Ty Montague can make a pepperoni pizza in one minute and 41 seconds. But that's not the only knowledge he gained from his four days at the Domino's Pizza Prep School in August. The co-president and chief creative officer of JWT in New York spent mornings in a classroom learning about his client's store operations and procedures and afternoons working in a franchise located at the chain's Ann Arbor, Mich.-based headquarters. While there, he took, made and delivered orders.
"I came out of this being able to speak Domino's fluently," says the 42-year-old copywriter.
His classmates included the client's office workers and suppliers, and like them, Montague said he was exposed to the company's "constant balance between speed and quality" and its high standards for employee behavior.
"If you were late or if you made a mistake, the penalty was you had to sing for the whole class," Montague says. "I will admit I lost my name tag, and I had to sing 'I'm a Little Teapot.'"
Embarrassing vocal performances aside, Montague is a proponent of getting in close with a client.
"I did it because I honestly believe in order to do great work, it is essential to understand how your client's business really operates," he says. "I walked away much more sensitive to the things that are absolutely top-of-mind with every Domino's franchise, [like] making the phone ring. Their business lives or dies on that one thing, and that's obviously where we come in."
For his client immersion 18 months ago, Andy Azula's environment was a hot UPS truck in which he rode shotgun with a delivery driver. Dressed in UPS brown, the creative director at The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., got to see firsthand not only the respect drivers get, but also the sense of trust the company garners. Says Azula, "People treat you differently. We had access to anywhere."
"It is such a smooth-running machine at all levels. We were absolutely able to take that experience and put it into advertising," he says. "Our recommendation [to UPS] is never walk away from reliability. You always want to keep that fresh and going along with other messaging you're doing."
Azula, 39, looks back on his UPS day as "the coolest experience ever, but one I'd never want to do again." Though riding in the truck was great, making 160 stops was hard. "There's a lot of starting and stopping, a lot of getting in and out of your truck, a lot of stairs," he says. "Physically, it's so much more demanding than I thought."
Elizabeth Thompson knows the feeling. Last fall the account planner at McGarrah/ Jessee in Austin, Texas, spent five days "undercover" at a local Whataburger mopping floors, building burgers and delivering orders. "It was the most exhausting work of my life," says Thompson, 26. The fast feeder had asked its agency to help it find ways to communicate its brand to new employees.
"It was important to get an idea of how [hiring and training] really happens without the 'they're from corporate' mentality," she says. "No one was pretending for me."
The insights she picked up in mustard-stained pants have helped the agency create internal communications and have strengthened her affinity for the brand. "You get to understand where the employees are coming from and how excited customers are about their meal," she says. "That's something you don't forget."
This philosophy about emerging oneself in a client's business is not a new one. Agency veteran Steve Bowen, 61, who now helps market author James Patterson's books, recalls rides he took through the Alps and Death Valley, Calif., with executives from BMW Motorcycles after New York-based Merkley + Partners (then Merkley Newman Harty) won that client's business in 1998.
"Until you've ridden on a rainy day on a freeway going 80 miles an hour, passing a truck and spray comes up and you can't see but you have the confidence in yourself and machine to go through that," says Bowen, then director of business development at Merkley, "unless you've experienced that, you're not going to have the authenticity in your language that will resonate with people who do that. No amount of watching James Dean or Steve McQueen movies will give you that understanding."
Neither can fancy presentations, says account supervisor Hildur Sölvadóttir of Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., who visited Poland in early 2004 to meet with the master distillers and staff at the distilleries of two of the agency's vodka brands, Chopin and Belvedere. She had thought "vodka is vodka."
"When I got there, I saw that's not true. These are two different products with different souls and different vibes," Sölvadóttir, 30, says. "You can read a PowerPoint and it does as good as it can, but to actually go and visit with a product ... and be in the environment breathing in and out where a product is made, to me was very powerful."