"We can tell in-depth, emotionally moving stories in ways that were impossible a decade ago – regardless of what a certain Austrian designer thinks."
Charlie Gschwend, the man who selected his 15 digital favorites for this issue of Archive, is Senior Copywriter at Wieden+Kennedy, Portland, and currently on loan to Wieden+Kennedy, Tokyo. We can tell in-depth, emotionally moving storiesin ways that were impossible a decade ago – regardless of what a certain Austrian designer thinks.
Charlie is an expert on Non-Traditional Advertising, Out-of-Home and Ambient Advertising, and Concepting for Planners, having taught courses at Miami Ad School San Francisco while working with Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners (BSSP), one of the largest independent agencies on the West Coast of the US, and prior to relocating to Wieden+Kennedy, New York. In the interview that follows, Michael Weinzettl invited Charlie, who originally hails from Illinois, to talk about his career as a creative and the work he chose to feature in this section.
Please tell us about your beginnings in advertising. You started out as a junior copywriter at an agency called Rehak Creative services. How did that come about?
I started in advertising by accident, really. After undergrad, I moved from the cornfields of Illinois down to Austin, Texas with the plan of enrolling in a Creative Writing MFA program the following year. After sending out literally hundreds of resumes, I took a job selling high-risk auto insurance to Spanish speakers who’d gotten busted for drunk driving. My Spanish was terrible, so when I got an email from an advertising agency that I didn’t remember applying to, I jumped on it. I’d never considered advertising as a career, but the idea of getting paid to write was intriguing to a broke-ass poetry major like myself. So I took it, even though it meant moving to Houston – the first of many sacrifices.
The agency was a tiny shop called Rehak Creative Services run by an old-school copywriter named Bob Rehak. (I guess when you’ve got one of the most unfortunate names in the business, you embrace it.) The work was mostly business-to-business print, but he was kind enough to teach me the craft of writing headlines and body copy. I also learned that I craved the opportunity to do more and better work. My little portfolio couldn’t get me my dream job, but it did get me into VCU Adcenter. It’s called Brandcenter now, but it will always be Adcenter to me.
When did your interest in non-traditional forms of advertising start, and what drew you to that in the first place?
It probably started at Adcenter. I took a class taught by Jelly Helm. At the start of the class, he told us we would not be making ads – instead, we would be solving problems. He gave us assignments like fix global warming, offset rampant consumerism and make someone happy. At the time, I thought it was a bunch of happy horseshit. I thought all I needed was five campaigns of fake print ads for my student book. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Jelly forced us to break out of that mindset, to first figure out the heart of the problem, then to use what ever means available to solve it. We didn’t call it non-traditional at the time, we just knew we weren’t allowed to use print, OOH or TV. Later, when I got my first job out of ad school, I realized that Jelly was right and his lessons were invaluable.
After graduation, Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners took a gamble on me. At the time, it was a regional shop that wasn’t doing a whole lot of TV. They were used to being scrappy – using what they had available instead of relying on big budgets. Fortunately, one of the things they had available was a small, recently acquired interactive shop, plus a whole bunch of crazy young guys that were ahead of their time – Nei Caetano, Andreas Tagger, Rikesh Lal, JP Guiseppi, Eric Baldwin, Ricardo Viramontes, Mike Hughes, Brendan Yezbak, and Tom Yaniv, to name a few.
With Butler and Shine at the helm, we won business and we didn’t rely on traditional campaigns to do it. We made one of the first user-generated campaigns in the industry for Converse – this was pre-YouTube, mind you. For MINI Cooper, we spent money on creating a crazy integrated campaign with direct mail at its center instead of TV spots. And we experimented, creating big events like MINI Takes the States, and inventing weird stuff like the first RFID-activated billboard. I was only there for three years but it was a great time.
Between 2004 and 2006, you also were an Instructor at Miami Ad School San Francisco and your focus was already on Non-Traditional Advertising, Out-of-Home, and Ambient Advertising...
Honestly, I shouldn’t have been teaching. I was only one year out of ad school. I started by substitute teaching for some more experienced friends, but the school asked me to stay. The class was originally just OOH advertising, but to me that seemed small. So they let me change the syllabus a bit and apply some of the lessons I had learned in the years previous. It was great experience for me – leading a classroom and playing creative director. Hopefully, my students got something out of it too.
How do you view the development of these non-traditional forms of advertising – whether on digital media or not – over the past 10 years?
It’s inevitable. Technology changes. The way people consume media changes. The way people shop changes. Of course advertising is going to change. All and all, I think it’s a good thing. It keeps us fresh and nimble. There are so many more tools in our toolboxes now. We can invent things. We can interact directly and get instantaneous feedback. We can tell in-depth, emotionally moving stories in ways that were impossible a decade ago – regardless of what a certain Austrian designer thinks.
I think one thing to watch out for and resist is the tendency to formulize these new media opportunities. The old formula was print, OOH and TV. Now, it’s become Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. They are fine tools. But they need to be the right tools for the job. Just because it’s digital or social doesn’t mean it’s better. A campaign should solve the problem, and you can’t do that by following a recipe.
Formulas make things easier to understand, monetize, and sell again and again. However, they can very quickly get in the way of a good idea. Media can be your best friend, but it can also be your worst enemy. Fortunately, the media landscape is changing so rapidly that it frustrates the formulizers. And, thankfully, there are some great marketing and media folk out there who are interested in making new recipes from scratch.
Since we’re a publication whose main focus – at least until we added this Digital section, for which you have now selected your current favorites – used to be print and TV ads, how do you see the future of these classic ad media?
Creatively speaking, it’s really not that big a deal. TV spots have become less relevant, but video will always be relevant. On YouTube, the Nike World Cup spots are close to racking up 100 million views. Likewise, print ads are less and less in demand, but a headline on imagery will always have a place. Look at the popularity of Advice Animals or the Big Mac Facebook campaign. Content is content, regardless of where it runs. And good content will always be more interesting than pap. The biggest change is where the media money is spent, but there are plenty of very smart people sussing that out.
Can you tell us about joining Wieden+Kennedy? You first worked for their New York office as a copywriter in 2006. You then moved to the Portland office in 2008 and have been there until this year.
In 2006, WKNYC hired me based on the strength of the work I was doing at BSSP. I worked in New York for a year and a half before getting beamed up to the Portland mothership. Funnily enough, my former instructor, Jelly Helm, was ECD at the time and hired me. He told me that, one day, I could say I was the first digital creative hired to the WK Portland creative department. I guess I just did – eesh. However, I’ve always resisted the title of Digital Copywriter. These days a copywriter should be comfortable working in all media. WK Portland has let me do that – working on big budget TV one day, creating apps the next, and, when possible, leading integrated campaigns that span the gamut. WK is excellent at uncovering brand truths hidden in plain sight and then weaving them into emotionally compelling stories. As long as the work does that, the type of media you use matters less.
Now you’re at W+K Tokyo. How did that move to Tokyo come about?
This summer, I was invited to do a stint at WK Tokyo. The Japanese office is growing with new clients like Citizen, Ben & Jerry’s, and Nike Korea so they needed some extra hands. I’ve only been here three months so far, but I’ve learned a lot.
The approach to advertising in Japan is very different. There’s a lot of shallow celebrity endorsement, product ads with too many messages and very little branding. It makes WK Japan stand out. The same principles that are the foundation of the Portland office are true here. We find truths and use them to tell compelling emotional brand stories. It’s different than what the average Japanese consumer is used to, but that’s not a bad thing.
Probably the trickiest (and most interesting) part of copywriting in Japan is making sure those truths and emotions and stories are relevant here. So far, I’ve been primarily working on Nike. What’s true for athletes in the States is not always true here. For example, we learned that a lot of young Japanese athletes didn’t really know what “Just Do It” means. They didn’t grow up with it. And to many of them it was just a string of English words attached to a cool brand.
Obviously, that presented a challenge, but it was an exciting one. It gave us the opportunity to hark back to the early days of the Just Do It campaign in the US when the line was new. And to reintroduce this amazing message to folks that never before fully grasped what it meant.
Please tell us about some of the projects you’ve created (or co-created) that you’re particularly fond or proud of?
Let’s take a trip down memory lane:
Converse Brand Democracy: Converse hadn’t advertised in years. Still, creative types were avidly wearing Chuck Taylors. It had become a part of who they were. We were worried that, by doing a traditional campaign, it would feel like we were taking the brand away from our greatest supporters. So, instead, we gave it back to them. We invited them to create the “advertising” themselves by making short films, and art for OOH boards and print. It was one of the first user-generated campaigns, rolling out a year or two before YouTube existed. I don’t like a lot of user-generated campaigns these days, but I think this one had a reason to exist.
MINI Covert Campaign: Around this time, MINI owners had begun to form a cult. They were having fun and the rest of the world had noticed. To leverage this allure, we created a secretive campaign. Instead of running big TV, we sent out mysterious books with secret compartments in them to hundreds of thousands of MINI owners. The books contained “spy gear” that let them discover secret messages in print ads and on web pages that other people could see but only wonder about. It helped to build mystique, create stronger bonds within the MINI cult, and turn them into evangelists all too happy to tease their friends with their little secret with a lot of horsepower.
Nike Livestrong “Thank You” Print: While I was working at WKNYC, we got a last-minute brief. Lance Armstrong had just finished the New York Marathon. He was thrilled with the support New Yorkers had given him and wanted Nike to thank them with a full-page ad in the New York Times. Amazingly, we were forwarded Lance’s actual email to his contact at Nike. Rather than write something ourselves, we decided it was best to just publish the actual email exchange. It’s too bad what happened with Lance, but I still think it was fun to turn something inherently digital into print.
EA Dante’s Inferno Campaign: EA was investing a lot of money into a game based on a 14th century epic poem. They were worried that no one would be familiar with the source material – that each circle of Hell was based on one of nine sins. In the nine months leading up to the debut, we taught the internet about each sin. For the month of Greed, we sent influencers checks and damned them whether they spent them or wasted them. For the month of Heresy, we created a trailer for a heretical videogame called Mass: We Pray and damned those who tried to preorder it. For the month of Anger, we sent out an evil box that, when opened, played “Never Gonna Give You Up” until it was smashed with the included hammer. All in all, we got more than 47 million impressions with a budget of less than $200K. And it convinced EA to give us a new budget to do a Super Bowl spot.
Sony Be Moved Campaign: Sony is a unique combination of artists and engineers. A TV campaign introduced this idea to the world. Then we launched the Be Moved website to dig deeper. Scrolling down, animations and copy told each story. Then, visitors could link out to specific demonstrations of what happens when artist meets engineer. We captured the world’s largest model railroad with a very unique camera. We even created the world’s first Underwater Apps – a suite of six apps that show what’s possible with a waterproof phone, other than dropping it in the toilet.
Can you tell us anything about any new projects you’re working on at the moment that we might look forward to featuring in a future issue of our magazine?
I’m currently working on a project for Nike celebrating the female athletes of Japan. It’s just in the beginning stages so I can’t tell you more, but stay tuned.
What were some of the criteria you applied when selecting the 15 digital works presented by you here in the current issue of Archive?
First, it had to tell a powerful story – stories that tugged at your heartstrings, made you laugh, made you think, or just made you rethink the storyteller for telling it. Second, it had to use media in an unexpected way – not just because it was innovative for innovation’s sake, but because it delivered the story in the best way possible. Finally, it had to be work that inspired me. With that in mind, I included some examples that live outside of advertising because inspiration can, and should, come from elsewhere than our own industry. Check them out and see if you agree.