5 Minutes With... Chuck McBride

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Cutwater founder on the power of surfing, working with Lee Clow and why the ad industry should invest in ideas
5 Minutes With... Chuck McBride

He rescued Nike for Wieden+Kennedy, worked closely with Lee Clow at TBWA and these days is living the California dream with his own agency in San Francisco, working on brands like Ray-Ban, Ubisoft and Strava. At the end of 2010, Chuck McBride took his agency, originally a TBWA\Chiat\Day baby, independent. In that time the shop has evolved into a nifty and ingenious outfit. LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to Chuck to find out more. 

LBB> How does Cutwater differ from anywhere else you’ve worked?

CM> It doesn’t. Cutwater is a combination of every great place I’ve worked at along the way. I had always admired how Goodby Silverstein approached a problem. How W+K approached a production. How Clow approached design and reduction of message. So instead of inventing anything, I just stole from the best. The insights, the craft, the simple iconic style. Now you know. And I guess a lot of other people do, too.

So while the accounts are different, the way we approach a problem is consistent with collective learning and experience that makes coming to work everyday inspiring and interesting.

Watchdogs :45 - Available Now from Cutwater on Vimeo.

LBB> Cutwater went independent in 2011 – how did that change the culture in the agency?

CM> The people are what really build the culture of an organization. And by reducing our numbers, which had to happen for financial reason, we focused on what we wanted to become as opposed to what we are or used to be. So with a Ping-Pong table as a conference area and a few borrowed chairs we dreamed. 

What do clients want from a creative organization? What do we want to build as a group of talent? 

What surprised me is that we all felt strongly about change, experimentation and working with people we admired and liked working for and with.

LBB> And how have you found the transition?

CM> A lot of change, experimentation and working with people we admire and like.

There has been a natural recalibration of scale. But even that helps us out think small budget problems and still employ big ideas. We came to new understandings and methods by using and manipulating more and more social media to a brand’s advantage. We forged into digital media with narratives and executions that carried more consistent brand messages that allowed our clients to rethink how they used the medium more purposefully. Has our growth been fast enough? No. But considering what we weathered by opening during the second largest recession in our country’s history, what we’ve learned by forging a new team and the fact that we have come out the other side with a child like wonder to continue doing this, I think we’ve made tremendous progress. 

LBB> What advice would you give to any young people considering a career in advertising?

CM> I see everyday, the sexy lure of start up culture in San Francisco and often wonder why anyone would want to get into advertising. I mean, today, you can do a lot with a good idea all by yourself. But I often find the entrepreneur thing lonely. I love getting together with a group of smart people and solving different problems everyday. Advertising is a team sport, with a year’s schedule. And the locker room we share is filled with great friendships. It’s like building a start up every month. And it should be that way. We should attract the best and brightest to this industry. The channels have widened in terms of volume and scope of screens to fill. And there isn’t a shortage of need or want to fill them. The ‘pipe’ companies have had their day. It’s time for the creative content companies to make the ‘water’ flow. Get in now and you will make history in our business.

LBB> How did you first get into the industry?

CM> I got here by way of photography. I had been working construction out of college. Still do at times. But back then I got paid for it. I had moved to Los Angeles and wound up spending 18 months working as the maintenance manager of my apartment building. Finally, a print production assistant role opened at BBDO in Los Angeles. I shared some of my photography experience in retouching. Thank you, Lorraine Alper-Krammer and Karen Garnet. They gave me my first chance. I hope I made the most of it.

LBB> You helped re-ignite the relationship between Wieden’s and Nike around 2000 – what were the keys to making that happen, and what did you learn from the experience?

CM> The day I started at W+K, in fact the moment I walked in building, the entire agency had gathered to hear the Nike account was in trouble and they had just awarded some of the business to GSP.  

It was a little surreal. I had worked for W+K in Philly. The experience of that shop had left me feeling there was some unfinished business between Dan and myself, so I wanted to honour what we had begun. Walking in that day was a whirlwind. Typical Wieden. Now, what was I going to do with it? People had told me that Nike was done and there wasn’t anything I could add. Walking in that day, I could see that maybe there was.

Being new gave me a better perspective of the problem. The agency had been accused of being arrogant. So we couldn’t rely on the past. We had to invent. I was, as I can see now, in the perfect position to help. 

First, my partner, Hal Curtis and I created a buffer zone. We didn’t let anyone or everyone run out to Beaverton and present the work. We did it. And by doing so, gave the clients space to talk, disagree, change and kill. But we also gave ourselves the space to voice opinion without ego. We became a better team. And we came out of the room on the same side. 

As we gained traction, Dan and I shared a conversation where I mentioned that it isn’t ‘the work that comes first’. It’s the relationship that comes first. I don’t remember if he fully agreed or not, but he was appreciative none the less. 

With the client’s trust, we did great things together. A body of work that so many people should be proud of. Nike is one of the smartest clients anyone could have the pleasure of working with. Two years into my role as CD of the account, we got all the business back. 

A client, who shall remain nameless, pulled me aside and said it had a lot to do with me; a conversation that I will cherish but was somewhat bittersweet. A few months later, for personal reasons, I had to let Dan know I needed to get back to California. One client joked with me about where they would be taking their business. We laughed. But we both knew it was where it belonged. The only thing I took from Wieden was an incredible sense of pride. To have had the privilege of witnessing advertising history first hand and being in the position to rise to the occasion was a very gratifying experience. It is still the one of coolest stories of my life. 

LBB> Actually sporting brands – from Nike and Adidas through to the work you’ve done on Starve – seem to have followed you throughout your career. Does sport play a big part in your life?

CM> Yes and no. I wouldn’t call myself a jock. But I’ve always been competitive. I grew up playing all team sports. But then everyone got really big and I didn’t. So I started skateboarding and surfing. Everything I know about sports, surfing taught me. Respect. Patience. Trust. Timing. It has a very tribal way about it. If you look closely, so do all sports. But what I truly appreciate about sports is that it serves humanity well. It brings out the best in ourselves. And therefore we should all participate. 

LBB> At TBWA you worked closely with Lee Clow – what was that experience like?

CM> I was in Cannes one summer, picking up some Nike gold, and met Bob Kupperman, I thought by accident at Hotel Du Cap. His timing was perfect. He mentioned that I had helped Dan and it was now time to help Lee. Imagine that. Weird but cool, right? Besides, Lee and I had met in LA two years prior where I pitched opening a Chiat SF office like he had in the 80s. So I guess he was just calling my bluff. Besides, I again had some unfinished business to attend to.

What happened next I have neither the time to say nor you the patience to read. All I can say is that Lee is the only person who if called me tomorrow, I would drop everything. 

Early in our time together, coming back from an Adidas meeting in Athens, we sat together on the plane heading to NY for a briefing on the Sprint/Nextel pitch. We were excited. We both are strangely drawn to solving problems. So we stayed up the entire 16-hour flight, talking, drawling, and thinking out loud. By the time we landed, we had the idea. Lee had drawn it out on a napkin. We won the account.

I stayed with TBWA/Chiat/Day for 10 years because of him alone. I consider him a friend. A partner. And I still want to work with him somehow, somewhere in the future. His counsel, confidence and trust with me was life affirming. Most of all, we just really got along together. His resilient nature, his self-effacing humour, his quiet but wilful way of shaping the work is an experience every creative should enjoy. We had fun working together. There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not touched by a little piece of his wisdom he left behind for me to carry forward. He is the grandfather of Cutwater. It was our shared belief that big agencies should make smaller ones. And we acted on those beliefs. Lee had my back like no other person in the world. What I regret most of all in these last three years of being independent is not having spent the time with him.

Need I say more?

Cutwater Viral Reel from Cutwater on Vimeo.

LBB> Outside of the ad industry, who are your creative heroes and why?

CM> The makers: the great directors I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with. The editors. The crews of people gathered around the lights trying to create something special. Too many to name. But if you know any films I’ve done, then you know whom I’m talking about.

But my real hero is my Grandfather. A self-made businessman. I had reached a point in my life where I didn’t know exactly what to do next. My Father shared a story about how my Grandpa started the family company on his last dime, by boarding a train for Washington, DC for a meeting with the Pentagon. He had built a powder box that wouldn’t rust and therefore protect the gunpowder from getting wet. They liked it and told him to return in a few months. He bravely said, he couldn’t. He had spent everything to get there. And therefore wasn’t returning without an answer. They gave him a contract the next day. That company put me through college and then some. My Father ran it as well. Dad shared the story with me for a reason. So I got on a plane to NY. Met with John Wren. And returned with an independent agency. Thanks, John, for understanding.

LBB> I read the piece you wrote for Adweek about why ad agency holding companies should be more like venture capitalists – and was interested to see that one of the reasons was the potentially game-changing ideas that get discarded and left to rot. I was wondering – at Cutwater what do you do with the great ideas that, for whatever reason, didn’t get used?

CM> It always depends on the contracts we have with the clients. But our goal as a business has just as much to do with helping clients reinvent their business as it does communicating what they do.

Recently, while working on an assignment, we came up with an interesting clothing extension for a brand we work on. The idea was well out of our scope of work. So instead of having it die because it wasn’t apart of our purview, we researched its feasibility and found it to be rather simple by most standards. We then took it to a few retailers and found real excitement for it. We are now hopeful to make it soon.

But the point I’m driving at in the Adweek article is that holding companies are like banks. And they have the ability if not responsibility to invest more in their people and the ideas we can or could create. Being small, the financial resources are shallow for these things. But, say if I ran Omnicom, I’d be making a lot of really cool shit and trying to build brands of the future. What do you think Google is doing? Investing in Uber. Oh, shit. Why don’t we do that?

LBB> Which recent projects that you’ve been involved in have particularly resonated with you and why?

CM> Sunrun, a solar power company here in California, has been our most recent client addition. But the real win is having a chance to help get solar into the mainstream. It’s a worthy brand challenge. And it’s a subject matter I find important. Energy has fuelled many conflicts. To make it cheap and ubiquitous because so much of it can now come from the sky is a godsend. Literally. I just want to help in anyway I can.

LBB> What does the rest of 2014 hold for Cutwater?

CM> Being August, I’m sort of living in 2015 right now. From what I can gather, 2014 marks the year we returned to national account stage with Brawny. A stage I’m very appreciative to be back on. Getting there was our big goal this year. Now is the time to absorb these challenges and execute amazing things. I can’t wait to share the work. It’ll be coming out in 2015. And I think the case study will serve us well as we continue to look for and find great people to partner with solving ambitious business plans.

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Cutwater, 5 years ago