Todd Tilford is Chief Creative Officer of FCB, Chicago and responsible for a dramatic uplift in the agency’s creativity.
Advertising, when done well, is really brain surgery.
I first became aware of Todd Tilford’s work toward the end of the last millennium. Todd’s campaigns for clients such as the Hummer brand (transforming it from a piece of high-end farm equipment to a sexy, lusted-after pop culture icon), Converse, or the legendary Doom and Quake videogame franchise all stood out from the rest of US advertising – or any other, for that matter – like nothing else around at the time. I first interviewed Todd for Vol. 1-2000 while he was still running Pyro, the agency he had founded in 1993 after previously working at The Richards Group. In the 16 years since then, a lot has happened. After working at agencies such as Core, and doing consulting work for Crispin Porter + Bogusky, he joined Grey in 2009 and, over the next couple of years, led the new business wins and subsequent rebranding of the NFL, DIRECTV, and Ketel One vodka, helping to guide each to record-setting sales. Since 2011, Todd Tilford has been Chief Creative Officer, FCB Chicago, reinventing the advertising agency model and quickly gaining an ever-increasing buzz and recognition for its creative content. In 2015, Todd led FCB to the best Cannes performance in the history of the agency, winning work in Film, Radio, Press, Mobile, and PR.
Hi Todd, I first interviewed you for the very first issue of Archive in the new millennium! Back then, you had this brilliant smallish agency called Pyro in Dallas, which did strikingly beautiful work (that also proved hugely influential). One of the things you told me back then was: “I have divorced myself from the world of advertising.” Sixteen years on, you’re Chief Creative Officer of FCB, Chicago and are responsible for a dramatic uplift in the agency’s creativity. Can you please fill us in on what happened in those intervening 16 years, and what prompted you to change your mind to remarry the world of advertising?
HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Well … never say never. Let’s see, back then I was running my own agency, Pyro, and we were experimenting with new ways to create work and do marketing. It was like a skunk works/R&D thing. I was hiring designers, artists, animators, filmmakers, coders. I was frustrated that advertising, at that time, seemed stuck in its ways. Here we were as an industry sitting at the intersection of art, entertainment and commerce, but not really taking advantage of it. Digital and tech were coming on strong, of course, but the industry was very slow to jump in. I was restless and wanted to experiment with the model. I was still doing advertising. I was just trying to do it in new ways. What I was saying was I wanted to divorce myself from advertising that was just more advertising. It was a wonderful time. We had all these great 90s accounts: Hummer, Dr. Martens, Converse Chuck Taylor, Spyder skiwear, Doom, Quake … They were all global accounts that wanted experimental work which wasn’t typical advertising.
Skip ahead a lot of years and, yes, here I am running the third oldest advertising office in the world. So how did that happen? Well, in this day and age, it helps to have scale. With scale come capabilities and resources. Big brands, the entertainment industry … the world wants to partner with agencies that have scale.
But I always thought if you could have scale and at the same time run it like a small, nimble, experimental, entrepreneurial agency, you could do great things. That is exactly what we are trying to do at FCB. I came to FCB because, at the time, it was not a victim of its own success creatively, and the business was facing some great challenges, so they were very open to trying a new model and experimenting with new ways to do advertising.
How do you inspire your teams at FCB Chicago to come up with unusual, powerful work?
Life, human truths, unearthed insights, great storytelling, art, entertainment, music – the usual suspects. I have been fortunate to surround myself with some wonderful, talented, passionate people, and we inspire each other. We have a flat, open-source entrepreneurial culture at FCB Chicago. It’s very important to create a culture committed to collaboration. That’s where the magic happens: the basic elements of a creative company – conversations, human interaction, the exchange of thought, of ideas. We built our entire new space around that. As a small example, a lot of our rooms are configured with round tables, to diminish hierarchy and encourage interaction. You get the right people around those tables, and there isn’t much you can’t make happen.
I like to think of the culture we have created as a convex lens. When all the unique perspectives, ideas and individual creativity is focused and channeled into a single source with a single focus, amazing things happen. Like completely turning an agency around.
To improve the creative at FCB so significantly, did you have to change the way the agency created the work?
Yes, absolutely. We completely changed our model. Again, it’s all about conversations and collaboration. We eliminated the silos. We try to eliminate internal PowerPoint and decks and just talk. Eliminating all the clutter leaves you nothing to hide behind and allows you to get at the real truths and insights that lead to great work.
We also learn by doing. We eliminated the entire linear process. Those days are over. It’s now all about rapid idea prototyping. When an assignment comes in, a cross-disciplinary brain trust gets together at a round table to have a conversation and form a strategic hypothesis. The hypo-thesis is agreed upon, usually within a day or two, and then distributed throughout the different disciplines. Everyone begins working at the same time. Planning works on the brief while analytics, creative, account, digital, social, and production begin working. Everyone is tinkering together. Everyone feeds and learns from each other as you go. We charge the hill. The hypothesis is either proven or disproven, and you end up with a better-informed brief radically quicker. The amount of time to get to a great strategy is cut exponentially and everyone has more time to create together.
We’ve also completely changed our ability to create work. We’ve turned FCB into one big creation studio. If you can dream it, you can make it without ever having to leave the agency. We’ve had our own film directors on staff for four years now, directing some of our best, most award-winning work. We also have one of the largest agency post-production studios capable of doing amazing things (editing, sound, music, special effects, motion graphics) called Lord & Thomas. We also have a terrific in-house print production studio capable of creating and printing almost anything. We even have a high-end silk screening studio.
Of course we still work with outside directors and production companies regularly as well. But the ability to make whatever you want at a very high level without having to leave the building significantly changes the game. It also allows you to be highly proactive – simply because you can. You control the entire creative process.
In the end, everything, of course, is all about helping to build and grow great brands. We try to always hit that sweet spot at the intersection of brand purpose and cultural conversation.
Tell us about some of the work that you are particularly proud of. What are your “greatest hits” at FCB?
I am very proud of the Color For The Colorblind work we did for Valspar. You have this great paint company that believes in a change for the better and wants everyone to experience the true power of color. So we said, what about the colorblind? To be a part of something that, for the first time in history, corrected colorblindness was amazing.
Our Unforgotten campaign for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence was something that meant a lot to me. It was a very moving experience that took your breath away. Very chilling. Makes you so angry that we cannot fix this horrible problem in our country.
Our Boeing Flypaper project is one of my favorites as well. Boeing is this truly amazing company. But it is losing engineers to Silicon Valley. Our goal was to reawaken the passion for flight in young people and get them thinking about engineering at Boeing. Boeing believes in building something better through art and science. So we had Boeing engineers build better paper airplanes. We then turned them into limited-edition posters that were scored so that you could fold them into these amazing oversized paper airplanes. Boeing now sells them in their stores and uses them as part of education programs in schools.
Other favorites include our adult baby stroller work for Contours. Basically a really fun product demonstration. Babies can’t tell you how comfy a stroller is. Contours gave parents a chance to be better informed when shopping for a stroller, while having a unique, fun, memorable experience as well.
Then there is our work for Joe Boxer pajamas. When you are in pajamas, the last thing you want to do is do anything. So we created the world’s first Inactivity Tracker: Just don’t do it. And, of course, there is the ridiculous, fun work we did for Kmart. We created the world’s first direct response viral ad for Joe Boxer boxer shorts. And then there’s Ship My Pants, one of the top ten viral ads of all time.
Finally, I am very proud of the creative brand platform we are building for Michelob Ultra. The work is really smart and culturally right on, and it is working big-time. Michelob Ultra is now the fastest growing beer in the world. Very excited about where we’re headed with the work.
FCB Chicago performed very well at this year’s award shows. Ten One Show Pencils. eight D&AD Pencils. 15 Cannes Lions. Did you follow this year’s Cannes Festival? Were you there? What were your impressions regarding the award-winning work?
Yes, it was the best year creatively in the agency’s 103-year history. Very proud of what our team achieved this year. And, yes, I was at Cannes. Very inspiring. So much great work. Fortunate to be a part of it all. I thought this year was a return to more brand-building work – and that is a good thing.
Before becoming CCO at FCB Chicago, you played a large role early on in the turnaround at Grey New York. What was that like?
I came on board near the end of Tor’s first year there. Tor is great. Learned a lot from him. He was working to turn the shop around creatively and I’m a sucker for a real challenge. We had a great run. I led the new business wins and subsequent rebranding of the NFL, DIRECTV, and Ketel One vodka. Great people. Great work. Great time.
Tell us about some of the favorite work you did while at Grey.
Our work for DIRECTV was a lot of fun.
My favorite is still probably the Russian Oligarch work. A lot of people thought maybe there was such a thing as a petite lap giraffe. So we created a lap giraffe breeder site and over a million people signed up for the next breeding in the first week. The TVC was the best-performing spot they had ever run and that, along with a new brand campaign we created, helped lead DIRECTV to their highest sales ever.
Very proud of the work we did for the NFL. It was their first fully integrated campaign (“If you want the NFL, go to the NFL”). We had this idea to shoot NFL action in ultra-slow motion with super high-speed film. We worked with NFL films and helped pioneer the technique that you see everywhere now. We were tinkering with cameras and shooting the games every week. We caught some amazing things on film and created the campaign around it. It enabled you to look at football in a whole new way. It was like watching it for the first time, and it gave us a tremendous platform to bring together all their business units in marketing. It was a big success and really helped the NFL establish a foundation that the brand continues to rely on today.
Then there was our work for Ketel One vodka. At the time, vodka sales were down and everything in the category was very feminine. So we stole some cachet from scotch and whisky and made it a masculine thing. We always featured it on the rocks. It struck a chord in pop culture and sales took off.
How has the world of advertising changed since we last talked? What have been some of the greatest changes since the year 2000? Is digital the lead medium today?
We live in a digital world so, yes, I would say it is the lead medium. But any medium can be a lead medium if it is paired with the right idea. So much has changed, and so much has stayed the same. It’s undeniably more complicated now. More avenues, more options, more complexity, more opportunity. But the core of what we do is the same. Great storytelling, building a great platform for a brand that enables it to flourish and grow, creating entertainment that sells the product – all of that hasn’t changed.
Any thoughts on the scam ad affairs that somewhat overshadowed this year’s Cannes Festival in more ways than usual?
Scam has always been out there. Probably always will. I think it is unfortunate, but I don’t think it overshadowed all the great legitimate work.
What, to you, is some of the great advertising work out there right now, or how do you view the current output?
You go to Cannes, or One Show, or D&AD, and you see some truly amazing work. You turn on the TV or your computer or phone and you don’t see much great work. So great work is alive and well. It’s just too often lost in a sea of garbage. I think we have a duty, as an industry, to stop polluting. Advertising, when done right, can add value and entertainment to the world, and that should always be the goal.
I know you’re very interested in music. According to some sources, you have “written over 40 songs. No one has heard any of them.” Is that more than a rumor? And what music do you listen to today? What type of music inspires you (to write more songs), or just in general?
It’s a passion/hobby. Maybe someday you will hear one. As far as what I dig listening to, I’m a big Radiohead fan. Also love Jack White, Black Keys, Kings of Leon (earlier stuff).
You have two brothers who were also in advertising when we last talked. Did they stay in the ad business, or what are they up to nowadays?
Yes, Keith Tilford and Eric Tilford. We often get combined into a single Tilford. Ha! They are always up to a number of very interesting projects, and some of those projects are advertising-based. They are ridiculously talented, great innovators, and I am very fortunate to have been able to work with them throughout much of my career.
We had sister or, in our case, brother agencies: Pyro and Core. They worked on our stuff. We worked on their stuff. We pushed and inspired each other. It was a great time. They also worked with me on a number of projects at Grey – the NFL, DIRECTV, and Ketel One. In fact they directed the Ketel One TVC.
What films, books or other cultural events/developments have made an impact on you recently? (One thing from the first interview I will never forget is that you liked to read Ayn Rand when you were young! That was quite a shock to my European sensibility back then. If you said that today, we’d all know you’ll be voting for Donald Trump this November…)
Donald Trump scares the hell out of me. No, please, NEVER TRUMP!
Regarding Rand, I think you would find that a great number of artists, designers, and creatives have a warm, idealistic ember that still glows for “The Fountainhead.”
That said, to continue a theme here, the impact for me today is the unbelievable change brought on by technology, and experiencing how that change affects people — for better or worse. Watching that drama play out on a daily basis wins the day for sheer compelling entertainment. As for something more specific, I am, like most people, quite taken with the new golden age of TV. I think films are suffering a bit from all the energy being put there.
What would you tell young people interested in creative advertising? Is this a good time to become an ad creative?
Yes. Absolutely. The industry needs great minds and creators. Advertising still sits at the intersection of art, entertainment, and commerce. It can be a powerful thing when applied and implemented correctly. It is a dying craft only if we, as an industry, let it die. We need new thinking, we need to keep experimenting. We are in a powerful position where millions of people see our work. We can either make that experience rewarding, or we can add to the marketing pollution. Advertising, when done right, can make the world better. I truly believe that. I always tell new people that advertising, when done well, is really brain surgery. When you enable someone to see something in a new way, you are actually opening up new synapses in their brains. You are actually changing them physiologically. And that is a pretty cool thing.