Change subtle, invisible: Paul

Michael PaulExecutive Vice-President, Creative DirectorSMW AdvertisingQ. What does it take to be an agent of change?A. I don't know but I'll give you some guesses.Amount of experience. Change is so subtle and invisible, that the longer you are in a field,...

Michael Paul

Executive Vice-President, Creative Director

SMW Advertising

Q. What does it take to be an agent of change?

A. I don’t know but I’ll give you some guesses.

Amount of experience. Change is so subtle and invisible, that the longer you are in a field, and the more in tune you are with that field, the better able you are to feel the currents of change.

I could go into all the other stuff, like be open-minded, and don’t be afraid of change, but I’m terrified of change. I like things to be just the way they are.

I think most people are afraid of change. It’s a natural human instinct to want things to stay the way they are. So it’s all about training yourself not to be afraid. It’s understanding that that’s what life is all about.

Q. How has the client-supplier relationship changed over the past couple of years?

A. Fundamentally it hasn’t changed in 30-40 years, since I’ve been in the business, anyway.

Clients still hire creative agencies, and then don’t take their advice. They are just a little nastier about it now, that’s all, because the business environment is tense. And research has come along to make them even less trustworthy of an intimate agency-client partnership.

So I guess it has heated up in the past couple of years. We are seeing more meddling. We have clients tell us ‘We’re meddlers. We like to do it oursleves. We like to art direct.’ That’s nonsense. What are you doing here talking to an advertising agency?

Q. When you enter a relationship with a client, how do you determine just how open they are to supplier-initiated change?

A. That takes a lot of discussion. More than just talking about it, you’ve got to show them what you mean exactly. Until you’ve got specifics that have to do with their business and their advertising, they are just guessing what you might be thinking about.

I guess what I’m saying is, be as specific as you can about what kind of changes you are talking about. When we got the Harvey’s business, we said you need image advertising, that is, you need commercials without a price in it. We think you should put the focus back on your product.

Q. How important to the process of change is understanding your client’s business?

A. An agency may have 30 accounts – we sell Hewlett-Packard mainframe computers and luxury automobiles and quick service restaurants. How can I know all those businesses?

They’ve got to know their business, and we’ve got to know how to communicate to people, how to involve and motivate them.

I said to one client, ‘Would you rather me know about cars, or about how to sell cars to people’? The punchline is they said cars.

Knowing their product is essential, where it fits, but their business, that’s a different thing.

Q. From where do you get your inspiration?

A. It’s a personal belief that advertising can be great. It can be a meaningful part of life for people. If we strive to make it intelligent and moving and compelling, it can be really valid.

Someone said advertising’s great because it’s close to our culture. Well, it may be our culture. The things we choose to have in our homes, and how we spend our day are all related to a consumer society.

That, and being a partner in a Canadian-owned agency, inspires me. You have to be inspired to fend off competitive forces you’re up against. It’s a great feeling to stand on our own.

So it’s a two-sided thing – an advertising philosophy and my own sense of our Canadianness.

Q. How do you stay on top of trends in your field?

A. I have kind of an odd answer to this – not to watch for them. I don’t read awards books, I don’t look at them because I think it makes you derivative.

That’s why there are so many ads in awards books today that look like ads from awards books in the ’60s. They just keep recycling.

When Picasso went to Paris, he copied the work of the masters. And then he developed his own style.

So it’s probably good for people just starting out to follow the prize-winning ads, but sooner or later you have to strike out on your own or else you’re never going to be original.

Q. What would be your advice to clients who have expressed dissatisfaction with their suppliers’ willingness and ability to initiate change?

A. They have to be really specific. It would be wrong for them to say ‘You have to be more creative’. Don’t talk around the subject, show examples.

I think lurking behind that question is these young, tough, know-it-all mba types. They are just dissatified, they are not very expressive. They have lousy vocabularies. They are not great communicators.

They will look at an ad and say ‘I don’t like it,’ or ‘It needs to be more aggressive.’ That hasn’t helped the agency one iota.