POV: Alvin Wasserman, Founder of Wasserman + Partners
Hello, I am Alvin Wasserman, president of Wasserman + Partners in Vancouver. The agency is — depending on the day — the largest independent, full-service advertising agency in British Columbia. We do extraordinary work building brands, changing behavior and starting meaningful two-way conversations on behalf of some of the Pacific Northwest’s most powerful brands.
You chose to go the route of opening your own creative shop when McKim Advertising went through a merger. What attracted you to starting your own consultancy and eventually launching Wasserman + Partners?
When I opened my first shop, it was creative only because that is where my roots were. I soon realized that the compliment of insightful strategic thinking, media that led instead of followed the audience, and production that continually made things better was part of what I wanted to bring to the accounts we touched. Doing these things with outside groups, even with very talented individuals, took too much coordination time and diverted our focus. I decided to form an agency with a broader set of core competencies.
How do your creative, account and strategy teams work together? How has this positioned you to be successful as digital has emerged as a leading platform for brands?
There’s a lot of talk now about agile agencies, and I feel we evolved our agency into operating much as that very effective methodology recommends. Small tight teams, hybrid talents and a mix of disciplines in those teams, short and frequent meetings to monitor progress and get the work out fast so it can be measured and improved upon. We did not have a road map for this — it just evolved as the best way to add value to our clients’ brands while attracting and helping to retain top talent. Layers are for cakes.
How has being independent of a network focused your priorities?
In every way. We are centered on our clients’ needs, and as they change (or often in anticipation of how they will change), we shift our systems, talent and offerings to make it happen for them. No need to ask permission out of New York or Toronto to make that change. We’re more flexible when it comes to margins, compensation arrangements and partnerships when we think that outside people can add something valuable to our clients.
What have been some of your favorite projects to work on? Tell us about the initial concept and results.
We’ve done some wonderful work for Vancity, the largest credit union in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, I believe. It all demonstrates that you do not have to compromise your values or your returns when dealing with a financial institution that has a focus on building community while also building your personal wealth. The theme is “Make Good Money,” and the way we activate this in social media, on the streets, online and in wider cast media is unified, authentic and powerful.
Another campaign I love is for Encorp, who runs the beverage containers recycling system in British Columbia. After some research clarified who was recycling regularly (and more importantly who was not), we came up with a neat insight. People would be more likely to change their behavior if it became obvious that their peers would look down on them for not recycling. This did not call for a finger wagging or a “big brother says” kind of campaign. We came up with the idea of personifying the containers and giving them a judgmental stare capping off the fact that “Every container you don’t recycle says something about you.”
We got some great help from some talented puppeteers and a fabricator out of New York.
The advertising industry as a whole is struggling to attract and retain talent, especially with the increase in tech startups. What types of professionals are you looking for?
Hybrids of all stripes. Some people refer to these as T-shaped people, strong in one major area with diverse interests and the ability to learn and relearn in other areas. So this could mean someone who is comfortable with conceptual work with a good technical backbone. An art director who happens to be a killer DJ, or a creative director who can shoot for the web as comfortably as he can direct a couple of teams for a cross-platform campaign. You get the picture.
How has social media and community management changed the way agencies and brands need to interact?
Agencies and brands need to listen and respond (quickly). These new modes require maximum flexibility in order to respond to incoming information and timely results. Agencies and brands must work in true partnership in order to prevent missteps. Social media is intolerant of overly managed corporate-speak.
Of course this is still evolving. We find that the agency is best positioned to set the tone and brand voice in building and nurturing the online community. We can kick-start conversations in and around the brand for a wide swath of situations and heighten the intensity. The client is usually best positioned to answer service, technical and performance questions. The trick is coordination within large client organizations and of course making sure that the conversations are rooted in authenticity.
Technological advancements have certainly expanded the ability of advertisers to reach consumers in new and interesting ways. But, should brands and advertisers be cautious? What should they keep in mind when researching and and developing strategies for new platforms?
Agencies are often accused of being in love with the latest shiny object, but I think with the rapid advance of online platforms and vehicles, it is easy for any CMO to get distracted. Who wants to miss out on the next Facebook or Pinterest?
You must be where your audience is, where you are expected to be and where you need to be to deliver on your brand promise. You have to look first and foremost to the people your brand is ultimately in existence for: the people who purchase, potentially use or are likely to think about your brand. I avoid the word consumer here, as I think we have moved from a consumer society to an experience-centered one. Because entertainment and information are so intertwined, the opportunities to become part of the mix have to be handled sometimes with great subtlety and other times with open aplomb.
Although media use evolves fast, personal habits hang in for years. That means some mediums are hugely more efficient than others in the final analysis. We start with the business problem then look at people as people, not numbers, and work out from there.
You started your career in advertising as a copywriter. How has this role evolved? Or how do you think it should change?
If you have seen Google’s Re:Brief (find it online if not), you will see an interesting phenomenon. They took four classic pre-Internet campaigns and the original art director and copywriter teams and surrounded them with a Google-powered team of tech and creatives to see where the campaigns would go with today’s tools. All the creatives regardless of age caught on very quickly to the possibilities (not the technical underbelly of course) because they lived in the realm of the Big Idea, driven by the originating human insight behind their campaigns. I think copywriting is just the name we used to talk about creators of business-driving ideas. That’s a place I will always call home.
What trends in advertising are you and your clients most interested in for 2013?
Result measurement. Engaging creative platforms. Turning buzz into bucks. Tools to fine tune media mix to segmented audiences. Smarter media. Cross training talent. Helping boost job readiness of business and art school graduates. The trend of aggregating online passions onto fewer sites. Smaller screens making room for bigger ideas. There’s a lot on our radar at the moment.
One reason you love what you do: Working with super smart, fun people while solving real business problems and tackling meaningful social issues.
Mentor: Many. Depends on the moment.
Must-read book: “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez, of course.