The new chief creative officer of The VIA Agency tells Addison Capper about leaving NYC for Portland, Maine, being in account management before creative, and working on Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign
In 2019, Bobby Hershfield left behind 25 years of New York hustle and bustle for a more tranquil state of being on the northeast coast of the USA. He took up the chief creative officer role at The VIA Agency, which has been operating out of the city of Portland, Maine since 1993 and is today one of the USA's biggest independent agencies.
Before joining VIA, Bobby served as VP, executive creative director of the community. Prior to that, he was CCO and partner at SS&K, where his 'Awkward Family Viewing' campaign for HBO Go was awarded multiple Cannes Lions. He also worked on President Obama’s 2012 campaign. But he hasn't always strictly been a creative. Bobby started his career in account management at DDB, Chiat/Day and Wieden+Kennedy. He made the leap from account management to creative in 2000, shifting from a management supervisor to junior copywriter overnight.
In his spare time, he writes stand-up comedy, has completed two novels, obsessively reads, plays the banjo and does his best at being a self-proclaimed "old day. Addison Capper caught up with Bobby to find out more.
LBB> You were an account person before moving into creative! Tell me about that. What led you to account management in the first place? Was it always your plan to move into a creative role?
Bobby> I got a job immediately out of college as an assistant account executive and honestly, I had no idea there were different departments. I actually thought that title put me in the creative department. And I was kind of miserable. But when I got to Chiat/Day, I actually loved being an account person. And then I moved to Wieden, and I loved it even more. So, I've been a writer my whole life, but I just was having too much fun in account management to make the switch. Only when I started to get more and more senior and therefore further and further away from the work did I feel out of place. And that's when I knew I wanted to make the change and start over as a creative. I went from management supervisor to junior copywriter and that’s a whole other story.
LBB> What lessons that you learned in account management has served you well in your career as a creative?
Bobby> I think as you become a creative director and above, you have to employ a lot of the skills of an account person in order to get the best work. You must manage a department, or an account and you must learn to allow others to thrive and flourish. How to get the best out of the talent that exists around you. How to approach a business intelligently and how to get the most out of the work to have an impact on that business. The best thing about being an account person is learning to deal with all the different personalities that exist in and around the account. And the problem solving. Thinking two or three steps ahead. Anticipating outcomes and figuring out how to adapt and adjust. I like to think that experience has made me a better creative leader.
LBB> You joined VIA as CCO towards the end of last year - what was it about the opportunity that you couldn't pass up?
Bobby> VIA is a special place. An independent, employee-owned agency with high creative aspirations. I love that it has tremendous potential and momentum but, by their own admission, hasn't quite experienced that magical level of success. So, I felt that I could combine all of my collective experiences and apply it in a place with so much to offer but needing that extra push. I also think it's time, and it's already happening in cities like Austin and Nashville, that markets outside NY, Chicago, LA or San Fran can take over as the new destination for marketing and communications. Small creative markets that can attract talent to help a city grow and become more and more popular. I also like blueberries.
LBB> What are your main aims and ambitions for the year ahead in your new role?
Bobby> First and most importantly, to listen and find my moments to help push work or approach a business in a new way. VIA has 27 successful years prior to me. VIA has won business, done nationally recognised work, been recognised in the industry. It would be foolish of me to think that it's broken. So, I want to respect what has been done and find the right opportunities to add influence. Then as we grow together, we can start to become more seamless in our approach and execution. But for now, I would like to create work that impresses our existing clients, attracts some new ones and turns a few heads in the process.
LBB> As we’ve brushed upon, VIA is interesting because it's a proper national player out of a relatively small city in Maine. How have you found that experience? How does it affect your day-to-day work, if at all?
Bobby> It's surreal, actually. I keep thinking, ‘What am I doing in Maine?’ And yet it's so comfortable. So easy. The stresses of NYC just don't exist here. There are little distractions, the unnecessary chatter of the industry doesn't seep its way into the space and you find that people really are doing this because they love the work. I felt this way in Portland, Oregon when I joined Wieden. I just felt removed from the industry in a good way and could focus on the work and not on what everyone else is doing.
LBB> VIA is independent too - how much of a factor was that in your decision to move there? What are the creative benefits in 2020 to being independent?
Bobby> I think it's a huge draw. We are in control and we feel ownership over our decisions. I love that. I love that the people who run the place are right there slurping their soup right in front of you. There's freedom. I also think we can act fast and agile and adapt and adjust to our client's business. We don't have layers or hierarchy. We can take on projects we might otherwise not be able to do. And we can define our own processes. One of the things that attracted me to VIA was that Leeann [Leahy, CEO] and Burf [David Burfeind, CSO] kept saying the quote, "VIA, born in 1993, reborn every year since”.
LBB> On a personal level, how are you finding the shift to living in Portland, after so long in New York?
Bobby> I've been in New York for almost 25 years so prying myself away from this city's tremendous gravitational pull is tough for sure. But I just knew it was time for a change. I have young, adorable kids and I believe it's time for a better quality of life and Maine really does offer that. I love how happy people are and how much they take pride in being from Maine. And I never did care for the Yankees so that'll make the adjustment a bit easier.
LBB> You worked on Obama's 2012 campaign. What are your memories of that challenge? Is political strategy something you enjoy casting your mind to?
Bobby> One of the highlights of my entire career. My biggest memory was just how intelligent everyone was throughout the process and just how fast it moved. You didn't have time or money to do anything. So, you just did it. And after you finished, new numbers came in which would kill what you just did, and you have a day to do something else. At first, I was uncomfortable about it but then you kind of grab the reins and hold on and enjoy the ride. The strategising and planning with some of the brightest people out there was exhilarating. At every agency I picked something up. I changed for the better. And at SSK, I do believe I got more intellectually curious about marketing. I read so much more than I ever read and tried to draw comparisons back to marketing versus just staying in that box. Observing politics and economics and learning to analyse data and then applying it to the job at hand actually opened up the job which felt nice.
LBB> Which pieces of work from your career are you particularly proud of and why?
Bobby> Obama, for sure, as I mentioned above. HBO GO because I got to write dialogue based on truth which is something I really enjoy doing. Beta 7 from 2004 was rewarding since it was, what we called, ‘online theatre’ and was such a dynamic and fast-paced, four-month challenge. The JET.com work we did since that was all live commercials and we replicated a writer's room in Toronto to get it all done. I really had fun making the KY work at Mother. But this will sound crazy, one of my favourite things was a simple Coke Cinema spot that I was told to not even include on my reel or site but did anyway. It was a three-client project, Coke, ESPN and the NFL, and I wrote a silent film for it. I love silent movies and I thought if I could apply that love to this project, what could happen? And it worked. And then we got Albert Brooks to direct it. He had never directed a commercial before and he wanted to do this one. So, it was just the experience of drawing on my own interests and working with people who had no idea how to say ‘no’ and we went for it. It was my first commercial as a copywriter and I'm so proud of it.
LBB> You're on the advisory committee for the Ad Council. Why is that something that's important to you?
Bobby> Well, first I have tremendous respect for Susan Credle and when she asks you to join her, you do it. So, I love learning from her and the other creatives on the board. But even more than that, it is easy to get cynical in this business and participating in this kind of work, whether it be for Alzheimer's or bullying or teenage depression, you really feel all of your experience is helping do something valuable and good. And it reminds you that we have an important job and we shouldn't take it for granted.
LBB> You've performed stand-up comedy - what can you tell us about that? Why is it something that you're interested in doing?
Bobby> I wish I did it in college. I love it. I'm a student of it and I can't get enough of it. I used to write Steve Martin routines on a legal pad. Memorise Woody Allen bits. There was a radio show growing up, ‘The King Biscuit Comedy Hour’, every Sunday at 9pm and I was addicted. And now you have so much of it it's a gift. So, I just felt I was getting tired of the account management job and I needed an outlet and I thought it was time. I still write almost every day and I've done roasts and some benefits but haven't performed on stage in years.
LBB> And you've written an unpublished novel too - what was the inspiration behind that? And why is it important for you to flex your creative muscles outside of your day job?
Bobby> I've now written two and some comedy bits. I think it's all personal things that could make for good stories. I like making fun of myself. I have embarrassing experiences to share. And it is important to have that outlet. To get out of manifesto writing or headlines or post copy and remember what it is to just write. And then maybe come back to the work and approach it with a fresh outlook.
LBB> What else do you like to get up to outside of work? Are there any other quirks or obsessions for us to know about?
Bobby> Well, I'm an old dad so I feel like I'm making up for lost time and I'm throwing everything I can into being a parent and husband. Their names escape me but trust me they're all very cute. I also play the banjo. I read and read and read and I'm obsessed with The Beatles and the songwriting of Paul Simon.