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5 Minutes With… Matt Ian

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TBWA\Chiat\Day NY ECD on why fame matters and how Internet trolling is hurting creativity

5 Minutes With… Matt Ian

When Matt Ian first got into advertising, his philosophy was ‘head down, work hard’. In the intervening years between then and becoming the ECD at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York he’s learned to take a step back and get some perspective. These days, the genial and animated creative is all about thinking big. LBB’s Laura Swinton met up with Matt to find out how trolling is hampering junior creatives and why these days he feels more like a Hollywood EP than an ad agency CD.


LBB> You joined TBWA last year - what attracted you over to the agency?

MI> I was running Volkswagen at Deutsch with a partner, which is a fairly massive account and it wasn't like I was dying to get out of there. It was high profile, we were doing good work. But this opportunity came up and I think the pedigree of this place really swung it. I had been offered this sort of role before but never at a place that I really respect. It was too good not to at least engage in the conversation. When I met Robert [Harwood-Matthews] our president we talked and I thought ‘that's the guy I really want to partner with’. A lot of it was just him being who he is and having an aligned vision with him about where a shop can go now and what a shop can do.

Plus this place just has such a creative reputation. It has ebbed and flowed a bit over the years - I spent time here in 97-99. It's a small place so it feels the loss of business a little bit more - but when it's firing on all cylinders it's an amazing shop. If you look at those really, really good years when Gerry Graff was running the place, it was the best shop in town. I think because of that there's always the potential to be that shop again. Coming here, I’ve seen people in the network want it to be that. I haven’t had to fight a big holding company or global bosses whose visions aren't aligned. 


LBB> How does the New York office work with the other offices around the world?

MI> There is real collaboration. I've worked in networks before where there was zero - they were network agencies in name only. In fact it was surprising how much collaboration there is because I don't really remember that in the late nineties. It felt like it's own place. That was right after the TBWA\Chiat\Day merger happened and enough time has passed that the bugs have been ironed out and the fluidity is there. If we're trying to build something digital, rather than go to a vendor we might tap Helsinki for that kind of knowledge. It is a well-oiled machine in a lot of respects and I haven't really worked in a place like that before. I keep cynically waiting for the moment when each office becomes a little land-grabby but that just hasn't happened. 


LBB> What is it in the culture that makes that work?

MI> When I first got here I attended a meeting with all the heavyweights like John Hunt and Lee Clow and they seemed very much in sync and they had a real respect for one another. I think that that's where it starts. 


LBB> What was it that you wanted to bring to the role when you joined and how has the place been evolving since then?

MI> There's a couple of things that I think I wanted to bring here and am bringing here. I want to build a more collaborative environment versus a more traditional, siloed environment. I'm trying to hire the types of creatives who understand that intuitively. I'm trying to make account management and planning work more seamlessly together and I'm look at the president Robert and Lee and the guys in leadership as real partners in this. 

I don't think it really serves anyone if it becomes about 'us vs. them'. If creative is working in its own bubble and I try to ‘protect’ my creatives from the 'bastards' in account management that might make me look like a hero to my creatives but it doesn't do them any good. Essentially it's the work that suffers and the client relationships that suffer. It's their careers that suffer. To really champion these guys you have to say, 'hey we live in different times now, we're going to have to plays this a little differently’. Yes I still think of them as rock stars; they're the ones making the work and staying late. But at the same time there's a little bit more humility and a collaborative spirit around. 


LBB> And talking about finding the talent that has the skills... what really are you looking for and where do you find it?

MI> I get asked that a lot. What are you looking for in a creative? It's not always the same thing. I want to see that the person is a good thinker but it can really depend on what level they're coming in at. 

I'm not expecting a junior person to come in with a bunch of famous campaigns or even ones that are really fleshed out and holistic. A lot of the time people at lower levels come to me with tactics because the industry rewards that. At awards you can enter a really tactical idea into 37 different categories and rack up a Lion tally. Really at the end of the day you haven't done anything to build a brand. Because we're rewarding that we're seeing it happen at lower levels. That’s fine because if you're a good thinker then there's an opportunity to grow you and get you to think a bit bigger about things. 

At the higher levels I want to see bigger thinking that goes beyond tactics. When it comes to creative directors I'd like to open a book and notice stuff that's broken through in culture. If someone comes to me and says 'I'm an ACD and I want X amount of money that's on the high side' and I open that book and there's nothing I've ever seen…  No. I want to see the thinking but I don't see creatives as purely concept guys. If 37 people saw a project where was the breakthrough in culture? Where was the relevance? 

Another thing that I find interesting now in the industry is that there used to be the ads for show and the ads for dough, but it’s not really like that anymore in the awards. You went out and solicited the bake shop around the corner and did a bunch of fake double spread print ads for them and racked up a bunch of awards and in the weekdays did the regular insurance stuff. There's still some of that about but now when I judge the shows the stuff that rises up to the top and is resonant is the stuff that has already risen to the top in culture. The stuff that's gained fame previously is the stuff that's getting attention paid to it during the judging process. 


LBB> How did you get into advertising in the first place?

MI> I think I just figured it out while at art school. I was a horrendous student in high school. I think i graduated from high school with something like a 1.6 average which is like a D. Most colleges weren't really an option for me but I could draw. I ended up going to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then I transferred to Art Centre in Pasadena. I went in thinking 'I draw but I don't know what to do, maybe I'll try illustration' and then I became interested in graphic design. I found myself drawn to the more conceptual side of graphic design and eventually went into the advertising programme.


LBB> And looking back is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?

MI> I think that the advice people tend to give you in the industry is 'just work really, really, really, really hard when you get out of school and don't even look up’. And I think that's all actually good advice - but the advice that I might have missed out on was about perspective. 

I kept my head down and worked, worked, worked but I found that I was so close to the work that I was very rigid about it. I didn't have out-of-the-gate success in this business by any means. I flailed for a few years. I thought 'I'm so much better than these hacks judging my work!', but essentially I was just being rigid and not looking at problems in multiple ways. It took a couple of years to figure that out. Every ad that I was trying to do was a comedy thing. At the end of the day a little perspective goes a long way. Yes work hard but also listen. Keep in mind that there's always another way to solve a problem. I got that advice a little bit later when I got promoted to creative director. It was a good friend of mine, William Gelner who runs 180LA and was the creative director at BBH on Axe at the time, who said it to me and I think it's probably the best advice I've ever had. 


LBB> Do you the challenges that junior creatives coming into the industry are different from when you joined the industry? 

MI> I think there are a couple of things that have changed radically. I think the idea of ownership has changed radically and that is a result of the changing workload. Now, because the workload has increased and deadlines have gotten worse, more is expected in less time. As a result the idea of ownership has radically changed. Seeing a bunch of names on the credits used to mean that there was a bunch of people trying to ‘slash in’ on something that they had nothing to do with, they were just walking by the office. And the last thing in the world you wanted was for someone to perceive you as a 'slash' or 'slash in' on your work. Now that's the cost of entry because there is so much more stuff to get done. 

I also think there is a little bit more fear around because the watering hole is shrinking a little bit. There's a lot to do but not a lot of money to do it. There are a lot of people getting into the business wondering if they’re going to have a job and whether they’re relevant. The idea of relevance is a big issue - even for guys like me, my generation the idea of relevance is a terrifying thing. 

I also think that there's also a pervasive ugliness in the trolling that happens in this business. Making potentially controversial decisions puts you in a vulnerable position. I've been shit on so much and most of it comes from a place that's not even remotely accurate so I try to let it roll off my back. I think for younger people coming in it looks terrifying, to be cut to pieces for something that you created. I think failure is a massive part of this business and when you fail you learn. I was allowed to fail publicly because it wasn't like I was going to have to experience a bunch of people shitting all over my work. Now these kids aren't allowed to fail publicly without massive and completely inappropriate consequences.

I've been a part of some work that's taken beatings in the press or whatever. There was one thing I did for VW that had a white guy talking with a Jamaican accent that got some backlash and it was incredibly terrifying at the time for everyone involved. It was brutal. But it turned out to be nothing because the backlash to the backlash was so much greater and we felt vindicated in the end. In the pre-Internet chatter world it would have been bad but the letters that came in would have been a badge of honour. Now the disproportionate amount of chatter over it makes you go 'holy shit what did we do?'. You lose a little perspective.


LBB> Talking about relevance and the industry is an interesting flux at the moment... where do you think we might be headed?

MI> I think a couple of years ago there was a real push towards becoming product innovators and having a proprietary stake in new products... I don't see that as a bad thing but I don't hear as much about it now. I think it's weird to take an industry that's based on such short lead times and try and introduce such a time-heavy activity. Introducing a new product takes years. I just think that maybe we didn't have as much patience for it as we thought we did. I definitely don't think it's a bad idea. I love to think that we can do innovative things here, wherever we get the opportunity, but I think as an industry it didn't quite catch on and I think it might have something to do with the time investment it takes to do that. 

At the end of the day we are storytellers. A lot of us got into advertising because of that. That's where our hearts are. I used to hear these things about how great it was that the industry was changing into more of a product innovation model and I would get a little sad because I like writing. I still really enjoy that. I know this is going to make me sound like a dinosaur but I'm happiest when there's a lot going on and I have to pitch in and write a few scripts. I fucking love that. 


LBB> And how do you see the role of an ECD or CCO changing these days?

MI>There's a lot of bad stuff about this position - the whole HR side of it and you spend a lot of time talking to our CFO (our CFO is lovely by the way). One of the advantages of a position like this is seeing everything at a slightly higher level and seeing it from a business problem standpoint. I think the agencies that can do that will always have work. There are a lot of specialists coming in but the people who can guide the specialists will always be necessary. It's almost more like being a Hollywood EP instead of a creative director who just wants to nail the writing.


LBB> Who are your own creative heroes?

MI> This is such a hard question! Every now and then I'll be listening to a rock record and I'll think 'yes! Mick Jones is everything to me!' and I'll completely figure out why and then I'll forget. One of my big heroes is Ian MacKay of Fugazi. He invented and kept reinventing and he did it on his own terms so dogmatically. He really has a strong point of view and allows that to guide his work. I always thought if that you could be that loyal to what you do, that kind of tenacity, there would be no stopping you. He's a pretty extreme case!

Within the industry I admire people's energy. Obviously there’s Gerry Graf who did this place for a while - I admire what he's done again and again and again. I admire a good friend of mine Toby Barlow who runs Team Detroit - the guy is not only running that place he’s also writing best sellers and doing a bunch of stuff to help the Detroit renaissance. I don't know how he finds the energy.


LBB> Which recent projects have you particularly enjoyed working on?

MI> There has been a couple actually. The stuff that we're doing for BN Sport is really interesting. It comes from the simple guiding principle that soccer fans in the US are marginalised. On the surface the Vuvuzela might look like a nice tactic but it's informed by a bigger guiding idea. We're going to give fans the tools to evangelise their religion, which is soccer, and bring more people to the flock. That was the lofty ideal behind the Vuvuzela; on the surface it's just a noisy horn that changes the channel but it comes from a bigger place. And that idea informs everything we're going to be doing after the vuvuzela.


LBB> So you'll be pretty busy on the run up to the World Cup then?

MI> Hopefully, that's the plan. We've got a bunch of other things right now. And they don't have a ton of money so it forces you into a place where you have to be really innovative and make the work really shareable. You have to amplify those media dollars.


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TBWA Worldwide, Wed, 30 Apr 2014 16:04:55 GMT