Brian May - Principle and Creative Director, MaycreateBrian May - Principle and Creative Director, Maycreate
Make no mistake. Brian May has no time for the high drama, sexcapades and office hijinks that make “Mad Men” such a juicy and addictive series. But he is fascinated by the show’s depiction of the creative side of an era that ended just as he was born. And he is also quite taken with the style—the classic fashions, the mid-century furniture, the attitude—that have launched a retro cottage industry. May is, after all, what you might call a 21st century “Mad Man.” His firm, Maycreate, is a top design and branding agency, and as prinicipal and creative director, May is chief evangelist of the impact of image. “Whether you like it or not, you are branding yourself from the time you wake up in the morning,” he says.
In the digital era, May and his company are Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce on steroids, designing and branding—selling an image—for local, regional and national clients such as CapitalMark Bank, the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau and Honda Powersports. “The same (advertising) principles apply,” May says over a cool cocktail at the stylish Easy Bistro on Broad Street. “It’s all about creating a conversation.”
May certainly achieved that goal with his firm’s latest project—the redesign of the City of Chattanooga’s website. While he declines to discuss the details of an ongoing project, the bidding process prompted a flurry of “conversations,” mostly in opposition to the cost. But that’s another story.
With the debut of the much-anticipated fifth season of “Mad Men” just behind us, we asked May about the show, his own experience as an ad man and the difficulties—and pleasures—of running an agency in a small market in 2012.
THE PULSE: While you obviously can’t speak to the era of advertising portrayed in “Mad Men”—and this is Chattanooga, after all—how do you feel about the show and what it says about advertising in general?
BRIAN MAY: There are things that I love about the show—when the writers take the characters deeper into the creative process, the research, the accidents and how much effort goes into “doing what we do.” The parts I can live without are, quite frankly, the things that drive the ratings in all likelihood. I’m speaking of all the soap-opera drama and sub-plots, but, hey, not everyone lives and breathes advertising and branding.
Most interviews with ad men of the “Mad Men” era who occupied similar roles as Don Draper mostly say they were not like him. What character do you most identify with?
Actually, I’d say Don Draper. In the sense that I’m loyal to my team, enjoy the creative process more than any other part of the business, and only want to work with clients that respect us and desire a creative partnership. I’ve been known to ask a client to work with another firm when the fit’s not right. We all know Don Draper would do that.
One of the fascinating aspects of the show is that is shows how products we are familiar with were advertised and marketed in the past. Fictional or not, the characters don’t actually seem to have much respect for their clients or their products. What product or service are you most happy with being associated with and, conversely, which one are you sorry you helped? Not a campaign but a product or service.
It’s a simple belief that if you take the clients that you want to work with you’ll always have fun and do your best work. One of our favorite clients locally is CapitalMark Bank and Trust. They have a great banking model and their customer service is off the charts (as evidenced by their success). CMBT has been a client of Maycreate’s from the very beginning days of the bank. We have a great relationship that fosters a healthy amount of dialog, which in turn produces great creative.
As for the product or service we’re sorry we helped, this large retail chain in Atlanta comes to mind. After only 90 days of working with them we decided we’d resign the account. It wasn’t so much about their service or their products as much as it was about how they treated us. Not very respectful at all, which I find funny considering they hired us.
With the advent of the Internet and the appearance that it is changing everything one way or another, how would you suggest to someone who might want to get into the advertising field, how they would go about it? What would you do if you were just starting out today?
I wouldn’t change my path at all. I like challenges and believe that the only way to move forward is to always challenge yourself in some way. It keeps the mind sharp, client’s like sharp minds.
As for a “recommended path,” I don’t believe there is one single and correct path. But I do recommend these steps:
—Go to a college or university and learn from professors that have actually practiced professionally.
—Get the best internship you can. Not one of those where you run errands and fetch Starbucks. I mean the internship where you wake up one day scared to go in because you’ve been knee deep into the process and you don’t know what you’re doing. This will help you understand whether or not you’re cut out for the business. At Maycreate every intern we’ve ever had has been working on a real project with real deadlines from their very first day.
—Don’t take the highest paying job right out of school. Sometimes the best place to get started is at a print shop. Go to work for less money at a more talent-laden shop. This will help you more in the long run than you’ll realize.
—Be willing to resign a job when you’ve outgrown the position. Even if it means taking less pay to work somewhere that will help advance your knowledge and skills.
—Stand up for your creative. It may not make it to the client pitch, but if you don’t believe your ideas are best for the client, who will? The account executive won’t stand up for the creative if you aren’t willing to do so yourself.
—Do not be afraid to fail.
—Do something you’ve never done before.
What have been the biggest changes in advertising since you first started?
The Internet—and I like it. We can now measure whether something works within a few days. Tweak it, change it and watch the reaction happen. It’s really a nice change from the traditional, almost non-measurable forms of media. But don’t get me wrong—I still love a beautifully crafted headline with copy that’s supported by a brilliant visual.
How does a Chattanooga-based ad agency thrive and survive in the modern era. In other words, what has been the key to your success running an agency in a small market?
This is pretty simple. Love the market you’re in and have clients in other markets as well. I’ve seen this in other, larger cities first hand. Every agency, no matter the size of the market, should have clients in other markets. Those of us running creative businesses in Chattanooga would like to see more dollars stay here, but the truth is every market says that. I know agencies in Atlanta that complain about work going to New York.
Do you think companies and agencies have gone too far in selling concepts rather than products? Do you think there is too much forced humor in ads today, making the ad, and not the product, the focus?
There aren’t enough pages to do this question justice. There are books written debating the conceptual versus the “just the facts” approach to advertising. I will say this, I wish more automotive commercials would show more of the actual car.
Could a high school dropout be able to work their way up from the mail room in 2012? Is there actually still a “mail room”?
Sure, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve worked at the places that had mail rooms. Not very much fun to be had, but I learned a lot while I was there. There is a mail room—it’s on your desktop or in your hand and it goes with you everywhere.
Do you think, if transported, would a 1960s ad man be able to compete in the current environment?
Yes, good creative people adapt quickly and must be able to think on their feet. I’m not saying Don Draper would understand email on day one, but he’d get it after he realized that he no longer had a secretary.
Several times, Don Draper has a “a-ha” moment when an idea hits after he’s struggled to come up with a concept to present. I’m interested in your experience with those kinds of moments and the campaigns that resulted.
The local example of that was the “What is Art 2 Me” campaign we did for Allied Arts a few years ago. We worked on concepts and ideas for weeks. The challenge was to communicate to the general public that everyone experiences art and design daily. Then we needed to come up with a way to engage people and get them involved in the process. After working for hours and hours I was driving across the Market Street Bridge with Monty Wyne (Maycreate’s senior creative director who spent more than 25 years at ad agency giant J. Walter Thompson) when he said, “The real question is what is art to me as an individual.” We both looked a one another and immediately went back to the studio and started working around that idea. The end result was a campaign that encouraged people to take empty photo frames, hold it up to whatever they saw as art and take a photograph of it and post it on the website. It turned out to be the perfect solution.