Creative Generalist Q&A: Alan Wiggan
One never knows how you’ll come to meet new people. A decade ago, when I was attending university, my father returned from a business trip with the card of a gentleman he’d sat next to on his flight. I was studying for a career in marketing and advertising and the man on the plane – one Alan Wiggan – just so happended to run the top agency in the city. Lucky me! That chance encounter opened the door for an informational interview, a sage industry advisor to consult with on class projects, a recommendation that helped me get my first full-time job after graduating, an incredibly generous mentor in business, and a really cool guy just to chat with about life.
Al was principal of Hayhurst Communications, which he grew into one of Western Canada’s most successful design and advertising agencies. Hayhurst merged with two other design and multimedia companies to form the Parallel Strategies group, an advertising, design and new media agency that was purchased by Axia NetMedia in 1997 (and is now independent under the name Trigger). Al is now happily retired living on picturesque Salt Spring Island off Canada’s west coast.
So how’s retirement, Al? What’s the best part?
If I’d known it was this good I’d have done it sooner! The best part is time. To choose, to think, to sleep, to read, to explore, to fish, to golf, to learn, to love, to attempt to respond to thoughtful emails and still to have time left to do nothing but look at the ocean.
Read any good books lately?
Mao: The Unknown Story [Jung Chang and Jon Halliday]
The Clock of the Long Now [Stewart Brand “The least recognized most influential thinker in America” creator of the Whole Earth catalogue]
And finally, Volume X of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization [It’s been a very long story!]
Describe your educational background and career path. How did you come to run your own company and achieve the success that you did?
An undergraduate degree that emerged from Chinese history, archaeology, art history, poetry and literature into an English degree. Then, after starving in the promotion department of a radio station, an MBA in marketing followed by a mind numbing stint reading Neilson reports at General Foods. Coming to my senses I went to work as an account executive at an advertising agency in Toronto and at the same time built a wholesale distribution business and later a cottage industry printing franchise business. The agency that I was working with suggested that I might like to focus my effort by heading out to Western Canada to start a regional operation. So I sold my business interests, headed to Calgary and started an agency which three years later I bought from the parent company. When the agency was sold 20 years later it had about 100 people, an impressive client list, and alumni that were in senior positions in advertising, communications and marketing throughout North America.
What lessons stick with you the most from your days as an entrepreneur and creative business owner?
– Use the banks’ money and avoid personal guarantees.
– If you are going to start a business, do it before you have too much to lose.
– Payables can be your friend if you stretch them.
– Sometimes you don’t need to make money.
– Invest in your people … help them learn how to communicate with each other.
– Take risks. Be smart about them, be afraid of them but use the fear to focus.
– The difference between success and failure is often a lack of total commitment.
– It always has to be about the product.
– If it doesn’t make you nervous it’s probably not a big idea.
– Be careful about paying people for potential.
– Nothing happens until someone sells something.
– Enough revenue cures all ills.
– There is never enough revenue.
With regards to both individuals’ personalities and organizational set-up, what were some of the things you found to be most critical for coming up with strong creative ideas?
Our best ideas came during a period when our organization was balanced between random abstract and concrete sequential personalities. In the late 80’s we had Gail Browning, an expert in right/left brain thinking, test our entire staff on a confidential basis. She provided the results privately to each person explaining to them how and why they approached the world the way they did, but most importantly she explained why others approached it differently and how to communicate with them. She also provided a map that gave a right brain left brain picture of the company taken as a whole. And there was the balance.
I’d say that regardless of how people’s brains worked, intelligence, flexibility, openness to new ideas, curiosity, a willingness to learn, a willingness to work extremely hard, thick skin, honesty, and a sense of fun were critical personality traits.
My guess is that size is the single most important organizational factor impacting the development of creativity. The more people the more organizational structure, and structure strangles creativity.
Often the best creative ideas come from blinding glimpses of the obvious that only occur after some rigorous research and analysis. An example: Milk producers wanted to increase consumption by 1% [that translated into tens of thousands of litres] and their marketing folks suggested that we should direct our efforts at getting non milk drinkers and light milk drinkers to drink more milk. After lots of analysis right down to how many glasses of milk would it take to get that consumption increase [a lot of light users drinking a little more or the fewer heavy users drinking a fair bit more] the BGO was there is a reason that some people don’t drink much milk. They don’t like it! If you want to increase consumption don’t talk to people who don’t like it! Simply remind the people who drink it how much they like it and they will drink more. A campaign was developed around a simple little mnemonic device of a feel-good song that was impossible to get out of your mind. Consumption went through the roof and the campaign ran for years. So the thread went: analysis, analysis, analysis … common sense/creative filtering of data …to creative problem definition … to simple direction for a solution that focused creative development of advertising.
What leadership skills are most useful in harnessing creativity?
Patience, a sense of humour, passion for finding creative solutions, being tough enough to not accept solutions that are good enough, and the ability to sell creativity to nervous clients.
Do you still follow the advertising and communications fields?
Through no fault of mine, my son seems headed in the advertising direction [he’s at VCU AdCenter] so I follow it from about 30,000 feet, not at the ground level you need to when you are in the trenches.
Any observations on the major changes the ad biz now has to adjust to?
No surprises here. The net and cell phones, time compression and attention deficit, and audiences that go from macro to micro fragments in a heart beat.
Adapt or die. So what’s new. Evolution of media is constant. From before the time the guy in Ephesus carved sandals in the stone to advertise his shop the ad business was been changing. I mean, first there was vellum and then that papyrus thing. And don’t get me started on Christians with art. Change happens, thank god … it creates opportunities for the nimble.
Advertisers, their strategists and creative people are in the very early days of understanding how to sell using the net and cell phones. In five years what’s being done now will look as sophisticated as television advertising of the ‘50’s does to us today. My gut tells me that the winners here are once again going to be the ones who provide the most creative packaging of relevant, meaningful advertising. And that’s no different than it has been for the last 30 years.
However, the challenge is made even greater by time compression and audience attention deficit. We really have become MTV communication consumers. Particularly when messages are inserted into media that would otherwise be viewed for news or entertainment. In this environment we want our messages fast, tight and with a little flash. Long copy print ads have disappeared, 15 second TV ads are common, 5 second flash ads populate the net and cell phones. Trying to get an effective sales message across in that time frame is a daunting creative task. What doesn’t change is the need for communication strategies that spark great creative ideas. Often the writers and art directors aren’t the best at developing these strategies because strategies require an unusual fusion of analytical, sequential thinking and intuitive, creative skills … a combination that in my experience doesn’t reside in art directors or most writers. Developing these strategies continues to require really smart people with a generalist and creative approach to thinking about problems.
A significant issue that arises for agencies as media choices multiply is the need to integrate their client’s messages across a fragmented media landscape; to be advertising generalists, simultaneously building the brand to a mass audience and selling very specific benefits to micro fragments. This in turn means having an incredibly diverse talent pool to draw on – and that requires a change to the traditional structure of agencies. It is not financially feasible to employ all these folks full-time so the agency will likely, more and more, only be made up of the strategic thinkers, and project creative directors … big picture people with the ability to identify and manage highly skilled freelancers.
Are agencies still valuable?
Would you like a gift of ten thousand shares of Publicis Groupe SA? Me too.
Is the ad agency model still viable?
Not in the old sense of ‘agency’. But as a place to house and organize an eclectic group of people who have the very uncommon ability to figure out how to reach and persuade people to buy products or ideas joined with the ability to direct the development of packaging the creative product … absolutely.
Beyond advertising, what sort of endeavours fascinate and excite you?
Adventure travel, trying to integrate the profit motive into not-for-profit organizations, young people starting businesses, and how to outsmart fish.
How important is it for people in creative fields to gather inspiration from diverse things?
It is imperative. Curiosity is fundamental to creativity.
Can you think of an example from your career when having a generalist mindset/approach proved valuable?
Well, Calgary is an oil and gas town and so we of course had clients in that business. One of the things the petroleum industry is particularly good at, even though it is terrifically competitive and secretive, is forming joint ventures to exploit each others strengths. I found this fascinating and learned as much about it as I could. Some years later when we had an opportunity to compete for a very large piece of business, one that could really vault the company to a new level, I approached one of our competitors, an international agency and suggested that we follow the oil and gas model and form a joint venture company to go after the business. The idea had to go to New York to be blessed but to their credit they jumped in. At the time, nearly 20 years ago, it was a pretty radical idea but successful. We did some of our best work and enjoyed our best margins in that joint venture.
Is leadership necessarily generalist?
I don’t think so. It depends on the organization and the situation. There are times when I would want a leader to have a single-minded focus on an area of expertise. For example, when running class five rapids on a river in Costa Rica!
With regards to learning and career, what advice might you offer to a young person with a diversity of interests and, as Dan Pink put it, a whole mind?
Timely question! I have a daughter in third year and a son in his second year of graduate studies and here is what I told them. While you are at university pick your courses because you think they sound interesting, experiment, follow your instincts, use the first two years to party and have fun but get marks that will get you back, bear down in the last two and make sure your marks are good enough to get you into a good grad school. Pick the type of graduate work you want to do based on what interested you in undergraduate. And, when you are done graduate school, never quit reading. If you haven’t got time for books, read magazines – eclectically.
Jobs will come and whatever job you start in you can be sure it’s not a lifetime choice. Your career will undoubtedly be a long and winding road.
In your career, attitude and character will count for far more than technical skill. Bring curiosity, enthusiasm, a constant willingness to learn and explore new things, a sense of fun and always be willing to do the right thing, for the right reason at the right time – particularly when you’d rather do something else.
Where do you look for inspiration? Are there any organizations/people that you find especially inspiring?
Inspiration is all around us. The trick is to want to be inspired. If you are looking for inspiration you can find it in insects, the design of a boat, the way fog flows into a valley, in maps or books, or seeds or people.
I’m not sure why I had such a tough time with the second question but I did. Can’t think of an organization that I find especially inspiring, maybe because organizations aren’t much a part of my life anymore. People is easier but you are going to roll your eyes at this, my wife is an inspiration. She is caring, thoughtful, energetic, creative, open, non-judgmental, creative and inquisitive, and her faith in me makes me better than I am. She also remembers where the car keys are. That’s pretty inspirational.
Thanks so much, Al.