It’s local week again here on the Ad Industry Innovators series and even better than that, we’ve finally got a woman to highlight! (It’s about time, the testosterone was getting a little heavy.) Rebecca Armstrong is the Managing Director of Portland,OR based NORTH.
Portland’s a great town to run an agency in–just ask Weiden & Kennedy. Portland’s the home of Pink Martini and the only place I know of where you can you get a doughnut shaped like genitalia with bacon on it, savor cheesy crepe goodness and wash it all down with a host of local brews. Besides, Portland ad people are a cheeky bunch and just plain fun: check out the Rosey Awards.
I learned about NORTH when I read that they won the Deschutes beer pitch. (If you’re on the East coast or out of the US, Deschutes is one of the largest micro breweries in the Northwest. They’re the ultimate David & Goliath story. Besides my local micro, Boundary Bay, their IPA is a winner and one of the first I grab.
When I asked Rebecca to describe NORTH, she put it this way:
NORTH is a brand agency and creative collective, an expeditionary force of thinkers and makers forging authentic bonds between brands and people. Rooted firmly in the independent culture of Portland, Oregon, under the leadership of agency veterans from Arnold Worldwide, Cole & Weber, Ogilvy and 180 Amsterdam, NORTH’s single goal is to make clients famous for the right reasons in this socially-conscious, media-agnostic world.
I’ll drink to that.
What was the aha moment when you realized “our company needs to be doing things differently than we have been”?
There was no “eureka” moment as such. Evolution is part of the way we do business. We constantly challenge what we do as a company – the result, I think, of bringing together a diverse team of people who are intensely creative and entrepreneurial. Many of them have actually run their own ventures; i.e., they’ve been clients too.
What books are on your nightstand or great blogs on your Google reader?
I should probably list some worthy tomes on marketing theory, but the truth is my nightstand pile includes:
Facades: Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell by John Pearson (I’m a big fan of English eccentrics)
Drink, Play, F@#k, by Andrew Gotlieb (a laddish riposte to Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love)
Life Class by Pat Barker (another brilliant novel centering on World War 1)
As for the blogroll, I tend to seek out those blogs that combine really good thinking and really good writing. I’m currently enjoying:
2 is the new 1: http://fishfood.typepad.com/2isthenew1/
Signal vs. Noise: http://www.37signals.com/svn/
Design Thinking: http://designthinking.ideo.com
This was brilliant: (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/25/opinion/25desantis.html?scp=1&sq=dear%20aig&st=cse) The guy managed to compose a beautiful essay on leadership, give his personal history, AND get his resume on the front page of the NYT for free. He would have been “the new guy who used to work for AIG” at his next job, but not now.
More conventionally, I’m really enjoying the coffee wars (McDonalds vs. Starbucks.) Both companies have long enjoyed rock star marketing status for right product, right packaging, right distribution and right promotion and there’s always been a place for them both. So it’s most interesting to watch them go head to head with their fancy coffee drink offerings.
We’ve all read that the pitch / RFP process is broken. Many agencies aren’t even interested in competing in pitches. Do you see an alternative to this process?
I’m not sure that the pitch/RFP process is fully broken – but it has been horribly abused by clients looking to get free answers from an artificial process, and agencies willing to give it all up for nothing. That said, at NORTH we already implement and have better results with the alternative by identifying those brands with whom we want to work (they tend to be progressive, authentic and aspire to do good in the world) and then building relationships with them. Our recent Deschutes Brewery win is a good example. We started talking to them months ago and, when the time was right for them to make a change, we were automatically in consideration. Similarly, we love Keen so we took an idea to them and they were very willing to listen.
What does the agency of the future look like?
Like powerful brands, the agency of the future will need a mission, a point of view that they want to see in the world, and then they’ll have to live it. At NORTH, we believe in thinking and making. It may sound simple, but we believe strongly in the power of the creative process and respect what happens when you actually take an idea and bring it to life in the world. NORTH is not a factory. Manufacturing leads to predictable, repeatable results. Craft, on the other hand, leads to the opportunity to work with what you observe rather that merely operating on something you think you already know. Of course there’s some risk, but the reward is infinitely greater and much more meaningful. And that is critically important when you are trying to forge authentic bonds between brands and consumers.
What do marketers need that agencies are not giving them?
I see a lot of agencies selling clients on one-dimensional, weird or puerile communications ideas, that don’t reflect the complexities of a brand and its nuanced relationship with its customers. Take Snacklish for example (from Snickers.) My followers on Twitter (@rebeccamary) have heard me rail at length (well at 140 characters) about how condescending and, frankly, dumb that idea is. What marketers aren’t getting are comprehensive, nuanced, cross-platform ideas that respect the intelligence of the consumer.
Who do you admire and why?
Elizabeth 1. Boy, did she understand the power of symbolism and legend (Virgin? Yeah, right….) Also I have a massive crush on Barack Obama.