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  • John Walker

Creativity as “Problem Solving:” Interview with Brock Montgomery, Advertising Creative Director

“Creativity” has always been associated with advertising. But with the ad industry undergoing massive change, what role does creativity still play in advertising?

Marcus Grimm and I interviewed Brock Montgomery to ask him that question and others because Brock would know. He spent about twenty years doing integrated marketing for some big brands at Upshot, a leading Chicago advertising agency, before leaving to co-found River Creek Partners, an independent consultancy focused on strategy, concept and creative execution. Here’s the interview (edited slightly for clarity).

John: Brock, give us a quick summary of how you got into Advertising.

Brock: I grew up an ad-brat in Connecticut. My dad worked for McCaffrey & McCall for 27 years and we paid more attention to commercials than the shows. So it was like osmosis. Fast forward to after college, I’d given up rock-and-roll dreams and was building houses. I’d majored in English and figured I’d get a job as a copywriter in Manhattan, but the early 90’s were a bad time for that. After three years of interviewing, I got a job in Lancaster, PA at James Bunting Advertising as a junior copywriter. It was 1993. By 1997, I was a senior creative director at Upshot in Chicago. And I was named executive vice president creative in 2001. Then I did that for 17 years before coming back to Pennsylvania in a state of semi-retirement.

Marcus: Wow. There’s an almost Mad Men-esque vibe to that origin story. What were some highlights?

Brock: I always liked winning pitches. The Corona pitch in 2009 was great, especially since we’d lost Miller just before. But the things I remember and appreciate the most are people who helped me, or the chances I had to help and mentor other people. There was nothing more rewarding than seeing that switch flip in someone when their job turned into a career. That was way more satisfying than any advertising concept for me.

John: “Creativity” is a term often associated with advertising. What role does “creativity” play in advertising and why is it important?

Brock: My view has always been that advertising, marketing really, is all about problem solving. In my experience, people look at the creative as words and pictures in some form going out into the world, and they associate that with art directors and writers. But I think that short-changes everyone else involved. Whatever your role in an agency, your job is to help get great work-- a great, effective, creative, problem-solving solution-- out the door. It’s not about a creative brief or a layout. Your job is great creative. Which doesn’t mean (your work) is going to hang in a museum. It means it is an interesting way to show people what your client can do for them.

Marcus: Has the role of “creativity” in advertising changed over the last few decades? How has it changed? Is it still as important as it was?

Brock: I think the industry has changed drastically over the course of my career and certainly since I’ve been paying attention to it, which is going on half a century. Procurement has truly screwed everything up. Buying ideas isn't like buying pencils and paper clips. Hourly rates are a ridiculous way to charge for an idea. And without an idea, you really don’t have anything. Holding companies are high on the list of industry evils, as well as clients who want to do something ‘cheap’ like a banner ad or ‘something social.’ For the most part, it feels like the majority of the industry has turned into a massive, old-school, direct-mail model. They (clients) are willing to accept 99% failure rates for the security of knowing that 1% of the people who see their ad may click on it.

Marcus: That’s a great point. Actually a lot of our clients would be happy with a 1% click-through rate. How in the world did we end up here, particularly this fast?

Brock: The cheapening of creativity in the industry falls squarely on the shoulders of the agencies who have let it happen. Which is most of them. They don’t value their own creativity, so why should clients? It’s one of the main reasons I left Upshot to go out on my own.

Marcus: Guilty as charged. About the same time Brock was cutting his teeth in Manhattan, I was writing radio commercials. John, do you know the first thing the sales reps would give away for free?

John: Creativity?

Marcus: Amen, brother. My time to make the magic.

John: Brock, tell us a “creativity” success story from your career.

Brock: All of the things I value as creative success aren't campaigns I came up with; it’s more about the talent I identified that others ignored.

I hired a guy one time who only had a year working at a catalog company, but in the interview, he showed me pictures of his ‘drunken Santa weekend’ in Manhattan and we talked about Burning Man. This was like 1997. I hired him on the spot and he was fantastic.

Another kid was literally the coffee boy but he wrote poetry and came in one day and showed me some stuff that had nothing to do with advertising and I gave him a shot and he made the most of it. I have a lot of those examples. It changed their lives. It changed what the agency did. It helped clients along the way. And ultimately, it helped other agencies they worked at.

John: Ok, Brock, what should we have asked you that we didn’t?

Brock: In-house vs. agencies. I think agencies, in general, are a dying breed that really needs to figure out what value they actually bring to the table. They are mostly middle men/women. They are scared to offer an opinion. They prostrate themselves and give ideas away for free. If they can’t charge for their ideas, what do they charge for? When in-house client teams figure out how to attract top-tier creative leadership, it (advertising) will all go in-house. And honestly, I think the work will get much better.

John: Wow, Brock. It feels like we’re in a period of huge change for advertising and marketing and it’s great to hear from someone who's had ringside seats on the whole scene. Thanks for your perspective. But I also want to ask my friend, Marcus what his view is.

Marcus, you work at what could be considered the type of agency that's arising from the changes in the industry. What’s your perspective on this industry change and where it leaves the role of creativity?

Marcus: First up, I love Brock’s comments about charging for creative. All agencies struggle to figure out how to do this. Ironically, your customers that have worked with you for years know the strategic and creative value you bring, but getting paid for it during the pitch - when you haven’t proven yourself - that’s hard.

I also think that in many cases we don’t spend enough time criticizing the creative when it comes to analyzing successes and failures. We’ll look at our targeting and bidding strategies until we’re blue in the face, but we don’t spend enough time looking at the messaging to see if it even made sense in the first place.

John: Marcus, I’d love to hear some of those old radio commercials you wrote! Anyway, final questions for you, Brock. Are you a Mac or PC person?

Brock: Mac

John: Bare wrist, analog or smart watch?

Brock: Smart Watch, if anything.

John: Cable-holic or cord cutter?

Brock: Cable, but mostly news and sports.

John: LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram?

Brock: LinkedIn and Instagram, but I’m not super into either.

John: Favorite app on your phone?

Brock: An Arccos golf app.

John: Are you more Don Draper, Steve Jobs or Elon Musk?

Brock: Don.

John: I’m not surprised. Many thanks Brock, or should I say, Don Draper?

This post was produced by John Walker and Marcus Grimm. Contact John directly to discuss your marketing challenges.

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