Rob Price On The Spot

Rob Price, 50, is co-chairman and creative director at Eleven Inc., a San Francisco shop named after the amplifier’s highest level in Spinal Tap. A native of Kansas, Price is a writer by trade who has nearly 30 years in the business, with stints at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and Apple. An integrated marketing firm launched in 1999, Eleven recently completed a glossy, magazine-inspired annual report for Ameristar Casinos, project work for and this spring launched a three-year branding campaign for technology company BEA Systems tagged, “Think liquid.”Q: How did you come up with the new branding campaign for BEA Systems?

A: The client had this term, ‘liquid computing,’ floating, no pun intended, for some time. The impressions we collected [during consumer research] were ‘great products,’ but what IT departments appreciated about BEA was the relationships with people there. We encouraged them to think of themselves as the IT managers’ consigliere. We got back to liquid computing; that made us think they are about liquid thinking. That requires a lot of flexibility. It’s about positioning themselves as the problem solvers.

The Ameristar Casinos annual report is elaborately done, like an issue of Rolling Stone. How did you sell it to the client?

We raised it as an approach for last year’s annual report. We ended up going in a different direction then. It was made to look like an oversized deck of cards. Doing something like a magazine seemed really interesting to the client. It didn’t take much selling. They really consider themselves an entertainment company, so the idea felt absolutely right to them.

How did your years as a creative director at Apple prepare you for running Eleven?

What it really did was get me thinking about integrated marketing. To this day, there is not a company out there that has embraced the whole idea of a brand experience at every point of contact with the consumer better than Apple. There is a company that cares so deeply about how they look to their consumer in any form. I came out of that experience with a pretty healthy respect for that. That is something I don’t think I ever would have gotten if I’d only worked in ad agencies. As fun as advertising is, it’s kind of like you’re the guy who bolts down the seat on the assembly line: You are dealing with only one aspect of a company’s brand.

You started Eleven in 1999. How have you survived in San Francisco, while watching other shops pack up and leave?

We certainly took a hit back in 2001 along with everybody else, but we didn’t fold. Our business model has always been to hit on three cylinders: advertising, print design and the Internet. The fourth we have added the last couple of years is direct marketing. It is not that each year the revenue is equally distributed among all those; one year we will be making a lot of revenue out of advertising and do very little graphic design. One year a lot of Internet activity, a little advertising, and design is not on its way up. It’s like watching an equalizer. The different silos go up and down from year to year.

You were at Goodby for seven years. How did you decide to start your own place?

We were going head-to-head with other design firms and causing a lot of confusion with clients, so we talked to Jeff [Goodby] and Rich [Silverstein] about being a spun-off subsidiary from the agency. Jeff said, ‘We love you guys; you do great work for the agency, so if you want to stay in the agency, we will do whatever we can do to support you, but if you want to start your own shop, we will support you as well.’ They were incredibly supportive. They let us work out of their basement and use their equipment.

When did you realize you could make a living being a writer?

I loved writing all through school but never had any confidence I could make a living doing it … being judged by your creative skills was something I was very nervous about. It is risky. I had an offer from a respectable agency as an entry-level account executive. And, I am man enough to admit this—I will credit my mom! I told her, ‘I’ve got this offer,’ but she is an artist and she said, ‘Are you really sure you want to do this?’ She said this is the time in your life when you can hold out for what you really want to do. She was absolutely right. I turned the job down, and two weeks later I got an offer as a copywriter at the only agency in town more respectable.

What’s your biggest accomplishment so far?

Helping to create an agency that has a culture I am really comfortable in. I would not trade it. People love it here. They feel loyal and even when they leave, they have positive things to say. I don’t take credit for it, but I am very proud of the role I’ve had in creating any part of this. I love coming to work every day. I am surrounded by great people.

What would you be doing if you weren’t in advertising?

I would be a drummer. It’s the lost love of my life. All through junior high and high school, I played. And I ended up in college selling an amazing drum set and an even more amazing set of cymbals because I just ran out of money. It was a very sad moment. Jazz, big band, rock ‘n roll, I just love to play.

How do you get past a creative block?

I go to the main library by Civic Center. I find the environment calming. They have these glass-enclosed offices, so you can still see all of humanity.

Name one person you’re dying to work with.

[He’s] dead, but David Ogilvy. I wish he had torn apart some of my work.