Advertising is lazy
Interview with Johnny Vulkan, Anomaly.
If an agency names itself Anomaly, it forces a burden of proof on itself that wouldn’t be there, had it just picked a bunch of initials. However, Johnny Vulkan, one of the founders of the New York marketing outfit, doesn’t look like he’s about to crumble under the pressure: “We don’t think of ourselves as an advertising agency.” he insists.
Strange words from an company that just took home the Outdoor Grand Prix at the Cannes Advertising Festival for it’s “Be Stupid” Diesel Campaign. But what is it then? A lot of attention usually goes to Anomaly’s attempts at creating and owning intellectual property. But you might call that a symptom. At the company’s core lies a different understanding of an agency’s marketing competence, one that encompasses more than telling the right stories.
“Marketing includes the product, the pricing and the distribution, as well as promotion”, and according to Vulkan, most current ad agencies only work on the promotional communication part. This allows them to assemble large teams of highly specialized experts for creating ads. Which, in turn, necessitates massively selling those experts, even if creating ads might not be the best marketing solution. Ad agencies have little incentive to risk other routes of creating economic success for a client’s product. That’s why, regardless of the hours we put in, Vulkan claims that “Advertising is lazy.”
Anomaly aims for more. Like a business consultancy looking for lasting competitive advantage, Anomaly works to let a product win the marketing game consistently; not just when huge media spends spike the customer’s interest.
This sounds great in theory, but we all know that the “lazyness” of advertising is created and supported by many a client’s tendency to underpay creativity and overpay labour. How does Anomaly overcome the problem of putting a price on creativity? That’s where their signature features of creating actual products, co-owning intellectual property, and success-driven pricing come into play. By exposing themselves to business risks, they expect to gain a share of voice in the entire marketing deliberations of their clients.
“When you decide you’re in the business of asking the real questions and solving the real problems, you often find very quickly that the problem is the product itself. … In the old days, the client comes in and puts a mediocre product on the table, and everyone in the room is not saying how this product is not as good as the competition.” I am pretty sure these “old days” are pretty much yesterday’s meeting for most ad agencies.
To be able to criticize a clients product and survive, Anomaly assembled a different kind of team. A creative CFO, a media planner, a Nike brand manager, an Urban Outfitters CD, an innovation strategist,… And it’s not only the skillset that’s different, it’s the attitude, too. From the beginning, Anomaly quickly became “a place for refugees from various parts of the creatives industries.” People who weren’t quite happy with the limits and the isolation of their previous jobs.
“I guess ‘curiousity’ is the main quality we look for.” Vulkan is talking about what the smarties at IDEO have called “T-shaped people”, experts who are able to collaborate and cross-pollinate with other experts: bringing together things that seem apart.
A typically anomalous project – and one of my personal favourites – is “Avec Eric” a television show for Michelin-starred Eric Ripert, Chef of famous NY restaurant Le Bernardin. Anomaly created – and co-owns – the show to raise Ripert’s profile and explore his potential as a brand.
I asked Johnny how the various talents at Anomaly approach such a project. Not surprisingly, it depends on the perspective that promises to be most productive. “If you’re a designer, you look at the form, as an advertiser you might look at the best story to tell, if your a business consultant you understand the cost of a product”. With Eric Ripert, they realized it wasn’t about PR stunts, or great headlines. “Avec Eric was very much driven out of media thinking.” The goal: creating a longform story which gives space to Ripert’s unique character, plus building a sellable media property, while avoiding direct competition with the glut of cooking shows out there.
The result was a combination of travel diary and cooking show. “Avec Eric” centers around Ripert’s convictions regarding the production of food. It shows him visiting producers and friends, and celebrates how their love of quality is an inspiration to him. “We wanted to show Eric as what he really is, this intellectual kind of chef.”
“Avec Eric” was a big success commercially as well as creatively, grabbing an Emmy in its first season, with the 2nd Season wrapped and the 3rd one in planning.
While Anomaly came up with the concept, most of the actual writing and directing is done by a production company specializing in cooking shows. One of my final questions was therefore, whether the Anomaly way of doing things doesn’t move the agency into a mere producer’s role. It might, says Vulkan, but agencies have always done that: ”An Art Director does not take a photograph. They don’t direct the film. Don’t edit it. They ask questions of people who do that.”
Most of the skills that Anomaly’s new world of marketing demands should thus be well within the comfort zone of a good creative. “Open Mindedness is probably the key. … It’s that balance of having a strong opinion, but then having enough humility and space to allow experts to help and lead you.”
After all the talk on how Anomaly is different, Vulkan admits that “that’s actually, bizzarrely, not a new role at all. … We’ve just broadened the number of people we play with.”
With so many more options to do work, the folks at Anomaly might help your brand without ever shooting an ad or writing a line of copy. But you’d be a fool to call them lazy.