I recently had the good fortune to interview Joe Baratelli – who knows a little something about evolving creative and agency offerings to keep pace with the times, and keeping accounts for the long haul! Joe is Executive Vice President and Chief Creative Officer of RPA, where he has worked since the agency launched as Rubin Postaer 30-plus years ago. They have also been the agency of record for Honda for almost that entire time, and helped make the simple Farmers Insurance “We Are Farmers” jingle a bit of an earworm for us. In addition to discussing those and some more serious examples of their award-winning ads and heart-wrenching PSAs, he shared some of the insights he’s gained over three decades at the same shop.
The following is an edited transcript of the interview, which is available to hear its entirety here, and to download and subscribe on Apple Podcasts.
E.B.: You’ve [had] Honda as thirty-year client. [What are your] insights about how to evolve a client over time, and how an agency has to evolve, too?
Joe: We as an agency have grown to service our clients and Honda has been a big part of that. As the industry has changed, being an independent agency has allowed us to do what is right for our clients along the way. As things have changed and become more digital and reliant upon analytics, we have built ...a digital discipline [including] a website for Honda, which happened to be one of the first car companies to even have a website. When I first started at the agency we had 100 people and now we are at 700 people! We’re always looking for people that are curious since we’re always in a constant state of change where there isn’t an end goal since everything is always evolving. You need to have people that are curious about what the future holds... as there is always something new and different in the media world.
E.B.: You’ve had some pretty amazing innovations ...like how you used Airdrop at South By! [SxSW]
Joe: ...Our main focus this year was on recruitment....[and] we opened it up to the entire agency to come up with ideas to help promote ourselves. ...The idea was to get attention with the people we are trying to attract in an interesting way. For Airdrop, you need to be in a physical proximity to be able to receive it. We Airdropped the invitation to a concert that we sponsored and people it created a bit of a buzz. It is great to offer these opportunities to people outside of the creative department because you never know where ideas will come from.
E.B.: You oversee all of this ... so you’ve had to stay nimble and adaptable over the years. How do you maintain this expertise in “Instagram over Snapchat for this” or the use of Airdrop?
Joe: We have a team with a lot of smart people. I just try to stay abreast of things with things like MediaVillage. These days you have stuff constantly coming to you so it’s mostly about educating yourself. For specific things, I rely on everyone else on the team because they have the skillsets and the disciplines to really understand since they are living it day-to-day. I have ... an intuition about what I think will be successful but I give it up to the team. I really have a lot of trust in the people that work for us.
E.B.: We appreciate the mention of MediaVillage! Our chairman, Jack Myers, had an interesting interview with [MDC’s Steve Farella] who said that he feels like media agencies should be like artists...He also warned that buyers have to be careful and let the creativity through so that the campaigns can live, worried that data and analytics can possibly smother creativity. How do you manage that in a creative-oriented and yet full service agency?
Joe: I am a big believer in the full service agency model and we’ve always been that way. We emphasize having knowledge all under one roof. It creates the nimbleness and thinking when everyone gets involved in the project. What we try and do is put the analytics, research and strategic side of things with the creative team to talk about our goals. I always talk about what our angle is and how to achieve it. The best way is when all of that is in one place. ...A disadvantage is if an outside media buying and planning agency drops a project in our laps. ... I think that’s where having media, planning and strategy under one roof helps the creative side of things. As far as data goes, we love it. ... We’re always looking for a unique insight because that’s what’s going to empower a creative idea. We have our own research, analytics and insights group (RAI) that helps us with the ...the insights that we are after.
E.B.: We’re big believers in that. In fact, this is called Insider Insights! We recently did a story on the power of emotions and brands and you also work with Southwest Airlines, which in our recent article was the case study of an airline standing out with emotional branding. How you evoke emotion?
Joe: ... I learned that if you create a painting you want to create an emotion. It could make you happy, laugh or even cringe. But all those things are what we are trying to do...to connect with people. These days with the [proliferation] of advertising,...you need to be able to talk to someone on an emotional level....You’re going to get to the rational decision through emotion. Brands are living things so you have to take the care to make sure you get the right tone and feel. Southwest is very unique in how they manage their folks. They talk about how they are a people-company so our cultures fit quite well. I went into their headquarters for the final pitch and they had some mantras on their wall. One of them is service management, which is what we talk about. I am in service as a manager; I am in service to my reports. I want to make their job better and help them achieve what they need. That’s Southwest philosophy. It allows people to be in power and make the right decision on a human level. ...When we talk about trying to create emotion within the advertisement, it’s trying to capture those intangible things that are important to companies like that. I think Honda feels the same way about how they treat their customers and the products they make. They really think about the individuals that are buying those vehicles. We’re always trying to capture that emotion in the work that we do.
E.B.: Do you think humor works better or pathos and tears?
Joe: ... Humor is definitely powerful for us and we definitely see success with that. There’s also sincerity and honesty. I talk about tone a lot such as you can shout at people or you can put your arm around them and say something soft. I think ...it depends on the situation at the moment. Sometimes cultural forces play into that like what is currently going on society.
E.B.: ... There are a lot of publishers that are producing ad campaigns. How do you compete not only on a fast turn around like that but with the quality that you put into things versus the quantity of cranking out creative?
Joe: It’s always a dilemma. We’re staffed so we have people concentrating on those things. We talk about the hum and the pulse. There’s a hum out there that you need to be consistent with to tell the stories that are in line with the personalities of these brands. Being proactive about something cultural or taking advantage of calendar events is really the key. What I talk about is trying to get out in front of these things. However, every client is different. ... It usually comes down to having the right people that have the right sensibility and understand those timing issues. You almost have to set it up systematically to a certain degree. You don’t want to make it too much about the process because you still want this creative freedom to be able to create those pulses, which are really the things that break through the day-to-day clutter.
E.B.: It also has to resonate with a whole new generation of media consumers. That Millennial generation pretty much hates ads. ... How do you create that seamless experience that they expect that will help enhance their experience with advertising or messaging instead of interrupting it?
Joe: This is something we talk about a lot because we want to be accepted. A lot of it comes down to tone and we want to make sure we are talking about the brands and messages in the appropriate manner depending on what media we’re using. A tweet is a lot different than a 30-second television commercial. While we might be talking about the same end result, how you talk about it is completely different. ... What we want to do is make sure that we understand how people use those tools in their lives and make sure what we do is appropriate for that. We rarely put logos on Instagrams because we’ve discovered through data and research that those kinds of things are either acceptable or not acceptable in the media. We are very conscious of that and we try to explain it to our clients. ...We advise our clients and prove how certain things work better than others. Sometimes it’s counterintuitive to what you would expect. ... You read all the stories about the Facebooks of the world and the marketing companies that are ad driven and they are making a bunch of money off of that. But the consumer doesn’t see it that way. These are just conversation tools since they want to talk to their friends and families on these places. We need to treat the brands as friends and family when we insert ourselves into those worlds. We’ve all used social media and all of a sudden an ad pops up and you don’t want to deal with that. Television is a different manner since it has been around for 50 years and people know that if they want to see a show for free they are going to watch some ads. It is more accepted on television. It is most effective when you make sure you’re talking about things in the right place. To just put a logo in there isn’t going to be as effective as a story.
E.B.: What do you think of the whole skip-proof thing? YouTube TV has disabled skipping the 30-second ad, which really raises the bar to avoid the annoyance factor and help you collect the data that will inform your next round of creative.
Joe: I think this is going to be better for everybody. We’ve made a conscious effort throughout the agency to ban the word consumer. As a person, going through my daily life, I don’t want to look at the 30-second ad more than anybody else does. I am always looking for that skip button as soon as it comes on. From a creativity and messaging standpoint, I think it will be better for everybody including our clients because now the industry as a whole will be accepted and have the right tone for the media. A 30-second ad before you watch another 30-second video just isn’t fair. I think they are talking about only 6 seconds, which will be an interesting challenge. We’ve also found that peoples’ attention span, especially younger generations, are getting shorter and shorter. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be effective in getting our messages out there...[There’s a] difference between what a desktop version experience is like versus how you scroll through a mobile device. ...People are taking things in literally in less than 2 seconds. So, we need to start thinking about this and realize visuals will be more important. ... I think where things are going is to more visual, which we’ve seen in the past couple of years. Being iconic in your visuals is very important. It is also important to be able to identify things like the Farmers mnemonic. It is key to a successful long-standing campaign.
E.B.: You talked about a through line and having to continue the message throughout whatever tactic or platform you are using. Is there an example?
Joe: Farmers is a good example. They came to us with a really interesting dilemma. They would run ads and State Farm Insurance would get the credit.... The real issue was that they were just generic ... Like we’ll get you back to where you belong after something bad happens. For years that was the message of the whole insurance industry. We needed to separate them from everyone else. ... [and] be truthful to the company and how they operate. We ... found out that they actually have a world-class training program for their agents. It is called the University of Farmers and it is a real school that all their agents go through. We took that as our unique insight to separate them [and] ...materialized the University with the bell, song and professor. It goes through that lens, which they have adopted internally for their own employees even at the corporate offices. At the golf tournament they sponsor they have a university day where they encourage the golfers to dress in their college colors. The fans do too! ...We try to build universes for our clients and create a language that everyone adopts and looks through. When it is successful like that it is very powerful.
E.B.: ... What advice do you have for media sellers that come knocking on your door wanting that business?
Joe: We always talk about what the end result is. If you have that vision of what the goals are and what we agreed to with our clients to try and achieve it then you find the tools and plug it in that way. ... It has to be right to what we are trying to do. We have some really smart people that can look at the big picture. It is almost like building a portfolio for our clients. We refer to the media group as our “audience investment group” because we’re trying to find the audiences that will be most effective to our clients’ growth... to reach those folks whether they are on twitter or watching certain types of shows. All of it is research-based.
E.B.: What do you see on the horizon? What sandbox are you anxious to play in?
Joe: It’s all so additive. We always talk about how “television is going to be the death of radio and the Internet is going to be the death of television” and so on. None of that has happened. As people living in the world, we have to absorb all that. I think there is just going to be more new things. There are two things that are on my mind. Firstly, forcing the cross discipline teams to work together sooner because we found that it really helps us figure these things out. If you put the media planner on a team with the designer and writer then we can get a solution a lot faster and have a lot less friction within the agency. Secondly, developing programmatic design. There are so many different versions that it takes a lot of effort/ physical labor from people. Now there are tools that can help us ...automate manpower and set up the right format.