Introduction: Welcome to Higher Order. We talk to creative people with ambitious ideas that are out to change the world. In this week’s episode, we’re getting disruptive. Through the documentary makeSHIFT and its director, Tim Cawley, filmmaker, advertising veteran, big thinker and problem solver, we get to go back in time to experience the metamorphosis of advertising in the time of the internet.
Of course, it changed the world, but it completely blew up the playbook for brands and the industry that brings them to the world. Join us as we learn why now it’s morph or die.
Josh: Today on the show we have Tim Cawley, documentary filmmaker, agency creative, jack of all trades. Tim, we’re here to talk to you about your documentary, makeSHIFT. Thank you so much for joining us.
Tim Cawley: Thanks for having me.
Devon: Whew, there is so much to unpack in this film. Let’s start at the beginning. Do you mind giving us a bit of your origin story, so we know your journey, how you went from advertising into filmmaking and where you are now?
Tim Cawley: Well, I would say I didn’t go from advertising to filmmaking. I merged the two. My background is as a copywriter, ascended to group creative director at big agencies like Carmichael Lynch, Mullen, Hill Holliday, Y&R. Bounced around the country a little bit, and in doing that you get access to some pretty high level people.
Tim Cawley: I was working at a large agency, and on one of those big fancy productions from the old-school advertising days. I was working with an Oscar nominated cinematographer, Claudio Miranda. I was telling him, “Maybe we should move the camera here. Maybe we should block the people like this.” I had this moment of clarity of, “Well, who am I to tell him where to move the camera?” I just said, you know what, in the moment I had this, “I’m going to make a short film.” If I was just left to my own devices, would I be able to create a film that was coherent? Just because I had this role in an ad agency, do I really know how to do this?
Tim Cawley: I made this film, 14 minute film called Well-Founded Concerns. It got into a bunch of festivals around the world. Then I got greedy, and I made another one. Then I made a third one which was a feature length documentary about the creative process, called From Nothing, Something. It, again, played festivals all over the world. Co.Create, which is part of Fast Company did an article about it. I sold it. I got famous people to be in it. This was all stuff I just did on my own free time.
Tim Cawley: In fact, the name of the production company is 5 to 9 Films, as in after the 9:00 to 5:00, the 5:00 to 9:00 kicks in, as if we keep those hours in advertising, but nonetheless. I had done this, and then the advertising industry changed a lot. It moved in this more DIY, down and dirty production direction for a lot of it. I started a company to do that, because I was that rare creative who knew not only the ad stuff where I could walk into a big room and talk in a corporate, strategic level, but also I knew the independent film world of what things really cost, and how to make them from every angle as a producer, as a director.
Tim Cawley: I had this past experience of making a feature documentary about creativity. We work with this client, WP Engine, super ambitious. One of the clients there had previous experience at a Hollywood talent agency, and had worked in film. He’d always wanted to do a project, like a long-form project. He was like, “Wait a minute. Tim runs our agency, and I think he’s done this before.” It was just all those times when neighbors or family members might have said, “Wait, Tim’s spending your money from your family to make a family out of his own wallet.” It came full circle.
Tim Cawley: I made this agency based on those experiences of how do you make stuff, and then we ended up the dream became real. Somebody hired my company to make a film about digital creativity. That’s the dream. That’s the dream as a filmmaker, somebody’s going to hire you to make a real movie. It worked. I’m really proud of it. The client’s had a lot of success with it. As a person who’s building their own company and building their own culture, it was kind of like going to fantasy camp of embarking on this journey.
Tim Cawley: Here’s what that movie is about. The client, WP Engine, they host, they wouldn’t like me saying host, but just the shorthand for the broader public is they create the platform where you can put your website if you’re a company. They wanted to reach out to digital creatives, the programmers, developers, the code writers, the digital designers. We made this film where we reached out to all these agencies all over the world and said, “What did advertising used to be like before the internet? How did you survive the change? Whereas a lot of agencies are struggling with change, how do you make money in a world that’s not dominated by television production?”
Tim Cawley: We got the best agencies in the world, like our whole dream hit list to be a part of this and talk about when things change, how do you embrace that change and use technology to be even more creative, and take down walls instead of seeing them as walls being put up. We made this feature length film, which I co-directed with Casey Suchan at September Club.
Tim Cawley: We went on this almost yearlong journey, meeting all the top creative directors and digital UX people, everything, from all over the world at all these super enviable agencies and production companies. That’s the fantasy camp part.
Josh: Take one second and do a little name dropping for our audience here, because when you say the best agencies, you’re not joking. Drop a couple of names here for everybody.
Tim Cawley: My background is as a copywriter in more traditional agencies. I would say there’s the conceptual agencies, so David Droga of Droga5 is in the film, Alex Bogusky who’s just a dominant force. Subservient Chicken was mentioned in almost every interview we did at Crispin, Porter, Bogusky. We were out with Wieden and Kennedy, with Hal Curtis who did so much of the great Nike stuff, and now runs Coke, who was my first art director partner in the 90s. He’s been out there since.
Tim Cawley: We got Wesley who runs MediaMonks. It was like we just went down the list. Active Theory might not be the most well-known agency in the world or production company, whatever you want to call them, but they do the Spotify year in review. They did that. It’s like at the end of every year when everyone’s looking at their Spotify data, this little company of maybe 20 people in LA working out of an apartment building, they did that. Unit 9, I had not known them, they’re like a digital production company, but they’ve done amazing projects that. Are they the agency? Are they a production company? All these lines are getting blurred.
Tim Cawley: 72andSunny. Totally looked up to those guys as business owners and creatives. Just gracious, down to earth guys. We got a half a day with those guys walking around their campus. It was like the emails would come back, “So and so is going to do it.” At first, people were like the first question you get is, “Who else is in it?” When you’re starting, the answer is nobody. Alex Bogusky was one of the first people to be in it. Then once he said yes, then everybody’s like, “Oh, this is rolling. This is legit.”
Josh: We definitely want to talk about the key takeaways from the film, and there’s a lot of great stuff in here to unpack. Before we do, one more question for you as a filmmaker. I’m curious about, you’re working in the agency space where you can do a lot of production work, and you can create a lot of ideas. What’s the different creative itch that filmmaking is scratching for you? You’re doing it at night after your regular job is over. What is it providing you as a creative that the agency work doesn’t provide?
Tim Cawley: Well, I would say this is like in a past tense I’m saying this. I didn’t like that feeling of you’d write a script, and you’d spend a month selling it through and arguing about every word of it. Then you’d get on the phone with the director, and you’d do these treatments and be like, “Here’s what it should be.” You’re like, “Dude, we just spent a month going over every word of this.” It’s a spot with a dog, and they’re like, “This is great, except it can’t be a dog. It’s got to be a guinea pig.” You’re like, “No. We talked about this. This is sold through.”
Tim Cawley: I wanted to not have the making so far from the client. Funny, I was actually talking with my executive creative director here today. I used to work at this company, and they wouldn’t let me direct, even though I wanted to. One boss told me the reason, “Tim, it’s not that I don’t think you can’t do it, or that you wouldn’t do the work necessary. It’s that if you screw up, we don’t have somebody to blame.” It was like we need a production company that if the client doesn’t like it, we go, “Those guys stunk. We’ll never use them again.”
Tim Cawley: What I’ve done is I want to make a company where we’re both. We think it up. We write it. We sell it through. We understand your business pressures. Then let’s make it. I can’t make everything. We just did this thing with a unicorn. I needed a special effects partner, and we shot it in a certain way that was beyond what I do well. A lot of times we sell it, we understand the client’s pressures. We build that into how we’re making it. We understand why they approved it the way they did.
Tim Cawley: I just like to be close to the making. I don’t want to be like a cog. I want to be the machine.
Josh: Awesome. As we start to really talk about makeSHIFT, you’ve started to hit on, already in your description, the advertising industry has gone through big changes. In all that’s happened in this time, what made now the right time to start to tell this story, and get these people together?
Tim Cawley: It’s funny. Is it the right time? I think one of my favorite quotes from the interviews, and I’m not even sure it made the final cut, was somebody, one of the guys I think it was at 10up said, “Oh, we’ll look at this documentary in five years and go, ‘Oh, remember that documentary about how all advertising moved to the web, and then we’ll be mocking this in 10 years.'” I think it was like advertising was one thing from Don Draper, 1950, to the invention of the radio and television, till 2005.
Tim Cawley: It was like we’re going to try and sell the biggest TV spots we can, and we’ll bill all our billable hours around that, and that’s the model. Then it was like this internet thing. I need Facebook. I need Instagram. I need the banner ads. I need all these quick down and dirty things. It was originally viewed as that’s the stuff of the junior teams, or the stuff that’s beneath our creative. That’s the stuff that clients care about. That’s the stuff that sells the stuff.
Tim Cawley: That’s where the breaking point happens of the stuff clients cared about was not the stuff agencies were built to monetize. I think only now, so we fought that, or we said digital creatives aren’t real creatives, or web-based projects aren’t real projects. Then places like Pereira O’Dell, oh, I forgot to mention PJ, another creative hero in the ad space of mine. PJ Pereira. They said no. Well, what if an ad can be anything? That quote is in the trailer from the 72andSunny guys.
Tim Cawley: Well, I get an assignment, and it’s like what should it be. The answer is, well, it could be anything. For a real creative, that’s not intimidating. That’s intoxicating. You have these giant businesses built, and they’re all right now particularly compounded or accelerated by the pandemic. The layoffs and the hand wringing and the fear that’s in this business right now for these large, traditional companies. I can’t name one that’s succeeding in this environment.
Tim Cawley: Of course, the pandemic has a ton to do with that. They just weren’t built to keep a quick pace. Now, I think everybody’s just said nobody knows the rules. It’s like agencies that are built to morph and be productive no matter what, we came to the acceptance part of this transformation, for some, the grieving process, whatever it is. I think we’ve embraced that this is not going away. This change is real, and it’s morph or die.
Devon: Given the fact that advertising was the same. Everybody played from the same playbook for such a long period of time, and now in this short period of time there’s been this breakneck speed with technology, and social and all of that coming into play. Can you unpack a little bit, like I understand the playbook is being rewritten as the plays are happening right now, and that it is intoxicating to not have these limitations anymore. How does that affect the creative process? What’s different about the creative process now than in advertising before?
Tim Cawley: The thing that came up a lot in the film was it used to be, and these assignments still totally exist for me, but where it’s headed is it used to be here’s the media plan. We bought three TV spots. We have a 60 second radio spot. There’s going to be four billboards in this market, and three print ads in these magazines. Fill out the dance card.
Tim Cawley: Now, the agencies who seem to be succeeding are saying, “Don’t tell me about a media plan. Tell me about a business problem.” Because maybe the creativity can be in solving it in ways that aren’t preplanned. Maybe it’s a product launch. A friend of mine is the CMO at Dunkin’ Donuts. I don’t know if you guys saw this in Ad Age just yesterday. Her picture’s big in my LinkedIn feed. I’m like, “What’s she doing?” She runs Dunkin’ Donuts, and her son is on TikTok and goes, “Hey, mom. There’s this super popular person on TikTok, her name is Charli, and she loves Cold Brew.”
Tim Cawley: They named a product after her, and had her promote it on her TikTok channel, and it changed their business. They’ve been trying to grow their downloads of the app forever, and, boom, in a week up 20%. Cold Brew sales. You’ve changed your demo. You’ve changed your digital strategy just by your kid happened to walk through the kitchen while they were looking at TikTok.
Tim Cawley: If you’d been out for a walk during that time, maybe that thing never even happens. It’s like this openness to don’t tell me what the media plan is, tell me what the business plan is. Maybe it’s a new product launch. Maybe it’s a documentary film. Who knows what it is? How do you break through? Of course, people are doing digital strategy based on eyeballs and impressions and click through. The people who are really applying the creativity are just saying, “Let’s just start with the problem holistically.”
Josh: I saw that actually, the Dunkin’ Donuts example you gave is great, and that TikTok creator, Charli, has 85 million followers, I think, right now. There’s a whole group of new celebrities that I feel like brands are just starting to discover. They’re growing in places like TikTok, where a lot of brands aren’t yet, and they’re not really looking. That’s a cool example. I’ve even seen it in my local Dunkin’ Donuts when I stop. Plastered all over the place is this TikTok star. It’s pretty crazy.
Tim Cawley: The people who are stars to my daughter who’s a freshman in college, we’ve probably never heard of. Probably the top people who she would say, “These are the 10 most famous people in the world,” I bet we have not even heard of. That Charli person, 85 million. I’m not a media planner, but that’s probably like the equivalent of buying an episode of Dancing With the Stars or American Idol. You probably just sent that person a text or an email, and they probably answered it themselves.
Josh: Yeah. They’re building these fan bases, that brands would just kill for, on their own. They’re just like regular people out there making stuff, and they’re building these enormous fan bases. It’s really impressive, and something that I think ties directly into what you’re talking about in the film is how creativity’s changing, and what people’s expectations are of it is changing.
Tim Cawley: I’d be curious. You guys do, you’re a similar small business, creatively-driven agency. You probably have a secret sauce when you walk into a room trying to get a client. That was something like when I was in New York we went from Havas to Droga to MediaMonks, like three big businesses with big clients. Everybody has, “Well, here’s how we do it. We start with this.” Pereira O’Dell, they go, “Well, you have to respect the viewer’s time.” That’s all PJ wanted to talk about. It has to be entertainment, or they will tune you out.
Tim Cawley: Here at HeyLetsGo, my company, our secret sauce is we merge the creative part and the production part to give the client as many assets as they can, to stretch their budget. That’s the way I view the world. The guys, PJ Pereira and 72andSunny, they’re like, you got it, it’s a merging of the entertainment industries and marketing. The MediaMonk people were like, “It’s about digital technology creating tribes, and putting marketing as applied to useful tools.” Instrument talked about that.
Tim Cawley: All successful companies, all kind of being hired by clients to sell things through communications, and nobody had the same approach. You could move from one agency to another back in the day. It’s like I’m a copywriter, I’m an art director, I’m an account person, I know how this works. Now it’s like agency to agency, I guarantee, you’re a small agency in New York, I’m a small agency in Boston, and we probably have totally different like, “Here’s how you crack it. Here’s what we are hired for.”
Tim Cawley: It’s just so interesting that there’s no right answer. There’s only the way you slice it, and every client’s the same way.
Devon: What was particularly interesting to me, too, is that a lot of the agencies that you feature in the film said yes to things they didn’t even know how to do. Then they had to figure out how to do it in a really short period of time. That’s how they made their mark. How much of this is luck? How much of it is being nimble and just saying yes, and figuring it out as you go along? If you don’t know what’s coming, how do you plan ahead?
Tim Cawley: Well, I use the term like if you’re a real creative. I think that’s the test. That’s who’s going to survive this, because creativity is just problem solving. The most exciting assignments, like when we get hired to do a movie. I’ve done a movie for myself, but I didn’t have to do it with a client. That’s a first for our agency, but I knew we could do it and I knew the parts we didn’t know exactly how we were going to navigate, we’d figure out, because we’re a creatively-driven company.
Tim Cawley: I think that confidence comes from I’m surrounded by adventurers and problem solvers, and people with creative confidence. Whereas, if you are an institution, you go, “Here’s the four or five things we do. Here’s the systems we built to do them.” You’re ill-prepared. I don’t want to say all big agencies are bad. There’s people at BBDO and Droga and Wieden, these are big companies, and I envy those companies. I’m sure there’s some great pay flowing through those organizations to the stakeholders.
Tim Cawley: MediaMonk had a huge sale. Droga had a huge sale, and this is in this new creative economy. They sold those things built on come to us with your problems that are new, and creative challenges that are uncharted, and our business model is to figure out how to do them. One of the startling things that came out of the movie, Nick Law who is now at Apple but was formerly RGA, a lot of people were like, “Production is the new currency.” It used to be like how clever you were. Now it’s like, can you pull it off?
Tim Cawley: Pulling off startlingly executed simple things, like that Spotify data thing. If you said, “Spotify at the end of the year is going to tell you what you played.” It’s like well that’s something you would probably think of as soon as you sat down. The way they executed it of putting it on billboards in Times Square and making it shareable and making it beautifully designed is like, “Oh, it’s a thing that allows you to show off your personal brand.” That’s like, “Oh.” We’re going to make it so everybody on the planet has their own musical fingerprint in this beautiful design. That’s an amazing execution. How do you do that? We’ll figure it out.
Tim Cawley: There’s actually a whole chapter in the movie, like when they were at the Google conference, the Active Theory guys, and they were like, “We want a car to race from one phone to another.” They joined the challenge, to having never solved that from programming or coding, and they figured it out in three days. That’s what put them on the map. That’s the new currency, like creative problem solving, of clients going, “I need to produce something that’s not a better story, or a more clever commercial. I need to produce a thing that is unlike the other things my competitors are making.”
Devon: That racing car thing was mind blowing. That and the blockchain. I was like, “Whoa. Would never even occur to me to try to advertise in blockchain.”
Tim Cawley: Well, I have just happened to have had made a movie before, and that’s why we got that assignment. The two guys at Havas, they were Bitcoin nerds. When this assignment came up, they were like, “We are the guys for this.” A lot of times in advertising you’re trying to channel your target and get in their heads. They didn’t have to get in anybody’s heads. It was their heads, and that’s why the work was so good.
Josh: One of the other themes that, I think, came through in the film a lot is that the balance of power has shifted maybe in the world today. From what used to be in the Don Draper days, there was only a few ways to reach people, and brands could say what they wanted to say. They could tell you what they wanted you to hear, and that was that. The power seems like it’s shifted a bit more to the audience. I notice that came up again and again. If you’re not thinking about the end user, you’re going to fail.
Josh: Is that something that you saw, and what are your thoughts on that as somebody who’s gone through all these discussions for the film?
Tim Cawley: Remember the first time you went over to a friend’s house and they had TiVo? It was like there’s no way this could even be real. David Droga in the film’s like, “We accepted it. Advertising was a tax to get to what you needed.” Now, I’m a huge Patriots fan, and I will not start watching a 1:00 game until 2:00 PM. My son likes to watch the game in real-time because of fantasy, and follows everything on Twitter. We can’t watch football together, because I refuse to watch the 10,000 insurance and mobile phone ads. It just ruins it for me.
Tim Cawley: Whereas, my son is like, well, he’s on his other screen anyway. All the best technologies aren’t like cool new televisions. It’s ways to not have my time wasted. We’re on a podcast now. I’m a huge Celtics fan too, and I’ve been listening to a lot of sports radio. It’s just brutal. You get five or ten minutes of talk, and then five or ten minutes of ads. It produces anxiety, whereas and here we are on a podcast.
Tim Cawley: It’s like if I want to listen to something for an hour, I’ll just listen to it. I’d rather listen to a podcast, or I’d rather binge watch eight hours of a show on Netflix and pay a subscription, than watch a network show and have to sit through all the ads. We were on vacation not too long ago, my wife started watching The Godfather on TVS. I’m like, “This is disrespectful to Francis Ford Coppola to watch The Godfather, cinematic masterpiece, interrupted by McDonald’s ads every 10 minutes.”
Josh: It does seem very disrespectful.
Devon: The TiVo thing. I was like I had forgotten about TiVo. I was like it was a blast from the past, and it made me feel old, and that’s okay.
Tim Cawley: Remember, it was like watching a moon landing or something. You’re like, “Wait a minute, you can fast-forward through, and it’s still the real show. How can that be?” I wasn’t even afraid of it, because it was so new and so inconceivable that the world was going to change that much, like I couldn’t even process it. As a guy who made television commercials, I’m like, “Oh, this can’t become broad based because it would just change life too much.”
Tim Cawley: Six months ago when you said, “We’re going to go to work, or we’re going to go to a restaurant and wear a face mask,” you’d be like, “No way. America will never do that.” People adapt. Things change quickly.
Josh: The TiVo example was great, because it ties to another one of the themes. A good portion of the upfront of the film, you’re showing the technology progression from the Don Draper days, the Mad Men era of advertising. Once you hit the internet, everything changes so quickly. When Devon’s like, “Oh, I forgot about TiVo.” You think about all of the stuff that we used to have, separate GPSes, and all the crazy things that have come and gone in literally a window of five years a shot. Technology seems like it’s ramping up faster and faster.
Josh: What do you see is next a little bit? Where do things go from here? When you were talking to all these folks from all these different agencies, does anybody know?
Tim Cawley: I think it’s on-demand. I have two TVs in my house, and one clicker has the voice activated where I can just talk to my clicker and request a show, and the other one doesn’t. I only watch television in one room now. I should just order another voice remote, but I just don’t have it in that room. It’s so, “Oh, my God. I have to type it in with my thumbs. This is ridiculous.” The way your brain just wants this easier, simpler, more streamlined experience. I think advertising is going to be what does the client want from us, less than what do we want to communicate from them.
Tim Cawley: It’s like when you walk into Times Square, and that just not what are they explaining, but what’s my impression of them. We do, I would say, of the things we make, very few are longer than … A 15 second spot is our Super Bowl ad. We used to complain about 25 fives with a tag. Now it’s like if you have 30 seconds, you don’t even know what to do with it. Because so few clients, at least that are coming to our doors, are like, “We need to make a big, long television spot that explains stuff.”
Tim Cawley: Sometimes, but it usually ends up being we want 40 10 second things that all explain a different part of our business. When people Google us, or search for us on social media, we get into their algorithms with these quick messages that they can see them in their scroll, and learn a little bit, but it’s because we’re in their algorithms. Had I said what I just said to Tim Cawley 15 years ago, I’d be like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, dude. I make television commercials. I make print ads. I write headlines.” It’s just like the media and the consumption is the first thing on the brief.
Devon: In order to be responsive, in order to be as responsive as it needs to be to this changing landscape, what are some of the traditional roles in an agency that have changed? How are modern agencies structuring?
Tim Cawley: I was talking to my ECD about this today, and I’m not naming names, and I’m not dumping anybody. He said, “I do more in a month here than I would do in a year at my previous place.” The reason he said that was because there was the structure of the creatives think stuff up, and then you review you. You literally throw it all out. You start over, and you rewrite the brief. You pontificate and you make predictions and projections about what you think might work.
Tim Cawley: We don’t behave like that at all, and the clients who come here, like if we think something up, and we like it and it’s coherent, and we think it can be beautiful, we show it and half the time we make it. We probably make half the things that come out of our brain, and we do it simply and efficiently. Instead of saying let’s put all our bets on this one idea and pray we’re right or we’re going to get fired, we go, something I say in meetings all the time, “I want to give you more chances to be right. Let’s make 10 things, and if one message …”
Tim Cawley: Instead of arguing about a strategy in some room with charts, let’s just put out a bunch of messages and if one really starts getting tons of clicks or outperforms that, you’ll know within a week, and then it’s not conjecture or pontificating. Now we know. This is the thing that gets the more clicks or people we know how long they look at it. People like looking at this more. People click this thing more. That’s the best creative one. We know that now, so all of those billable hours, and all these systems and teams and structures that were built to review and kill the work, when you work at a big place you crank out work all day as a creative, and you maybe make 10, 15 things a year.
Tim Cawley: We’re a tiny company, and for each of our clients we’ll make 40, 50, 60 things for them every time we do a package. Because it’s like more chances to be right. Long-winded way of saying the structures used to be defend and kill and be a brand steward. Now it’s like let’s do more work, make more things, which is what turns the creatives on, and makes my art directors and writers and myself want to work harder. You take the work more seriously, because you know it’s going to get made. It’s not just like all we’re doing is just filling a wall, because they’re going to kill it anyway.
Tim Cawley: It’s like, no. You’re like, “They’re going to make this. My name’s going to be on this. This has to make sense. This has to be cool. This has to look a certain way.” You don’t always get there, but that’s the creative mentality. As a company, I say the making part. The budgets are low compared to what it used to be, but for people who draw adrenaline and satisfaction from making stuff, now’s the best time in the history of the world to be a creative. This tiny little company, we just made a movie, and we’re going to sell it, and it’s going to be available to every person in the world. We got great people to be in it.
Tim Cawley: I worked with people who had movies in Sundance, and Netflix, and we just did it and we figured it out. It’s like that’s fun. That’s cool. That’s the kind of company that I have built thinking that’s where the future’s going. Make things and let the consumer tell you, instead of talk about making things and never even show them to the client. Efficiency and productivity, I want those things to rule the day. They’re hard to argue against.
Josh: That’s awesome. You’re speaking my language. The making is really, really important, especially in a world where we can get feedback in real-time, where you don’t have to wait to see how something performs, like you’re saying. Within a week you’re getting data back. You know what’s happening. Picking up what you’re putting down, Tim. It’s awesome.
Josh: After having gone through the process of making this film, and interviewing all of these people that you respect, admire, all these different agencies, what was the one thing that you learned that surprised you most? What did you learn that you didn’t expect to hear, or uncover in this process?
Tim Cawley: For me, the number one rule was always the idea is the thing, like the conceptual idea. That’s Bill Bernbach. That’s David Ogilvy. That’s the stuff I went to school and learned and was raised on. It’s like, nope, it’s the simplest idea most interestingly executed. UNIT9 did this project for Heineken. It was part of one of the James Bond Skyfall promotion.
Tim Cawley: They were like, “We’re going to allow people to somehow take a selfie from space.” That is so distant from a Heineken tastes good, or it’s refreshing, or it’s brewed with the best ingredients. Those were the briefs you always got. They were like, “No. Let’s just do something that’s newsworthy that’s brought to you by the brand.” It’s like we’ve gone all the way back to the reason soap operas are called soap operas is that it was brought to you by Downy washing powder, or whatever. They brought you a thing you liked, and they got credit for the goodwill.
Tim Cawley: I think we’ve gone all the way back. Like American Idol, they just have Coca-Cola glasses on the podium, or at least they used to. What does a selfie from space as part of a sponsorship for James Bond have to do with what a Heineken tastes like? Nothing. It’s like, “Oh, Heineken’s cool. Heineken is digital, and I like digital things.” I think it’s the production versus concept. That’s the part that was like a resounding theme that was scary and intoxicating at the same time.
Tim Cawley: Then also the giant killer part of it. There’s always been small agencies that were good and smart, but now it’s like the small agencies, like literally Active Theory was in an apartment building in Venice. Maybe 1,500, 2,000 square feet, 15 people. They did the big Spotify campaign that was pervasive in culture. You don’t need to be at the giant New York agency and do a Super Bowl ad to dominate culture. Just digital, the tools have leveled the playing field. That was my takeaway.
Devon: I know we’ve touched on this a couple of times in some of the discussion earlier. What’s data’s role in all of this disruption? When is it good, and when does it get in the way?
Tim Cawley: It’s always good. It’s because data is the truth. I think there used to be this thing of when you’re talking about strategy, when you’re talking about things in the abstract, data is dicey. Because it’s like, well, we tested this strategy, and people thought this. Here was the feedback. When you’re putting a thing into somebody’s personal algorithm, either they looked at it or they didn’t. Either they clicked it or they didn’t. That’s what I mean. The best creative is the thing that sold what the client paid you to sell something.
Tim Cawley: I used to do this presentation to kids at school, like a friend will ask you, “Will you talk to my ad class?” Or you do something through an organization. I used to say, “Here’s the brief. We’re going to write a song. Stream of consciousness, you are going to talk about, you open your eyes and you describe everything that happens as you move through your morning. It’s going to be uplifting, and you’re going to talk about the promise of the day.”
Tim Cawley: That’s the brief. Everybody agrees, “Okay, that’s a good brief.” We tested it, and everyone liked it. I just described A Day In the Life by the Beatles off Sgt. Pepper, which is one of the great pieces of music of all time. I also just described Rebecca Black’s Friday, which is one of the most derided, hated songs. They’re the identical brief.
Tim Cawley: It’s like don’t test the brief. Put the thing into the world, and see if the thing is good. Because those things have the exact same DNA. That’s not to say anything bad about Rebecca Black. I’m sure she’s a lovely person, but her recording career was immediately killed by working off the same brief. It’s how you interpret it and can you present that information in a manner that people go, “This is special. This makes me feel smart. This lifts me up.” Versus, I see what they’re trying to do, but they didn’t quite do it. That’s the kind of data I want, did it sell?
Tim Cawley: That stuff comes quick. Data is the new client. You can have a client who loves you and thinks you’re great, and you run through walls for them. If they have their in-house designer who pulls swipe, uses stock and makes whatever post copy. If that tests better and sells more stuff, then your stuff that you had shot with a photographer from Europe, and retouched at the best places, and you bought a track, and if the in-house person’s stuff outperforms yours, that’s the truth.
Tim Cawley: They’re not going to stick with you. You have to let the data lead your decision making. What I’ve found is data helps. Because a lot of times clients are nervous to try new things. I think it’s that whole thing of we’re not making it creative because I want to be zany. We’re making it creative because I want people to go, “Wait a minute, what is that? Huh. I’ve got to take a second to figure this out. I’m curious.” That’s what it is.
Tim Cawley: If it’s creative in the good way, in the Beatles Day In The Life Way, you go, “Wait a minute. What the heck is this? I’m going to spend some time with it.”
Josh: That’s a great example. I went to art school, and I’ll never forget it forever. I had this teacher whose name was Fred Lip. He was like Yoda, and Yoda with a mustache is how I refer to him. I remember working all night long on a project, and this other kid who sat next to me, I literally saw him do it at lunch before we went in. He just ripped me to pieces. He hated it. That kid, he was like, “This is amazing. You did a great job.”
Josh: I went to him after class and was like, “Well, how can this be? I worked for 12 hours straight on this. I know he only worked for an hour.” He was like, “That doesn’t matter. His was good and yours wasn’t. That’s what mattered.” It was a lesson that I’ll never forget, ever.
Tim Cawley: Similar to that, and you know we talk about that all the time, as we as an agency do not do time sheets, because we’re about outcomes and not about we’re going to have time sheets and complain to the client, “Oh, well, we budgeted for 80 hours and we did 100, so you owe us this. There’s an overage.” I’m a musician. Everyone should go to Spotify right now after they listen to this podcast and listen to the Flashpot Moments new album.
Tim Cawley: I was watching this documentary on recording, and the cool session guys in LA. One guy goes, “You’re bringing me in for an hour, but you’re not paying for that hour. You’re paying for all the nights I sat home at prom and practiced my scales. You’re paying for every hour I’ve had up until I walked in this room. I practiced every day my whole life before I walked into this room. That’s what you’re paying for. My hourly rate is a bargain compared to what it should be.”
Josh: A little extra shameless plug thrown in there.
Tim Cawley: No shame at all. If you’re an ad guy and an independent musician, oh my God.
Josh: Awesome. Two final questions. If you were to talk right now to somebody out there, people who are either starting an agency today. Let’s say we’re just starting a brand new agency, which you’re in the process of. It sounds like you’re really building up your own company, your own culture, your own agency. What advice would you give, whether it’s somebody who’s been in the business and they’re trying to transform, or just start from scratch right now? What would be the number one piece of advice you would have?
Tim Cawley: You’ve got to surround yourself with creative problem solvers. There’s traditional roles. I would say here everybody is a hyphen. My head of account service is as much of a producer as our producers are. Our producers understand finance. You can’t disengage them from my bookkeeper. All of the creatives are project managers. If you’re not hiring people who don’t have a “hyphen it” mentality, that would be a horror show.
Tim Cawley: I do this, stay in my lane, where I’m like, “Not my job.” That doesn’t fly anymore. Our editor shoots. Our art directors know how to edit. My head of account service knows how to update our website, and a little bit of that’s like a small company. Also, that’s like a mentality of I’m a person who draws energy and job satisfaction from making things.
Tim Cawley: I think internet addiction is a huge problem, and not just kids today. I always look at how much do they tweet. Do they tweet during the day at their previous jobs? The level of distraction people have to fight, and particularly people working from home now, I struggle with it. Everybody struggles with this distraction, and we’re paid to think deeply.
Tim Cawley: It’s like you want people who think digitally, but you don’t want people who are hampered by it. We have to stare at computers all day, and I just find some people really, really struggle to be productive when their computer is telling them, “Just quickly check your Instagram. Quickly check your Twitter. Quickly go to that blog you like.” I’m not saying I don’t do it. I’m saying I’m mindful of the pull it has on me.
Tim Cawley: Then the third thing I would say, understand that your employees just don’t pay the taxes. You also pay. I was like, “Wait, I paid taxes for making the job?” I did not figure that into my business plan when we started. Then lastly, you start the company. You have a skill set. You think, “This is what we’re going to be. I have a master plan.” What’s the … People plan, God laughs. There’s what you think you’re good at. There’s what you are sure your business plan is going to be, and then what people pay you for might not align with that. Don’t fight that. You are what people pay you to be.
Tim Cawley: Every agency I talked to up and down the ladder was like the word pivot was in there. We started as this, but we had this one campaign, or one project that was out of our zone. We did it really well, and then more people started to come to us for this thing that we didn’t even think was our core competency. Keep your hands on the wheel, but keep them loosely on the wheel, and be willing to drive where the business is, and not have preordained notions of what your business can be. Those would be my lessons.
Devon: Building off of that just a little bit. I know you just touched on this to some degree, but from making this film what did you learn that you would give advice to industry leaders, or agencies that are already established, rather than ones that are learning the lessons as they build up? What would your advice be to the industry leaders today?
Tim Cawley: This is one that I think is like the hardest advice to take. Something I struggle with. I own this company outright. It’s my job to pay the payroll. Les at MediaMonk was like, “We were this small company. We were doing these scrappy digital things.” One day they just decided, “You know what, we don’t want to be just another digital company. We want to really dominate this space.” They let all their clients go. They were young and crazy, but they said, “No. We’re only going to do the work that makes us and our clients famous, and that’s what we’re going to do. That’s how we’re going to distinguish ourselves.”
Tim Cawley: Droga did kind of the same thing. He was at Publicis, I think Publicis or Saatchi. Huge job. Keep the clients happy. Keep the checks coming in, and then he said, “You know what, I’m going to quit that, and I’m only going to work with clients who are as ambitious as I am.” It’s really like do you want to be like just a solid, little small business, or do you want to be great. I think you can be a solid, small business, and scrap and go client to client, and project to project, and be the good soldier, or do you want to be great? Do you want to be special? Do you want to have the kind of clients that come to you and say, “Let’s make a movie?”
Tim Cawley: Because anybody can just say yes, and do whatever the client says. Really all you are is a glorified stenographer. You’re a creative stenographer. I was like, “We got to do the things that other people can’t do.” I’m not comparing myself to Wieden or Droga or MediaMonk, but I understand the mentality of “we got to find our tribe.” Nobody ever wants to say no to a client, but if you want to be at that next level, you got to really attract the clients who want to be special.
Tim Cawley: They go, “Well, any agency will just type up our idea if we tell them to and give them money.” Tons of agencies that’ll do that. If we want it to be special, we need to pay a little bit more for these guys. That’s the advice. Be young and crazy, or just have insane amount of guts and go all in. Hard to do. Hard advice to take. Every agency story I heard had an element of, “We went all in.” Just said we’re only going to do the stuff we want to do. That will attract the right kind of clients. The best work, begets the best clients, and attracts them.
Tim Cawley: In the end, actually your brand, I’m trying to say it. How can I say this without naming the client? I guess I can’t. I worked at Carmichael Lynch. Awesome agency to start out at. They really empowered their creatives. They had Rollerblade. Rollerblade did not exist, and they launched it. Now it’s like Rollerblade is the Kleenex or the Xerox, the thing clients are like, “I want to be synonymous with the category.”
Tim Cawley: They launched it, and I was there when Rollerblade fired them because they had gotten too successful. It was like a startling lesson. The only brand you have is yours, because clients will fire you for growing their company too large. Then they went somewhere else, and I don’t think I ever saw another ad from that company. Not to say they didn’t grow or make a lot of money, or whatever they did.
Tim Cawley: As an agency, you got to pay your people, like your brand is the brand. Get clients who want you for you, and don’t just pander to try and be whatever they want you to be on that day.
Awesome. That’s great advice. Tim, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been an awesome conversation. Where can people find makeSHIFT?
Tim Cawley: MakeSHIFT.film right now. WP Engine built a platform to premier it. We are in talks right now with independent distributors. I’m hoping that the film will be broadly available by Thanksgiving. Then you can watch it iTunes, Amazon, maybe even on TV. Stay tuned on that, but Google makeSHIFT.film, and they’ll have all the information there.
Devon: People should watch.
Josh: People should definitely watch.
Devon: It’s a really enjoyable film.
Tim Cawley: Are my answers more rambling than the average podcast guest? That’s my only question for you guys.
Josh: This was great, really good discussion. Tim, thank you so much for joining us on the show.
Tim Cawley: My pleasure. When you present in a room and they say, “The best presentations come from talking about what you know.” It’s always so nice as an ad guy. I know my motivations on these projects. I can actually talk from the heart. That’s a good feeling as an ad guy, because it doesn’t always happen.
Devon: Well, that’s our show. We hope you’re inspired to pursue your noble ambition. Let’s chase it together. This has been a Truth Collective production.