Paul Tilley On The Spot

As a child, Paul Tilley wanted to be a game-show host. He admits to memorizing Wink Martindale’s banter, and even wearing a blue blazer and tie to his school’s career day. But Tilley, who once wrote a song in lieu of a book report, also liked solving problems creatively. The show-biz dreams and problem-solving mind combined to make an ad exec. A 10-year veteran of Omnicom’s DDB Chicago, Tilley, 39, in October rose to managing director of creative (essentially the CCO job with a different title), overseeing work for clients such as McDonald’s, Anheuser-Busch and the newest addition, Safeway. Q: Do you mind being called managing director of creative instead of CCO?

A: It doesn’t matter to me. I always [told worldwide CCO Bob Scarpelli], “I don’t want to ask for a title and a job. I want to tell you what I think I’m good at and can contribute, and you tell me what that job is.”

What are you good at?

I’ve spent 18 years as a writer. I grew to appreciate the craft of copywriting and what made for good writing. But I fairly quickly rose into creative management because as good a writer as I was, I really enjoyed demonstrating to a client that you were solving a problem, not just coming up with a “creative idea.” No client wants to think they’re just funding your entertainment schemes. The root word of commercial is commerce, which clients care about a lot.

Your critics have said your talents are more in creative management than in creating award-winning ads. Any response to that?

I don’t take that as an insult. Are my shelves as filled with awards? No. But I’ve won awards. I’ve won Cannes Lions and gold Effies. To define the job only in those terms is not recognizing what the job entails. I don’t think creative people here can name a time where I took a brilliant creative idea and made it worse. I really see my job as seeing the best idea in the room and figuring out a way to make the client understand what’s great about it.

You were at the agency before Michael Folino, who left after seven months on the job, was hired as CCO, essentially the job you have now. Do you feel you should have had the job all along?

A lot of people have said, “Did you feel passed over?” The answer is no. I knew I wasn’t going to be the guy. And I had just taken over McDonald’s. … I was busy. I had asked for McDonald’s and there was a lot more work to do.

You come from a traditional agency background. How do you plan to move DDB Chicago deeper into interactive and nontraditional marketing?

This industry is going through a very rapid transformation. There’s so many ways to reach people that the industry is getting seduced by technology. The danger is that the content starts to suffer. Look at the film industry. Look what happened when they [first] got access to 3-D and Technicolor. All the movies sucked. I’m trying to get people to find their inspiration and apply that … in more surprising places. … When movies went from silent to sound, how did they make them really engaging? Well, they brought all the composers from Broadway. They borrowed from other arts and other industries, and created a new one. If you’re solving problems, you want to solve them from as many perspectives as possible.

Do you have any interest in hiring people from different disciplines?

The talent pool used to come from all walks of life. Nobody set out to go into advertising, they just kind of fell into it. And now it’s almost like we don’t get the oddballs anymore. People come with crazy ideas you never think of because they come from a different place. I would like to get more of that back in here. I do think that whether it’s from different disciplines or different walks of life, the more surprising the combination we can put in the room, the more surprising we can make the ideas. People who really just look at advertising all day just create more advertising.

How do you get past a creative block?

One is to create a bizarre new mandate. Like, you can’t do TV. A lot of times you’re so focused on trying to execute that you don’t back up and try to create the idea. Another idea is to get someone else involved. Talk to your mother about it, talk to the barber. It’s like the kid who sees the truck stuck under the overpass and suggests to let the air out of the tires. Sometimes you just need someone to say, “What are you doing?”

Besides DDB, what’s your vote for the best agency?

I think that Goodby is doing what the industry needs to do. They’re doing a good job of making the transformation into digital and new media without losing the core of [their creativity]. That’s what I’m trying to do here, just on a different scale and to a different audience. That truly is the challenge the industry faces. Let’s not get stuck making a lot of bad 3-D movies that we’re all embarrassed about.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

My first job in advertising was writing the back of Bissell carpet shampoo bottles. I could have said that was beneath me, but within a year, I was working on ads. And within two years I was working on [television] spots. I’m just glad that I got in. What I learned from that was you just have to get in the room. The smartest thing I did was I dove in.

What do you do in your off-hours?

I spend time with my kids. Usually, I’m the character in a make-believe princess story.