Conversation leadership via social media [Derek Walker]

Social media is commonly considered a distribution channel for thought leadership content. But what happens when the social conversation – an on-going social media conversation with an entire industry – is itself the content? To find out, I recently interviewed Derek Walker, founder and owner of the ad agency Brown and Browner in Atlanta, an irrepressible critic and lover of the ad agency business, and an unavoidable presence for anyone seriously following the industry on Twitter or in the press. It went something like this…

Chuck:
This interview was sparked by an accidental dust-up you and I had on Twitter, the start of of which was this tweet of yours:


  To which I replied:

 

 

So, what does that look like? How does everything turn into a campaign for you?

Derek:
I run an ad agency, let me be clear on that. So, everything I’m doing I’m hoping frames how I enter into a relationship with a client. And that’s why I call it a campaign. If I talk about the ups and downs of advertising, I need to talk about that because when it comes time to talk about compensation, I don’t need the potential client to be shocked. “You heard this from me before. You understand who you’re getting into a relationship with.”

I grew up in advertising with really great CEOs who built relationships with the client, who could call client CEOs and have a conversation. We’ve now sort of removed that. So, when I say campaign, I’m trying to get people comfortable or uncomfortable with who I am as an agency head. And if you’re uncomfortable and you think, “I don’t want to deal with that guy,” guess what – I don’t waste pitch dollars pitching your business because you never invite me to. I’m cool with that.

But if you really like what I say or understand what I said, it challenges your whatever, and you want to have a conversation… I’ve achieved the attention that we need, that the agency needs. I’m surprised that agency heads are so silent on social media – because clients aren’t.

I’m surprised that agency heads are so silent on social media – because clients aren’t.

Chuck:
Who do you think should be on social? The literal agency heads or more of the agency leadership team?

Derek:
I think all of them. Look at what Rob Schwartz from TBWA Chiat is doing. He’s the boss. His Twitter feed is hilarious. It’s not always business, but you get to know Rob.  Now everybody thinks they know him, and they like him, and they want to work with him, or work for him. I see the same approach working  for me. I’ve already got a list of people who emailed me or tweeted or messaged me saying, “I want to work with you.”

So, I think all members of the leadership team should have a voice. Now, some people are not naturally going to take to social media, and that’s cool. But for an agency not to have a real presence…

And I hate agency websites…nothing but, “Look at our work. Look at our work. Look at our work! That’s a mistake we make. [We’re not answering clients real questions.] What’s Brown & Browner stand for? Who are they? How passionate are they about the work? How passionate are they about their clients’ success? How do they view advertising? Are they vendors or are they consultants?

Chuck:
I almost never see you post work that you’ve done.

Derek:
Never.

Chuck:
Do you bother with that?

Derek:
No, and the thing is, a long time ago a client came to me and said, “I want work like that,” work that we had shown them. “Well, that was from a client who had a 200-million-dollar account – do you have that kind of money?” “No.”

And the client on the ads they liked had also worked in advertising, and they sort of gave us the free reigns to have fun with it. “Oh, I don’t want to have fun. I want to hit the talking points.” Then you don’t want that work, do you?” I really don’t think we grasp that part of our work that we display on social media is how persuasive are we as human beings.

I really don’t think we grasp that part of our work that we display on social media is how persuasive are we as human beings.

If I go to your Twitter feed or your LinkedIn feed or your Instagram feed or your whatever, how likable are you? How approachable are you? How professional? And when I say professional, can you talk to me about the ins and outs of the ad agency or your craft?

A lot of our misunderstandings with clients are because we haven’t educated them to how long it takes to do the job, what the job takes, how creative looks working. We automatically assume they know all of this, but if they don’t, here’s the perfect opportunity. What do you stand for? I don’t know what half of the people who follow me stand for – so why would I want to work with them?

Chuck:
So, you’re looking at it as a way to preselect clients or help them preselect you.

Derek:
Yes.

Chuck:
But it sounds like you’re also using it as an ongoing relationship-building conversation with the clients you have, or hope to have. Is that fair?

Derek:
Yes, it is. The funny thing is, it also helps clients see how they can be on social media.

Chuck:
In other words, it’s a demo.

Derek:
Yes. It’s a lot of things and it can be because every time you post, you’re posting about something different.

When I sit across from somebody, they understand how I feel about the team that’s sitting next to me, I hope. If they follow me on social media, they know that my people are precious to me. So, you can’t talk to me and my people any kind of way. You’re not going to treat them any kind of way. The flip side to that is I’ve framed how I’m going to be treated with potential clients, but I’ve also told potential employees what it’s like to be on my team.

Chuck:
So, it’s a daily demonstration of what your lived brand is, if you will.

Derek:
Yes. Now my question to you is, why don’t more of us have a demonstration?

Chuck:
Well, I think advertising ,which is where I come from, too, advertising likes to talk about itself. It’s all about us. It’s the work, the work, the work. Advertising has been really slow ,to your point, to focus on “What can we do for you? How can we do it? How can we be helpful? How could we challenge you?”

Derek:
We used to be better at this.

Chuck:
You’ve taken a really passionate approach to this. How much does that take out of you personally? You seem to really be hanging yourself out there. How difficult is that for you, or is that just who you are?

Derek:
It’s who I am, but it’s also easier to be because if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember what the lie was… People have become used to advertising, so we know when somebody’s presenting to us.

I did exactly what everybody else did when I first got on Twitter. I tried to be professional and keep it clean and polished, and I took time to craft the tweets – and nobody was talking to me. As a creative I had to go, “That didn’t work, so what do I try?” So, I started to just be me, and all of a sudden people were talking to me. That’s hard to explain to people. It doesn’t take anything out of me because now I’m not pretending. If I’m having a bad day, I’m having a bad day.

Chuck:
Do you think it’s the risk posture of that that scares people?

Derek:
Yes. It is all risk. I’ll answer it that way.  I think we’re afraid to be seen, too, if we’re not perfect, if I don’t come across as perfect… It’s why I get resumes that make me think,  “This person was around when God framed the universe. They’ve done it all.”

Chuck:
Oh, you’ve seen my resume? Thank you.

Derek:
I worry that we don’t understand how much of that BS people have become aware of. “I’m passionate about our accounts, and I love our clients!”  “We provide great ROI!”

Chuck:
“We have the best people!”

Derek:
Yes. But no – I’ve got the craziest people. Look, I’m going to be explaining to you forever that Khalid is not like everybody else. I love him, but he’s just not like everybody else. He’s a great art director because he’s different.

Chuck:
Can you pursue this kind of social campaign if you are not passionate about what you’re doing and if you’re not willing to take a risk?

Derek:
I hadn’t thought of that.

Chuck:
If you just put enough money behind promoting your tweets and whatever crap they are, is it going to work?

Derek:
No. No. Because sooner or later, you’re going to end up like you and I are right now, talking to each other. And they’re going to come away thinking, “You know, that Chuck was nothing like his tweets. That’s not Chuck. That’s not the Chuck I know.” We can pretend for a while, but sooner or later, we have to talk as human beings.

Chuck:
You’re putting yourself out there as a human being first, it seems. A human being who happens to run an ad agency. You’ve done it with a lot of passion, and I think there are some other topics you’re passionate about, too, in your social conversations. Would you care to go into those?

Derek:
Diversity and inclusion. If you hadn’t noticed, I’m black, and in advertising. So, I talk about diversity and inclusion because I’ve been the only copywriter, the only creative at an agency, the only creative in a city, the only creative in the state that is black.

In Milwaukee, in Wisconsin, I had it all covered. I was the only black creative in the entire state when I first got to Cramer-Krasselt.  You think it’s not going to be that bad, but it was just so heavy. There’s nobody else thinking or that totally gets that you come from a different culture. I talk about diversity and inclusion because if we don’t get better at it, we’re going to have a problem. Well, we already have a problem. Right now, we’re a chorus of sopranos and tenors, but we need the altos and the bass to join in. I think the work gets better when there’s more diversity.

The other thing I’m passionate about is 99.9% of all the problems in advertising are tied to our bad leadership.  We do not train people to lead or manage. What were you when you worked at advertising?

Chuck:
I was copywriter, then a creative director at BBDO and then at my own shop.

Derek:
See, the way for you to get more money is to go from copywriter to senior copywriter to ACD copywriter to creative director copywriter to EVP… ECD. What if you don’t want to do all that? What if you just want to stay a great copywriter? We don’t pay you for that. We punish you.

So, what we do is we make you manage, but we don’t train you to manage. So, we have a writer who really wants to write who’s now forced to manage. Human nature figures into this. He’s always looking to write, and he writes so little now. But that’s where his passion lies.

What if we didn’t do that. What if we said, “Stay a copywriter. Those people who want to manage, here’s some courses that we’re going to give you, and we’re going to train you to manage creatives in our culture.” That then turns around and the way we deal with our people, the way we deal with deadlines and budgets and all of that other stuff, it changes.

It’s sad to see people attack the word creative when we work in a creative field. That’s our product. But our leaders don’t respect our product. Apparently, we haven’t trained them right. You don’t see the Ford guy talking about how crappy the Ford Mustang is. But you hear agency leaders talk about how crappy creatives are. I’m sorry, those are your people. That’s your tribe. I think a lot of it is tied to our lack of training leaders. That’s it.

Chuck:
How do you get that kind of leadership, that really understands the creative processes if they’re not being promoted out of the creative ranks?

Derek:
No, I’m saying you can promote those who want to be promoted. But those who don’t want to be promoted, what if you didn’t put a ceiling on their salary. So, if you stay a copywriter for 15 years, you keep getting raises. That’s part of it. But that copywriter that isn’t as passionate about it but really wants to manage – and I’ve known plenty of those people – get them in sales courses and all of this so that they can do their jobs well. That’s all I’m saying.

Chuck:
Well, let me go back to your conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion, both the topic itself and how you’re pursuing that conversation. Because I don’t know if you like the term, but you have arguably become a thought leader in that category. Adweek said that you were “hard to miss, and carved out a significant niche in a steadfast voice on issues related to diversity.” You get a lot of press, sometimes directly prompted by a tweet of yours. Is part of the theory behind pursuing a conversation campaign like this to engender other conversations off social, or is that just a natural result?

Derek:
I don’t care if those extra conversations happen. But it makes it easier for them to happen, I think. If I don’t get interviewed, I’m okay. I’ve got Twitter and LinkedIn. I can post whatever I want to post. I can blog. I’m not really a thought leader because I don’t know what a thought leader is. I’m just saying, you get to a point where you and I are insulated. We can say things that juniors can’t say, entry level people can’t say.

I have no filter. I have filters, but I pulled them back. So, I’m talking about diversity and inclusion, not because the end goal is to get anywhere. The end goal for me is, actually, I love advertising. but I think we’re sick right now. We’re sick at that point where we’re not including everyone.

I love advertising. but I think we’re sick right now. We’re sick at that point where we’re not including everyone.

And they’ve got to be qualified. Let me put that out there. They have to be qualified. But we’ve set up a system that really doesn’t work well on inviting everyone to the party.

Yesterday Adweek had a conference on diversity and inclusion, and one of my friends is like, “Well you weren’t included.” And I just said, “I’m glad I wasn’t included.” Because all they did was talk. There was no solution involved.

Chuck:
Why do you love advertising? Advertising is not friendly to creatives. It’s not particularly friendly to people of color. So why the hell do you love advertising?

Derek:
Because they’ll pay me to write.

Chuck:
There’s that.

Derek:
Yeah. They pay you to be creative and funny and irreverent and sometimes serious and make people cry…

I worked on the client side for 10 years at Pizza Hut… A bad day in advertising beats a great day in pizza. It just does. I loved working for Pizza Hut. I reference it a lot when I’m talking to my friends, but…it’s not the same as what we do, and I don’t think people appreciate how much freedom and fun advertising gives you as a creative person.

Chuck:
I want to take issue with one thing you said a minute ago, that you don’t want to be a thought leader. Because to me, a thought leader is somebody that leads somebody to think about something in a different way. It sounds like you want creatives to think about the business differently. It sounds like you want the industry to think about its diverse talent pool differently. It feels like you’re spending a whole lot of time doing that. Am I wrong?

Derek:
No. I spend a bit of all of my time because it’s good business. Before I walk into a pitch, most people go, “Oh, we’re not doing a minority campaign. We’re not doing an African American pitch.” And I’m going, “That’s nice because I’m not here for the African American portion. I’m here for all the pie.”

Let me go back to that thought leader. You can call me that or somebody else can call me that. I will never call me that.

Chuck:
As soon as somebody calls themselves a thought leader, you pretty well know they aren’t.

Derek:
Yeah. There’s some titles you shouldn’t be giving yourself. You have to earn them, and if somebody wants to say that about me, it’s fine. I’m not going to take offense at it, but I don’t seek that title. I’m just trying to make a stink and have some fun doing it.

I’m just trying to make a stink and have some fun doing it.

Chuck:
That’d be a great epitaph, “I was just trying to make a stink and have some fun doing it.”

My point is, and the reason I’m pressing it, is that I do think we need to help each other think differently. To me, that’s what a thought leader is. It’s not somebody that is flogging their own ego. That’s part of my reason for this interview. I wanted to talk to someone who’s doing it a different way, who’s apparently doing it for the passion.

But it sounds like there’s some profit in it too. So, is there a good ROI in this approach?

Derek:
Yes. What I’m finding is when a client or an account or a piece of work comes to us, it comes to us a little more secure, if that makes sense. They understand that there’s some barriers that’ve been broken. It’s sort of amazing that one or two meetings and we’re either yea or nay. It’s not that long, drawn-out thing, which really helps us. You’ve run an agency, so you know. Pitches can eat you up on money. So, I’d rather have a yes or a no. That way we haven’t wasted so many manpower hours.

What we seldom talk about is the mental drain on folks to get out there and pitch, because creatives are fragile egos. And when I say creatives, I’m talking about everybody on the team. I expect our account service people to be creative in how they handle clients. I expect the media people to creative on the media plan. I really want my accountant to be creative on how we shape our conversation and handle our finances, as long as its legal and it better serves everybody in the organization.

So, we’re all creative, but there’s a drain on all of those people you have to line up for a pitch when you’re pitching for something you never stood a chance to get. I’m seeing less of those invites, where we’re going up against a mega-agency with five bigoted employees. We’re a little small conglomerate of crazy thinkers. We’re not equipped for that. So, it’s kind of cool to be in your own wheelhouse when the clients who come to us want to talk to us.

It’s kind of cool to be in your own wheelhouse when the clients want to talk to us.

Chuck:
But it sounds like you get something out of it besides classic ROI. It sounds like you get the satisfaction of being able to run your shop and your life the way you want to by just being yourself out there in conversation.

Derek:
Yes. Even more importantly, my people get to be themselves.

There are a couple of accounts my folks have told me, “Please don’t ever pitch the…” We’re in the south, and there’s still cigarette accounts. “Don’t want to do cigarettes. Don’t want to do vaping. Please don’t make us do any of that.” Okay. I know they’re unhappy with it, so why would I pitch it? The money may be good, but my team won’t be happy.

I think the old guard, David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Bill Bernbach…I think all of them just sensed that if your people are happy, the work is better. There are some agencies now, it feels like, that don’t care what their people think. “We’re just going to take this account.” Unhappy workers are not going to produce a great product. It’s all business to me.

Chuck:
What would be one piece of advice you would give to a client leader about constructing a campaign via social conversation.

Derek:
Be yourself. Be whoever your brand is. You need to sit down and figure out who you are as a brand and what you want to say.

But then, the important part for the clients is this – [the brand on social needs to] translate back to their website. See, on social media there are some marvelous brands that are funny and engaging and everything. Then you get to their website and it’s like another person. So, which one is real?

Chuck:
That brings me to my last question. Would you give any different advice to an agency head? How should they make use of social conversation?

Derek:
They need to stop talking about themselves. Dear God, it isn’t about you. Stop talking about you, and that translates over to your website. Brown & Browner does not have a website because my people have told me I’m crazy for what I want. Because I want a website where we talk about advertising, and we haven’t figured out how to make it work.

Agency leaders need to be brave, stop talking about themselves, and have fun. What’s a playlist for the agency today? Does your agency have a playlist? What music is playing in your head for your agency? Be human. Agencies refuse to be human.

Agency leaders need to be brave, stop talking about themselves, and have fun.

Chuck:
They’re data-driven.

Derek:
Yeah, oh dear God. You mentioned that dirty four-letter word, data. Yeah, data and ROI. Here’s the funniest thing about ROI. I’ve worked on the business side where I’ve had to defend ROI. It’s never dollar for dollar. But ad folks say, “Okay, if the client spends a dollar, they should make a dollar.” You don’t even know how to figure up ROI, but you throw this word out. Stop using the phrase if you don’t know what it is. Sometimes, we’ve sat there and decided that ROI is 50 cents from the dollar.

Chuck:
And that also gets back to the notion, what are we really, any of us, in business for? Is it just the dollar? Or is it to do something more with life?

Derek:
Exactly. I think that’s the big one. We’re having fun along the way, and we make mistakes, and we learn from our mistakes, and we get back up. There’s no one way to do social media, because we’re each individual.

There’s some folks who are just naturally serious. I’ve got a 25-year-old who only cracks jokes around family and a select few friends. If you meet him in real life, you think he’s the most serious, intense person on the planet. But that’s his personality, so I don’t expect him to jump on social media and be a cheerleader. That’s not him. And that’s the same for these leaders.

You asked me how this return works, and I’m going to leave you with this. I’m amazed at how many really big clients reach out to me just to talk. It’s sort of like being in a relationship, and I’m married to somebody else. But these wives keep calling me up to just have a conversation, and I’m going, “What’s wrong with your husband?” What’s wrong with their ad agency head, that I’m hearing from CMOs from somebody else’s account?

Chuck:
So, it does work?

Derek:
Yes.

Chuck:
All right, well on that really great note. I’m going to let you go with great thanks.

Derek:
Thank you. 

________________________________________________

About the Author Chuck Kent, the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation,  uses a video-first content creation method to help busy executives more easily create authentic, compelling thought leadership content – and to lead industry conversations. He is a writer, brand strategist, content creator and expert interviewer. Chuck is also a contributor to CEO World, Sustainable Brands, Convince and Convert and Branding Magazine, for which he created the monthly Branding Roundtable.

Lead the Conversation is an executive content creation service that makes it easier for busy top management to develop authentic, compelling thought leadership content, such as videos, bylined articles and blog posts. We also create opportunities for conversation leadership, such as interview series and other forums.
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