The AdPulp Interview: Sally Hogshead

I follow the careers of several strong women and in a few cases count them among my closest advisors and most powerful influences. Sally Hogshead exists in this small circle. Her positive vibration and quick mind are obvious bright points. So is her generosity. I hope this exchange will help give you a sense for her and what drives her forward.

Q. You made some really big waves early on in your ad career, but I’m not sure people know what you’re doing today? You have your own consulting company now. Can you tell us about your clients and what kind of work are you doing for them?
A. I have a lot of different job titles and business cards (freelance copywriter, author, speaker, consultant) but they all share the same goal: to create messages that persuade and influence. The audience for that message could be a million consumers, or 500 people at a conference, or a single reader of a book, but in any case I’m creating and delivering a message that’s intended to change behavior in one way or another.
Secretly, my true love is still advertising. This summer I took several months away from freelancing to finish this next book, and it’s fun to be working with agencies again.
Q. I once dropped some samples of my work at the front desk when you were at Robaire & Hogshead. I remember the office as one of the best-looking agency spaces I’ve seen. How important to the end product is the environment where ideas are made?
A. That’s great to hear…it was a fun office! Still, the truth is, aesthetics of an environment are unimportant in developing ideas. Trendy furniture, elegant bathroom fixtures, designer lighting– that stuff doesn’t make people more creative. (It might convince clients that something super-crazy-zowee-cool is happening behind the curtain, since the creative process is otherwise invisible; however if we learned anything from the dot-com era, it’s that wacky paint colors do not a profit make.)
What does matter– and matters very much– is an environment’s ability to help people build ideas, to concentrate deeply, to gather as a group easily and share thinking seamlessly. The offices of Radical Media do this exceptionally well, as does Modernista!, and the New York offices of StrawberryFrog and JWT.
A famous creative director once told me something to the effect that agencies usually start looking really fabulous right after they hit their creative peak and start to fade. Funny. And probably true. Some of the most expensively-designed offices are total crap when it comes to the actual process of developing ideas. (Hello, form over function.) As with many things about the creative process, simplicity is good. So are comfy chairs, brave clients, and caffeinated beverages.
Q. Tell us about your new book, FASCINATE: YOUR 7 TRIGGERS TO PERSUASION AND CAPTIVATION. When’s it coming out and what’s it all about?
A. FASCINATE comes out in February.
I started working on this book in 2006, the year after Radical Careering came out. I wanted to write about why we become captivated by certain people, ideas, and brands, but not others. One of my agents, Larry Kirshbaum, had worked closely with Malcolm Gladwell on Blink. Larry taught me how to expand a business concept by weaving together research from different disciplines: neuroscience, history, evolutionary biology, psychology, and of course, marketing. I began to study how people have historically shared ideas and messages. My research led me to the 3,000-year-old concept of “fascination,” which translates in ancient Latin, “to bewitch with an irresistible force.”
I spent three years interviewing experts in different fields, and researching topics ranging from the Salem witch trials to suicidal cults, from the Amazon rain forest to, from Olympic training to shoe fetishes. I found some unexpected parallels. A 1636 frenzy over Dutch tulip bulbs perfectly mimics the 2006 real estate bubble. And a billion-dollar “Just Say No” program actually increases increase drug use among teens, by stimulating the same “forbidden fruit” syndrome as a Victoria’s Secret catalog.
Turns out, there are seven different “triggers” that activate our fascination: Power, lust, mystique, prestige, alarm, vice, and trust. Each trigger shapes our behavior in a different way. For instance, the mystique trigger provokes our curiosity, making us want to seek out more information. The lust trigger makes us crave an experience. Alarm increases anxiety at the threat of negative consequences. Trust calms us with familiarity and reliability.
As advertisers, if we can pinpoint which triggers are most likely to influence decision-making, we can make brands more fascinating. That matters, because consumers pay more for fascinating brands. I partnered with Kelton Research to conduct a national study on fascination, and one of the findings is that people will pay a week’s salary to be the most fascinating person in the room. Women will spend more to be fascinating than they spend on food and clothes combined (an average of $338/month).
Q. There’s a lot of talk about the changes underway in the ad biz and in all culture businesses due to the disruptive nature of the Internet. What’s your read on it?
A. The BBC released a report: “The addictive nature of web browsing can leave you with an attention span of nine seconds – the same as a goldfish.” Nine seconds. Think about that the next time you’re buying a media plan.
Q. What traits or personal attributes do you find in common among the best marketing minds?
The best creative thinkers aren’t those who can come up with THE brilliant idea, but can keep going when ideas get killed over and over.
Runners up: Killer presentation skills. Confidence to experiment. Healthy disregard for the status quo. Critical thinking, to turn a problem inside-out and uncover new ways of seeing. Voracious curiosity. Irreverence to extract surprising conclusions from boring problems. Optimism to see what’s possible, and experience to actually do it. Relationships to help pitch in. Motivation to create big ideas, and tenacity to keep going when those big get killed.
This said, all the optimism and motivation in the world means little, if ideas only live in PowerPoint slides and piles of foamcore. No marketer’s career can succeed unless they’re supported in actually getting ideas turned into something real. People at famous shops aren’t more talented than the ones at little-known agencies; they just have a stronger support system for getting things approved. The goal? Find an environment that supports you in creating your best thinking, and, supports your ideas in coming into the world.
Q. I’m curious about your take on industry awards. You won big and you won early. How might things have been different for you, if you hadn’t?
A. I have to confess, I haven’t picked up an award book in years. Maybe it’s just me, but I think our industry has moved on from our fixation with awards as a benchmark. Awards mattered more in the 1990s, because we couldn’t just go online and check out new spots on YouTube. How did agencies learn about new trends, international campaigns, emerging talent, and so on? Awards books. Yet there were only 4 or 5 forms of media, total, so the emphasis was more about the kerning of a serif typeface, not the bigger-picture idea of an iPhone app. It was more insular, and frankly, more geeky.
Today, we don’t need an award show jury to get competitive. We have more great minds than great jobs. We’re all trying to distinguish ourselves in one way or another. If award shows aren’t your thing, no problem. Just find some other own way to prove you’re a remarkable talent (digital prowess, track record of extreme effectiveness, etc.). Awards are a handy yardstick, but certainly not the only way to establish your worth.
Q. You grew up in Jacksonville, FL and returned home after living in Los Angeles [for eleven years]. Does living in JAX help or hinder your work?
A. Jacksonville isn’t cool or energetic or trendy. People wear Members Only jackets without irony, and sushi is still a novel concept (“raw fish??”). The city’s culture (or lack thereof) helps me focus more on my writing. Plus I travel at least 10 days a month to various cities, and Jacksonville is my nest.
That said, I didn’t move here to help my work. I moved to be closer to my family, and to raise my kids with their grandparents and cousins. My parents still live in the same house I grew up in, my kids go to the same elementary school, and my sister lives on the same street as I do. That makes me happy. And happy balance helps anyone’s work, don’t you think?
Q. I noticed that you use Facebook as a business network. Do you prefer FB over LinkedIn, Twitter and other sites?
A. You know how we were talking about the benefits of living in Jacksonville? Well, there’s a downside: it’s harder to keep up with emerging trends, launching work, and the more nuanced “conversation” of marketing. I use social media less as a social outlet, and more as a way to stay plugged into what people are thinking and talking about. Especially business thinkers that I admire.
The other great thing about social media is the way in which it allows anyone to built their own voice, and point of view. For potential employers, it helps them get to know how you really think. I’ve recently seen people hired on the basis of their blog, or even tweets, as much as their resume.
Remember how we used to introduce ourselves with cover letters and business cards? Now it’s not about what you want to say, it’s about inviting people to participate and play with you in a conversation.
Q. You don’t publish to your Hog Blog frequently? Why not? Is social media overrated?
A. Hang on! I’ll be publishing more in the coming weeks when the site relaunches. (And no, social media isn’t overrated. I just get busy.)
Q. Would you be happy to see your children go into advertising?
A. Sure. But I’m not sure advertising will still exist by the time they graduate.
Q. What’s the best film you’ve seen this year?
A. Last month, my kids and I were at the beach with friends. There were a total of eight kids, age four to fifteen. As luck would have it, we just happened to have a hundred glow-in-the-dark bracelets from a birthday party. We gave each kid a dozen of these luminous circles for their arms, ankles, necks, hair, ears, whatever. It was a dark night, so it was just a hundred glowing circles, Technicolor against black, dancing to Black Eyed Peas. I made a video with my iPhone, and posted it to Facebook. It might not be the best film this year, but it’s my personal favorite.
Q. Do you miss the big time agency excitement? Would you ever want to return to a staff position, or is working for yourself the ultimate way to go?
A. Definitely, I miss the excitement of being part of a team that’s really into a project and there’s lots of energy and ideas flying around. I work in agencies as a freelance writer so I get my fix. And a staff position? …hmm. Dental benefits would be nice.
Q. What changes would you like to see “Corporate America” make?
A. Make innovation as essential as research and evaluation.
Q. What emotion does the blank page evoke in you?
A. Hope.



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.