Q&A: Con Williamson, CCO, Saatchi N.Y.

Con Williamson likes a noisy agency. To him, it’s a sign of staffers freely speaking their minds and sharing ideas. Williamson will seek to create that environment at the New York headquarters of Saatchi & Saatchi, where he is succeeding Gerry Graf as chief creative officer. The 41-year-old South Carolina native and former Army paratrooper, in an interview with senior reporter Andrew McMains, also discussed his favorite ads, biggest pet peeve and what he learned from Pat Fallon and Jamie Barrett, his boss at the New York office of Fallon from 2000-01. And while his shift from Euro RSCG to Saatchi is a big step for him careerwise, it won’t add to his commute from Jersey City, N.J. The two shops are a block apart from each other on Hudson Street in Manhattan.

Adweek: What sold you on Saatchi?
Williamson: The brand. Even more than that, it was the people that I met. I love Mary [Baglivo], Kevin [Roberts]. Deeper than that, they had this sort of belief system that felt like something bigger. It felt like this higher cause. On top of that, when Saatchi calls, you don’t say, “No.” This is a once-in-a-career opportunity.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
It’s hard to say. There are people that I’ve loved along the way. You always try to hang out with smart people. My best friend is (Anomaly’s) Mike Byrne.

How do you know him?
We went to [Creative Circus] together. I’ve been best friends with him for 15 years. We have coffee every Tuesday.

What have you learned from him?
It’s sort of the challenging thing. Mike is a great storyteller. We have solved more of the world’s problems over a few beers. But it’s always productive and constructive. My favorite boss was Jamie Barrett.

What did you get from him?
That you can do it, that the guys who lead it have to be able to do it, too. The great thing is if we were short for something in a meeting, Jamie could walk in and, 20 minutes later, could fill the void with a few more scripts and make it great. Plus, he was just great. It never was about Jamie; it was always about the collective. That’s kind of my thing. This ain’t about me. I’m not going to solve any problems over at Saatchi. I’m hopefully going to just add to it and make it better. That’s it.

Anyone else?
Pat [Fallon] is another one of those guys that I just loved [who] was no bullshit, direct, gets it. He never sold anybody anything. He gave them the right thing for them. I learned a lot from him. You never sell a client an ad. You give them the thing that’s right for their brand.

What did you learn as an Army paratrooper that has helped you in advertising?
It’s the “we” thing. It’s that collective.

What’s on your nightstand?
The Book of Gossage about advertising . . . I’m just kidding. . . . A big, black sketchbook. And it’s filled with sketches, napkin doodles, ideas that I had or fliers. I’m looking at even right now. I carry it wherever I go and it just sort of collects the day’s trash and reminds me what my day was about. It’s my repository for stuff and occasionally a great idea happens there. Sometimes it’s just trash, but it looks cool.

What’s the last ad you saw that you wished you had done?
One of my favorite ads ever is still the Honda “Grrr” spot because I love the twist that they had — the idea that you have to hate something to make it great. It was always such a great insight for me. That and the Guinness “Swimmer” spot are my two favorite storytelling spots.

What three words best describe you?
Awake. Up for it. (That’s not a word but hyphenate them.) Open. I don’t have all the answers, but I am open for finding them. That’s my thing. What I’m saying about this gig is I’m not going in there thinking I’ve got it all figured out. There are a lot of smart people there already and I’m going to listen and see what I can do to make it better. I’m not going to make the work better; I’m looking to make it a better place to work and, by default, make better work.

What did you mean by, “I love it vibrant and loud?”
I like walking in and feeling the energy in a place. . . . I hate quiet. . . . I like being in a place where everybody is talking, where no one feels like they don’t have a say.

If you weren’t in advertising, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be back in South Carolina or still in the Army, doing something with people.

You have a pet peeve?
I don’t like cynicism. I’m an optimist. I’m a nerd for this stuff and I believe in it. Sometimes you have to accept [cynicism]. We’re all guilty of [being] cynical. I think a healthy dose of it is OK. But you’ve got to believe in this stuff. If you don’t believe in what you’re working on, then get the fuck out because, in the end, I think [cynicism] is a virus.

What inspires you?
Smart people. I love getting around people a lot smarter than me and just sort of soaking it up. And people with ideas that you didn’t expect. That’s what I loved about working at Fallon back in the day: it was just a lot of really smart people having a good time. It was never this formal environment. It was just a lot people having a good time, thinking of stuff.