Fallon Writes Book on Creativity

CHICAGO When the agency currently known as Fallon Worldwide opened on July 20, 1981, as Fallon McElligott Rice, the five founders placed a newspaper ad to attract clients that would “rather outsmart than outspend.” Now, on the eve of the shop’s 25th anniversary, two of those founders, Pat Fallon and Fred Senn, have put that ethos into a book, Juicing the Orange: How to Turn Creativity Into a Powerful Business Advantage (Harvard Business School Press), outlining the creative principles behind their success (illustrated by client case histories ranging from BMW Films to EDS’ cat-herding Super Bowl spot). Fallon, 60, recently answered questions from Adweek senior reporter Aaron Baar about the book, the agency and his future.

Adweek: Why write a book now?

Pat Fallon: It’s our 25th anniversary and we felt, over 25 years, we’ve learned something . . . that just maybe could be of value for others and the organization as well.

Why might it be hard for companies to be creative and strategic?

Well, there’s all sorts of things that get in the way. Sometimes the systems that prevent creativity are found in the carpeting and the heating and air-conditioning system, and they’re part of the company’s culture. There’s that, there’s territorialism. There are silos. There are a lot of things that get in the way. Part of it is just complexity, the layers of management that ideas have to go through. And there’s the “We’ve always done it this way before, why would we do it any differently?”

Have you ever found yourself or your agency falling into that trap?

We have tried to keep it so simple that we don’t complicate things very much. . . . There are times in running your own business that you feel so close to it that we literally have to take a time-out and start over. I have a mission statement and we have value statements, and when I’m confused as a manager or leader of this company, I look back at that mission statement. If the decision I’m thinking about furthers the mission statement, then I generally do it.

The book mentions Miller Lite, the “Bob” Holiday Inn Super Bowl spot and Subway as examples of unsuccessful work. Why do that?

Well, we’ve learned from [those mistakes], and we’ve tried to highlight the major things that went wrong. We’ve been pretty transparent and we feel in each mistake there’s a learning process and there’s nothing wrong with admitting mistakes. You’re not an agency that tries to be on the cutting edge without making mistakes. Generally those mistakes are big-ass public mistakes.

In the case history about Buddy Lee, you mention that two senior account staffers had the autonomy to pony up $45,000 of the agency’s money to fund a consumer study to prove the idea’s worth. Is such autonomy necessary for creative success?

I think you empower your senior people who understand the agency’s values and belief systems and understand what you need to do to get great work. We want people to own this brand. Owners have permission to do things that renters don’t.

In the book, you mention that collaboration is key to achieving success. Which comes first, success or collaboration?

Unless you have someone like Steve Jobs, a personality like that, collaboration comes first. Collaboration in our world comes first now. And then it leads to success. That’s one of our principles. It hasn’t always been that way, but in the last decade or so, it’s been a powerful tool. We have smart clients, why would we freeze them out?

You also write about the importance of having “culture players” who are a cross between Ed Keller and Jon Barry’s Influentials and Malcolm Gladwell’s “connectors.” How do you identify such people?

You do it through passion, through their behavior. They’re the people who can’t wait to get to work, to excel. They can’t wait to have opportunities. They’re the people that drink the Kool-Aid. They take our ideas, our values and our thoughts and they make them their own. Those are the people who get it and are evangelical in the culture.

Is Bill Westbrook one of those people for Fallon?

Yes. If he didn’t have a belief in our culture and the place, he wouldn’t have returned. He drank the Kool-Aid. He understands where we’re coming from and where we’re going.

What about Bob Barrie? What do you do when a culture player decides to leave?

Give him a hug and support him the best you know how. Bob Barrie gave us 23 years. I can’t ask for more than that. It’s not anything I would have chosen, but he’s had a dream and he wants to actualize that dream. We’ve had 23 years together and the fact that I’ve had the pleasure and honor of having him on our staff has been great for us.

In the book, you write about the decision in the early 1990s to resign Northwest Airlines, which was your largest account. You said it turned believers in the agency into zealots. Was last year’s decision to quit BMW a similar case?

No. Northwest was very different. We weren’t allowed to do work we were capable of doing. It was contentious, and a lack of respect. BMW was quite another thing. We had a remarkable relationship and had a lot of respect. They decided to look around and we couldn’t find a business reason for doing that. It was going to be a four-month, highly competitive death march that we couldn’t win. That was a sad decision, but it was a right decision. Northwest was almost a joyful decision, and a right decision.

How would you characterize 2005 for the agency?

Disappointing. We need to get back on the growth track again. We had a year of cultural dysfunction and … a new creative leader that didn’t work out. It was a very trying year. We have [a new creative leader] in Kerry [Feuerman] now. I should have hired Kerry in the first place. He was someone I was going to talk to, and then I saw Silburn’s reel, and I decided I was going to pursue this guy until I got a yes or a no.

Did you underestimate the impact of former creative chief David Lubars on the agency, especially in light of its 2005 performance.

I never underestimated David Lubars. I think he’s great at what he does. He grew a great deal, he matured a great deal. His contributions continue to be appreciated to this day. I have nothing but respect for David.

How do you see 2006?

We’ve stabilized our culture. We have two strong leaders, with Bill coming back and Kerry in for the first time. We need to get revenue in and that’s what we’re going to be focusing on.

How do you do that?

By great work and by winning. It’s a really simple business: you do great work and you win new business and things go well. We have some strong work in the pipeline and we have strong work in the marketplace. The new business will follow. I suspect with Westbrook’s leadership and Kerry’s leadership and my involvement, we’re going have a very strong year.

Do you wish you could sit back and count your money?

I don’t want to be depressed, so no. That’s not what I want to do. I’m not the type to sit on the beach and grow a ponytail. I love the business and I love to compete, so I love who I work with and who I work for. We’re in pretty good shape. I’m happier when we’re moving forward.

How long do you see yourself doing this?

I’d like to do this for a few more years, and I’d like to have my successor in place and be with that person for a period of time. Then, at that point, we’ll make the decision.

How is the search for a successor going?

It’s a family decision. This high-level recruitment is tough because we want the people to be in Minneapolis. We have great candidates who are interested and we want to make sure the whole [agency] family is interested. It’s too early to name anyone, but we do have some very strong candidates.

Where do you see the agency going over the next 25 years?

I see the creativity DNA being at the center of everything we do. I see us leading . . . and pushing those standards to higher and higher levels. I see us shoring up and adding an office or two. Integrity is a very important part of our culture, and I see that continuing.

If you were to apply the principles in your book to the agency, what would your recommendations be?

The recommendation would be: Pay great attention to your current account base. Do great work, do challenging work, don’t let anyone get self-satisfied, and then add two or three new pieces of business. Keep pushing boundaries, be a pioneer. Do the things that are part of your heritage.

A shorter version of this discussion appears in Adweek’s July 17 print edition.