Riddle Pens Fallon’s Script

CHICAGO One of the words Todd Riddle uses to describe himself is optimistic. It’s a trait he’ll need in his new creative director job at Fallon in Minneapolis. The shop continues to struggle through a lengthy rough patch: There have been several client losses and turnover in the top creative post over the past two years.

But if Riddle, 43, decides to pursue another vocation, he can go back to screenwriting. In 1999, in a bid to prove that art directors could have a way with words, Riddle won an award from the American Screenwriters Association for his original screenplay, The Return of Feziwig Zero.

Q: How is this new position different from that of group creative director?
A: Before I was managing the Bahamas and Travelers. Now I’ll be managing day-to-day on all of our businesses and on how the creative and interactive departments work, as well as with media and planning and account service, making sure our creative brand is as good as it can be.

How do you do that? Fallon’s had a tough couple years.
We’ve been around for over 25 years and we’ve had an amazing run. It’s normal for agencies to hit a rough spot and it’s normal for them to reevaluate where they are and what they’re about, especially at this time in creative history. Fallon has never gone through that, so for some people here it’s kind of a shock. But having worked at other agencies, it’s part of the normal course.

So where is Fallon going?
I think Fallon has been at its best when we were inventing what it means to be a creative agency. We have a legacy of doing really great early print and really great early TV, and then coming on the scene with BMW Films and taking a big brand like Citibank and [giving it] a tone and a voice that was unheard of for a brand that size. We need to get back to our roots a bit. Our motto when we started was, “Outsmart vs. outspend.” That’s as true today as it ever was. Now it’s just outsmarting in a different way.

Is there any competition between the Minneapolis and London offices? London has received a lot of accolades in the past few years.
No. I wouldn’t call it competition. Fallon surprisingly isn’t a competitive place internally like other agencies are. We really do like to see each other succeed. We like to see other people succeed in other departments and other areas. It’s a different kind of mind-set. When Fallon London does well, we’re thrilled they’re doing well.

Does it make getting creative press and attention a priority for you?
We get press clippings every day of things that we’re doing. There are at least seven to 10 articles a day about us. Whether it’s Bahamavention being talked about on a blog, Travelers in a magazine. We do get press clippings every day. I understand where the question is coming from because we have been a powerhouse for so long that a perceived slight dip seems like a bigger dip.

Where does the agency stand creatively compared to five years ago when you got there?
Overall we were probably a bit more top heavy then. Now we have less managerial people and more people actually doing the work. Our interactive department is restructured quite a bit under a different model where we outsource a lot of the production and mechanics. Our production department is as good or better than it’s ever been.

The cd position has had two occupants [Paul Silburn and Kerry Feuerman] in just the past few years. To what do you attribute that?
We’ve had some turnover in the creative director role. That’s not unusual for the business, [but it is for] Fallon. When I came here, I was shocked at how long people had been here and how they were all really talking from the same voice and were Fallonites through and through. That’s still true. The DNA is still the same.

Besides Fallon, what’s your vote for the best agency out there?
I’m impressed with the way Goodby [Silverstein & Partners] has metamorphosed itself. Everyone roots for those guys. To see them kind of turn it around and look at what they’re doing internally and then come out and be named [Adweek‘s U.S.] Agency of the Year and win a lot of new business. They’re great to have around doing that because it inspires us all.

What’s your biggest pet peeve?
People who waste my time. I don’t wait. I’ve lost a few friends, but I don’t wait.

What’s the most important thing you learned from your parents?
I was born with congenital heart disease and I was supposed to die when I was an infant. My mother refused to listen to the doctors. They gave me a zero percent chance of survival. And she fought and fought and fought to keep me alive. And now, of course, I’m here. She’s an extremely liberal feminist, and she always told me, “Never listen to anybody, ever.” It’s the best advice I could give anybody.

What’s your greatest accomplishment?
I think staying optimistic, because a lot of people don’t. And when you lose that, you lose everything.

How do you get past a creative block?
I’ve been doing this for so long that I don’t get them anymore. What inspires me most, though, is outside of advertising. I read a lot of biographies about people who lived great lives.

What’s on your nightstand?
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Abraham Lincoln. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s incredibly inspiring. He spent his entire life sad because he thought everything great had been done. But he prepared himself anyway in case something came along where he could put everything that he learned to good use. When he was in his 40s, he realized the world was changing and he ran for president. [After he was elected], the Civil War broke out. And he found himself exactly where he never thought he would end up. He managed through the worst possible situation in American history with probably the most difficult team you could ever imagine, and he completely succeeded and changed the world. And he did it because he was focused and extremely optimistic.

How do you find the screenwriting process compared with your job’s creative process?
For an advertising person, writing a screenplay is incredibly intuitive because you’re really just writing down what you’re thinking about. And once you can create a character, that character takes a life of its own.

How do the two disciplines feed each other?
You’re forced to look at things more instinctively. When you’re writing a screenplay, you can swear, you can use violence-all kinds of things you can’t use in advertising, so you’re using parts of your brain that have been put to the back burner. And [now], with the new media, all of those things you couldn’t use before you can find a use for.

Are you saying that some of your clients are going to let you swear?
I wouldn’t be surprised.