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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Richard Bates
Richard Bates

richard bates Richard BatesChief Creative Officer, The Brand Union
Senior Partner, Executive Creative Director, BIG Ogilvy & Mather


Sometimes you run toward destiny, sometimes you run from it and it catches you anyway. Such is the life of Richard Bates, Chief Creative Officer of The Brand Union and Senior Partner, Executive Creative Director of BIG Ogilvy & Mather in New York City. Growing up literally surrounded by country & western music legends, Richard fought hard to avoid the music scene. Little did he know that many years later he’d be a top creative director in the record business.

Today, more than ever, Richard is all about the “brand experience” a catchphrase thrown around by many ad agency types looking to impress — or befuddle — clients. Only when Richard uses it, it’s not a euphemism for “let’s do a viral social marketing spot.” It’s about crafting a story about the brand that lasts longer than any media buy.

We had a chance to speak with Richard about his crazy career path, from twangy suburban Nashville to the Big Apple, from Led Zeppelin to Barbie. It was an interesting conversation, one that more advertising creatives should be having amongst themselves the next time they think about that “brand experience.”

ihaveanidea: First of all, how far can you take us back in time? When did you realize that you wanted to do something creative with your life?

Richard: I think I always had a feeling I’d grow up to do something commercially creative. I remember having a set of wooden blocks as a kid, and I’d sit in front of the TV and build, of all things, game show sets. But at the same time, there are those people who have a very specific course for their lives set from the beginning, and I definitely knew I wasn’t one of them.

I grew up in a small town just outside of Nashville, a town that was home to many of the older country music stars. You could see Johnny Cash, all dressed in black, at the deli counter of the local Kroger’s supermarket. Barbara Mandrell lived there, and Conway Twitty had a huge mansion in the middle of town with a big brick wall with “Hello Darlin’” written in the brickwork.

But these were an older generation of country stars, and when I was living there throughout my high school years, country music was definitely seen as uncool. I still have family there, and when I go back, country music is a lot more accepted among the teens, but in my days, we ran from cowboy boots and hats.

ihaveanidea: That’s funny. I’d expect that living in such a music oriented town as Nashville would’ve played some part in your future music business career.

Richard: (laughs) No, if anything, Nashville and country music would’ve deterred me from getting into the music scene. No, I’d say my creative career was born in earnest when I went to college at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. While I can’t say that the school really prepared me for anything, Knoxville was also home to a global publication company called Whittle Communications, started by Chris Whittle who also owned Esquire Magazine at the time. While Esquire was the most noted mainstream title, Whittle specialized in something they called “guerrilla media”, creating very non-traditional magazines that were meant to show up in the oddest places. They’d create a magazine on posters that would be found exclusively in doctor and dentist offices. I was fortunate enough to get a job there before I graduated college, and it really opened my eyes to a world outside of the state of Tennessee, especially getting to go to places like New York on photo shoots and whatnot.

Back then, all I had was my undergraduate degree in design from University of Tennessee, which was admittedly pretty limiting, but one of the creative directors I worked for at Whittle had attended the Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and she encouraged me to take that next step. So even though I had a few years of work experience under my belt at Whittle, I quit and went to Cranbrook to get my Masters, and that experience is what truly set my career in motion.

ihaveanidea: That must have made the University of Tennessee pale in comparison…

Richard: Cranbrook was incredible. It gave me a much broader way of thinking about the power and potential of design. The school had architecture, product design, painting, ceramics, every artistic discipline you could imagine. There were only about twenty students in each discipline, and you all intermingled with each other There were no classes, no teachers but rather artists in residence with whom you’d decide on what your plan was and then you’d go out and do it. There were really no boundaries other than the ones you set for yourself. The only formal processes were the critiques you’d get from these artists and your peers, honest discussion on how to move your work forward. I think this process instilled a lot of self-motivation and self-confidence.

After Cranbrook I moved to New York. I figured if ever there was a time in my life to move here it was then. Just by luck, around the time of my arrival, Atlantic Records was completely reshaping its internal creative department after twenty years. They brought in a new creative director, and I got hired under him.

ihaveanidea: So after running from the music scene that surrounded your childhood, here you are, in the music scene in New York. I must add that if there are two industries that are seen as inherently evil, it’s the advertising business and the music business. You’ve lucked out as a career!

Richard: (laughs) And I’ve been in both when their business models started crashing and burning! But Atlantic was great for most of the time I was there. When I started, it was not a business in the true sense of a corporation. Money was flowing everywhere. Back then you could put out twenty albums, and if only one of them was a hit it would pay for all the others. This meant that the music was more driven by emotion rather than sales numbers. Albums were put out because an unknown female artist may or may not have been the secret mistress of a big star.

In some ways it’s a lot of fun to be a creative in a record company, but it’s also very challenging. There aren’t a lot of creatives within a company, but rather people managing the creative work. And as the business changed, we were under a lot of pressure to make the creative work fit into a vast marketing scheme. We also had less space to make an impact. When I started, albums were still available on vinyl. That soon gave way to the CD longboxes, which gave you about half the canvas space of an LP. Then the standard CD cases came out, giving you even less space. By the time I left the business, we had to think about how our artwork and designs would function online.

But I loved it, because the creative process was different each time, with each different music artist.

In my early days, musical artists, by and large, were the genuine article. You could have a creative meeting with them floating in a backyard swimming pool, just chatting about our vision for the album cover and packaging.

ihaveanidea: Surely you must have some interesting stories! I mean, the people you worked with weren’t like rock stars, they were actual rock stars!

Richard: Atlantic was an old company with a great heritage. I was very fortunate to be involved with some of the artists from Led Zeppelin. It was really fascinating to see a new artist that just came out of nowhere who would think they had made it, even though all they’ve done is get signed. They’d have a huge road ahead of them, and it was interesting to see how they handled things emotionally, then compare them to an artist who’d you call a god, someone who’s been famous for decades. Mick Jagger was a very charming man to work with, and very smart too.

I was in the business for twelve years, and in that time I saw it shift, very slowly yet clearly, from an emotional based business to a more traditional one, one that was far more marketing and advertising oriented. It shifted completely because the ability to make huge sums of money was getting more and more difficult. You needed to have these really complicated and robust marketing plans just to get an artist even noticed. In my early days, musical artists, by and large, were the genuine article. You could have a creative meeting with them floating in a backyard swimming pool, just chatting about our vision for the album cover and packaging.  But around the time when artists like Britney Spears became popular, things changed. The artists may have had raw talent, but they also had managers, lawyers, handlers, agents on the west coast. Creative meetings soon went from that intimate engagement with the artist to being ten people in a conference room, with the artist not even being present.

ihaveanidea: Is that what drove you to leave the music business?

Richard: Well times changed. Atlantic Records was part of a trio of companies, along with Warner Bros. and Elektra, all owned by Time-Warner. Time-Warner got out of the music business completely, and sold all three companies. That led to huge upheaval, which led to us senior staff all being let go. But I was cool with that. Life is all about birth, death and rebirth.

ihaveanidea: Let’s talk about your “rebirth” in the branding and advertising business, a world more familiar to us here at ihaveanidea.

Richard: When I came into this new business, I came with a lot of creative ideas, but very little experience and a very different skill set than what you’re used to seeing in the industry. I really have to give credit to Brian Collins, who at the time was the head of BIG, the brand strategy and identity group of Ogilvy. My entire portfolio at that point was pretty much music industry related stuff, and I didn’t know all the lingo in the business, but Brian could see through that, and could see that the process behind telling the story about a music artist and of a brand were very similar. We just called it ‘imaging’ instead of ‘branding.’

ihaveanidea: So now you’re in a world with fewer Zeppelins and Jaggers. What would you say was the biggest problem to wrap your music mind around?

Richard: One of the challenges, particularly under an advertising banner like Ogilvy, is to separate advertising from branding. Advertising comes and goes, and even successful campaigns don’t usually stay going in the same direction for more than a few years. By its nature, solid branding must have a longer lifespan, with a single message at its core.

So then you have this brand message, and a brand identity that is supposed to last ten or twenty years. But then how do you maintain that consistent message while allowing these ads and campaigns to come in and tell a story that is suited for that particular moment in time, only to disappear rather quickly? That is the biggest challenge in branding, to be able to see the broad picture and look at advertising as being layers and elements of a bigger entity, not the picture itself.

(laughs) But it doesn’t help that the average lifespan of a CMO in a company is about fifteen months, and each one wants to scrap what was done before and get their fingerprints on something new.

I believe that advertising agencies would love to just continue making multimillion dollar TV commercials if they could. And why not? It’s incredibly exciting.

ihaveanidea: If you go back fifteen or twenty years, advertising agencies were known for doing, well, advertising. In recent times, these agencies seem to have been positioning themselves as branding experts, and getting more involved in the broader branding and marketing aspects of their clients’ business. Why has this change come about? Is it simply a chance to grab a bigger slice of the money pie?

Richard: I believe that advertising agencies would love to just continue making multimillion dollar TV commercials if they could. And why not? It’s incredibly exciting. But just like the music industry, there is absolutely no choice. The brand culture and economy are forcing change. Evolution is happening, and agencies have had to contemplate what they do, lest they become antiquated dinosaurs. that die out. Some have seen this coming earlier than others. I think Ogilvy had their eyes on the future, and started building new divisions — like BIG — quite some time ago. And today, we’re fortunate enough to have fresh new faces at the top of Ogilvy in Miles Young as the Worldwide CEO and Tham Khai Meng as Worldwide Creative Director. Both of these gentlemen, and especially Khai, have been very eager to bring branding and design to the forefront within the network.

I’ve have known this for years, but agencies are now realizing that branding and design are not afterthoughts to be brought in after the Big Idea has been established. They need to be there from the very beginning.

ihaveanidea: One of the biggest projects you’ve worked on is the new Barbie store in Shanghai, the first of its kind in the world. I’m amazed that such an iconic brand has never done this before. How did the very idea of an all Barbie store come about?

Richard: Well at its core, Mattel hasn’t changed. It’s still a company that makes toys, and at the beginning, Mattel and Barbie weren’t remotely thinking of going into retail. But Barbie is a huge global brand, the number one young girls brand in the world. Richard Dixon, GM and SVP of Barbie and essentially the brand’s creative director, had this vision of expanding the Barbie brand into more of a lifestyle brand, and approached us with this concept.

The Barbie store was a unique experience for us. Most of the time, if we were doing a retail design project, we’d be creating a look and feel of a retail space that could be replicated in a hundred or a thousand different store locations. But Barbie was a flagship store, and one where the goal wasn’t to take Mattel into the retail business, but rather halo the Barbie brand, to create a living, breathing expression of the brand. It’s a brand experience that they have full control over, one that carries an aura that will stay with you as you go and buy a Barbie doll, not necessarily from the Barbie store but from a department store down the street.

The whole process took about two years. The first step was to identify what exactly Barbie meant around the world. In some countries Barbie is perceived as a doll for children. In Japan it’s more of a lifestyle brand, with an expensive fashion line for young adult women. Once that was established, we had to identify a location for the store, and to find all the creative partners needed to make the store a reality. It’s a 40,000 square foot store with a lot of complex parts, so we needed to rally together so many different creative experts, including architects that could understand that the store had to appeal to both fashion and play, luxury and whimsy. We even flew the entire team to Shanghai for a week to sit in the leased but empty building to brainstorm and collaborate. It was a pretty phenomenal experience, and one that doesn’t present itself that often, if ever.

ihaveanidea: A Barbie store in China is about as far away from Nashville, Tennessee as you can get. Looking back, would Tennessee Richard even be able to contemplate all of this?

Richard: (laughs) I’m not so sure. In Tennessee, there was a lot of ‘sameness’. People lived the same way, ate the same foods, liked the same things. Tennessee Richard somehow knew that there was a lot more out there, I just couldn’t say what that was. So I guess I knew I’d be doing something, but I had no idea it would be anything like it is for me today?

ihaveanidea: Still hate country music?

Richard: I still don’t listen to country music, but I appreciate it much more now. I think that if there is such thing as reincarnation, I’d like to come back as a country music star.

Interview by:

brettcreditpic Richard Bates
Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2
ihaveanidea

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