The AdPulp Interview: Ernie Schenck

Rhode Islander, Ernie Schenck, is one of our industry’s brightest stars. He’s been writing copy and hauling in hardware for decades. He’s also an author, a columnist and he’s active on Facebook. Like all great writers, he also has an ear for what will and what will not resonate (see his Liberty Mutual work below). It’s my distinct pleasure to present a small slice of his nutrient-rich thinking here. Enjoy.

Q. In your latest piece for Communication Arts you mention that you’ve turned down huge opportunities to stay in Rhode Island. Place is obviously important to you. Can you tell us what living there means to you, and what it means to stay put in an increasingly mobile society?

A. When I first started writing for CA, a lot of what I did fell into what I’d call the “Do This And Not That” category and I thought, well, there are already plenty of ad guys out there talking about how to write a headline or how to get ideas or whatever. What interests me is the behind the scenes, life in the trenches stuff. I think so many of us have this attitude that we’ve got to be in New York or Portland or Minneapolis to have a successful career in this business, and I guess it depends on how you define successful but there are a lot of cool, little agencies out there in the hinterlands that are killing it. Maybe not in the same way that Goodby or Wieden is, but if you love living in Nebraska or Alabama or Rhode Island, there’s no reason you can’t do great work.

Q. What, or who, inspired you to go into advertising?

A. Matt Hooper. That’s the oceanographer played by Richard Dreyfuss that helps track down the shark in Jaws. Seriously, I went off to college fully intending to study oceanography. I had no idea math was such a big deal in the study of sharks. And since I suck at math, well, I had no plan B. Then I came across an article in Newsweek about this creative revolution that was taking over Madison Avenue. There were all these pictures of guys with long hair and wearing Mickey Mouse t-shirts getting paid to come up with funny TV spots. I was a pretty good English student, always loved writing, so I figured, that’s for me.

Q. Is there still a place for the Bernbachian concept of an art director and copywriter team? Or is that a shortsighted approach in today’s digital world?

A. Yeah, the copywriter/art director team is still a viable way to work. What’s changed, of course, is that it’s only one arrow in the quiver now. Really, there should be no boundaries on how teams are constituted. It depends on the project and it depends on who the people are themselves. I know this is unpopular, but I’d even suggest that a lone wolf creative guy should not be out of the question. Teams are great. But there are times when you’ve got a really talented person that for whatever reason just works really well alone. Agencies ought to be open to that. Ironically, I think most of them are still pretty glued in to the CW/AD thing. But it’s a process.

Q. Will we ever put awards shows in their place, or will the narcissism never end?

A. It’s kind of cool these days to trash awards shows. I’m not on that particular bandwagon. I still believe that awards can be a force for good, in the sense that they’ve played such a huge role in elevating the craft. I’m pretty sure we’d have never gotten to the level we are today without awards shows. Narcissistic, yes. No question. But if competition can push us to do amazing work, I’m okay with that.

Q. What’s the best campaign you’ve ever worked on? What made it special?

A. I’d have to say the Responsibility campaign for Liberty Mutual that I did during my last tour of duty with Hill Holliday. It was the embodiment of everything I think a full tilt integrated campaign should be. It had so many moving parts which made things so cool and conceptually rich. But I think what really stood out for me was the opportunity we had to do such a deep dive on that one single human value of responsibility and doing the right thing. It was such a massive luxury to be able to do that.

Q. Is the quality of advertising being made today better or worse than it was 20 years ago?

A. Some of it’s better. Some of it isn’t. I do think that in the cases where the work is vastly superior it’s largely because you had a big idea combined with a vast arsenal of technology that lets you take an idea to all kinds of places. What I do worry about is what I see as a weakened sense of conceptual awareness. You’ve got to think technology is at least partially to blame for that. I can’t tell you how many recent ad school grads absolutely cannot tell you the difference between an idea and a cool new bit of technology. Incredible.

Q. You had a blog once upon a time. Now you use Facebook to share blogable items. Why is Facebook a preferred platform, and do you think blogging has run its course?

A. Well, running a blog is pretty time consuming. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, David, on that one. I mean, besides the blog, I was working at Hill Holliday, I had the column in CA and of course, it really got dicey when I was writing The Houdini Solution. I’ve gotten pretty on board with the microblogging thing and used effectively, Facebook is a pretty good platform as is Twitter and even Pinterest. The drawback is that they’re not as conducive to the longer form thought pieces I liked doing on the blog and even more so in CA. But I’ve found that smart curation can be a pretty good way of expressing how you think.

Q. You’ve owned your own agency, worked for Hill Holliday and now you’re freelance again. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each.

A. When I left Leonard Monahan to help start Pagano Schenck & Kay, the press would ask me, why are you doing this, I’d say “to see what it’s like to have my name on the door”. When I left PSK four years later, they asked the same question, and my answer was, “because I saw what it’s like to have my name on the door”. You think if you own the joint, it’s all about you. But it’s just the opposite. You’ve got to answer to your partners, your employees, clients, government bodies of every ilk, and it goes on and on. Complicated. Messy. My two chapters at Hill Holliday were gratifying. I was fortunate to be involved with two really remarkable clients in John Hancock and Liberty Mutual. But I think I’ve got that Kid Rock Born Free gene. I’ve been a free agent for half my career now and I can’t imagine a better position to be in.

Q. Will TV always be King?

A. No, of course not. It’s still huge. But is it going to be that way in 50 years? I’d bet against it. And by that, I mean the way we consume entertainment. I think social TV is going to me monster. But TV as one-way conveyor belt? Not going to live to tell the tale.

Q. Do you ever stop and consider the impact, beyond sales or market share, of the work we do as ad men and women? Does it bother you that we often invest great quantities of our time promoting questionable products?

A. No. I question it very little. I wouldn’t work on a tobacco account. But other than that, this is advertising. We sell stuff. We’re paid to invent desire. Is there room for using our talents for good? Hell, yes. But we’ve always done that. Maybe not always for the most noble of reasons. Were it not for awards shows, who knows if we’d have seen as many campaigns for the homeless, AIDS, global warming or Amnesty International. But in the end, we’re in this business to make people buy things, not to play moral judge and jury.

Q. Why are so many agencies afraid to call what they do advertising? And what’s the deal with agencies making their own products and launching incubators to encourage startups? Isn’t getting the attention of mostly uninterested shoppers a large enough task?

A. I think it’s great that agencies are expanding their universes. I think what’s happening is that we’re finally waking up to the fact that what we do is pretty damn incredible. We’ve got all this creative horsepower and it’s been trained all this time on advertising but I don’t see any reason agencies can’t make that talent work for themselves as much as it does for their clients. I love Anomaly and they’ve been doing exactly this kind of thing for a while now.

Q. Have you noticed that the most talented people in advertising are also the nicest people?

A. I have indeed noticed that. I love working with agencies in the Midwest. I mean, what always made Fallon cool for me was that not only were they fabulously creative, but here they were running around in their plaid flannel shirts and this laid back, no-big-deal attitude. But there are nice people all over and I’ve had the good fortune to work with so many of them all over the country. Stuart D’Rozario and Bob Barrie. Bruce Bildsten. David Crawford and Scott McAfee in Austin. Lance Jensen. Rick Boyko. Joe Alexander.

Q. In some famous agencies, people frown if you leave before 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. Are long hours really necessary in this business?

A. Nope. They absolutely are not. Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg recently admitted that she leaves work at 5:30 and I have every reason to believe she does an amazing job for Facebook. There’s something about advertising that makes you feel guilty if you as much as think of leaving the office before 8 or 9. I’m not sure what it is but I suspect it has a lot to do with the average age of most agency employees. It’s pretty easy to stick around all night when you’re 25 and you’ve got nothing to go home to but a cat and a bare-assed refrigerator. Once you get a little older though, you’ve got a family waiting for you, it changes. And of course, the other big factor is the incredible amount of time that gets wasted in so many agencies. If we spent half the time actually making stuff as we do bullshitting at the pool table, we’d all get home a lot earlier.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.