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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Rob Reilly
Rob Reilly

robreilly 7249 Rob ReillyWorldwide Chief Creative Officer
Crispin Porter + Bogusky

When the latest round of CP+B promotions was announced, Rob Reilly must have been one of the happiest campers around. Worldwide Chief Creative Officer is a title that’s only matched by the agency’s recent ambition to grow beyond the US’s shores.

Rob joined the then Miami shop in 2003 after a decade or so of “doing the New York thing” and quickly rose through the ranks by orchestrating some of the agency’s most famous campaigns for the likes of Burger King and MINI. As you’d expect, he’s a regular on the award show circuit, and was part of the ever-exclusive Titanium and Integrated jury in Cannes this year, which is where I first met him. I was the only Algerian in sight at the Carlton hotel’s lobby as we watched Landon Donovan score a crucial [and lucky], qualification-ensuring late winner for the US [after getting battered for the best part of 90 minutes] against Algeria.

Oh well, it’s all water under the bridge now, right? So I was happy when I recently got a chance to peak inside his brain and find out from the man himself how you get given the the helms of the Agency of the Decade. Despite being a West Ham fan.

ihaveanidea: How did you fall into this business? What was life like for you Pre-CP+B?

Rob: The story is kind of long but I’ll try to truncate it as much as possible.
I didn’t go to ad school, but I was always interested in television, radio and that end of the business. After I finished college, I spent some time working as a bartender at the beach and doing the marketing. I think the first ad I ever wrote was an airplane banner inviting people to happy hour.

Then I went to New York and ended up starting like everybody else. I didn’t have a portfolio but I was lucky enough to work at a small agency that rented office space from Grace and Rothschild, a famous agency in the 90s. That allowed me to be around some legends of advertising early on. I ended up teaching myself from looking at old award show annuals and just observing how creative people functioned.

There weren’t any blogs or websites like ihaveanidea back then, so you had to wait every Monday for that adweek to come out. I even went to one class at the School of Visual Arts. The teacher wasn’t very supportive and ended up giving me an F.

ihaveanidea: Is he still around?

Rob: He is still around. He teaches at a different school now. But despite having this teacher who wasn’t very nice to me, I just kept putting my book together and sending it out to people. There were many rejection letters. But a couple of people took pity on me. Glenn Porter from Kirshenbaum and Bond. And Bruce Nelson who was the global CCO of McCann Erikson.  Bruce ended up offering me a job and became my mentor. I try to thank him for that at least once every year.
After a few years at McCann, I worked at Ally & Gargano before moving to BBDO. That experience did not last too long.

ihaveanidea: What happened there?

Rob: It just didn’t work out for me. I didn’t fit into the place and wasn’t doing any work that they liked so we just parted ways. It was way before the David Lubars-era. I think I would have enjoyed working with somebody like David. I’m a big fan.
I spent the next five years at Hill/Holliday, in a creative director role, before I had a big epiphany. I was fairly unhappy.
I was working at a good agency but I wasn’t doing exactly what I wanted to do. When you’re in that situation, you can’t blame the agency.  And it’s not like I was bringing in the accounts either (laughs). I wasn’t prepared to be an ECD when I fell into that role for a few months.

So I took a big pay cut and title slice and started over at CP+B. It’s only when I got here and worked for Alex and Andrew that I realized I was maybe doing it all wrong.

Despite having this teacher who wasn’t very nice to me, I just kept putting my book together and sending it out to people

When you go into a place and take a title cut, your ego takes a hit at first.  You think you’re not being used for all the skills that you have. But I had the chance to be a copywriter again and work on great accounts. It was a liberating feeling, and even though I was going backwards on paper, I was a kid in the candy store, just writing. It was an important move for me because as you get promoted in a place like CP+B, people who work for you want to see that you did it too.

After about a year of cranking out stuff, I eventually moved into a CD role when we landed BK.  Alex and Andrew had done a pretty good job figuring out a process,  so I just followed it. It’s easy really. Just be the guy that’s always positive, be the guy who always has great ideas and be the guy that always sells them. Don’t ask for a raise, don’t ask for a promotion, those things will come. All you’ve got to worry about is making good ideas happen. I think a lot of people just don’t listen enough to the people who have done it. And that’s good advice for people coming into any organization, not just ours: “Listen. Listen a lot.”

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ihaveanidea: Do you think the brands being socially responsible trend just that, or do you think it’s here to stay? Will advertising ever go back to being socially corrupt and evil?

Rob: I don’t think it’s a trend that’s going away. I don’t know about socially responsible, but you can’t deny the level of transparency that’s out there. We’ve started embracing it already with some of our clients. If you look at Dominos admitting their pizza wasn’t up to par or Microsoft saying their last product (Windows Vista) wasn’t perfect, but we listened to you and we fixed it.

Consumers are demanding brands to be more transparent, and part of that involves having your zipper down a little bit. You won’t be able to hide stuff. So if you’re not at least thinking about being socially responsible it’s going to catch up to you.
It’s definitely not a trend because technology is going to force companies to be transparent, and when stuff is in the public domain, you’ve got to try to do the right thing. Whether it’s a better business model I am not convinced yet, but you’ve got to do it.

ihaveanidea: Another thing that’s on everybody’s lips is product development. You guys did that a while back with the chicken fries, and you’re starting to see more and more examples of. How do you think it’s possible to earn enough of the client’s trust that he lets you touch stuff outside traditional marketing?

Rob: Obviously we have a very special relationship with BK and we know the guys who develop products for them really well, so we developed a trust. Certain situations warrant certain results, and having such a partnership-like relationship with them enables us to do what we do. For the chicken fries, they were looking for new chicken products and the idea just came along. That ended up being a big seller for them, so I think it’s a place where agencies can make a difference. We expect our creatives to come up with ideas all the time. In fact, we expect our planners, content and media people to come up with ideas all the time. When people come to CP+B, they know the one thing there won’t be a shortage of is ideas.  Sometimes they’re product ideas.

So figuring out the model is the million or probably the billion-dollar question. How do you get paid for your product ideas?  We have some instances where we wave fees to have stakes in companies and those sorts of things, but you have to be sound financially in other areas in order to take on those kind of relationships.

However, you’re not going to have a business where you’ve got stakes everywhere but you’re not getting paid for what you’re doing. We’re at a stage where we’re able to do that and so we try bringing ideas to all our clients. It’s a bit harder for clients like Microsoft where you’re talking software. There are some smart people making that (laughs). It’s the thing everybody is trying to figure out. More and more we’re going to be developing apps, tools and technologies. Some we’ll be able to create and potentially sell to clients, others we’ll create for clients directly.

We do it because we love coming up with product ideas and we think it’s an area of growth for us, but I can’t sit here and say it’s a massive money making part of our business. It’s all about figuring out how to monetize it in the right places. We’re probably one of the better agencies at it, but I don’t think we’re ready to shut down the rest of our areas of expertise just yet. We’re still in the business of making our clients famous, and coming up with products for them is just another way of doing it.

Don’t forget that these companies have people who they pay to do those things, and often they are the ones deciding on ideas. So it’s hard. It’s a natural thing to want to protect an area that you’re hired to do.

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ihaveanidea: Since you were the lead ECD on Microsoft, we’d like to know your feelings about a client trusting an AOR globally and then doing stuff independently like the Windows 7 parties and Songsmith? Especially when the reaction to those hasn’t been the best…

Rob: We weren’t involved in those, but when you have a brand like Microsoft, the thing you need to realize pretty quick is that there’re so many brands and people within Microsoft that it is really difficult for one agency to create everything. Hopefully you’re creating the theme guide for everybody to follow, but sometimes, they just don’t. Different divisions will go off and do different things we don’t even know are happening.

Creatively, the house parties weren’t that well received, but I think they were pretty successful. It’s hard for me to comment on other companies’ work. I just don’t do that, but I can’t fault Microsoft. It’s their brand and they do as they see fit. We can always advise and say if we recommend something or not, but we’ve got a lot of our own things to solve so I am not going to start making mandates for what our clients can and can’t do.

When you’re working with bigger brands, you’ve just got to accept that those things are going to happen and that your job is to take care of your own house.  Microsoft is one of those brands where you have a lot of partners that you’ve got to work with, so you have to make those relationships work. They’re not going away, so you may as well try to make them great. That’s my attitude anyway.

We’re always pitching, and feel like we’re on probation every day with every client

ihaveanidea: Since you’ve touched on the honesty angle brands have to take and we’re talking about Microsoft… When those “Laptop under $1000” spots broke, a lot of people said they were scripted. Care to give us your opinion on that?

Rob: Those people couldn’t be more wrong. One of them was an actor but we didn’t know about it. She lived in LA but certainly wasn’t in anything. They were all under the impression that it was a research project that was done. We’re certainly smart enough not to fake things like that. So even if that girl had done some acting before, there was no script. She didn’t know why she was there and thought it was for market research. She had no clue it was going to be a commercial. So people can say whatever they want to say, it doesn’t matter to me what they believe. But I’ll stake my career on telling you they weren’t scripted commercials because there’s nothing I would hate more than doing something like that. Microsoft would never allow it too. They’re very careful about the things they put out because people take a lot of shots at them. They would never allow a campaign where we’re putting words in people’s mouths.

ihaveanidea: What’s your favourite campaign you’ve been involved in?

Rob: It’s a tough question because I can look at any client we have and find something I love. I’m very proud of the Windows 7 campaign because of its global nature. My favorite one is probably Whopper Virgins though. Some people loved it, some people hated it and some people thought it was wrong. But as a piece of advertising, I think it was really beautifully done. Beautifully directed, edited. For many reasons I like it more than I like MINI Counterfeit and I was a writer on that.

We went around the world for that, and the client had no idea how it was going to turn out. They invested all this money into this sick production and they could’ve went to Romania and Greenland and gotten a bad result. The people could’ve picked McDonalds. At one point they asked me “what’s plan B ?” and I told that there wasn’t one. And they rolled with it anyway.

ihaveanidea: What was the Burger King to McDonald’s ratio like?

Rob: Obviously, it wasn’t 100% but it was probably 70-30 or a little higher. When you think about it, the countries that never had marketing for these things have probably eaten beef being cooked over fire more often than they’ve eaten it being fried. So we thought about these things and had a pretty good instinct that the Whopper was going to win.

It was probably the biggest risk Burger King’s ever taken. It could’ve really blown up in their faces, so I’ve got to give those guys a lot of credit. It was executed perfectly. I loved every part of it, which is not often the case.

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ihaveanidea: Do you think people are making too much of the current exodus of creative talent, or is there genuinely something to get worried about?

Rob: People leave the business all the time, and you’ve got to look at individual cases. Take Gerry Graf for example; he went to places to try to make them different and it ended up not being a job he wanted.

For me, I fortunately have to work at one of the greatest agencies in the world. We love what we do, and it’s hard like any other place. But I am not too good at anything else. I love being in advertising so I don’t worry about other people leaving. I worry when I am not feeling great about it. You give up a lot when you work here, so you’ve got to make it worth your while in other ways.
In a lot of cases people get disenchanted with the business or have just made enough money to look into something else. I’d look at all these situations, at all the different people, and ask, “okay, why are they leaving?” or “Who is really leaving?”

Is Ty Montague really leaving? Is Gerry Graf?

Most of them are still in the business to some degree; let’s not kid ourselves. If they come up with a model that’s more fulfilling to them, and they can sell it and do great work, who wouldn’t do that?

A lot of them are just doing a slightly different version of what they were doing before. You can also look at the whole Will Arnett Dumb Dumb thing where comedy writers are partnering with brands. They’re basically doing the things we all want to do, but coming at it from the other side. The only way to do something funny and get paid is to have brands believe in the stories you want to tell. That’s why I don’t think anybody at The Onion is making tons of money (laughs).

That’s the difference between art and commerce; you’ve got to make choices in your life. We’re lucky enough at CP+B to have a nice mixture of the two still.

that’s good advice for people coming into any organization, not just ours: “Listen. Listen a lot.”

ihaveanidea: Well a lot of people will tell you that Crispin is not the place you’d like to go if you’re after a big salary in the business…

Rob: Honestly I think that’s an old wives’ tale. We’re pretty on par with a lot of agencies with the way we pay. The recession has brought more things in line for everybody, and it’s an expensive, well paid business. There’ll always be the very highly paid jobs for the people running the big agency networks, but in general we’re in line with a lot of agencies.
Some people may disagree, and it’s easy to say “I didn’t make enough money” when you leave, but we were in a recession like everybody else but we try to be as fair as possible. We also want to be smart. We don’t want to lay off 150 people when we lose an account, and when we lost VW, we didn’t.

So we work hard, think hard and try to be efficient. We’re always pitching, and feel like we’re on probation every day with every client. That’s what I tell people who work for me: everybody’s on probation. That’s our business.
The way to stay in business and have great sales is to do great work. If sales are great for one of our clients but the work isn’t great, it’s a failure. If the work is great, but the sales aren’t, that’s also a failure. The only success in my mind is if great work equals great sales. That’s the only metric I look at.

ihaveanidea: Do you think you have enough brainpower within the agency to run the country?

Rob: Maybe Andrew Keller could be president (laughs).

Other than his hair, I think he’s smart enough. I was just thinking about that today, and when you look at the news or at any blog Obama is getting slaughtered. There’s always a different issue and it’s overwhelming. Everyone feels like that sometimes, with clients etc, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for this guy who’s the president of the corporation called the USA which is malfunctioning on every single level.  How do you stop the bleeding?

So I think it’s not even about brainpower, there’re enough smart people working there already.

Interview by:

rafikcreditpic Rob Reilly

Rafik Belmesk
Operations, AKOS

  • tuuk | innovation

    In an era of jumping around, trying to make more money or gain more rope – it turns out Rob tried a completely different approach and got back to doing good work. And has been rewarded handsomely for it. Great interview guys.

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