5 Minutes with… Lee Garfinkel
Chief Creative Officer, of Global Brands Euro RSCG Worldwide
Co-Chairman, Euro RSCG New York
Interviewed by LBB editor, Gabrielle Lott
LBB > You’ve been at Euro RSCG now for the last 18 months?
LG > A little bit less.
LBB > What is it about Euro that brought you to the agency and what is it about the agency that makes it so successful?
LG > That’s one question? I was definitely interested in working with Matt Ryan, who was president of global brands. He’s someone that I have known for quite some time and that I’ve wanted to work with, even way back when I was at Lowe and Partners in the 90s. This was an opportunity for the two of us to work together. I’m also very fond of David Jones (Global CEO, Havas and Global CEO Euro RSCG Worldwide) and his philosophy on what an advertising agency should be; today, versus ten years ago – being fast, being agile, being nimble, being digital focused but also knowing it’s much more than just digital and technology, it’s what you do with that technology, it’s about having super ideas.
LBB > That brings me perfectly to my next question. You were quoted as saying ‘first, be fast and relevant, then push the envelope creatively.’
LG > Where did you get that?
LBB > Your website, actually.
LG > Oh, okay! (laughter)
LBB > Can you elaborate on that for us? Maybe tell us some examples?
LG > Well, first of all it came from my sort of analysis of a lot of advertising that I had been seeing in the last five to 10 years. I thought that it wasn’t very smart, that it wasn’t very relevant and it seemed like there was a lot of crazy creative for the sake of just being crazy and whacky. It was just to grab people’s attention but didn’t really have a lot of substance to it, and so I thought ‘what do I believe in?’ We all have to create our niches and I always liked to base my advertising on a sound strategy that makes sense for the product, for the consumer. Then, once you have that, you start to push the envelope and try to do interesting things with it, as opposed to starting with a crazy, whacky idea; rather than sitting there thinking ‘what has that to do with anything?’ There’s a lot of that.
I think the last time I judged Cannes, maybe seven or eight years ago, I was sitting next to a somewhat famous creative director, who was voting everything in and I wasn’t. He kept saying ‘don’t you think that was funny?’ and I said ‘yeah, I think it’s funny, but it’s not good advertising, so why would I vote for it?’ I mean, advertising is entertainment, but it’s not only entertainment. That’s why it’s advertising, to sell a product.
LBB > This interview is flowing perfectly because I now want to refer to another quote of yours which is ‘yes, I admit that I like to win awards but not as much as I like talking about successful sales results’. How important are awards to you and what place do they have within the agency?
LG > Well, they are certainly important to people who are building careers. That’s how they become famous and make more money. It’s always nice to win awards. I like to get recognition from my peers in the business but I enjoy, much more, getting recognition from consumers because that’s what I am really getting paid for. To me, one of the main reasons to do good work, besides pleasing myself and to help my current clients, is to win new business. I will say that nine times out of ten, if I go into a client and I say ‘you should give me your account because I’ve won all these awards’ the client isn’t that interested. Though they pretend to be sometimes, most of the time they are not. But when I go in and say ‘look at the sales results that I’ve created for these clients’… For example, again when I was at Lowe in the 90s, we had a great case study on Mercedes Benz. They’d dropped 30,000 cars in the US, from 90,000 to 60,000 cars. That’s a horrible drop. Then I started working on the business and within five years sales were up to a 175,000 cars a year - a major turnaround. Mercedes said that it was a Harvard case study. Now, imagine that I go up in front of a client and I say ‘I don’t want to talk to you about the awards that we have won for Mercedes but I do want to talk to you about how we’ve improved sales for the last couple of years’. We won so much business from that because everybody said ‘can you do that for me?’
LBB > You spoke the other week at Creative week. Can you talk to us about the week and why you support it?
LG > I like anything that celebrates creativity, or creative people; especially in advertising because it’s one of the few creative fields where creative people don’t get credit for their work…unless you read an award show annual, which I guess is another positive of awards. Being able to connect a face and a name with work; that, I think, is really important (unlike one of my co-panelists who believed that ideas weren’t important). I believe that all we have is our ideas and we live and die on our ideas. Being able to get credit and recognition for those ideas and of course money… that’s why we do this every day. So, any kind of week that celebrates creativity and the people that are involved in it, I think, is really important.
LBB > You’ve worked for some of the biggest brands, you’ve created iconic work and you’ve worked for some of the most successful agencies in the world. What is it about being creative that you enjoy and what is it about your role that you love?
LG > That’s two different questions. Okay, so what do I love about being creative? I still get incredibly stimulated about coming up with a good idea.
LBB > and you’re still heavily involved in that process?
LG > Yes. Many, many years ago, really early in my career, there were some creative directors who I had admired who stopped writing and purely became supervisors. I noticed that the quality of work from their agencies got worse and, whether or not it was true, my theory was that the best way to be a creative person is to be a creative. You know, it keeps you active; your mind going. I think that’s how you maintain the respect of the people that work with you - that you’re not just a talker, that you are a doer and I didn’t get into this business purely to manage, I got into it because I like being creative. I believed early on that I would never stop creating, that I would always write. Not to compete with the people that work with me but kind of lead by example.
What I get a charge out of today is when we are all brainstorming and I come up with an idea that I really like…I usually know if it’s a good idea when I start to talk to other people about it. You know, like for me, the earliest stage of social media was to walk down the hallway and talk to other people in your agency and say ‘hey, I’ve got this great idea’. You were actually talking to people about your idea because, that’s what social media is about. You have a good idea and it’s worth passing on to someone else. So, what I love, still creatively, in answer to your question, is still coming up with ideas that I get a kick out of, especially ideas in new media that I haven’t worked a lot in. That’s a great opportunity because when people say to me ‘well, you’ve done a lot of great TV spots and print, why are you still doing it?’ and I say ‘well now there’s like a 100 new media opportunities for me to create in’. That’s great. It keeps you alive. To be able to do something great, whether it’s on Facebook or any other digital, social advertising; that’s exciting.
Then, what do I like about my role? Inspiring other people; trying to help them make their work better; teaching them how to go from okay to something better.
LBB > How did you get into advertising?
LG > Out of desperation. I grew up in the Bronx, in New York and I went to a city college, majoring in communications, thinking I would get a job in TV or film. When I graduated, my TV production professor said ‘don’t expect to get a job in communications if you don’t have any connections’ and I thought ‘what? You’ve waited till I graduate to tell me that? Because I don’t have any connections!’ For some reason I said ‘well, maybe I can get a job in advertising’. I took books out of the library and taught myself what advertising was about and then worked on my portfolio for about 10 months. I did nothing for 10 months but work on my portfolio and then I showed it to people and got advice and, eventually, got a job.
LBB > How did you know about advertising as an industry, or what made you think of it?
LG > I was doing stand up comedy for a while and I would make fun of commercials. I never thought that I would actually do it for a living. That’s such a good question because I don’t remember why. Someone might have just said ‘think about advertising’. For me, when I think about what I thought I was good or talented at, it was writing, drawing, doing music, doing comedy. I thought, ‘well I don’t know if I do any of those things great, but I’m kind of a jack of all trades’. That seemed perfect for advertising, to be good at a lot of different things.
LBB > What has been your favourite project in the last 12 months?
LG > Well, I guess a couple of things. Some stuff hasn’t been produced yet. I was just talking to the president of another advertising agency and I said ‘how you doing?’ and he said ‘yeah’, and then he said ‘how you doing?’ and I said ‘well, you know, this is the first job that I’ve had in a while where I actually enjoy coming into work’. I think it’s the type of people that work here. Some I brought in and some were here, but there’s something. It’s not just the brand and I know that we talked about culture on the panel that I was on at Creative Week, but sometimes you can try to build a culture and sometimes it just comes together for some odd reason. This place had a lot of nice, talented people - which is really important because you don’t want to work with creeps all day long. We then brought in a couple of good and talented people, so we’ve got a nice vibe going in the place.
In terms of work, Dos Equis is always fun to work on with the ‘Most interesting man in the world’ campaign. The tough thing there is that there are very high standards and expectations for the brand, so my job is to push the team, not only to live up to what we’ve done in the past, but to try to surpass it. As a goal, that is really rewarding for me. More recently, we’ve just pitched New York Life Insurance and we won the business. Right now we are working on this new campaign for them which is kind of different from a lot of stuff that I’ve done in the past because I always like to try different things. Not everything that I’ve done in the past is comedic, but a lot of my stuff is and this new work is more emotional and serious and I think we came up with great idea – we start production in a couple of weeks.
LBB > Do you still enjoy working in advertising?
LG > Yeah. For one, as I said, I enjoy coming to work, which hasn’t always been the case. I’ve been at some places where I might have been doing good work but I didn’t necessarily enjoy some of the people. So, I enjoy coming here. It’s a really motivated agency in all departments. Everyone just wants to do better and do different things. For me, again, as we were saying before, people think that I’ve done everything. I haven’t. I’m never satisfied and I think now with so many new opportunities in media there’s a whole new canvas to work on, and that’s really exciting for a creative person.
Years ago, if we had done rough cuts on a commercial, where would it go? It would go in the garbage and no one would see it. Now we can put it on the internet, we can put it on the client’s website, ‘see the alternate cuts’, YouTube – there are so many new ways that we can demonstrate our creativity. I almost wish I could go back and re-edit a lot of my old commercials and show those variations, the different things that I was thinking about. I like being able to work with new media and I think when a lot of people get excited about new technology, my response is usually ‘Yeah, I do think it is great but the technology by itself doesn’t mean that much unless you do something really creative with it’. So, an example I always give is in the past clients would say ‘should we be on Facebook?’ and at first I said ‘I’m not sure, I don’t know’ and then a couple of years later they would say ‘should we be on Facebook?’ and I would say ‘yeah, I think you should because everybody is on Facebook’. Now the question is ‘so now that everyone is on Facebook, what are we going to do differently from everybody else?’ and that’s where I think the excitement comes from. Being on Facebook now is almost like being on TV. You have to be there because everybody is there, but now what are you going to do to separate yourself from everybody else. That’s really interesting.