David Perez on Education

Each month we ask a corporate member of the Art Directors Club to share some industry news with the greater ADC community. This month, Leo Burnett had us sit down with David Perez, to talk about their sponsorship of the 2011 National Student Portfolio Reviews.

Leo Burnett has been making some great educational commitments, why do you think it’s important to invest in students?

Well I think that on top of wanting to identify amazing junior talent (we’ve always had a commitment to junior talent and always want to make sure that we have access to the best kids that are graduating) we think that it’s important for agencies, especially top-tier agencies, to make sure that we are investing in talent in general. Not just specific to our agencies.

We have to make sure that we are providing the physical and psychic space for great ideas to flourish. And regardless of where kids go, we think it’s our responsibility and our duty to support the kids who quite frankly will be the future of our industry. They’re going to be our bosses in a few years.

And everyone moves around the industry, so what benefits everyone also benefits you, correct?

At the end of the day we believe in supporting the form and the purity of our industry. So regardless – we’re all going to be competing for talent and business and awards. When it comes to the education sector, I think the most important thing for us is that we want everyone to always remember [that] Leo Burnett is an organization in service of the industry, it’s not just in service to itself.

So that led you to working with ADC?

Yes, the last two years we’ve had the pleasure of attending the National Student Portfolio Review, and I served on the web scholarship committee this year. I think what’s great about it is that it really is a collision of a ton of different ideas, perspectives, geographies and relationships to the work.

Obviously the talent varies from school to school, but the great thing about it is that on top of being able to catch a bunch of really amazing kids right at the beginning of their careers. You also get a sense of how we’re teaching kids in this industry and who’s evolving the fastest and who isn’t. Every year is different and every year I’ll learn about a new school, or schools that I already know about surprise me. It’s a really great forum for where we are education-wise in the country.

And what was your experience like this year?

Well it was #^@ bananas. There’s a lot of kids – I met over 350 kids this year – and it’s totally nuts. On top of that, what’s great is that this year I met a million kids who were way better than last year. That’s how it is every year. The talent is high, the level of polish is great, and the conceptual brains that are being born out of these programs… it’s really exciting.

It’s inspiring to know that this industry, which is based on having to re-imagine what we do, is in the educational sector reimagining how we teach kids. Even being just a few years behind these kids, they all grew up with tools that some of our creatives are still learning.

What’s new out of these kids then?

With the access to technology, the level of polish in their books and their ability to prototype gets better every year. Kids aren’t just thinkers now, they’re makers. Because these kids grew up with the interactive space they have a holistic appreciation and understanding and now use the platform of the interactive space in a more sophisticated way.

I’m with the generation where I grew up and had internet a little bit, but I didn’t have nearly as many tools as these kids have. So now their brains don’t have to catch up to the technology, because the technology has already been embedded in them. They’re taught to evolve, whereas the rest of us have taught ourselves to evolve – that’s just naturally how the brain works. I laugh because I look at these kids and say, all of you don’t know what it’s like to not have a cell phone. That’s crazy to me.

And Leo Burnett is hiring a lot of kids from the portfolio reviews. Tell me about the company culture you have.

The currency that Leo Burnett always has is our culture. We’re known for it, Burnetters are pretty staunch supporters of our brand. We actually did an analysis of average creative life in the agency. The national average for people staying at an agency is two years, people stay at Burnett about seven. It’s really great and we have a ton of people who have spent their entire careers at Burnett, and a lot of people who start their careers at Burnett.

The culture is based on one thing: Biggest ego in the room has got to be the work. We are driven by the purpose of creating a tether between people and brands. All that other stuff that surrounds advertising – entitlement, competition, and all the poisons that can enter our world – we try to create a physical and psychic space where that can’t exist. We believe in cooperation. We believe that nothing is more important than the people in the building.

Burnett himself said (I hate to quote him, but he’s the most quotable man in the world), if we spent our time chairing up the people who did the work, rather than the work itself, we will be wasting our energy. That’s the kind of tone in the building. We believe in our brands and people and the only thing that’s important is that we’re making good work.

How do you make sure that the best ideas win?

We foster a very specific physical and psychic space (I keep saying these terms, but I really believe in them). We believe that the creative department needs to be malleable to the people in the room, rather than the other way around. Structure is something that has to be in response to the needs of the people there. Our industry changes every two seconds and our department has to reflect that.

Let me give an example from my job as a recruiter there: when you work with talent at Burnett, not only do you hire people, you follow them throughout their careers. You nurture a relationship with them, and you make sure you’re continuing to keep them in the creative space. Susan our chief creative officer and Mark Tussle do a really wonderful job of making sure that we are optimizing people, that their talents are congruous to the work that they’re on all the time. It’s a lot of shuffling and reorganizing, reimagining putting people on different brands, but that kind of mentality keeps the work fresh and keeps people focused on evolving.

So you’re mentors as well.

Yeah, a little bit of that – you should ask the kids!

Well let’s talk about them: what do you look for in new talent?

For junior books, the most important thing for me… there’s a few of them:

Craft. Obviously they need to be great at what they do. Art Directors have to have an exquisite design sense, and their book has to have incredible polish, as with copywriters – their books also have to have incredible polish. It’s important that we have people who love language and know how to manipulate language and speak in different voices.

The other thing is content: I need my kids to know what’s going on in the industry at this moment. I tell them that their jobs are to learn from our past, observe our present and dictate our future. There’s not a lot of earning their stripes in the building, their job is to take off running and create the next thing. Because we need to be a series of inventors.

And then the third thing is a palpable passion for what you do, and I actually think it’s the most important thing. I often tell kids, if you don’t give a shit about what’s in your book, I’m not going to give a shit about it either. It’s important that people have a ferocious curiosity in culture and want to translate that into advertising. And if the kids don’t have that, I feel like they don’t have that creative thought that keeps them motivated. Because if you’re not interested, you will burn out. This industry is famous for burning people out.

David on demand, I have to ask about it. Can you give us a description?

It’s nuts, isn’t it? I’ll give you the snapshot: David on demand was a social experiment that was born out of our annual seminar at Cannes, called Wildfire, which celebrates experiment in viral and advertising. Last year we got the brief to promote Wildfire and we thought, why promote it when we can just make a great example of it? So it was a great example of tethering together social media, real-time technology and social viewing so people could actually interact with our brand.

I think one of the things that we’re finding in this industry is that people don’t want to be messaged to. People want to feel like they can touch that impenetrable space, which in some cases is the interactive space and in some case is our brand. So we thought to showcase to the world and our clients our capabilities – what better brand to try that out on than our own.

It was a seven day long experiment: everything I did was streamed live for 24 hours, and everything I did was controlled through twitter. You could tweet me to do whatever you want. I did something like 32,000 tweets, we got about 100M media impressions, and 121 countries tuned in. It was a huge success, at great peril to my sanity and sobriety. I did a lot of crazy shit as you can probably see.

What was most memorable?

Well on the first day (as I like to call it, ‘the point of no return’) the internet tweeted that I should get at tattoo. And then the internet decided to vote on said tattoo. Twitter during that summer was famous for crashing all the time, so the internet voted for me to get two people’s twitter handles, and then the fail-whale, which is the thing that comes up when twitter crashes (though not anymore, now it’s like the fail-robot). So I have the twitter fail-whale on my right arm and underneath it I have two people’s twitter handles still. The twitter handles will definitely be covered up eventually, the fail-whale will be there forever because it’s a great story.

What else is coming up for Leo Burnett?

The thing that I think people should be seeing form Burnett is that we have re-imagined and repurposed what we do in this building. We have new creative leadership: almost two years now with Susan Cradle, who is amazing, and probably one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. What she has done has not only helped us reenergize our creative energy in the building, but also helped us re-scope the way we look at creating and advertising.

We know that we can’t create ads anymore, we know that what we have to do now is create movements in culture. The proof is in the results that we’re having: All State is having one of the best years that it’s ever had, creatively and as a brand. On top of great new business plans like Travelocity, and others. The other thing is just the amazing talent we have. We’ve managed to draw some of the most amazing creatives from around the world to work on our brands, and I would say that the impending year from Burnett is going to be very potent.

There were a few years when people would be ashamed to be from a Chicago agency and I’m here to declare that those days are over! Chicago has gotten its swagger back, and Chicago is going to prove to the country and this industry that it is a potent town that’s in its renaissance.

Sounds like you have something to tell the New Yorkers

Hey I love New York, I just like being able to put my trash in an alley.

Do you have a concrete example of this reemphasis on creating culture movements?

Well I think All State is a good example of it, on a micro level. As far as platform goes, All State is advertising wherever you’d expect brands to advertise: a ton of TV, Print, some great Interactive ideas. But All State got itself out of the insurance business and put itself in the protection business. It’s a very small distinction, but what I think the work is indicating is that if these brands don’t become actual functional things and people with skin and blood lives, then I think we’ll fall flat on our face. I think it starts with advertising, where these brands have their audience, and it helps them re-imagine the platform they message on. David on demand was a really good example, All State is a really good example.

All State was the mayhem campaign, correct?

Yes, it’s the mayhem campaign, and it won a ton of Pencils this year. It’s done well at a bunch of award shows and hopefully will do well at Cannes this year.

And ADC gave it Silver Cube this year as well I believe.

Yes, I believe so.

Off topic: who’s your favorite designer?

I don’t actually have a favorite designer. I think one of the great things about being a recruiter who doesn’t come from an advertising background is that I’m really open to the form. I’m more of a consumer than an advertising person.

As far as designers go (you’re going to totally hate this one, it’s so Burnett centric) I love our design director Alisa Wolfson. I think she’s amazing, and on top of being a profound and elegant designer is an amazing leader and has taken our design group into a place where we’re fighting people off tooth and nail so they don’t hire them away.

Do you have anything else for us?

Obviously if people are interested in Leo Burnett they should always feel like they can get in touch with me and my email is pretty easy to find on the internet.