Mark Figliulo On the Spot

When Leo Burnett veteran Figliulo joined Young & Rubicam in Chicago four years ago as chief creative officer, his mandate was to give the shop a creative makeover. The latest evidence of an upgrade: the 60-second Miller Brewing spot “Dominoes,” showing people collapsing into each other, and two Miller Lite spots that focus on taste, “Epidemic” and “I Can’t Taste My Beer.” Before joining Y&R, where he’s also a managing partner, 40-year-old Figliulo briefly flirted with directing —his credits include a Reebok spot starring soccer player Julie Foudy and the Rockport shoes ad “Brooklyn Bridge.”

Q. Was it daunting to come up with something for a brand, Miller Lite, that has been all over the map in recent years?

A. “Daunting” wouldn’t be the word I’d use. It was exciting. One thing we knew we were going to do from the start was get back to talking about the beer. “Dominoes” was kind of the big announcement to get the positioning going. Then came the thing with, “I can’t taste my beer.” With all the problems facing light beers right now—beers like Bud Light and Coors Light are so lacking in taste—it presented a way to talk about Miller Lite. We know from taste tests that Miller Lite does actually taste better. That part wasn’t difficult—doing it in an interesting way was a challenge.

There’s no sex in the spots, and the humor is subtle. Are you trying to be on a higher plane?

It was an intentional effort to find a voice for Miller. Bud Light does such a great job with broad humor—we wanted to avoid that, because we didn’t want to support their brand. That doesn’t mean it can’t be funny, can’t be entertaining, but it has to have its own distinct voice. There’s a quiet presence there. It’s a bit more intellectual.

How does that appeal to the average beer drinker, especially guys in their early 20s?

We knew they’d respond. Look at any good humor—it’s usually pretty intellectual. Larry David right now is a great example, or The Onion. It’s broad, and it’s very funny, but it’s smart. My experience with young guys is that they’re very smart, articulate. They also like slapstick humor—I don’t mean to say they don’t like the stuff Bud offers. But they’re broader than that; they have more layers than people give them credit for.

What’s your all-time favorite beer advertising, outside of anything for Miller?

It’d be print ads for Stella Artois: “Reassuringly expensive.” They have a real clear vision. They have their take on beer.

What got you into advertising?

My school, Pratt Institute in New York. They encourage you to try different things, and advertising was the hardest thing I tried. I didn’t get it right away. It was an interesting challenge: communicating something for someone else, not just yourself.

What was the best business decision you ever made?

Leaving the country. I worked in Japan [for Burnett] for three years, and it changed my perspective. You don’t realize what a cultural box you’re in until you step outside it.

And the worst?

Losing H&R Block. The agency at that point [shortly after Figliulo arrived] was experiencing a conflict of priorities—we were going from an account-centric approach to a creative-centric approach. There was a lot of internal turmoil, and we let the client feel that, which was not appropriate. We did great work, but our internal politics got in the way.

How did you get into directing?

It started innocently enough. [At Burnett], when you couldn’t get A-list directors, I felt there was a sharp drop to B. I thought we could do better.

What did you like best about it?

I like to be able to focus on the craft of a commercial, and a lot of times you don’t get to do that in the rush of agency life. It was a way of getting at an idea through execution. That was almost one of the downsides though—you’d rely too much on execution.

What would be your dream assignment?

A sneaker account. I worked on Reebok [at Burnett] and never felt I did good enough work. I’d like to work with a media client, a network.

Is there any product you wouldn’t work on?

The George W. Bush campaign.

If you weren’t in advertising, what would you like to be doing?

Politics. I’d probably end up on the strategic side. The older I get, the more I realize how important it is. I wish there were better people in politics. So much of what I’m seeing in the primaries is a lack of communication skills. It’s not so much the best candidate but the one who best articulates his ideas. I wish I had the skills to be a good politician.

What’s your biggest fear?

Having to let people go. We’ve been fortunate enough not to have to do it in three years. Building a creative environment, a lot of that has to do with security. Like, you can make mistakes, you can risk things but also know you’re not going to lose your job. So it’s a real important part of the chemistry.

How do you get past a creative block?

I’m stubborn about it; I just keep working at it. I walk the halls and talk to people. Ideas usually come in conversations.

What advice would you give a creative just starting out in advertising?

Find the confidence and trust your own talent. That’s when people start listening to you.