He was part of a team credited with prevent 850ing,000 American teens start smoking, he helped bring the humble Mini to the United States and he’s transcended the adland award circuit to earn an Emmy nomination: this week’s ‘5 Minutes With’ interviewee Paul Stechschulte certainly knows a thing or two about the power of advertising. Last year the American creative returned to Amsterdam, where he previously worked at W+K and 180, to take up the post of Arnold Amsterdam ECD. He talks to Laura Swinton about falling into advertising, campaigning to make a real difference and why he can’t wait to get stuck into Volvo.
LBB> What’s inspired you to move back to Amsterdam?
PS> I think the reason I moved back is twofold. The first is that when my wife and I first left, we weren’t really ready to go. We had just had our first child. We hit that weird wall where we realised that our child was going to grow up and not know their family members, so when a job opportunity at Goodby came up we moved back. But of course you realise that when you live in San Francisco and your family live in New York and LA you only see them once or twice a year anyway. When the opportunity to return came up we both looked at each other and went: this is amazing. We really enjoyed living here and made some great friends and always felt really inspired living here in Amsterdam. Itwas a no brainer. We have three kids now and it’s definitely a different trip this time. Amsterdam is such a great place, culturally, with such a mixture of people.
LBB> And how has the city changed – how is it different between then and now?
PS> I think the biggest difference I’ve noticed is the economic climate, which is obviously a lot more difficult than it was before. But there’s also an interesting thing going on in that it feels like there are a few more shops than there were. Before it was pretty much mainly the big multinational agencies like Wieden’s and 180 and the Dutch shops like Kessels Kramer. Now there’s a layer of smaller shops like Anomaly, 72andSunny, Sid Lee. Part of that might be the people I met at 180 or Wieden’s have gone on to all these different places.
Even though the economy doesn’t seem great, it feels like there are more places to work and more people trying to do different things. By happenstance my neighbour owns a digital shop. You meet your Dutch neighbours and they’re like ‘I work in marketing too’. The next thing you know there’s this little ad world surrounding you in Amsterdam.
LBB> You started at Arnold in Autumn – what were the key things you wanted to bring to the agency creatively.
PS> The thing with Arnold is that I’ve known Pete Favat for a long time. He and I worked at together when CP+B and Arnold were partnered on The Truth campaign, which was a national anti-smoking campaign. We worked together a lot and we were very like-minded. There big client out here in Amsterdam is Volvo and they’re really building the office, a few other small clients and projects. For me that was an opportunity to work with someone who was likeminded.
LBB> Talking of ‘The Truth’ campaign – as a campaign that has been credited as being so effective, did working on that campaign change your perception of advertising and what advertising could achieve?
PS> Absolutely. It was almost ten years ago now. To me that’s always one thing I will always owe Alex Bogusky and CP+B. The Truth campaign was proof that advertising can be the fuse that harnesses the power of good. It can change more than just a company’s bottom line. It can change entire cultures and the lives of people.
You see that happening and brands are dealing with that more and more. They have to be more than a company that sells products. People are attracted to brands which have a purpose, whether that’s Method Soap or Innocent. You have to find things in their history or in their DNA and figure out how do you bring them out.
The Truth was inspiring to work on. In the past youth movements were always about rebelling, and they have that energy. What was neat about this was that this project harnessed that energy and that natural tendency to rebel to inform people that they were being manipulated by the big tobacco companies. That was the brilliance of The Truth.
LBB> It’s interesting that the campaign was called The Truth and of course nowadays brands are finding that they have to be truthful.
PS> In the States all there were massive lawsuits and all these documents came out. That’s where we found these little nuggets of information that showed that the tobacco brands were manipulating people, purposefully doing things which were evil, quite frankly. It sounds like a cliché but the truth sets you free. And that’s what brands need to realise. They can’t get caught in a big smoke and mirrors situation because with social media it will be broadcast and they can’t control it. They need to be careful and they need to be honest about the public.
LBB>How did you get into advertising?
PS>It was kind of an accident. As an undergrad I started off studying architecture but after two years I switched to graphic design. That was a time – and I’m showing age now – when there was a funny little lab full of these little machines called Macintoshes. I just fell in love with what they could do.
In class you would assigned a font and three font sizes. The project for the week would be to hand-render them in pen and ink on a board and to try and make them as smooth and perfect as you could. Now I know that it was all about hand skills - but halfway through the project I realised I could just put it together on the Mac and print it. I walked into my class and went ‘here’. My teacher’s perspective was ‘hey kid, you’re not learning your hand skills’ and my perspective was ‘hey man, here’s the future’.
I fell in love with type and developed my own BA programme. I took sculpture classes, painting classes, a wide smattering of stuff. I then got to my senior year and thought that I wanted to try the ‘study abroad’ thing, which I had put off. I had a friend whose father worked in advertising and suggested I might be interested in it. I didn’t really know much about it and he told me to check out these red books full of ad agency contacts. I found this company Leo Burnett in Chicago, who had offices all over the world.
I ended up getting connected with the managing director of Leo Burnett Copenhagen. He was American and he thought it was really neat that a 20 year old kid wanted to go overseas to do an internship. I lived in their nanny quarters and I went into work every day. I did everything from hand drawing storyboard frames to working on the computer. That was my first exposure to advertising. They did a lot of translations of global campaigns. They’d pull me into a room where they were watching a Kellogg’s spot with Tony the Tiger and ask me things like ‘what does ‘rad’ mean?’
When I got back and finished school I went round Chicago and Milwaukee trying to get more internships and to get a job and that’s how I fell into it.
LBB> Most people’s first exposure to working in advertising is in their own culture before moving abroad. But your first experience of the industry was in Copenhagen – do you think that has influenced the way you look at it or your approach it?
PS> It was, but then at the time half the agency was about taking material that was made in America and adapting it for the Danish market. With hindsight I realise why there was this drive for them to generate their own culturally relevant ideas. I remember one project was about the McDonald’s sponsorship of the World Cup – and the World Cup was a completely foreign thing to me as an American from the Midwest. That was when I was exposed to the idea that advertising was about trying to make products relevant to people’s cultures and what’s important to them. I never really thought about it – I really did learn about advertising in a foreign country for a first time. I still stay in touch with some of the people I met in Denmark.
LBB>And by the time you got to Crispin’s you were working on some really big brands – you were involved in bringing Mini to the States, for example. How did that come about?
PS> I remember we were living in Seattle and my wife said to me ‘someone named Alex Bogusky phoned? Who’s Alex Bogusky?’ They were just a little shop in Miami at the time. We were living in Seattle at the time and if you look at a map you couldn’t pick two cities further apart on the continental United States – physically or culturally. Miami is basically the gateway for Latin America. When I got there it reminded me of ad school. There was a passion for the idea and a creative environment where everyone was helping each other make their work better. There was something in the water down there. Call it fate, call it luck; it was the beginning of that big wave of winning accounts like Ikea, Virgin, and Burger King.
I’ve been back and it’s still a great shop but it’s definitely a different shop. It was for me the closest thing to ad school. It was a fun environment and none of us hadn’t really done anything before, apart from Alex who had done a few print ads that had won a few awards here or there. Most of us hadn’t done anything so there was a big drive to do interesting stuff and a bit of isolation. One of the things that kept me there for six years was the fact that it was in Miami.
LBB> There’s a quote in your biog where you describe yourself as an ‘art director at heart’ – what does that mean to you?
PS> My default place to go is a visual place. Even if it’s a mediocre idea, if you can make it look better. The craft side of things is important and it can go out the window – caring about how products are shot, the techniques you use, even the user interaction, how fluid that is are all important. The idea is still king; I believe that whole heartedly. But some people spend so long on idea that the execution doesn’t hold up. That’s what I love about what we do. It’s just as exciting to come up with the idea as it is to sell the idea and then making idea. You’ve got to have enthusiasm all the way through. Every once in a while you get lucky and you get a director who truly gets your idea and adds to it, but for me the excitement comes from following a project every step of the way making the execution better.
LBB> You’re on the board of advisors for Creative Circus – as an ECD what’s your approach to nurturing people starting out in the industry?
PS> I think the number one that CDs and ECDs can do for young talent especially is help them to learn how to take what’s in their head - this perfect, wonderful little idea - and express it. It’s a difficult thing to do. I still struggle sometimes. You have an idea in your head and you have to figure out how to get people as excited as you are. Even when you’re working with a partner and you’re talking about the same thing in each of your heads it will still be slightly different. With the web, you can comp things. You can make things look like an ad quite easily. The question I always ask is ‘is that really how you wanted it? Is that really how it is in your head or is that how it is because you found a picture on Flickr and that’s now what it’s become?’ That’s what we need to encourage in people
LBB> And what does 2013 hold for Arnold – what’s on the cards for you going forward?
PS> One of the main reasons I took this job on was the Volvo brand. I’ve always loved the brand and 2013 is definitely about building on what they’ve done here, doing more. Volvo is a real passion thing for me. I wouldn’t say I’m your typical car guy; I loved working on Mini but I’ve jumped off and worked on other things before coming back to the automotive category. The Volvo brand is one of those weird brands that people know everywhere but they wonder what they’ve been doing recently. So there’s work to be done there for sure. And we’ll be doing lots of other projects getting more clients in, and doing things the sort of edgy ideas that should be coming out of Amsterdam. In Amsterdam you’re allowed to be a bit more radical, a bit more unique. It’s the difference between Arnold and Arnold Amsterdam – we should be able to do things that maybe you can’t get away with in Boston.