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Valley's top creative talents talk candidly about finding success, winning awards

Published: Friday, August 31, 2001

Top five shops talk about succeeding in unique market during tough times

Who are the creative minds behind those brilliant ad campaigns that tickle your funny bone, move you to tears and -- most important -- make you pry open your wallet?

Biz Ink tapped the top creative talent in Silicon Valley to find out which ad agencies are hot and who's behind the curtain crafting those memorable ads.

Check out Biz Ink's Top 10 list of Advertising Agencies on page 14. In typical Biz Ink style, we've compiled a meaningful list that captures which agencies are the creative hotbeds in the valley.

Reporter Christina Bellantoni and editor Vikki Bowes-Mok sat down with the creative directors at the top five shops to learn about what it takes to succeed in Silicon Valley.

If your firm were an impressionable buyer, would it buy what's hip or go with the age-old classics?

Austin: Probably somewhere in between. You've got to go with what's appropriate for the client, brand and audience.

Kwan: A blend of hip and classic. We try to mix the tactics by being focused on what's traditional as well as cutting edge. We find the appropriate solution for our client's needs and the problem at hand.

Mathieson: Our clients get the impression that we are hip, but we do what's strategic for our clients. We choose the medium that best serves the purpose. Creatively, we are right down the middle, depending on the client's objectives.

Peter: A client would be totally confused by us. J. Walter Thompson is known for being solid and middle of the road, but that couldn't be further from the truth -- we have one of the youngest creative staffs, and are somewhat schizophrenic right now. We want to convey a hip personality.

Tveit: The word "hip" bugs me. What's hip to one person might not be to another. We try to embrace what's current but take a classic approach and are conscious of trends.

Austin: The word "hip" is not the right word. It's trendy, ephemeral and not lasting or grounded in what advertising should be grounded in.

Peter: Particularly now. A year ago it was a different story. Clients want safe right now.

Mathieson: That's been a big struggle this year, this almost knee-jerk reaction back to safe and sound. I'm sure all of us have had to make a stand on a certain campaign and stick by it, even though the client is terrified. But that's kind of fun, because a year ago, anything went. Now it's combining the best of what is current with the best of what's going to get the client's phone to ring.

Austin: Objectives have changed dramatically.

Kwan: A year ago, "brand" was a great word, today it's a dirty word. Now it's about shortening sales cycles and increasing leads. Those are the buzzwords.

Peter: Some clients say they don't want to be "dot-com."

Austin: It's amazing how the phrase "dot-com" has become pejorative. It's almost like you're using a four-letter word.

Mathieson: Two years ago everyone would say I want it to be "Gen X." We don't hear that anymore, and actually I think it's to the benefit of everyone.

Tveit: The dot-com thing represents excess and so anything related to that look and feel is disliked by clients.

Where do your ideas come from?

All: Everywhere.

Austin: Where does any creative idea come from in any discipline?

Kwan: One thing we try to focus on is what's different from what you're seeing. If you see a lot of something you know to go the other way.

Peter: I have two teen-age kids and I get a lot of my inspiration from them. I keep up with what they are looking at. ... it's just a matter of keeping current, that's what keeps everything fresh.

Mathieson: In hiring, we recruit [creatives] that didn't necessarily come from the art center. We've hired a philosophy major as a copywriter, and are looking at other academic backgrounds because they are bringing a real freshness to things that we hadn't thought about. They come up with some really creative ideas you haven't seen three times before.

Austin: Since they are young, they can't draw from experience, but from an academically broader point of view -- whether historic or social. That helps them to be creative.

How do you measure your success, and how important are awards to you as a creative director?

Kwan: We measure success by our clients' success, and if we win an award along the way, that's great. You can feel when you are on the brink of an award-winning project.

Mathieson: The awards are great ego-gratification, but they don't pay our bills or our clients' bills. Making our clients successful is just as exciting as winning an award.

Austin: Awards are extremely important because they are an evaluation of your work by your peers. From a purely creative standpoint, they're a kick. They attract new talent and allow you to showcase your work.

Peter: It's a vindication of your ability.

Do you have a taste police?

Austin: Yeah, it's called the client.

Mathieson: Usually the client is coming from the safety viewpoint, but we also give them things farther down the spectrum -- the wild ideas. The client might not pick it, but it makes them feel like [our firm] is on the cutting edge of creativity. You want to show a wide breadth of thinking to your clients.

Tveit: Young valley executives want to do something different, and if they can support verbally what is going on in that ad, they'll push the envelope.

Peter: If the client trusts you, they'll take your word for it.

Kwan: Geography and culture also come into consideration [when presenting a message].

What is the toughest part of your job?

Austin: Keeping young creatives motivated.

Kwan: Maintaining integrity with leaner budgets.

Mathieson: Trying to convince gun-shy clients that this is the best time to spend money. The smart clients are taking the risk and spending money.

Tveit: A lot of clients think that since their competitors aren't advertising, they shouldn't either, so it's a wash.

How do you do more with less, given the downturn?

Mathieson: We work toward sending the right message to the right audience at the right time with the right medium. If it makes sense to use a different medium to get the most salient point possible, use it.

Peter: You've got to think smarter. Two years ago when clients were running full page spreads in the Wall Street Journal, they could run crap and get noticed, but now you have to think out of the box. How are you going to make the company as exciting as possible? [The shift] is not necessarily a bad thing.

Austin: If the idea is powerful and compelling, you can do more with less.

Kwan: Especially in Silicon Valley, most of our clients have complicated messages. It's boiling it down into a single selling proposition that makes sense.

What is the most brilliant ad campaign of all time?

Austin: The best ads are the simplest. The early Volkswagen work changed advertising forever.

Tveit: Apple's "Think Different" is very memorable and out there.

Peter: The "Got Milk?" campaign resonates with a lot of people -- they nailed it with two words. Absolut Vodka also is great. Unanimously these are the best because they have a simple message that rings true.

What is the worst ad campaign of all time?

Tveit: There are so many to choose from.

Kwan: Does anyone even remember them anyway?

Mathieson: Local television and local print are usually the worst, especially ones that rip off "Got Milk?" with a slogan like "Got computers?"

Peter: You put these out of your mind and don't want to think about them.

Do clients want to do things that are memorable?

Kwan: Yes. If they drive down 101 and they see their billboard and it's resonating with people and they are going to parties and people are talking about it, that's what they want for their own egos and because it is effective. Everything you, do you strive to make it great.

Tveit: No creative wants to do a half-assed job, it's not our nature. You don't have to put a lot of money into a great concept.

Austin: People read what's interesting in a publication, and sometimes that's an ad.

You can reach Christina Bellantoni
at cbellantoni@svbizink.com
and Vikki Bowes-Mok at vbowesmok@svbizink.com.