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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Paul Venables
Paul Venables

paul venablesart Paul VenablesFounder & Executive Creative Director

Venables Bell & Partners


Never underestimate the potential of the up-and-comer answering the telephones at a small agency in New York City. Who knows, they may go on to become a talented copywriter or to co-lead the creative department at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. They might even have the entrepreneurial drive to launch their own agency in San Francisco, one that is motivated by the intention to do right by its staff and its clients. Clients like Microsoft and Audi, Intel and Barclays, HBO and PG&E. They might also find themselves recognized ten years later by their peers at the Greater San Francisco Ad Club with the honor of “Ad Person of the Year.”


They might be Paul Venables. IHAVEANIDEA caught up with Paul just after Venables Bell & Partners celebrated its tenth anniversary, to learn more about the highlights and challenges of the past ten years and the top priority for the next ten.

IHAVEANIDEA: What were the early motivations for you to jump into this business and how did those early days shape your career?

Paul: Well, it’s funny. I was at the University of Connecticut in the School of Business program and I wasn’t really inspired. I was taking a lot of classes like journalism on the side, and then I stumbled into an advertising class, and the professor described advertising as the Rock ‘n’ Roll of the corporate world. So I got a “B.S.” (I love that) in marketing. I got very interested in the creative side of advertising and knew I wanted to be a writer, so I made this makeshift book and headed down to New York, where I was completely and utterly rejected by every agency in town.

Finally there was an opening at a small agency, but it was just a pure reception job, not some sort of training program or anything. I took it and it was actually an excellent experience. I was there for a full two years and I got to see all aspects of the business, interact with all departments and get a much better understanding of how an agency works. I worked very closely with the President of the agency and got to see firsthand how they ran things. It was a really valuable experience.

One day they came to me and said, “We know you want to be a writer, but we don’t have a writer job. But we also know you want to get off the phones and we have an account coordinator job. Do you want it?” I took it. So I started on the account side, but by the time I left that first job I had been doing media work, a bunch of new business, as well as overseeing creative and working as a writer, writing marketing plans and competitive reviews … I was wearing all of the hats at the agency.

IHAVEANIDEA: From there it seems like you had a path in mind and materialized that path. Can you tell me about the years post-account coordinator until you started your own agency?

Paul: My dad offered me some wisdom as I pursued my career. He was a machinist — he worked in factories that worked with metal — but in every job he ever had, he was always thinking about his boss’ job … how was he going to get the next job? No matter where or when I was hired, I’ve always had the same mentality of how do I get the next job? My perspective was that everything was a means to an end, in a healthy way. When you realize you’re going somewhere, or you want to go somewhere, you become really good at taking something from the bad parts of it. You take solace in the fact that you’re collecting skills along the way that you need, even if it’s not the perfect job, because it’s not going to be your last job. I don’t know why I always knew I wanted my own agency, but I did in fact start out thinking, “Someday I want my own agency.” Knowing that the experiences that I was exposed to and the skills that I collected along the way, even in difficult or less-than-ideal situations, were all going to come along together and help me someday. I think it’s really positive when you have that kind of perspective.

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IHAVEANIDEA: Was it San Francisco, the city, that lured you west or was it Goodby?

Paul: That’s an interesting story because it’s a little bit of both. I was in New York doing some real nice work at a place called Korey Kay & Partners. I was associate creative director but it was time to move, and I remember my wife and I specifically talked about all the agencies in the country, all of the places we could possibly live in, and we narrowed it down. We ruled out places like Minneapolis, Portland and Boston, and we said either we stay in New York or give San Francisco a shot. She said, “If you don’t send your book to Goodby, you’ll never know. Why don’t you just send it to them and see what happens? If you don’t get in there, we’ll stay in New York and make a great life and career here.”

No matter where or when I was hired, I’ve always had the same mentality of how do I get the next job?

I had my book gathered, with the big old FedEx stickers slapped on the side of it, sitting in my living room, when Jeff Goodby called me. Completely separate and unrelated. He called and had seen some TV spots that I had done for Comedy Central and really loved them. He thought that we should talk and meet; and next thing you know they flew me out; then they flew out both my wife and me for a long weekend to make sure that we were digging the city; and shortly thereafter I was working there.

IHAVEANIDEA: Wow, if that’s not a sign… that’s too funny.  Did you tell him “Well, actually…”

Paul: Yeah, it definitely came out. It was pretty wild.

IHAVEANIDEA: Did your time with Goodby solidify your final path toward starting your agency?

Paul: I had bounced around in New York a little bit, and New York’s a very different place to work, so when I came to the West Coast, California, San Francisco— Goodby specifically— it was like scales fell from my eyes. I could see the way it’s supposed to be done. Coming to San Francisco to a purely creative agency with a fantastic strategic take on things, and learning firsthand how they did what they did was a complete education. Everything from crafting (they value so highly the craft of what we do), how they talk to clients, how they’re unafraid to say “I don’t know” or “we’ll get back to you” and how they pitch business, how they recruited and hired people from all over with all different kinds of personalities, skill sets, backgrounds, and how they valued the eclectic mix of people and the culture they established. I just learned so much and I may have stayed there forever (laughs).

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Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

IHAVEANIDEA: (laughs) It was that good, eh?

Paul: There were a couple of little factors that kept the idea of having my own agency alive, but I think that window started to slowly close because I was so darned content and happy at Goodby. I had full autonomy and the agency was on an absolute roll. We were Agency of the Year doing award-winning work, working with wonderful people that I respected and liked in the wonderful, beautiful city of San Francisco. It was pretty heavenly at the time. But then I had an opportunity with a longstanding client who approached me and was dissatisfied with the agencies she was working with. The conversation got started, those entrepreneurial fires were rekindled and off I went to conquer the world with my own agency.

IHAVEANIDEA: Why did you decide to stay and launch Venables Bell & Partners in San Francisco?

Paul: I can’t imagine anyone ever coming to San Francisco, establishing a life—both professionally and personally—and then choosing to leave San Francisco and the surrounding area. It’s hard to imagine and I am an East Coaster, I was in New York for about eight years living in Manhattan, but I can’t imagine people that turn and leave San Francisco. There are just too many things; the lifestyle, the culture, the kind of city, the kind of progressive thinking that goes on here, the kind of art and design and photography and film, a more generally sophisticated California with wine country here, and Tahoe there, the beaches here, everything is reasonably close, the beautiful architecture of the city and the rolling hills, the weather. It’s an amazing place and it’s a creative place, and that’s a big part of it. It’s not just a beautiful place to live, it’s a hotbed of creativity, it’s a crucible of interesting thinking, of people, we have Silicon Valley on our doorstep, and all of the technology in the world coming right from this part of the country, you’ve got the movie industry just down the way, down the coast. It’s a pretty unique place and I’m a believer in San Francisco and the creative culture here.

IHAVEANIDEA: So tell me a bit about the type of shop that you set out to set up at Venables Bell & Partners. What was your vision?

Paul: In complete candor, you don’t set up the agency initially going “What kind of agency do we want?” You kind of know the environment you like working in. You know you want it to be creatively driven. You know you wanted it to be founded on strong strategy and smart insights, but you haven’t really painted the whole picture, because you have a responsibility to this new account. It was a sizeable piece of Microsoft business, somewhere in the neighborhood of $40-50 million that I had to take care of. So you immediately shift gears from “What’s the agency like?” to “How are we going to launch this thing, get it off the ground, keep this client happy, be successful and do great work?”
We immediately had to recruit people and ask the right questions about the kind of person that we hire. Do they have passion and energy? Are they honest and decent people? Are they good human beings? You take all of these decisions, from the receptionist, to creative departments, to strategy and account groups, and you shape the way you want it to work. I had worked at enough agencies to know what I liked and what I did not like. You get a chance to right all the wrongs that you’ve seen along the way, and adapt and employ all of the good, neat things you’ve seen along the way.

We try to do right by people, we try to do right by clients, and doing right by clients absolutely means not trying to sell them the wackiest creative idea…

IHAVEANIDEA: Can you tell me a bit about your mantra “Our Intentions Are Good?”

Paul: It’s funny because you look around the agency landscape and see agencies trying to sell themselves through their mantras, philosophies and all of these promises to their clients. We really took a long hard look at our business, at who we were as a people, when we were successful and when we were not successful, and what kind of culture we wanted to cultivate here. We realized that it completely comes down to doing right. Doing right by our clients and doing right by our employees. And I like the idea that we have this philosophy, “Our Intentions Are Good,” and it doesn’t promise a damn thing. It doesn’t even promise that we’re going to be successful. It’s about intentions, those aren’t even actions, those aren’t even results … that’s two steps removed from results.

I think this place is really human, we try to do right by people, we try to do right by clients, and doing right by clients absolutely means not trying to sell them the wackiest creative idea because you want it in your book or you want to get an award. It’s doing something responsible —I t still has to be creative — but it has to be appropriate for the business. It’s telling clients you don’t know the answer when you don’t know the answer; or “You know what? A different company can do that better or cheaper than we can;” or “Maybe we should take the money out of the big ad budget and put it in over here in customer service because that will better serve your brand in the long run.” It’s trying to make sure you’re just doing right by that company, by that brand, as it tries to operate in the marketplace.

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IHAVEANIDEA:  What is the most rewarding part of your work?

Paul: I enjoy the most rewarding moment you could possibly enjoy every morning when I step off the elevator, to walk into the halls of my agency where people are engaged and motivated and happy and doing great work. It is an amazing feeling, this culture that you shape and influence and nurture, and then also let other people add to it and contribute to it in ways you couldn’t even imagine. It’s so damn rewarding. I’m not extrinsically motivated, I think hardware and prizes and industry awards are nice, but they are by-products. The first and most important thing is that we need to do work that pleases us (meaning the people that work here and our clients) and once we do that, and when that group is satisfied, great. If the rest of the world stands up and recognizes and applauds our work, fantastic. If they don’t, I’m not going to worry about it too much.

I still get excited by doing it, I still get excited by seeing it, work that we’re doing that I had nothing to do with excites the hell out of me, knowing that people are out there doing great things on our behalf. Watching people grow, watching people develop, and watching the junior team hit it out of the park on a big assignment. There are a lot of places for gratification in the halls here for me, and I am a very, very, very lucky blessed man, and I realize that.

I’m obsessed with that, that’s my challenge…

IHAVEANIDEA: You very recently celebrated the tenth birthday of VB&P.  That’s very exciting!  Are you able to identify a pinnacle moment over the past ten years?

Paul: A pinnacle moment, I don’t think we’ve reached our pinnacle moment yet. Our best days are still ahead of us; I believe that whole-heartedly, 100%. There have been some critical moments, a lot of pretty important client and staff moments along the way, and it’s hard to ignore any of them. Now, all of these many individual little moments add up to a successful agency.

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IHAVEANIDEA: Conversely, what would you say has been your biggest challenge over the past ten years?

Paul: The biggest challenge has changed. When we started out, it was all about the ads, every single ad; I don’t care if it was the size of a postage stamp. Every single ad was our calling card into the world and whether it was good or bad said what kind of agency we were. We absolutely obsessed over every piece of creative—as well as we should—but as we got along, we realized we needed to add some key people that could do amazing work. We shifted our focus a little bit, obviously still focusing on the quality of the work, but also on recruitment, and attracting and retaining the right people.

Even further along I gained more of a perspective on managing and cultivating our culture to reach its full potential. Right now, I’m obsessed with that, that’s my challenge, that’s the thing I want to make sure that we deliver. Through that, we’re going to keep clients happy, retain the right creatives and the right talent in the building, and we’re going to have the right people doing the work. I think that they all evolve as you evolve, whatever those challenges might be.

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IHAVEANIDEA: Looking ahead as you strive to grow to the next level, what is your priority?

Paul: You know, it’s an exciting thing because here we are, a West Coast creatively driven agency that is absolutely grounded in intelligent strategy, completely independent and can do whatever it wants. So that’s exciting to me. We have critical mass with ten years of success under our belt. We can move into other regions if we want, we can move in other capabilities, we can start things and experiment, we can bring people in for the sole purpose of exploring an idea, an option or a place to play that we currently don’t. I get real excited by that because when you do those kinds of things, it brings in new opportunities for people, it brings in new challenges, it excites and energizes people and people can grow. Ultimately, retaining talent means giving people a place and a chance to grow. We have the world at our feet in terms of what we can do next and we’re figuring that out. There are fun conversations yet to be had.

IHAVEANIDEA: So the last question I have for you is what is the one thing on the planet that you cannot live without?

Paul: That’s a toss-up between my family and cheeseburgers (laughs).

brianna Paul Venables
Brianna Graves
Operations Manager, Writer

  • Anonymous

    Congrats to you, Paul, and to your team.  I wish that my early career path would have lead me to agencies like yours – I might have stayed on the agency-side of the business.  Good luck in the next 10.

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