The AdPulp Interview: Doug Lowell

Doug Lowell of ID Branding was one of the first people to see my fledgling book back in the spring of 1995, when he was an ACD at AKA Advertising and Saas. He was also one of a handful of people in the business that made an impression on my developing ad mind. So I had to look the man up when I returned to Stumptown.
Doug and I recently had lunch at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Portland. We picked up the conversation after 15 years as naturally as can be–I guess that’s what happens when two guys who write poetry and ads sit down mid-day over spicy food. What follows is not the transcript from that luncheon. But it touches on some of the things we talked about that day and expands from there. Enjoy…
Q. I understand Andrew Keller of CP+B once worked for you? Did you see greatness in his future?
A. Yes, I actually did see Andrew’s brilliance and leadership early on. I was fortunate to hire him straight out of Portfolio Center and coax him to Portland – he and his lovely wife Helen. I think I told Andrew six months into working with him that he was going to be a creative director one day. I haven’t said that to many juniors that I can remember.
It wasn’t just his gift at concepting and executing ads that I saw. It was his willingness to be a leader and his amazingly positive attitude. The man just saw the world as a good place, and saw every assignment as an opportunity for awesomeness, no matter how lowly it was. And he was unselfish in urging others to achieve awesomeness.
He also was crystal clear about his objectives, which were to do as much good work as possible and to go to places where he could do even better work. He actually left working with me to go straight to Crispin, and found his home. But he leveraged every opportunity I could give him to build his book to get him there.
Q. Is it harder, or easier, to find great talent today than it was back when we first met in 1995?
A. It’s actually just as easy as it’s ever been. In fact, I am amazed at the quality of juniors (creative, account, strategy) that we’re finding. The University of Oregon is doing an incredible job under Deb Morrison of cultivating a new breed of creatives – people who are comfortable playing multiple roles. We have one young man from that program, Michael, who is a copywriter who knows CS4 and is becoming a master Flash developer under the guidance of Erik Falat, our Interactive Creative Director. I am blown away by the range of his creative capabilities. So I believe brilliant people are all around us today. It’s a very exciting time for our business.
Q. You’ve been a principal at several agencies in your career and are today at ID Branding. What’s the hardest thing about owning and managing an agency?
A. What isn’t hard about it? It’s all the stuff we creatives never wanted to deal with, like paying the bills, laying people off, negotiating leases and worrying about payroll. But someone has to do it, or there would be no agencies.
On the other hand, it’s a chance to shape a place to fit your own vision – if you have the right business partners. It’s a chance to try out all your own theories about how things should be done. That’s the big attraction. Both at Paris France and now at ID Branding I feel the opportunity to be on the front of the wave, rather than watching the wave from behind as it rushes toward shore without me (to use a surfing metaphor).
One thing I’ve learned is that growing a successful business is an art unto itself. And it must be approached with all the humility and dedication of any other art. It’s not easy. My hat’s off to those who’ve done it well.
Q. Obviously, you’ve been witness to the rise of digital, as we all have. And you’ve had to adapt as we all have. What’s been the most interesting thing about this evolutionary process to you?
A. Digital has been one of the greatest gifts given to our business. The whole concept of “interactive” is, in one word, where we’ve been going for quite a long time. Because people want to interact with brands, not just consume messages from them.
I’m so happy I was part of Paris France, and was able to learn the intricate world of interactive. It’s such a different game. It’s like moving from chess to three-dimensional chess. I had such amazing people around me that it was an incredible experience, a great education. And it has absolutely transformed my whole approach to brand building.
I don’t think I’d be nearly as useful in this business if I hadn’t added had that experience.
Q. You’re a writer and a photographer. Writing’s not a visual art, but it does rely on mental images. Is that what good writing is to you? A visual narrative?
A. I came to advertising after having been seriously immersed in writing poetry for 13 years. Advertising forced me to become a much more visual thinker. I had to learn to not just think in words anymore. What a gift that has been. It has deeply affected my photography.
Whether writing is narrative or lyric, it has always been about casting images upon the reader’s mind. Good writing is so much about finding an appropriate voice to meld with those images and to shape them as well. I think a good copywriter always needs to be a visual thinker, but the actual writing itself is so much more about conjuring a presence – the presence of the brand. It’s not really about narrative as much as it is about the presence.
Q. Let’s talk about Portland. It’s known as a creative class city, but it’s also an industrial port city and a city with a lot of poor people. Is this a good place to do business?
A. All cities have a lot of poor people. That’s part of what makes them cities. And they all have some remnants of industry, which is often what makes them visually interesting. Portland is a great place to have a business, but it’s not always a great place to do business, mostly because an agency depends upon proximity to corporate headquarters, and we’ve got darned few of those.
The biggest challenge in doing business in Portland is how removed it is from the real financial and business centers of our country. Sure, our new virtual world is supposed to change all that, but the fact remains people want face time with their agencies and like the idea that they could jump in a cab or on the subway or walk a handful of blocks and be there.
That’s why there’s only one Wieden & Kennedy when so many other agencies here have tried to be the next Wieden. Dan told me a long time ago, and I’m sure he’s told others, that their model is completely unreproducible. No good creative agency has ever broken through the ceiling of, say, growing to more than fifty people. And once they do, they slide back. Most are quite small. It’s the cost doing business in this gorgeous, wonderful city.
Q. How has the agency business in Portland changed over the years?
A. I have seen so many agencies come and go. Really good ones, too. I quickly become an old fogy when I reminisce about Cole and Weber, Moffatt Rosenthal, AKA Advertising and Sass, Nerve.
What I’m seeing now is the sprouting of really interesting interactive agencies. And I’m hoping to see some really successful multi-disciplinary agencies that draw people from design, advertising, strategy and interactive. That’s what we’re trying to build. But again, the challenge of doing it in Portland is very real.
Q. Are awards shows important for the advancement of one’s career and the agency’s cause? Or are they a waste of time, money and attention?
A. Awards are still important. As long as big agencies look for a long string of awards on a resume, they will continue to be important. And as long as clients have their hearts set aflutter by thrilling creative, they will thrive. Award shows are morphing to keep up with the times, so we’re seeing a lot more emphasis on brilliant thinking no matter the medium. And they’re important in helping to set the bar for all of us.
Q. What do you look for in a client? Or put another way, what makes a client great?
A. Wow. I have thought so much about this. I can boil it down to one word: confidence. What goes into making a confident client is complex, really. It’s some combination of knowledge and experience plus innate leadership plus courage plus trust. The best clients I’ve ever had have the same qualities: they listen and they’re decisive. They also know they need an agency to be successful. So many clients just aren’t so sure about that. And, ultimately, the good ones have the C-suite backing them up and supporting their decisions, which is the only way to have confidence.
That’s about as common as a bear that can sing opera.
Q. What responsibility do we have as agents for our clients’ messages? Is it all about doing their bidding, or do we owe the public something (more than a pitch) when we ask for their undivided attention?
A. We owe our audiences and our clients the same thing, in my mind. The absolutely truest embodiment of a brand’s values conveyed through a system of meaning. We owe our clients the best possible counsel in how their brand should live and operate in the world. And we owe our audiences substance. It’s so much more than messages. It’s so much more than an ad or campaign.
I believe we are meaning makers. We make meaning on behalf of the brand and on behalf of the audience that brand serves. We owe both client and audience absolute honesty and sincerity and significant, useful meaning. At ID Branding, we talk about growing brands that operate like a culture, in the anthropological sense of that word. And cultures are “a system of meaning embodied in symbols,” says Geertz.
That’s what people want today, at least according to the anthropologists. They want meaning they can use in the shaping of their own identities. Brands have become part of the symbolic landscape.
Q. Is the concept of “undivided attention” even real in today’s over-saturated media environment?
A. No attention is undivided. I don’t think such a thing has ever been possible. But if what we do is meaningful, people will recognize it and embrace it. We remember what matters to us. We embrace the brands that are in sync with our values. We love what we love. It’s all about creating presence where people are looking for it. It’s all about being where they want us to be and delivering meaning.
Q. What’s the last great book you read?
A. All the way through? I have so many books started but unfinished, books I might return to a year or two later. Right now I’m reading Grant McCracken’s Chief Culture Officer, The Book of Questions by Edmond Jabès (poetry), The Zohar (Jewish mysticism), Michael Palmer’s The Promises of Glass (poetry), and Doug DuBois’ All the Days and Nights (photography). That might be a better picture of my silly reality than talking about the last book because I’m not good at going in order or finishing.
Q. How do you feel about this increasingly loud call for metrics? Is it good for creativity or mindless misdirection?
A. Metrics are going to be more and more important, and I think that’s good. Measuring the impact our work is having is crucial in understanding reality. Now, that’s different from concept testing, which is merely cowardice. And it’s different from quantitative-only measurement, which is a foolishly rational approach to an emotionally-driven business.
But I think agencies should be proposing new and inventive metrics to our clients, which hopefully will help us earn a piece of the benefits we help to create. Metrics need to be a sincere search for understanding, not just some formula that makes the linear thinkers happy or turns this business into a science. It’s not a science.
As my friend Thom Walters always says, people make decisions based on emotion and then justify those decisions rationally. So let’s not oversimplify the complex relationship between humans and brands, but instead let’s find a way to comprehensively understand how what we’re doing is being received and the consequences it might be generating.



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.