working with two or three of the TAG guys, was probably the best work I have ever done in my career.

But because of the layers — because we would invariably get in our own way — it never made it to the client. I think that was the day I decided to leave.

I wasn’t going to find a better, more responsive model for advertising at IPG or Omnicom. The only solution was to create this responsive model on my own. Luckily, that’s about when Joe called on the phone with an opportunity to pitch Milliman.

How can clients and agencies work together to create the best work and, therefore, relationship?

In shipping, when a container ship is entering a dangerous port, a small boat comes out of the harbor and a pilot transfers aboard the ship.

From that moment, until the ship is docked safely, the pilot becomes the captain and is solely responsible for the ship and crew. And if the pilot puts the ship on the rocks, he’s the one who is liable.

In our profession, we are the pilots steering our clients’ brands. But unlike the shipping pilot, we aren’t liable for any mistakes. If we put the brand on the rocks, we can walk away. It’s a scary proposition for clients. Many have been burned. I get that.

So that’s the backdrop.

The solution is about finding some kind of balance of mutual respect. Think of a triangle with the agency, client and consumer at each corner. Typically, the agency comes on too strong, dictatorial — the Alex Bogusky approach.

But here’s the thing. The most important player — the consumer — is not at the table. So we try to deliver their view as part of the process.

If you can keep the balance and keep the client’s goals front and center, I think there’s a good chance to build trust.

On the subject of goals, this business is hard enough as it is. To get the very best work, clients should tell us where they want to go, not how to get there. Give us a specific goal, and we almost always crush it.

Another key to success is to bring in the agency early in the process. Sometimes, we have clients who are hesitant to include us until they have everything mapped out perfectly. This is a huge mistake. Perfection is illusory, but by including us early, we can develop a brand strategy that’s exactly on point with enough time to succeed.

Last-second heroics are best left to “Hoosiers.”

Tell us about some of your favorite campaigns that you’ve worked on. What were the strategies behind these?

We just wrapped up a winter campaign for North Lake Tahoe. Tahoe is something I’m passionate about — we all are. It’s also true that there’s just an enormous amount of clutter in the space: ski resorts, hotels, tourism boards — all with the same power shots. Like snowflakes, they all blend together.

Everyone knows North Lake Tahoe. They know the resorts. What they need is a reason to care, a reminder and a kick in the pants.

So we focused on the pain point: We’re all so busy. There’s never enough time. So make it.

We’ve had a lot of success with the campaign. People are talking about the ads here in town. I get emails from kids who want to work here because of the ads we did. More importantly, they were effective: Hotel occupancy was up 30 percent in a mediocre snow season. That’s incredibly rewarding.

Joe and I first worked together on a campaign for Hawaiian tourism. This was in 2008, and Hawaii was just getting hammered as its two largest markets, the mainland and Japan, were in recession.

The client needed some banners. Simple.

But we didn’t want to do the same old thing. When was the last time any of us clicked on a banner? Nobody does. So our approach was to make the richest, most engaging banner we could — delivering interesting content in the banner rather than waiting for a click that would never come.

In Hawaii’s case, we ended up creating a banner with an interactive map and pop-ups. They also featured a really nice film on one of the end destinations, like Haleakala.

The typical click-through rate is about 0.1 percent. By contrast, we had up to 40 percent of site visitors interacting with our banners. 40 percent of all eyeballs on that page engaged with our ad.

This was, far and away, the most successful campaign in Hawaiian tourism’s history, but it was also the first campaign that Joe and I ever worked on together.

http://vimeo.com/64852015

About a year before School of Thought existed, we were living the name.

And then one day, the phone rang and Jelly Belly became a client. I have a wicked sweet tooth. Oh my god, I was in heaven.

Sometimes, the best insights are just staring at you. Close your eyes, pop a sour apple Jelly Belly in your mouth, and you could swear you were in some orchard in Vermont. It’s just this distillation of authentic taste. So I wanted to convey that very simply and visually in the advertising.

Social media seems to be the main focus for brands and advertisers. What is social media really about?

Social media is getting way, way too much attention in my estimation. It’s about ensuring that you have content that’s of particular interest to people — something they will want to pass along.

Isn’t that exactly what the best advertising has always been?

Remember the Nike women’s campaign with those early Charlotte Moore ads that were all about empowerment? I think every woman I ever met had those torn out and pasted on the wall.

It’s easier to pass the content along now with the social tools, but the emotional reaction to have the target saying, “Wow, this is great, I have to pass this along to someone.” Well, that’s been my goal every day of my career.

How can ego ruin creative?

Talk to anybody at Crispin. I’m kidding, sort of.

There are some things in society that warrant an incredibly strong ego. If you’re a Ph.D. in neuroscience or a MacArthur fellow, more power to you. For the rest of us, some humility is a good thing.

I’ve worked for a number of tough characters. Right after Ms. Dewey launched, Chiat/Day flew me down and wanted me to help lead the Apple digital team. I loved the place — the people and the brand — but I knew Steve would be a piece of work and we’d be presenting to him weekly.

I’m no shrinking violet, but I can’t stand it when people get abused — like working 10 weekends in a row just because — like I did at McCann. It’s not like the work or the morale was getting better.

A friend of a friend was working for Alex Bogusky. This woman had an ESPN poster on the wall because she’d spent years working on SportsCenter at W&K — a top 10 campaign ever, in my opinion. Who wouldn’t want that on their wall? Alex apparently walked into her office, saw the poster and started yelling. Next thing you know, she was out of a job.

Jobs and Bogusky: If you make the cover of Fast Company, congratulations, but I don’t want to work for you.

Why are so many agencies wrapped up in buzzwords and the next best thing. What should they be focused on?

Their people.

Must-read book: Advertising: “Where the Suckers Moon: The Light and Death of an Advertising Campaign” or “Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads.”

Beach Read: Anything by Frederick Forsyth.

Favorite ad of all time: Anything by DDB before 1980. W&K’s SportsCenter campaign.

Follow School of Thought on Twitter at @SchoolOThought.