The AdPulp Interview: Vinny Warren

Vinny Warren, a founder and partner of The Escape Pod, is the man. When he was at DDB/Chicago he helped bring urban slang to the mouths of millions via Bud Light’s now world famous “Whazzup” campaign. At his own agency he’s pulling some equally funny (and effective) “Penny Pranks” for OfficeMax. He’s also been a fan of AdPulp for a long time, and hey, we like people who like us! So, drum roll please…

Q. You’re from Ireland. What was it like to grow up there and how different is the world your own kids are growing up in?

A. Yeah, I grew up in Galway, a small medieval town perched on the edge of the Atlantic coast of Ireland. Galway was a very bohemian and artsy town. It’s a very relaxed and chilled out place. Lots of independent theater and music. Great pubs. The now world famous Druid theater started in Galway when I was growing up. It was a cool place to grow up. My kids are growing up in the western suburbs of Chicago. John Hughes land! Very different to where I grew up. But they’re still Celts through and through. My kids are very creative. Mom is awesome!
Q. How/where/when did you get into the agency business?

A. I first got interested in advertising when I was living in London after graduating college. I sold airtime on ITV, then the UK’s only commercial TV network. I wasn’t good at that but I liked the idea of advertising. So I took some D&AD workshops and got hooked on advertising. Absolutely hooked. Loved it. I then randomly got a US green card in a visa lottery. And ditched London in favor of New York. I was young and crazy. I decided the only person I wanted to work for was Ed McCabe. I finally got hired by him in 1992. I think I was one of the last Ed trained copywriters. It’s stood me in great stead. Ed was a true genius.
Q. Have you always wanted to own your own agency? Was it a long-term dream of yours or did it just kind of happen one day?

A. At a certain point I realized that opening my own shop was the ONLY path for me. But it took a while to meet the right partners. It’s like forming a band. Chemistry is key. And you can’t rush that. Much as you’d like to!
Q. You spent a lot of time working for DDB/Chicago, one of the city’s (and the country’s) top shops. What was the best thing about it and the worst?

A. The best thing about working at DDB was the account I worked on: Anheuser-Busch. I worked there during the golden age. And I learned how great advertising can be. And what it can do. The Anheuser-Busch team at DDB was a well-oiled machine. In every sense! The worst thing about working there was the fact that the culture was a bit insular. But that happens when you have a big organization in a skyscraper. Just does.
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Q. What are your ambitons for The Escape Pod? Do you want to stay small or become a global powerhouse? Or both?

A. My ambitions for TEP are huge. They have to be. We are not a Chicago Agency. We are not an American agency. We can do anything. That’s my ambition. We have done everything from TV shows to bar coasters in our brief existence. There is nothing we can’t do.
Q. I know you like to read Hugh MacLeod’s stuff. What is it about that guy?

A. Hugh is like a digital explorer. He has lived his life in public for a long time. Hugh is committed. He’s hardcore. And has fashioned a great brand in front of all of our eyes. His energy is incredible. I finally had a drink with him recently. He’s a true one-off. Great to see him finally getting the fame and fortune he has earned. We have one of his “The market for something to believe in is infinite” prints hanging in our lobby. We believe in Hugh!
Q. Where do you display, or keep, all the industry awards you’ve won?

A. I am a shameless whore. So I keep our awards in a cabinet you see right when you walk into our agency. If you’re impressed by awards, we have you! If you’re not impressed by awards, you’re lying!

Q. Penny Pranks” for Office Max is great grist for the YouTube mill. I’m sure the client is happy creatively. Are they also pleased with how the campaign has performed?

A. This was a case of us being impressed by something the client was already doing: selling stuff for a penny. It all flowed from that. And yes it did work. Selling stuff for almost free is a great retail hook.
Q. You wrote, “My old boss – who created many classic integrated campaigns – used to say ‘great ideas go everywhere and bad ideas go nowhere’. And that’s what integration means.” Which leads me to ask why integrated marketing isn’t job number one for every agency, no matter their particular specialty?

A. Every truly great campaign is effortlessly integrated into everything. Because it has energy and relevance. Bad ideas rely on a media budget mallet to hammer them into people’s consciousness. Only the best agencies deliver ideas that can be effortlessly integrated. It’s purely a quality thing.
Q. White Sox or Cubs?

A. SOX!
Q. Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s?

A. Can I have some thin crust New York pizza?
Q. Do you have a screenplay in your desk drawer, or is that merely a cliché?

A. With me it’s all or nothing. If I wanted to be in movies I’d be in LA. I love what I do. And I’ve been blessed to have had experiences very few people in advertising ever have. I think fate is telling me “Stay in advertising Vinny!”
Q. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

A. If I weren’t a writer (and arguably I’ve never really been one) I’d be a stand-up comedian. That looks like fun.
Q. Who is your favorite writer (any genre)?

A. There’s a clause in the Irish constitution that mandates that I reply to this question with JAMES JOYCE. He was incredible. His wife Nora came from my home town. I once worked in a pub mentioned in one of his short stories.
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I’m the proud owner of this collector’s plate. Get one, while you still can.
Q. Are you proud to say you’re an ad man?

A. Hells yeah! I love what I do. I find every aspect of it intensely interesting. I’m a geek.
Q. Other than your own, of course, what’s the best agency in the world today?

A. I really like 72andsunny. They clearly don’t care for PR too much. But those guys are consistently amazing. And that’s the real trick.
Q. What do you look for in a client?

A. Someone who knows what they want. Tell us what you want and we will make it happen. It really is that simple.
Q. Five years from now, will Facebook, Twitter and the rest have more influence (and demands on our time) or less?

A. I think people will continue to bend the internet to reflect themselves. Humanity will continue to shape technology. Humanity always wins. It’s like the ocean. You can’t fight it. People want to stare in the mirror. Always have.
Q. How is Chicago different from other cities as a creative industries provider?

A. Chicago is interesting because it has no concept of itself. NY and LA assume the world revolves around them. And to an extent it does. But Chicago is arguably the capital of Real America. I can’t imagine creating national American campaigns and living in NY or LA. That would be hard. I lived in NYC for years. It’s not America. Chicago is America. Creatively, Chicago doesn’t know how good it is. It has a bit of an unwarranted inferiority complex. But that’s charming. Rather that than arrogance.

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About David Burn

Copywriter and brand strategist in Portland, Oregon. Co-founder and editor of AdPulp.