5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly
5 Minutes with… Mike Lear
Advertising Agency
New York, United States
Erwin Penland ECD on naming beers, taking down grandmas for Denny’s and why it’s important to think ‘bigger than the brief’

Mike Lear has just celebrated his first anniversary with Erwin Penland and what a year it’s been. He’s worked on a big new Denny’s launch, won a brewery client and has been fuelling his creativity by exploring the woods and waterfalls near Greenville, South Carolina.  

Erwin Penland, with an office in SC and another by Bryant Park in New York, describes itself as a 30-year-old start up and has been named as one of Forbes’ ’20 Small Agencies That Punch Above Their Weight’. It might be something to do with the agency’s dreamy Greenville home – Mike reckons getting out into the surrounding countryside every day is his not-so-secret weapon.

The move to EP came after nearly 12 years at The Martin Agency in Richmond and his career also includes time at Crispin Porter + Bogusky and WestWayne. But as well as being an inspired writer, Mike has also spent time as an educator, giving back to the industry by training up the next generation of creative stars.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Mike to find out how things are going one year in at Erwin Penland…

LBB> How did you end up in advertising?

ML> My Dad is a recently retired art director in Canton, Ohio. He told me to never ever become a creative because it’s much too difficult and painful. He said no matter what, on any circumstances should I become a creative. So here I am. 

LBB> You’ve taught at Creative Circus and VCU Brandcenter – why is it important to you to do this? And what advice have you got for young people considering a career in the industry? Is it still an exciting place to be?

ML> Now that I’ve moved to Greenville I don’t currently teach, but yes, I did moonlight for years and I loved it. Luke Sullivan is to blame here. I got to know Luke long before I worked for him and he showed me that paying success forward isn’t just a good thing to do, it’s mandatory. And I learned that I love teaching. The biggest reward I have in my career is when a young writer leaves school, goes out and produces amazing work at Wieden or Droga or some other hot shop and they take the time to shoot me with an email out of the blue just to say, “Hey thanks, I get it now, all that work you made me do, it pays off every day, I learned a lot from you”. That feeling will never get old. 

LBB> As a writer, I’m guessing that the ads you did for The Onion must have been a fun challenge! Where on earth do you start when you’ve got to come up with lines that are as funny as the content in The Onion?

ML> You just nailed it. When we first went to them they were running really bland, basic ads in their paper, they said, “Eh, we don’t care about the ads, ads are stupid.” But we convinced them that their ads needed to be as engaging as the content of the paper, or why bother even making them? And they bought. Some would substitute the word “engaging” with “offensive” but hey, it was The Onion. 

LBB> Of your recent campaigns and projects, which have been particularly satisfying or interesting to work on?

ML> Denny’s. This account is very special to me. The clients are wonderful and they want great work. My Denny’s team absolutely crushes social, TV, the in-store experiences, the dot com stuff, and even all of the menu design. The opportunity and cultural relevancy is on a level unlike any client I’ve worked with…and we have some extremely exciting things coming.

LBB> And what have been the highlights of your first year with the agency?

ML> It’s been a busy one. The Denny’s pancake launch was a blast. They came out with a 50% fluffier pancake with real eggs and buttermilk and we got to tell that story in a really funny way, taking down grandmas. 

We launched what turned out to be a mini TV show for our client, The UPS Store, starring CNBC’s Marcus ‘The Profit’ Lemonis which promotes the importance of small businesses.

In addition, a new client of ours, Yee-Haw Brewing, it’s a super delicious product with a curious and creative client. We also have some cool work coming soon for Pilot Flying J travel centres that should be a bit different than their normal tone. Not to mention all the press we gather from our work on Denny’s social! 

LBB> I see that you’re into biking and outdoorsy stuff – as a creative person, do you find getting out into nature is something that helps/has a knock-on effect with your work?

ML> If I don’t get a run or ride in, it’s not a good day. And being able to drive an hour and ride some of the most difficult and beautiful trails in the world, in Pisgah National Forest, is a dream. So yes, when I get my blood pumping in the morning, take some risks, feel a true rush…the brain works much better throughout the rest of the day. 

LBB> You joined EP a year ago – what was it about the agency and the people that attracted you over?

ML> Con Williamson, our President & CCO. He is my kind of boss. He’s funny as hell, which is important, and just a genuine person with an actual soul. I can go to him when I need help. I can complain to him when I’m annoyed. I can talk to him about anything, honestly. We’re actually the same age, but Con has a lot more experience than I do, and I love learning from him. That was crucial for me. I have to keep learning and growing. 

Overall, the agency is full of good people. Real people. People who want to be great at what we do, who want to build EP into one of the most unique agencies in the world, but who also care about each other. I love it here. 

LBB> Before that you were with the Martin Agency for 11 years! At a time when people seem to flit between agencies so frequently, what’s the appeal of longevity and loyalty in the industry? 

ML> Actually, almost 12 years! Well, for one, there’s only one agency in Richmond and I wanted to be in one spot to raise my kids for their younger years, so not a lot of options in town. But Martin kept evolving and changing while I was there which kept it interesting and I was able to grow a lot. And I got to work for the Mike Hughes, for most of my years there until he passed. I loved him so much, such a wonderful, gracious man. I owe him a lot of credit for where I am today. 

LBB> What’s Greenville’s creative community like?

ML> Small, to be honest. But our focus at EP is very much on the national and global scale. We’re not worried about being the best agency in South Carolina, we are more interested in being a top 10 agency in the world one day. And we have lots to do to get there. Greenville itself is dreamy. There is a vibrant downtown, great food, great art and an excellent craft beer scene. It’s a pretty inspired quality of life here. And our New York office is very close to Bryant Park. Quality of life is extremely important to our people and culture. 

LBB> Erwind Penland positions itself as a ’30-year-old start-up’. What’s the secret to maintaining that start-up energy as an agency grows?

ML> The ad world is ever changing. Facebook changes their nuances weekly, so you have to keep up. We find that the traditional writer/art director team is fine, but we need to be much nimbler than that. That’s why we have a couple of writers who also make horror films on the weekends and folks who are just amazing gif makers mixed in with world-class illustrators, paired with developers who can make anything, and I mean anything, digital… all on the same team sometimes. It’s important to have a deep bench of multi-talented folks that go way beyond the traditional skills. Our nimble group of crazy people keep our energy very high. 

LBB> I was interested to read that you still love rolling your sleeves up and getting involved with the writing process when it’s needed – some ECDs really prefer to stay detached from that, so I was wondering why that works for you? Does it keep your skills sharp? Or is it about showing leadership by mucking in?

ML> Well, I am the first to get out of the way of funnier, smarter young writers, but there are times when I see something that just isn’t coming together like it needs to and I jump in. The other day I named a beer for one of our clients and the thrill that you get when you put you work out in the world – even after 20 years - never gets old. But, I’m also (I hope) aware enough to get out of the way of a great idea. I only want to help; I never want to overshadow my team. 

LBB> You’re quoted on the EP site, saying, “If you try to make work that only answers the brief, you’re not wrong, you’re just thinking too small.” How does that translate into how you and your team works? 

ML> This came from my time with Alex Bogusky. He used to say the opportunities are all around the brief. Yes, we have to answer our client’s ask, but usually, quite often anyway, the better answer comes in what they didn’t even know was possible. And so how will you ever get there if you only do what is asked? You have to constantly imagine the biggest ideas. The stuff that when you first say it, it seems impossible, but that you know would be the most incredible thing to experience yourself. 

LBB> What’s the most exciting thing about working in the ad industry right now?

ML> It’s always changing. It’s what makes it unnerving and thrilling simultaneously. 

LBB> And the most frustrating?

ML> The lack of diversity. Honestly, the world is so much more diverse than agencies tend to be. But we’re working on it, and doing better than most I believe. But this has become of paramount importance. We cannot talk to today’s consumer if we are nothing like them.