Chris Maley is a friend, a former colleague and a fellow copywriter making his own way in the world. He’s also a great guy to have beers with or go to a game with because Chris is good company and he’s one funny dude. He’s got that mischievous Irish gene, as well, which is one more thing we have in common.
When he’s not crafting marketing messages, Chris is busy hammering away on his new 50,000-word novel, Fearkiller, which he describes as “a cruise back through The First Decade of The New Millennium, that ambiguous ten-year journey that landed us here.”
So, without further ado, the interview…
Q. Chris, you’re a Denver native and you’ve worked most of your career in the Mile High City. Can you please describe the conditions in your market for those who don’t know.
A. Denver is book-ended by Colorado Springs, home of Focus On The Family and those arch-conservative, zero-fun people to the south; and The People’s Republic of Boulder and those weirdos to the north, so you have the gamut of viewpoints here. All of these influence the end product. Colorado is a work in progress. Its roots are executional, rather than big idea or strategy, so the negative around here would be executionally-trained, production-minded people handling big idea, big picture projects when they shouldn’t be. But though our roots are in execution, we’re figuring out how to help clients in the strategic world. An ideal example would be the FirstBank work from TDA. They inherited a campaign that was the combination of every bad advertising cliché and they’re turning it into gold.
Q. You worked at The Integer Group (Denver’s largest agency, by far) for many years. What was the best part of that gig? What was the worst part?
A. About two years ago, I saw this video. I got teary-eyed, thankful for memories of pulling jackass stunts like this, but I don’t miss that day-to-day environment one bit. Good things: what was once considered below-the-line is now what clients want to hear about. I saw some guy speak years ago about how he doesn’t “sell”–that distasteful four-letter word–he and his creativity help mold pop culture. At a below-the-line place, you can’t be that person. You don’t help mold pop culture. You get clients’ stuff out of their warehouses. But it’s possible do this creatively, in ways that you’re proud of. Our clients’ “big” agencies often acted like they were above the idea of selling stuff. And Integer had some world-class people who, no matter what their job title was, always made the client remember to invite us to those big picture meetings. Integer taught me that creativity and practicality can and should coexist.
Q. You’ve been out on your own for five years now. What are the biggest challenges you face as a solo practitioner?
A. Yeah, five years this past July. As an example of the type of people that have burned me, last month I helped a design team with a pitch for a client. These guys were one-man-shows just like me, which we stated in our proposal to be up-front about how we were structured. We didn’t get the project because the client was burned by a freelance Web dev guy before, who agreed to a bunch of stuff and didn’t follow through. The client went with an agency. Yeah, they’re now paying a lot more, but they feel more secure. Independent contractors: don’t drop the ball. You hurt all of us when you do this.
Q. Describe your greatest success as an independent contractor.
A. Project-wise, I’d say the truck fleet project Lisa Scheideler of 2Fold Studio and I did for Denver Concierge. The client wanted to repaint their fleet, they were just thinking name and phone number, we convinced them to think of each truck as their marketing real estate. They bought ten concepts, with lines like “Dirty vans, clean houses. Hmmm…”, “Red means stop. Green means go. We mean clean.” on the side. On the back, above the phone number, each says, “Forget my driving. How’s my housecleaning?” All money for this project was spent in 2007, but they still get calls today from prospects that saw a van and want to know more. Having a client buy into what creativity can do for their bottom line is inspiring.
Q. Are you mostly offering copywriting to clients, or do you also go for the bigger picture brand building type of assignments where you bring in a team and manage the whole process?
A. Evolving towards the second, but I’ll always be an arranger and re-arranger of 26 letters. The independent contractor model is only beginning to plow forward. Technology being what it is, one can assemble a team regardless of location and bring the level of service that any agency can offer. For less money, as well. I’ve worked with some great people in other states whom I’ve never met face-to-face. Since you sent these questions to me, I got to thinking maybe we restructure what we call ourselves. What if there are “Marketing Agencies”, but there are also “Marketing General Contractors”? Scale a team to meet the needs of the project. Plus, you can build a team based on each person’s strengths, rather than trying to retrofit a project around a team where you’re responsible for their salaries, benefits, etc.
Q. I recall some of our colleagues at Integer worrying themselves silly about winning industry awards and also about making a name for Denver in the larger advertising community. Where do stand on these topics today?
A. Awards are nice, as long as it is only a momentary celebration of the craft. That cool thing we do that people who make pie charts and crunch numbers want to be doing. Awards run into problems when more importance is placed upon them than that. The negative people, back in the day, were more concerned with getting in Archive and being provocative for the sake of being provocative versus delivering for the client. “Award-winning” and “effective” can co-exist. It’s just up to you to make that happen.
Q. The business has changed a lot over the last decade. What’s been the biggest change to your particular practice of the craft?
A. I guess trying to teach people that people still read. It’s just our job to ensure that what we want them to read is indeed something that will interest them. Too many people cop out behind this “no one reads anymore” façade. Consumers, and I thank them for it, are demanding that they get an investment on their return for engaging with our clients’ messaging. That’s fine by me. So you want me to write well and engage. Our challenge today is to re-examine our role in the conversation. I’m fine with that challenge. It’s only going to make everything better.
Q. Are you making TV for your clients? Does TV even matter today?
TV opportunities around here are limited, but it’s here. TV, in Colorado, unless you’re at CP+B, you better not enter this business with the singular goal of flying around the world shooting TV spots. A lot of broadcast people who get their start here move to LA or San Francisco because if you want to be in broadcast, sooner or later you top out here. TV is always going to matter, it’s just no longer on the pedestal it once was.
Q. Talk to me about being a humble guy in an industry full of egomaniacs and quacks.
A. I’m a prick, what are you talking about? No man, thanks. I’m proud of what I do, but to resort to the cliche, I’m not saving lives. My Dad was a Navy pilot. An ex-girlfriend worked in a non-profit for troubled teens. (Comparing “bad days at the office”, hers beat mine every time.) And most of the really good people you meet in our business tend to be the most down to earth. In this town, the tier-one people are the humble ones. It’s the tier-two and tier-three people that get weird.
Q. I’ve learned to cherish my experience in below-the-line shops. Do you still sense an air of entitlement from the above-the-line folks?
I’ll tell you a story about working in below-the-line places. One day, in mid ’05, I called in sick, drove up to Boulder to meet Schoenie at TDA, and as we were talking about my portfolio (or lack thereof, in my mind), he told me that the promotional work, the tactical assignments, cross-promo tie-ins, basically the lion’s share of what I worked on, were the types of projects clients were going to want in the future. And sure enough, yes, I’m helping clients in these areas as well as Big Idea Land. In terms of above-the-line people, you’d have to be an idiot to say some of the things they used to say nowadays. “No client, I don’t sell your product. I help mold pop culture. Now about your TV spots, are you sure I can’t convince you to shoot with Spike Jonze? Shooting with Spike Jonze would help me further mold my creative vision of myself.” You can’t say stuff like this to clients today. In the below-the-line world, you can’t be too good for anything.
Q. I know you’ve been a fan of AdPulp for a long time and I thank you for your attention and all the funny comments. Just wondering if you have any brand building and/or money making ideas for us.
A. You, David, should jump out of more birthday cakes. AdPulp: commentary on the industry and a giant hippie, who jumps out of birthday cakes.™
David, you were talking about the whole digital revolution thing in ’98 and ’99, when I first started at Integer. I remember when you put together that presentation–unsolicited, which created some ripples–to Integer’s senior management entitled “Integer Sounds Like Integrated”. It was all about what we could offer our clients in these emerging spaces. If you have a copy of that, you should post it on AdPulp. Your readers would appreciate your ideas–which were what? running through your head in 1999 or 2000? Your thinking back then on the state of our business sounded so foreign then, but that’s what it is now. I was the guy back then going “Dude, I just wanna do TV spots in LA with hot chicks and hang at expensive restaurants, man!” You–and what your AdPulp team–created is a view and valuable dialogue about where our business is headed. Keep up the rocking work.
Q. I know the Denver ad scene has changed quite a bit since I moved away in 2003. Can you catch me up a bit? Other than Crispin, Sukle and TDA, which are the hot local shops today?
A. Those guys are doing it. Cactus, LeeReedy, Factory and Cultivator too. Karsh/Hagan is rebounding nicely. I’ve freelanced for them and they’re incredibly nice people. Change The Thought and Legwork Studio are two new groups that are doing good stuff. It’s weird to describe what companies here in Colorado are doing because their work output varies across so many mediums, and so many companies are tiny and multi-disciplined and you can’t put your finger on what they do. But every bit of it is interesting and engaging, that’s the important thing.
Q. What is the last best show you saw at Red Rocks?
A. Beastie Boys, 2004. (Sad I haven’t seen anything even else close in those years since, right?) But gotta say it, they were amazing. Three encores, the final one was all punk rock, their roots.