An Interview with Jim Walls

Jim Walls, Group Executive Creative Director, Principal at 160over90  and author of "Three and a Tree"
Jim Walls, Group Executive Creative Director, Principal at 160over90
and author of “Three and a Tree”

Jim Walls is a principal and group executive creative director at 160over90, a Philadelphia-based branding firm with offices in California and Florida. He began his career as a copywriter, and has since built campaigns for clients like Nike, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Pepsi, ESPN, as well as three NFL teams. In 2013 he wrote the agency’s first book: “Three And A Tree,” (which we reviewed here) – a how-to guide to higher education branding developed while working on campaigns for more than 50 colleges and universities. He recently sat down with us to talk about what prompted the book, what’s unique about Higher Ed advertising, and what he thinks about the business in general.

refreshing

Agency Review:

We make the point in the review that one of the things that distinguishes your book is how refreshingly fundamental it is and how it strongly adheres to the basic – albeit often ignored – marketing principles: who are you talking to?, what do you want them to do?, why aren’t they doing it?, how will you know when they are? It’s refreshing because people often act as if certain marketing verticals – like Higher Ed – require their own rulebooks.

Walls:

Marketing really isn’t that hard. Sure, there’s an art to it, but people make it out to be so much more complicated than it actually is. The basic structure hasn’t changed since Roman times: You have a product to sell. You figure out who you’d like to sell it to, and then you craft a way to get that person’s attention so you can take a moment to explain why you’re worth the cash.

If you’re a marketing manager or a chief marketing officer or whatever, you can’t let yourself become intimidated by that process. I see marketers all the time get so caught up in the fear of making a mistake that they don’t say anything at all. Or they communicate so infrequently that people forget about them. That’s no way to move the needle. Or live your life, for that matter.

Agency Review:

Was there a light bulb that went on when you realized, “Oh, this is just like what we do for our other clients”? Or did you attack Higher Ed marketing the other way ‘round, thinking “This is how we’re gonna do Higher Ed because this is how we do marketing – conventions be damned”?

Walls:

One thing we noticed when we began working with higher ed clients is that the industry was so caught up in its own conventions—and schools were just communicating in this very formulaic, boring way that did zero justice to the fundamentally exciting product they were offering. That’s what the title “Three And A Tree” is all about: that stock photo of three kids sitting under a tree on the university quad. Here’s what those schools forgot: At the other end of that conversation is a 17-year-old kid. And they want your product. Higher education is something America does better than anyone else on the planet. But very few schools were letting the passion for what they do come through in their marketing. So we simply came in, reminded them that they have an obligation to those kids and those parents to explain how they’re different from those other 4,500 schools. And the process for doing that is no different than if you’re selling toothpaste, a car, or a $200,000 education.

Of course, you’re always going to have those critics who say, “it’s disrespectful to compare an institution of higher learning to a laundry detergent,” but that’s more of an academic critique of the business model of higher education. The comparison we’re making is ultimately one that focuses on the very basic process of communicating your reason-for-being persuasively, and that’s the same no matter what product you’re selling. I like to think Socrates would be A-OK with it. So deal with it.

Agency Review:

But to your point, they are the same in the sense of what you’re trying to do. Not only are you literally trying to sell something, but you’re trying to think about what the buyer needs and not what the seller wants. This is a fundamental precept of marketing and yet most marketers act like they’ve not only never encountered it, but that it’s completely wrong. Why is this so hard for people in marketing to understand?

Walls:

Well, everyone knows that guy at the cocktail party who only talks about themselves, right? But I think we’re all familiar with the term “active listening” by now. When we engage with someone, we need to first listen, understand them, then respond. It’s not marketing, it’s sociology, it’s good conversation. But it’s human nature to forget that, I think. I think everyone gets it, but we’re all so eager to tell our stories that we forget that the person on the receiving end might not really care.

lessons

Agency Review:

As difficult as managing regular B2C clients is, it would seem to that managing Higher Ed clients would be even more challenging (if that’s possible), because there are necessarily more layers, more inertia, more stake holders, and correspondingly less familiarity with fundamental marketing concepts (not that B2C clients always know them either). Since you’ve had great success with Higher Ed clients and yet still maintain your B2C work, it begs the question – were there things you learned from managing Higher Ed that you were able to apply back to your B2C business to help it run more efficiently?

Walls:

I often wonder what it was like the day that UPS ditched their classic Paul Rand logo in favor of the one they’ve been using for a while. Remember? We all just woke up one day and there were new trucks all over the place, and this entirely new campaign, right? It probably didn’t happen like this at all, but I imagine their CMO getting up in front of a warehouse full of higher-ups and marketing staff and saying “hey, so here’s our new logo, and here’s what it looks like on uniforms, and here are our new TV commercials. And here’s why we’re changing it all in the first place.” Then everyone went back to their desks and started using that new system, because the person in charge of making that decision told them to, and that was the guy signing their paychecks. Well, higher education doesn’t work that way.

Agency Review:

I’m not sure corporations work that way any more either, but we take your point…

Walls:

The entire university model encourages discussion and debate between a lot of really smart people who are getting paid to challenge you. Plus you’ve got tens of thousands of kids who are suddenly free for the first time in their lives who suddenly realize “wow, now when I make some noise about something, the adults finally listen,” and the school’s marketing becomes a sitting duck. And let’s not forget alumni—they want the school to be exactly the way it was back in 1976, and don’t mind telling you that you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

So you’re right: handling all these internal audiences is really challenging, and you have to handle it all very delicately. Many schools forget that. They go the UPS route. The president gets up in front of some people and says “here’s our new brand and that’s the way it’s going to be,” and the next day there’s a giant article in the school paper about how the brand is the worst thing the school’s ever done, and there’s a Facebook group of alumni calling for the president to step down, and petitions, and protests, and…well, you get the point.

That’s why we make a point of having a very structured kickoff meeting at the beginning of every relationship that helps our clients identify who will be involved in the decision-making, and at what key points we’ll be sharing our progress with the community at large. Because the biggest mistake you can make is just showing up one day and saying “surprise, here’s your new ad campaign.” You’re just going to get slaughtered, and a lot of money is going to get wasted. That’s one of the things we learned from higher ed marketing that we now apply to all our clients. When you can help your clients identify and navigate the internal speed bumps to communication, you make their jobs a lot easier, and you maximize the effectiveness of the work. But a lot of agencies don’t have the stomach for all that, and we do it extremely well, which gives 160over90 a great competitive advantage.

Agency Review:

I wonder if its more than “speed bumps”; I wonder if that idea of “broad buy-in” is something that’s meaningful for companies of any kind. Because what you’re really describing are sets of natural stakeholders – and every company has them. Though giving them all a voice probably opens up its own cans of worms for account management.

That said, the UPS example you describe is very efficient – one person, one vision, one voice. But I wonder if you could – or if in fact, 160over90 does – lay out for the client that this is the tradeoff – more buy-in, less efficiency, higher cost. Less buy-in, more efficiency, higher cost. Or perhaps “higher risk”, is more appropriate. Though, of course, there’s no quantitative reason why more people involved means a better chance of success.

Walls:

Broad buy-in is very difficult to achieve successfully for any client and still maintain the integrity and effectiveness of the work. So we often find ourselves telling clients that no matter what we do, there are going to be some people who don’t like the solutions we come up with, and that’s OK. We still want to hear what you don’t like, because there’s some truth in there that’s always worth considering. But ultimately you need a final decision maker on the client’s end who has the ability to discern the stakeholders from the influencers and the courage to say to his or her colleagues “I understand your feedback, but here’s why we’re going in this direction.”

branding

Agency Review:

You make a point early on in the book that “branding is not for everyone” and it’s a bit of a stunner because branding is a mantra that every agency – whether they do it well or not – pushes. But your point is, I think, that if the client is not going to be really committed to it, if they’re not really going to really do it, then they shouldn’t even start. That’s an extremely important statement that has many far-reaching effects. Can you expand on it a bit – for example, how did you come to that realization and why and what was the reaction by clients or prospects the first time you presented it?

Walls:

There are so many ways for the wheels to come off a brand campaign. Like if you don’t have the budget to implement it properly. Or your boss doesn’t believe in marketing—or wants too great of a role in the decision making. Or it’s just not the right time because your product has too many glaring flaws. It’s hard work to get a brand in the right place and keep it there, sort of a marathon punctuated by sprints. There are times when you have to speak up and fight for what you believe in, and times when you might even have to put your job on the line. But those are the brands that really take off. If you’re not up for it, don’t bother. So much money is wasted in this business, it boggles the mind. Not just on bad work, or overblown media buys, but just in work that shouldn’t have even been started in the first place because the client wasn’t truly committed. So if we see a client who isn’t really ready, we try to spot it early on, and walk away. (SPOILER: We don’t always get it right.)

Agency Review:

Sounds like you have a sort of checklist that you run through on a regular basis – which is perhaps the most sensible approach to client management I’ve yet encountered. And while I agree with walking away as an abstract principle, ours is a business that, like most, is always chasing revenue. Which means that walking away can be insanely difficult. And that which is difficult is usually rare. I can only think of a couple of examples, and those are second hand and thus somewhat suspect. So can you walk us through an example – leaving out names and specifics of course – of how walking away happened for 160over90?

Walls:

You’re absolutely right. It’s so hard to walk away when you’re looking at that giant check. But I look at the agencies I respect, and I think they got there by learning how to say “no.” The ones that say yes to everything are the ones you’ve never heard of. And I think that’s the fundamental reason why they wallow in obscurity. When you bring everything in, sure, the agency owners get rich, but you can’t keep good staff in the building, and I think it becomes a lot harder to sleep at night.

Maybe “walking away” is too strong a phrase. When we choose not to respond to an RFP, we try and be very clear with them about why. An example we often site is when we see clients who only want to commit to a single project, say a TV spot, or a web site. When that happens, we have a very honest conversation with them about branding and how we define it. It’s very difficult to influence public perception with one-off initiatives. It’s something that takes years to develop. We’re not just saying that because it’s in our financial self-interest. We say it because it’s the only way we feel we can truly have an impact.

future

Agency Review:

Higher education is at a tremendous inflection point these days – you have the combination of skyrocketing costs, the challenges of student debt, and the re-organization of “for profit” universities all while many people question the very need for it (though data consistently shows wildly different unemployment rates for college and non-college grads). And as all that’s going on, advertising and marketing are being revolutionized – by media, consumers, the internet, whatever. It’s a lot in flux. So, with all that in mind – what do you think the future holds for higher ed marketing? How is it different 5 years from now? Ten years? Next year?

Walls:

Here’s something I learned only very recently, and not because I work with higher ed clients, but because I was looking into how I’m going to help my kids pay for college in a decade or so: The price of higher ed is increasing, but at a pace that’s actually SLOWER than inflation—and it’s been that way for some time. That’s not the marketer in me saying that, it’s The College Board. But that doesn’t make for a very click-worthy headline, does it?

Agency Review:

Sure, it’s slowed – after an insane run-up. When I graduated college, the median household income was about 22k. My alma mater charged just north of 10k for a year ‘neath their elms. In 2012? Median household income had grown to about 50k but my alma mater was charging well north of that per year. That’s insane…

Walls:

Well, we can get into the discussion about public vs. private tuitions, the quality perception that comes with charging a higher sticker price, the true costs that students these days pay once the financial aid discounts kick in vs. what they were like in decades past, but I’m not sure you’ll keep any of your readers! Let’s talk marketing. I like to pretend I know more about that anyway.

I think a lot of people have figured out how to game the system. Take your core classes at a local state school, then transfer, for instance. So the conversation is constantly changing. Ten years ago, schools all wanted to talk about their “esteemed faculty.” (No school we’ve ever worked with has said they have mediocre faculty, by the way.) Five years ago, the common theme was “global impact.” Today, it’s all about “value”—everybody wants to talk about the value they provide. I think they’ve read too many of those “Is college really worth it” articles. Yeah, I think it’s worth it, but you have to be a smart shopper.

So where’s it all going? I hate to prognosticate—I thought the iPod was going to be a flop. But I think the schools that learn to embrace video are going to win. If you can make an entertaining video that can explain how to navigate the financial aid office, that’s so much better than another thousand brochures or postcards. So yeah, make more videos. The kids like videos.

Agency Review:

Videos. Got it. But I wasn’t thinking so much about people trying to game the system as I was about all the different ways higher ed was trying to reach students. MOOCs, for example, and podcasts and just generally putting their classes on line. On the one hand, this feels like an admirable effort to go where the kids are, to respond to the “I want it when I want it” mentality we see in other categories. But on the other hand it feels like a massive thinning of the brand – one that would seem to have colossal repercussions for the nature of colleges – in terms of culture, structure, and revenue – on a scale we haven’t seen since universities started funding themselves by becoming de-facto defense contractors after World War II. Or am I not seeing the bigger picture?

Walls:

No, I think you’re dead on. I’ve participated in online courses, and the ones who get at right, I think, can offer a better experience than you get in classrooms. The traditional model of going away for four years is going to stick around for a while, ‘cause it’s an American rite of passage. But I think you’re going to see a lot of small private schools shutting their doors in the years to come if they don’t get with it. Marketing can’t help them. They need to change their models.

The Internet has flattened the playing field. Just leveled it. When you or I went to school, we probably only heard of, what, 20 or 30 schools, most of them in our region? Today, I can get info on any school, anywhere, on my phone. I suddenly have hundreds or thousands of schools in my sphere of perception now. I have choices. And the small, geographically challenged privates can’t rely on getting those smart, affluent kids in the 50-mile-radius of their bell towers anymore. It’s not 1920. They have to change their model or wither on the vine.

format

Agency Review:

“Three and a Tree” feels like it was designed to facilitate the reader dipping into it at any point – it doesn’t necessarily make a linear argument that needs to be read cover to cover to be understood. Why ? Why did you feel that you didn’t need to make a traditional argument and why did you build the book that way? Clearly this was done on purpose – was it inspired by the viewbooks you create for your clients, both from a form and from a function perspective?

Walls:

Exactly. Watch people read a magazine. Very few people read everything cover-to-cover. They flip. Some start at the back. When we started crafting viewbooks, that was exactly our philosophy: break the school up into bite-size chunks, and try to tell a story on a single spread. Wired does this brilliantly. It makes the content a lot more digestible, and ultimately makes the stories they’re telling more memorable.

We also treat our book content like ads. Make a point, then move on to the next one. It also makes the book a lot thicker, and as we all know, thicker=smarter.

Agency Review:

Thicker = smarter. That’s probably why all the great creative directors are former professional wrestlers and longshoremen.

That you’re right that people are consuming media the way you describe is probably not news to you, but it raises a couple of interesting questions. For example, do you adopt the same strategy for all the media you use for your clients, and if so, how? And second, since MRI data and neuroscience are showing that “story” is the way our brains process information, how do you tell a story – which tends to be linear – in this “enter at any point for any amount of time” consumer approach?

Walls:

No, we don’t take this approach to everything we do. It works very well for long-format pieces. But storytelling is always there. And stories don’t need to be 10,000-word narratives. Look at the great DDB Volkswagen ads of the 60s. Each one told a story. “Think small” is one of best stories in advertising ever written. It’s the “Old Man and the Sea” of advertising. I feel like suddenly everyone calls themselves a “storyteller,” but isn’t that just good copywriting? It’s what the best people in this industry have always done.

Again, to use the Wired example, I think if you pick up an issue—even if you’ve never read the magazine before—and spend ten minutes flipping through it, you’d get a pretty good sense of their overall editorial mission. That’s the same philosophy of most of our long format work. Pick it up, flip through it, page through a few of the things you find interesting, and our hope is you’ll walk away with the big picture of what we’re all about. And if it compels you to go back and start at Page 1 and read the whole thing through, all the better.

difficult

Agency Review:

What was the most difficult thing about writing the book? The form? Organizing the content? Figuring out how to articulate what you were obviously already doing? And no “finding time to do it” does not count.

Walls:

It was written in August in a pop-up trailer in Lancaster County, PA, over the course of three days. I lived on peach pie and Turkey Hill iced tea while I pounded away for 18 hour days on a laptop that had no internet access. It was the only way I could get it done. This is all true.

Agency Review:

Much like this interview…

Walls:

Tell me about it. But even though I wrote it, I didn’t write it in the traditional sense. All of the content came from the insights of my 110-or-so coworkers. When we first had the idea for the book, we all got in a room, and just started filling a whiteboard with the points we wanted to get across. I put all the points into some sort of order, then just wrote around it. That was the most difficult part—extracting the knowledge and insights of an entire agency full of people so it didn’t get lost to the ages. And people seem to like it. So much so that there’s talk of another one in the works. Look for our new book “Four And a Tree,” coming Fall 2015!

Agency Review:

So you’re planning on becoming the Sue Grafton of business books?

Let me pivot the question a bit. Because there’s been a lot of talk about the value of the “hive mind” and that “crowdsourcing” is the agency of the future. And at the same time, many are screaming that brainstorms are the bane of our existence and that if you need more people in the room then you started with the wrong people in the first place. Where do you come down on this? It sounds like your position is to have one foot firmly in each camp. Or was that just in this unique case?

Walls:

Brainstorms are great. The notebook by the bed is great. Einstein liked long walks. Yeah, I come down on both sides. However you get to an idea is the best way. I’m sure you can go find an article on Lifehacker talking about how brainstorms have been proven to be 28% less efficient at arriving at creative solutions, or how Google now outlaws them, or some such claptrap. Sometimes I like to talk about ideas with other people, sometimes I like to drink a beer by myself and think about it alone. Is crowdsourcing bad? I dunno. Seems to work for Doritios in every Super Bowl. I also think it results in a lot of commercials with dogs doing double-takes, babies doing weird CGI stuff, and crotch shots.

You can read our review of Jim’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). Or you can reach out directly to Jim here.

Illustration of Jim Walls by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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