5 Minutes with… Johnny Vulkan
Founding Partner / Anomaly
Interviewed by LBB editor, Gabrielle Lott
LBB> Anomaly… Talk to us about Anomaly. What is Anomaly? What is it that makes it so innovative and unique? Fast Company credited you as one of the most innovative companies in the world. What does that necessarily mean?
JV> I think we started at an interesting time. We started in 2004, at a time when a lot of clients were looking for new answers, when existing marketing companies weren’t being that inventive. It was a time when we were about to see the second revolution online. The first dot com boom had cycled through and 2004 was the same year that Facebook was really kicking off, but no one was going to talk about Facebook for a couple of years because it was a college based platform. So, I think there was a lot of change and I think we had all come to the same conclusion that the old model was kind of broken and that you were handicapped by certain mindsets.
Certainly in my old job, within an ad agency, if a client came in with a problem I had to sell you advertising as the solution. You would put your product on the table in front of me and I would say ‘the answer is advertising’. Why? Because if the answer wasn’t advertising we wouldn’t get paid and yet you’d be looking at the product and thinking ‘this isn’t an advertising question. This is a question about the product itself, about distribution, pricing, about packaging’.
We were a bunch of smart people who wanted to address the real question and to tackle it. So, Anomaly was designed to be able to look at questions, make sure we are asking the right questions from the outset and then answer them. So, what we have at Anomaly is a very diverse range of thinkers that come from the worlds of design, digital, management consultancy and architecture. We begin by looking at any question posed to us by potential clients or partners, deciding whether that’s the right question or whether there is another question that comes above it, or to the side of it, or below it and then trying to answer it. I believe that because of that, we are not, therefore, motivated to sell you anything. We are not here to sell you advertising or design. We don’t have that slight tinge of deceit that sometimes follows other places that have an agenda - which is to sell you what they make. I think, even in this day and age, if you went into a digital agency and posed the question, the answer would be ‘digital’ because otherwise their factory doesn’t kick into gear. Really, the answers are really wide ranging now. We wanted to be flexible enough to be able to be answer the biggest possible questions in a very wide-ranging and honest way.
LBB> A lot of agencies are starting to make their own brands/products and a lot of people have criticized this as being a PR stunt, but you guys have done this, with moderate success. Can you talk to me about why you went ahead and did that and what it has meant to the agency and what it has brought to it?
JV> Yes, there is the danger in doing your own product that it becomes a fun little side project. That’s fine as long as you’re realistic about what it is going to be. What we realised, here at Anomaly is that if you want to create other businesses, you have to be as committed to that business as the competitive set in that category. If you have an amazing idea for a beer, then you must realise that to really be successful, to make it a worthwhile project, you have to compete with the biggest brewers in the world. You’ll have to work out how you’re going to get distributed, because having your beer sold in three bars locally isn’t going to put your kids through college and, ultimately, at some point you are working to pay your mortgage, feed and clothe your family, put your kids through college and have a nice, happy time.
So, there comes a point when hobby projects are fun (and there is nothing wrong with doing that, as long as you have a lesser expectation) but if you want to make it a business that has real value, you have to be as committed as anyone else in that category. People that grew up knowing that they wanted to create a micro-brew and spend their entire time researching processes and distribution and doing deals and negotiations and going to trade shows; if you want to do that, then you’ve got a chance. If you’re not willing to do that then you won’t. I think, where we had our epiphany is that we were better as an exhilarant to other people’s ideas than trying to create ideas purely from scratch.
So for example, our product, EOS, which is a range of skin care, we have a minority stake in that business, because there are people that are experts at the manufacturing side of that, the distribution side of that and we serve on the advisory board and they have a small regional agency in Canada that does a lot of promotional work for them and we advise. We designed the packaging, we helped with the original positioning of the product; we are parents of a product that is sold nationally and internationally. That’s a really good place to be. We wouldn’t be good if we had to get into rules and regulations about the content in skin care products or negotiating a distribution deal with Target or Walmart or Duane Reade because that’s not our area of expertise. We could learn that but that could take us three or four years minimum to lean that, but we would never be as good as people who have done that for their entire career. I think it is about being honest with where you can add your value and therefore what value you therefore add to that proposition. It was an interesting learning curve. I think that where there is never a shortage of great ideas, there is often a shortage in the level of commitment to see them through.
LBB> What value do you put on awards and winning them? How important are they to you as an individual and to the agency?
JV> I have a love/hate relationship with awards. I think awards are important on the individual level because they are often used as currency for recruitment and industry standing and status and therefore you can’t label them as being irrelevant. We are very fixated on effectiveness. Ultimately, our entire industry’s purpose is to help people’s businesses succeed – that’s it. There is only one award that really focuses on that and that is the Effectiveness Award. So, for us the Effies are really important. I believe the creative awards are great at waging craft but I think that they send mixed messages because, I don’t always think there is a correlation between stuff that gets the most creative awards and business success that necessarily follows.
A lot of successful communications and marketing work never gets entered into awards. I could argue that Amazon’s ‘Customers that bought this, bought this’ is an amazing piece of genius thinking but it can never get entered for an award and it probably wouldn’t traditionally have won the award. Maybe it could today and I can argue that it is Titanium level thinking that has driven an entire business. So, most things don’t turn up at award shows, however those things are the pieces of genius that make the difference in people’s businesses.
I think that award shows send a powerful signal to the next generation coming into the industry but I think that the industry is unclear as to what the next generation should be producing. I think there’s confusion as to what our industry should be doing. There’s a huge difference between the UK and the US regarding that. The UK communication industry is very much an extension of the creative industries; film in particular which is why the craft out of the UK is phenomenal and the stunning work that is produced out of there. I think in America’s communication industry there is much more of an alignment with business and it is an extension of the marketing disciplines meaning it’s a harder working work. It might not be as easy on the eye but I think it’s more about hitting its business objectives. That’s the cultural difference. As I said I don’t think you could find an agreement within the industries as to what is ‘good work’ because if you can’t tell me what happened after that work ran. I can’t tell you whether it’s good work. In terms of it looking amazing, I can tell you if it is interesting, if it is unique, provocative and innovative, but for me, ultimately, good work is work that did the job it was paid to do.
LBB> How did you get into this industry?
JV> I’m going to blame a couple of friends, early on, leading me first to Aston university in Birmingham and then the advertising recruitment trial. I ended up doing a degree in marketing and psychology, which teamed me up to either be a planner or to go into a marketing profession.
LBB> What initially made you study marketing?
JV> Yes, at the time it was still a relatively young profession but it was interesting for me. I’d always been interested in business and culture and I think one of the problems that we face today is actually that marketing has become such a big academic centric study. It has created so many other layers within organisations, it’s almost over-complicated it. I think marketing in its classic sense was always defined by top layers, the four Ps: product, price, place, and promotion. The genius in a company like Apple was that they very much adhered to that, and Steve Jobs’ hand was seen on everything; the product, the pricing, the distribution and the promotion. Today, all of those disciplines have been disintegrated into various forms. The term marketing today, certainly within the advertising profession, we are really talking about the communication side of that. We are not talking about production and distribution and yet that is the stuff that really communicates.
LBB> And that was what really interested you?
JV> And that was what really interested me. I think that is why within Anomaly we are very interested in product innovation and why a lot of our work centres on that, because that is the first point of communication. The reason Apple is successful is not only because of good communications, it’s because of amazing products. Real care invested in the products and I think that’s where marketers take a short cut by producing a mediocre product and rely on advertising to try and gain attention and more awareness for it.
There are many conferences on communication techniques and not many conferences on product innovation and how to get better products in the first place. I think that is where the real opportunity lies and I think that fundamentally, if you can produce an amazing product, then most of your job is done. Produce an average product and you’ll spend millions of dollars trying to paint it in a veneer of mystique and intrigue to try and convince someone to buy it…. So, that’s answering a different question, but back to your original: Yes, that interested me and I think that probably until we started Anomaly, I always felt a bit of a misfit in this industry because I always wanted to know where the ‘stuff’ was working and why we were doing it. It took me a few years, and I’d done everything from being an account guy to new business to a chief operating officer to a creative director, I’ve done everything other than planning and I’m probably the closest to being a planner than any other discipline. To realise that what I really wanted to get to was trying to answer the right business questions and how creativity could tackle those business issues, across all aspects of marketing, not just the last piece of the puzzle which advertising traditionally tackles.
LBB> You were about to tell us about Saatchi & Saatchi…
JV> Saatchi & Saatchi…I think I realised that advertising was a really competitive industry to get into and I did the usual thing of applying for the graduate recruitment programmes. I did all the applications and I got down to the final round of AMV and Saatchi & Saatchi and did their two or three day graduate hot housing thing where you are interrogated by everybody. I probably wanted AMV, if I’m truthful - I ended up getting neither - but I pursued Saatchi’s because I felt that I had a better chance there. They were employing six graduate trainees that year and I was told I was number seven and that they were really sorry, but I should apply again next year.
I took it upon myself to design, using quark express on an Apple Classic 2, the front page of Campaign. I mocked it up with photographs, wrote all the articles for the front page; a couple of them were industry observations and a couple of them were jokes that included me in them. I wrote a couple of ads based on the British Airways campaign that Saatchi had at the time, pretend awards as well. Printed it out beautifully and sent it to six people at Saatchi & Saatchi that I believed I had got on well with during the interview process. I heard nothing. I followed up. Heard half of something, followed up again and eventually it turned into a ‘next time you are in town, Johnny, come in for a cup of tea and we can see if we can give you any more advice about the advertising industry’. When I turned up for my cup of tea, in reception was the head of HR waiting for me saying ‘after your persistence, we decided that you are exactly the kind of person we do want to have at Saatchi & Saatchi. We’ve created another space for you’. It was a hard fought way in but, I think it proves that if you really want to get into this industry there is always going to be a way in, if you persevere enough.
LBB> How does Anomaly source and select new talent? And do you spend any time in academia teaching, lecturing, etc?
JV> yes, we have various people that teach at many of the ad schools. We are just starting to chat to people about other opportunities. I’d like for us to do more of that kind of thing. I’m very interested in what young people coming into the industry are being taught, especially as I believe that this industry doesn’t know what it should be teaching. I also wonder who is teaching them.
Four years ago there would have probably been a class on why Second Life is the most important thing to know about and now you’d be ridiculed for talking about it. So, similarly MySpace has come and gone in the period of the last five to six years. Things are happening very fast that have a huge impact on communications. What’s being taught? Even if you taught social media today, I think the conversation that we had last year will be very different to the conversation this year and it will be radically different next year, I promise you. So, once again, what is being taught in those classes? I’m fascinated to learn more and to influence it. Really for me it is about open-mindedness and being flexible.
I think the other aspect for us, in terms of recruitment is very much about looking for people who are curious and again, open-minded. We’ve never really had a problem with attracting a volume of people to come and talk. We get all the nomads from any category, so people from design, from advertising, from digital; those who are frustrated by the silo that they existed in within other working environments. People who have curiosity for everything, a quality and ability about something, so they’ll be good at one part of the puzzle and mutual respect for all other disciplines because we don’t want to create a feeling or belief that any one discipline is better than another.
For us, PR is as important as direct marketing, is as important as traditional advertising, as important as digital media, as important as social media management. They all have values. It’s about piecing together the right arrangement of those disciplines, not waiting for one discipline to have a big idea and then let everything else fuss around the bottom of the pyramid. So, open-minded, curious people who have a good work ethic, as we do work quite hard.
LBB> Tell me about the work over the last 12 months. What’s really resonated with you. That you’ve truly loved?
JV> There are a few things. There is a piece of work that we did for our Budweiser client in Canada that was a really nice and insightful, which internally was called ‘Flash Fans’ (http://bit.ly/KR0xi0
). We put on an experience for a hockey team in Canada; a locally based team that play for themselves, within a local league and who hire out a rink and just play to an empty stadium. We produced this thing where we brought the whole crowd to the game to surprise them and filmed the whole experience as a tribute to the spirit of optimism. The fact that great times are always waiting, so we played on this sense of camaraderie which Budweiser very much has within its DNA. It’s a beautiful piece of documentation of how you can lift people’s spirits and it’s an amazing film and what was wonderful about it were the comments on it after we posted it. People were in tears and wishing that could happen to their team, their father’s team and how Budweiser really understood what grassroots hockey means to Canadians and almost a sense of ‘its amazing that it has taken an American beer to remind us how important hockey is to Canadians’. So it was a really lovely response and it instantly gained national coverage across Canada and really reasserted Budweiser as an important brand within the Canadian mindset and it was, essentially, a great introduction into the Canadian market for Anomaly (we just opened a Toronto office).
I’m also really proud of the application that we are doing in mobile for Diageo called Captain’s conquest for Captain Morgan’s Dark Rum. It’s a beautifully crafted mobile game. We have people playing 10,000 games a day! We haven’t even pushed it that hard yet, we’ve only put it out there as a soft launch but once again, it is beautifully made piece of communication. It allows people to live like a captain, which is the brief that we were given; so there’s some swash buckling sports within the safety of their iPhone and it sits on a level of foursquare so it’s all about getting people out there into bars, socializing and having some fun whilst they play.
We’ve also done some nice work with Budweiser around their producing the modern day ‘seal of quality’. One of the questions that people raise around Budweiser is the quality of the beer, but they actually use really expensive ingredients and the beer is very fresh. It is all made very locally because they have breweries all around the globe. People don’t believe that their beer has been made locally, recently, and with great ingredients; so we produced an application that sits on phones that allows you to check any bottle of beer for when it was made, who made it and where it has come from. So, this allows you to find out which brewery in the US your beer was made, who was the master brewer on duty when your beer was being made, a view of the factory it was made in and the date in which it was made. That isn’t to suggest that we expect people to be in bars checking every bottle of beer; what it suggests is ‘we believe so strongly in the quality of our product that we made an application so that you can check’. So, for me, success around that application isn’t about whether people follow the app, use the app to check their beer, it’s the fact that it exists and the fact that it exists is proof that the brand believes in the quality. So what we are tracking is people’s perceptions on the quality of Budweiser beer. Convention would say we need to check downloads of the app, but in fact it’s ‘no, you need to check whether the perception of the quality of the beer has changed’
LBB> Do you still love what you do?
JV> Yes. We get really interesting questions and that’s one of the nice things about Anomaly. I can’t think where else I could work within the industry other than here. There are so many companies that I admire: people like IDO who just look at everything so differently, they’re amazing… So, I think as long as we have interesting questions to answer and we have license to answer them, I know I’ll be excited and motivated.