An Interview with Dave Marinaccio

Agency Review-Marinaccio final
Dave Marinaccio, Chief Creative Officer at LMO Advertising, and author of “Ad Men, Mad Men, and the Real World of Advertising”

After stints as an amusement park ride operator, roofer, and student at Second City in Chicago, Dave Marinaccio, embarked on an advertising career that led him to JWT, Foote, Cone & Belding, DMB&B, DDB Needham, Bozell Worldwide and ultimately to LMO where he is the Chief Creative Officer, partner, founder, and therefore the “M”. His book Admen, Mad Men and the Real World of Advertising (which we reviewed here) covers much of what he learned, discovered, experienced and made up over the course of that career. He graciously sat down with us to discuss that book, the nature of advertising, and the state of the industry at large.

why 

Agency Review:
Let’s start with why? David Ogilvy has written about advertising. Luke Sullivan has. Rosser Reeves, George Lois, Kevin Roberts, Rick Webb, Claude C. Hopkins. So why you? Or more precisely, why would a man who knows that every product is only as good as the market for that product, feel that what the book buying public needed was one more tome about what we do? And we ask this question – as harsh as it may sound – with the reminder that we read the book, liked it and found it quite interesting – but we’re not the public. We’re advertising nerds. So why?

Marinaccio:
There are a few different ways to look at it. Advertising is ubiquitous. It touches everyone at every level of our culture. I wanted to put new eyes on it. Write about it for both the insider and outsider. The consumers of advertising should have as much interest in it as we do. It might be more important for them to understand it.

Agency Review:
We couldn’t agree more with that sentiment. We make the point to our students again and again. As consumers we’re swimming in this stuff and everyone should understand how and why it works. And just saying “it doesn’t work on me” only proves how much it does.

Marinaccio:
No question, it works. But I wanted to communicate was that it doesn’t always work for the reasons we think. Sometimes it works despite the people who create it. I wanted to be honest on a brutal level. Nothing in the book is dressed up. I don’t think anyone has done it in that way before. I mean, what did David Ogilvy confess? Really.

Agency Review:
True, but I always felt that Ogilvy’s book worked like his ads – an attention-getting headline and then a tremendous amount of copy that made a coherent argument.

Marinaccio:
It’s been a long time since I read Confessions…. But as I recall it, it’s done in a self-congratulatory manner. He was, in a sense, confessing how wonderful he was.

Agency Review:

I don’t dispute your knowledge – as I said, we liked the book. The question is more about what specifically you thought wasn’t or hadn’t been addressed (or if you prefer, “confessed”) that you could shed light upon. And then why you thought the public was hungry for it.

Marinaccio:
I’m not comparing myself to Ogilvy or his career. My book is written from a foot soldier point of view. It’s intended to be much more down to earth.

The most basic truth is I wrote the book because I’m a writer. Writers write. And it’s better if you write what you know. After forty years, I know.

regional shops

Agency Review:
The agency that bears your name, LMO, is widely regarded as one of the premier shops in the DC market. But you’re running a regional agency at perhaps the most challenging time for regional agencies. Twenty years ago, there were more regional retailers who liked to run regional ads in regional newspapers and on regional radio stations. Today? Not only are a lot of those clients and channels gone, but because of the internet, you’re competing on a national and international scale. So when did you realize that change was happening? Or was it too gradual to really notice?

Marinaccio:
LMO still runs regional ads on the web with geo-fencing. But, you’re right, geography is less important in the 21st century. More frequently it’s the consumer themselves that are regionalized by demographics or affinity. We now have the precision to target individuals and individual behaviors. Contextual targeting and retargeting is the new regionalism.

Agency Review:
Sure, but regional shops existed because of geography. And what you’re describing is an agency built around affinity which serves a fundamentally different need for clients, right? So how did LMO make the shift?

Marinaccio:
The shift was made for us. It’s the market that shifted. It couldn’t have happened without the internet.

And messaging is still messaging. Banner ads are very similar to outdoor boards. Both demand an economy of words and an arresting visual. Email is direct mail delivered by electrons. What’s interesting is that many insiders don’t realize how little that part of the business has changed.

Agency Review:
Agreed on both points – about messaging and about what insiders don’t understand. But there’s still a tectonic difference between, say, OOH and digital, namely that digital allows a conversation that traditional media like OOH doesn’t. How does a regional shop with any kind of legacy adapt to that?

Marinaccio:
I have a slightly different view of that. We always have been in a conversation with consumers. What’s changed is immediacy. That conversation happens so quickly that you need to respond on an incredible fast timeline. I write about this in the book. In many ways a smaller agency has an advantage. 

big shops

Agency Review:
While LMO isn’t a shop on the mind-numbing scale of JWT, BBDO or Ogilvy, you came up through those big agencies before starting LMO, and I’m sure you still engage with them often enough today – in pitches, in conferences and in dreaded “inter-agency taskforces” with key clients. So what do you see as the fundamental difference between big shops then and now? Or have they changed at all?

Marinaccio:
I will tell you what surprises me. Accounting firms thinking they are ad agencies. Deloitte is essentially an accounting firm with a consulting arm.

Agency Review:
And now they’ve merged Deloitte Digital with Heat.

Marinaccio:
That helps give them credibility but there is so much institutional bias to overcome.

Agency Review:
“Institutional bias”? Like what?

Marinaccio:
When a thirty billion dollar company swallows a small company it’s rarely the small company that drives the culture. We’ll see how that plays out.

But to get back to your original thought, the difference between big and smaller agencies, the difference tends to be the same as it ever was. Big agencies still have large media muscles. Smaller agencies can’t compete with that. An account like American Express would sink us. But when it comes to getting things done, big agencies are super tankers and smaller agencies are sailboats. We can sail closer to the wind and turn quicker. That’s a big advantage for places like LMO.

Agency Review:
But “sailing closer to the wind and turning quicker” is a value only to those clients who are willing to risk success and aren’t just looking for a cheaper, easier-to-justify solution. And those clients are few and far between, right? That would seem to make it a tough benefit to sell.

Marinaccio:
To me, closer to wind means you don’t have lots of levels to go though. Decisions can be make quicker. You can be more responsive to clients, there’s less inertia in the system. Being big and slow doesn’t guarantee success.

information

Agency Review:
We make the point, cynically perhaps, that one of the refreshing and valuable things about your book is that it is filled with the kind of insight, advice and sometimes just plain information, that usually doesn’t get passed along from generation to generation. The kind of advice that apparently each generation has to figure out for themselves because no one shared it with them. Why? Why is this business so bad at sharing the really valuable information with each other – or do you think every industry is like this and we’re just aware of it in advertising because that’s our chosen field of endeavor?

 Marinaccio:
It’s natural to spin or cast yourself in the best possible light. People tend to whitewash their pasts. If you ask how they got a client, they tend to forget the serendipity or the night they got drunk with the brand manager and go straight to the talking points. It sounds better.

But that leaves out a lot. I decided to fill in the gaps.

Agency Review:
I think that answer’s a bit too clever by half. Because I’m not talking about the PR or the attempt to look smart. I’m talking about something darker – that the industry is incapable of passing along advice because 1) it actually doesn’t know what makes good advertising, or 2) it doesn’t really care what makes good advertising, or 3) people in the industry don’t want anyone else in the industry to know their secrets. If it’s the last, well, that’s endemic among competitors, I suppose. But I have a feeling it may be one of the first two, and that seems troubling to me.

Marinaccio:
Some of your speculation may be true. My supposition is that it’s driven by human nature. We can’t resist revisionist history that makes us look good.

Mark Twain said, and I paraphrase, become a success and world will conspire to make you a gentleman. I think that’s right on. The unsaid part is that most successful folks let it happen. It is so much easier to stick to the story.

I worked at Needham. More than one colleague told me that if you brought Keith Reinhard a good idea, he would change the strategy to fit the execution. That’s not how it’s supposed to be done. But it rings true. Would you tell a client that? I’m sure it’s not in the new employee manual.

answers 

Agency Review:
You speak well, in passing, of the AMC show “Mad Men” in the book, and of course refer to it in the title of your book and in its graphic design. But as someone who’s spent their life in advertising – and recognizing that it covers an era different from yours – what do you think Mad Men got right and what do you think they got wrong? And do you think, when all is said and done, that it was ultimately a good thing for the industry or a bad?

Marinaccio:
They got the drinking part right. The business in the 60s and 70s destroyed a lot of livers. I loved that they placed IBM Selectric typewriters on the secretary desks. Perfect. And the cult of personality still exists today. It’s how a lot of business is done.

Agency Review:
Yes, the details were great – those ashtrays in every room brought back memories of my smoke-filled youth…

Marinaccio:
But Draper only presented one idea per meeting. That is not how it’s done. I actually explain that in the book.

Agency Review:
Well… I’ve been in the room when Weiden has done that. And I know Droga5 does it too. So I can’t quite agree with you there…

Marinaccio:
I’m not saying there are no exceptions but I’ve rarely ever seen it done.

I want a client to understand how we think. How we got there. In my view advertising is a process. The agency and client create advertising together. I want the client to have ownership of what we do. Giving them one idea is making advertising a product they buy or don’t.

As for “Mad Men”, it was better than good for the biz. It was great.

Agency Review:
But why was it great for the business? Do you think it elevated the public’s perception of advertising? Do you think it’ll staunch the flow of creatives away from advertising (and into movies, digital, television and tech)? Do you think we’ll be seen less as used car salesmen and more as heroic artists? Or did it do something else for the industry?

Marinaccio:
For all the foibles of the staff at Sterling Cooper, the show made them bigger than life. And Draper was a movie star even on TV.

the future

Agency Review:
For as long as I’ve been in this industry, people have been telling me that it’s dying. Probably for as long as my father and my grandfather were in it too.

Marinaccio:
Ain’t that the truth.

Agency Review:
So, setting aside the fact that, of course, it’s dying, what’s next for advertising? Or, if you’d prefer – what would you like to be next for advertising?

Marinaccio:
The doomsday scenario ignores the fact that there were ads on walls in Imperial Rome and there are logos on the International Space Station. We’re not going anywhere. So whether you are telling truth well told or uniquely selling a USP, you have a bright future. As long as we are selling ideas, I’m happy.

Agency Review:
But are we? And are clients looking to us to sell them “ideas” or are they just looking for tactics and executions, because that’s what they think advertising is?

Marinaccio:
I don’t know if they are looking for ideas. But they respond to them. Ideas have power. They can change the way you look at things.

I’m lucky that I studied child development in college. I look at humans developmentally and advertising audiences are mostly human.

Agency Review:
Mostly…

Marinaccio:
People haven’t changed in 2,000 years, probably much longer. They have the same motivations and fears. Technology changes, not people.

Agency Review:
We were just saying the same thing to someone recently. That while the media has changed, we’re still talking to humans, and they’re the same beasts Shakespeare was writing about four hundred years ago. We still love and hate and fear and embrace. Except – and it’s a big “except” – the devil, as well as the difference, is in the details. That is, the way you talk to people about these things, changes – and if you get that wrong, the communication doesn’t happen.

Marinaccio:
So the future depends on understanding and using technology to get the message out. But a poor message will yield poor results. It’s still the idea that matters.

Agency Review:
So who’s doing a good job of that, of using technology to get out a message or idea that still matters?

Marinacco:
Guys behind keyboards.

Agency Review:
Guys?

Marinaccio:
Fair point. Guys and gals.

You can read our review of Dave’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Illustration of Dave Marinaccio by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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