Bike geek, reader and Kentucky farm boy – it was almost inevitable that Chad Walker would be part of the creative gold rush to Boulder, Colorado. Where better to run wild and get back in touch with your creativity? Following a career that has included stints at traditional agencies Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, Ogilvy, MTV, and McGarry Bowen, as well as projects with Hakuhodo in Hong Kong and Tokyo, Walker is engaging in a bit of off-road adventuring with his latest post at Victors & Spoils. A crowd-sourcing agency that taps into a bank of six thousand aspiring creatives from all around the world, Victors & Spoils has divided opinion in adland. For some their new model represents an anathema, for others it’s the saviour of advertising. Laura Swinton caught up with Chad to find out more.
LBB> How did you get into advertising?
CW> I’m originally from a little community called Nonesuch, Kentucky in the southern United States. I grew up on a farm, about an hour away from our nearest neighbour. I moved to New York to go to art school. One of the guys who taught there was Scott Davis. I was struggling as an art director and he said to me ‘you have good ideas, but I’m not seeing that on the walls’ and suggested that I think about doing something else, like production or accounts, but I really wanted to be a creative. He asked to look at my sketchbook to see if he could help figure out what the issue was and saw that it was full of written ideas. The problem was that I was trying to be an art director when, really, I was a writer. And that was that. I switched to writing and it became much easier. I have a lot of respect for the art direction and design side of things.
LBB> Was advertising something that you had always wanted to do from the start?
CW> I was into a lot of different things when I was young, and I think a lot of ad people are like that. I had an aunt who was a media person in advertising, and she suggested that I give it a go.
I remember when the Nike work with Mars Blackmon and Michael Jordan first came out - it just knocked me out. Before that I had thought that advertising was all about coupons and TV ads for stereo stores and used car dealerships. I’m almost 41 years old and if you talk to people of my generation in the ad business, it was that work that really lit up their brains and got them thinking about advertising as a creative media.
LBB> You’ve been ECD at Victors & Spoils for under a year – what motivated the move from New York to Boulder?
CW> I wanted a break from the city from a lifestyle standpoint and Boulder is a haven for bike geeks like myself. However, I don’t know if I would have moved if it hadn’t been for the opportunity I was presented with at Victors & Spoils. The concept blew my mind.
The digital era has encouraged clients to listen to feedback and allow people shape product and services. They have realised that they can no longer sit in an ivory tower without engaging in conversation. I always thought it was strange that marketing wasn’t going the same way. Other than one-off projects like the Doritos Superbowl spots, people have never really been allowed ‘in’. A lot of people don’t like the thought of opening the doors. I was really intrigued to know if we could make it work.
LBB> How have you found the transition from working at a traditional agency to a crowd-sourcing agency?
CW> In both cases, they’re fundamentally about ideas. At a traditional agency, you might have a few teams working on a big project, and each team will give you eight to ten ideas. You can narrow things down to three or four to bring into the client meeting. It’s totally different here. On a recent pitch, about 250 ideas came in. The number and variety of ideas that come in is incredible. And it’s never predictable.
At a traditional agency, you always know roughly what to expect from your teams. That’s no bad thing; there’s security in that. But there’s no ‘Victors & Spoils’ flavour – everything feels fresh and unexpected. It’s a lot of work for the creative director because you have stacks of ideas to go through. The great part – and the tough part – is that we can go into a meeting with seven or eight totally fleshed out directions as opposed to three. It’s a tremendous amount of work but there is so much enthusiasm out there in the crowd to generate ideas.
LBB> So when someone submits an idea, what happens to it?
CW> We work in a variety of ways. It depends on the particular assignment and also on how rough or developed the idea is. There’s a difference between what we’re doing and the other crowd-sourcing places. They might post an assignment and send all of the ideas straight to the client to wade through. At the beginning and end of the process, we’re still an agency and we still work on selecting and developing ideas. The client relationship feels very much like a traditional agency.
We had a naming brief that was open for 48 hours and we got 957 submissions for names. But I find that’s the best way to generate ideas – don’t put the pencil down, just keep thinking of new concepts and let us, the creative directors, worry about how to refine them and execute them. Let the crowd do what the crowd does best.
LBB> You must have access to a greater variety of people than a typical agency – what’s that like?
CW> You get lots of different routes to solving a problem. There’s nothing wrong with straight advertising, but we are tapping into people who are not traditionally trained and who are totally different. We can reach people who have that raw point of view.
For example the guy who came up with the line ‘No Cages’ for Harley Davidson is a Vespa dealer in my hometown of Nonesuch. This guy, Whit Hiler, came up with that defining, rallying cry for Harley Davidson. His job and his passion for motorcycles, gave him an insight into what people would respond to and that allowed him to come up with the idea that a car was just a cage.
I think that advertising is full of the sharpest, funniest, most culturally aware people out there, but opening things up a little and getting these other creative points of view is super interesting.
LBB> It’s an approach that has had a variety of responses from the advertising industry. Some people are really excited about it, some are unsure, some are quite critical. What are the criticisms that you’ve heard and how would you respond to them?
CW> We hear a lot of criticisms of V&S in particular and crowdsourcing in general. I think we’ve dealt with the people who said that we weren’t going to make it and that it’s all smoke and mirrors. We’ve been here for three years, we’re growing and we’ve had some of our busiest months recently so I think we’ve dispelled that.
I think there’s a perception that there are all these young creatives locked up in a basement while we dance on top of a pile of money demanding ideas for free, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. I think it comes from an older generation of ad people who have seen digital upset the traditional model and now crowdsourcing is starting to erode that further. This generation of kids in college just want to make stuff. They want to be involved, they’ve got ideas and opinions that they want to get out there. We got 900 ideas for a name in two days – they just want to throw stuff at us and get involved.
I think there are a lot of misconceptions about how we do things. There’s this idea that we want to come along and blow up the agency model, that Victors & Spoils are throwing a grenade into the ad industry. The truth of the matter is that this is happening, whether we like it or not. The traditional model of employing seven teams full time to produce just one final idea is not sustainable. We’re reacting to the way things are going; we’re not a pirate ship trying to destroy the traditional advertising that we love.
LBB> How do you see the crowdsourcing approach fit into developments in the wider media environment?
Look at the Guardian’s ‘Open Journalism’ project or the iReporters on CNN. All of these things are coming from the crowd. Crowdfunding is huge too. Crowdsourcing is happening in all these other areas but advertising is extraordinarily resistant to it because it’s frightening. Look at where newspapers were 10 or 15 years ago – they were still convinced that people would still want to pay a buck for the New York Times. These days, it’s little more than a circular, a shadow of its former self. Crowdsourcing is one way to try and approach the issue.
LBB> But if crowdsourcing is sustainable in one respect, isn’t it unsustainable in others? For example the good thing about the traditional model is that you can nurture creative talent, and train up the next generation of CDs and ECDs. How does the crowdsourcing model address this? Can a writer from the crowd go on to become a creative director?
CW> There are two ways to do it. We do have a creative team internally at Victors & Spoils – it’s not very big but we are careful about the people we bring in. Because of the model, everyone gets a chance to manage projects and manage a lot of ideas. It’s almost like a boot camp for creative directors. They have to learn how to give feedback to people from LA to Brazil to Japan.
We’ve stated all along – and I can almost hear the haters reacting to this because I sound like a Pollyanna – that one of our goals has always been to put a crowd-member on stage at Cannes. We want to boost people up from the crowd; we want them to do well. The guy from the Vespa dealership in Kentucky had always wanted to get into the ad business but he didn’t have access to these opportunities.
We’re happy to give credit where credit’s due. A finished project becomes a calling card that a crowd-member can use. We worked on the American Airlines pitch – we weren’t really invited to do it but we went ahead and offered the crowd an award, it’s how we won the Harley Davidson account. A designer from Cyprus called Anna Kövecses submitted some beautiful work for the project that was then featured in Fast Company. It really raised her profile and she ended up getting work off the back of that project.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes?
CW> I’m a ‘book’ guy. I love film, I like people like Scorcese who tell authentic stories, but I’m definitely a big reader. I’m a big fan of Cormack McCarthy, E.L. Doctorow, Richard Price; guys that tell a story, create really beautiful, economical prose but who also do great dialogue. I don’t know many people who can really nail it. Richard Price wrote a book called ‘Clockers’ and if you read that it just comes alive because of the way he writes that dialogue. For someone to make you feel that you’ve actually heard that conversation – that’s where I go as a writer for inspiration.
There are a couple of guys in the ad industry who I also find quite inspiring. For example, John Kenney is a brilliant, pure writer. He writes these two-minute theses that make you want to run out the door and get going.
LBB> In terms of your own career, what have been your favourite memories?
CW> There have been a lot of fun things – the interesting thing in my career has been the change that’s happened during it. It’s been rapid and astonishing.
I’ve had a great time. I started off at Kirshenbaum (KBSP). It felt very exciting – it was the first time I had ever worked with planners, because the whole ‘planning’ phenomenon was just kicking off. Working in Asia was cool. I didn’t live over there but I did one-off projects. I don’t want to sound silly, but the fact that a kid from Nonesuch, Kentucky can end up in Hong Kong shooting a commercial is just incredible. You hear a lot of people in the industry who seem to hate advertising but I don’t feel that way. It has taken me places that I would never have otherwise been. And I think I’m more excited about what we’re doing at Victors & Spoils than anything I’ve ever done – it’s a nice place to feel like you’ve arrived.
LBB> You’ve said you’re a bit of a bike geek and a fan of the great outdoors – have you found that the move to Boulder has aided your own creativity?
CW> We have a great guy in our crowd who lives in Florida and he’s submitted a thousand ideas. He just goes out for a walk with his headphones on and just churns out ideas. That happens to me - I’ll be outside on my bike or getting ready for a climb and it will just come to me. It’s great to let things just marinate without there being too much pressure. I feel like you have to be out there in the world. You have to be careful; if the office is the only place you are you’re going to start referencing the office.
People work in different ways though. I had a wonderful partner called Megan Skelly when I was at Kirschenbaum and Partners, who can work in a straight line for seven hours. The concentration is incredible. Creative departments are funny that way because you have to sort of embrace that variety. That’s when you admire good account people because they allow those different creative personalities to be who they are.
Have you seen the documentary ‘Art & Copy’? In it Hal Riney says that the most intimidating thing about being a creative is when you’re not sure where an idea has come from, and you don’t know how to get back there. You just have to figure out what your process is. My old partner Megan used to work in a straight line, concentrating on something and staying with it, whereas I’ve got to get up and walk away every now and again.
Meeting different people, discovering culture and experiencing the world opens your aperture. As a creative person, you channel the culture and people that you come across into what you do. If you never see anything but the office your frame of reference becomes advertising, your work becomes less and less interesting. A few years ago commercials started making fun of advertising tricks. It was funny but it was also so self-referential. The crowd opens things up; the crowd doesn’t get jaded in that way.