Zig’s Elspeth Lynn

NEW YORK Agency vet Elspeth Lynn launched Zig in 1999 with her creative partner of 12 years, Lorraine Tao, and Andy Macaulay. The 41-year-old art director, who is originally from Greenford, England, and who moved to Canada in 1974, has worked at agencies including DDB, Leo Burnett and Ammirati.

Current clients range from Molson and Best Buy to Virgin Mobile and Rethink Breast Cancer.

Zig, owned by MDC Partners and headquartered in Toronto, expanded to Chicago in 2006. Among other work, it’s creating an extensive campaign for Ikea Canada that includes international TV spots and nontraditional media.

Q: What inspired you to get into advertising?
A: I went to university and got my B.A. in art and art history, and then wasn’t able to get a job. That’s what inspired me. It was either that or be a waitress for the rest of my life.

How did you get into the business?
My father was a market researcher. … He used to have Marketing magazine, kind of the Canadian version of Adweek, lying around the house, so I would pick it up. And I thought, well, this advertising thing sounds like a great combination of business and art. Then I went to the Ontario College of Art [& Design] and took advertising for three years and then got a job.

Where was your first job?
I was hired by one of [my] teachers, Allan Kazmer, who was then the creative director of DDB. I never had to pound the pavement. I was very fortunate. I had this impression that advertising was a manipulative and cynical business. Kazmer was such a great teacher, he showed me you could bring as much integrity to it as you want.

How did you come up with the idea for Rethink Breast Cancer’s checkoutmybreasts.com, where women could go to the site and watch a how-to video of a breast self-exam?
Well, it wasn’t in the usual way we come up with ideas. Our client had just asked us to do a poster for the Target breast cancer T-shirt and she said, “I want to be straightforward. I just want a photograph taken.” I thought, it’s a favor, I’ll do it quickly. Then [Lorraine and I] started talking about how we could make a much bigger impression to help sell T-shirts that wouldn’t cost our client, a charity organization, any money. We said, “There’s still a need to get the message out there of how to do a breast exam.” Unfortunately, [women] have to resort to illustrated pamphlets or some sort of description as opposed to someone actually doing it. We shot [the T-shirt model] on video actually doing a breast exam. … It’s almost like in our culture we’re afraid to show women’s breasts because it has to mean something sexual as opposed to helping women save their lives. So it was one those ideas that was built on conversation as opposed to a client requesting a strategy.

How did you get people to the site?
We got newspapers to donate space and we put wall postings up. We got some magazines as well. We just invited people to check out our breasts.

What were some of the differences among the agencies you worked for prior to Zig?
It’s hard, because agencies change throughout the years. DDB [Toronto, where Lynn was from 1990-92] seemed to be at odds with itself in terms of creative integrity versus business decisions. I don’t know if that’s happening today. … They [originally] had this great culture at Leo Burnett [where Lynn worked from 1995-98], but it’s not as obvious these days as it could be. I think there’s a chance to make it a great agency. Ammirati [1998-99] was an agency full of really smart people and I think it was the most progressive out of all the agencies [I worked at]. I thought it was really sad what happened to Ammirati. It was just such a valuable lesson in how things can go downhill really quickly and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s the tough part of our industry, I think. It’s like you’re up one day and down the next. I felt very sad because I know what it’s like to start an agency now. To have started something and then see it implode and crumble to the ground must be the most heartbreaking thing that can happen in your business life.

Do you think Zig has a uniquely female perspective?
We believe in male/female equality, but we also have clients that require that female perspective, which is one of our strengths.

What do you think is the most disappointing creative trend?
Everyone and their brother claiming they’re media neutral.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?
Starting Zig. No question. There’s a pureness to our company that you would never get joining a standard, large advertising agency named after a dead guy.

What’s the dumbest?
Every time we hire someone who has more attitude than talent. The wrong person can affect the whole agency.

What’s the last book you read?
The Six Wives of Henry VIII and The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman. I found [the latter] incredibly inspirational because he took a 30,000-foot view of the world right now in terms of business, culture and technology. What I love about Friedman is that he writes in ideas and I love ideas.

How did you come up with the Vim cleanser spot? [“Prison Visitor,” in which a daughter seems to be visiting her mother in jail, the reveal being that the jail is the dirty bathtub. It won a gold Lion at Cannes in 2004].
Unilever has really stepped up to the game in the last few years. I’m sure you’ve noticed between the Axe brand and the Dove brand, it’s really looking to make some distinctive statements about its brands that also have a cultural impact.

Did you have trouble selling that spot to them?
It actually did the best in research as well, so it wasn’t that difficult. It was one of those funny examples where sometimes you don’t know if research is going to back up what you think is essentially right-and then it did.

How did you feel when it won the gold Lion?
It makes you realize that it doesn’t matter where you’re advertising. If you have a great idea that’s well executed, others will recognize it.

Besides your own shop, what’s your vote for the best agency out there?
It would have to be Crispin Porter. I think they’re modern-day explorers. I think they’re carving their own path out and being very fearless in the way they do ads.

What’s the last ad that made you think, “I wish I had done that?”
Adidas “Be the Ball” out of TBWA\Whybin was really a fantastic idea. The executional hurdles they had to get over to actually produce that required some fearlessness and dedication.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?
I see a lot of young, creative people trying to be cool and trying to take shortcuts instead of focusing on just working hard and doing great work and being themselves.

How do you get past a creative block?
When [Tao] and I have a creative block, we tend to go back to the problem that we’re trying to solve. If we have a block, it usually means we’re not trying to solve the right problem.

What’s your dream assignment?
We would love to work on underdogs. We like challenges. I know a lot of people [who think], “Oh, it’s a car account,” or “It’s a candy bar account,” but for us it’s really about a great client who wants to see great work. It almost doesn’t matter what the product is because it’s about a client who wants to develop their brand through a strategy that zigs in an interesting way.

Elspeth is an unusual name. Who are you named for?
Yes, there are very few Elspeths around, and sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad. If you do something really good everyone knows who did it. If you do something really bad, everyone knows as well. I wasn’t really named after anyone. It’s an old Scottish name. A couple of close friends call me El, but my father had a thing about nicknames. Shortening people’s names, he hated it. He always liked the formality of someone’s proper name, so I grew up just getting used to it. It’s funny, because whenever I meet someone, I have to pronounce it a few times for them.

Give me three words to describe yourself.
Direct. Instinctive. Determined.

How about three words that describe how others perceive you?
Direct and instinctive. And perhaps outspoken.

What’s the last thing you did for fun?
I went to London to judge the D&AD. I often go [to London], but I went to Paris and I went to Italy afterwards, so I did a little mini-European whirlwind trip. The highlight was being in Umbria. … It’s just beautiful, 12th century cathedrals and small towns that have been around for centuries and amazing food and great wine.

What’s your biggest fear?
Honestly, my biggest fear is getting cancer. When we worked on “Cam’s Breast Exam” [a spot in 2002 that featured a teenager named Cam who volunteered to do a breast exam for the viewer; the viewer dialed a name on the screen and would get a recording of Cam on the phone explaining how to do a self-exam], learning about cancer and just seeing how people suffer and are coping with it [was frightening].

Was there any negative reactions to that spot?
Well, someone had gotten hold of the script somehow [before it ran] and wrote an article about it, and the next day we had eight TV stations in here interviewing us about the spot. But once it came out, it was one of those cases where casting is everything. The casting brought the spot alive and had the tonality to get across the message. Once people saw the spot, they were fine with it.

How did you convince the client to go for it?
Well, we said to them, “We’ll hold hands along the way.” We said, “Come to the casting session and see who we’re looking at so you can feel completely comfortable that the exact right guy is going to deliver this spot for us, and if it doesn’t work out, then we won’t run it.” It’s really all about being brave together and not trying to make it about our creative ego. It was about really trying to solve a problem because we felt that so many people run away from [breast exams] because of fear.

What do you think is the biggest difference between the Canadian and U.S. advertising markets?
Everything is 10 times bigger in the U.S., so you have 10 times the budget, 10 times the opportunity to make clout within the market and 10 times the pressure. In the States, I find you get extremes. You’ve got certain brands that really push boundaries and then you get brands that are ultra-conservative. There doesn’t seem to be a lot in the middle. In Canada, I think we push a little bit more often, but we don’t have the extremes.