Interview with Y&R Chief of Staff J.J. Schmuckler

I recently had the privilege of sitting down for an interview with J.J. Schmuckler – the Chief of Staff of one of the most revered advertising agencies in the world, Young & Rubicam. We had a very interesting conversation about Y&R’s approach to advertising, marketing and research in the digital age.

Dana Stanley: Good afternoon, J.J. Thanks for taking some time to share your thoughts with Research Access.

J.J. Schmuckler: It’s my pleasure.

How has Y&R’s approach changed in recent years with the advent of digital, mobile and social?

Even though there have been tons of changes within the space over the past few years, with an increased focus on digital and mobile and more integrated marketing, at the end of the day, a lot of what we talk about at Y&R is the constant of storytelling.

So no matter what the channel is, no matter what the audience is, no matter where the audience is, the notion of storytelling is still that constant that should always live on and be the most important thing when trying to engage a brand in a consumer.  The story is the most enduring part.

That being said, a lot of what we focus on within Y&R and a lot of what I manage as the CEO’s chief of staff is how to balance creativity and innovation. It’s our belief that when you strike the right balance, you get a newfound and a really exciting way to lead to new kinds of consumer engagement.

So what do we mean by that? We define creativity as the story, what I mentioned before, the core idea, the nugget of a story that leads when you’re trying to talk to a consumer about a specific brand and tell a specific story. And we define innovation, which can be a very broad and potentially vague word within the industry, but we define it very simply as how do you drive the story, how do you tell the story, specifically in a new and exciting way. Driving the story through the right channels is how you get increased consumer engagement.

So a lot of what I focus on is how to bring innovation to our clients — and there are many ways. There’s a standard way that I think all agencies approach innovation today, and that’s by finding ways to partner with companies like Facebook, and like Google, and like Microsoft Advertising, and like AOL. How can we utilize their innovations and their opportunities to drive new stories?

But one of the things I focus on is a large program that we’re very proud of called the Y&R Spark Plug. And essentially it’s an incubator in ten of our offices around the world for young start-up companies that are hungry. And the only prerequisite that we have is that they can help us tell our stories in new and exciting ways.

So what do we do? We look for interesting companies around the world. And if we think they have an interesting proposition, we bring them into our office, literally. We give them an office. We give them coffee, which start-ups love. We give them access to a conference room. And first and foremost, we let them do or whatever they want. They can run their own businesses, have their own clients, sleep under the desks for all we care, which they do more than not, I’ve seen walking around late at night.

But what we also do is we ask for access. We ask for access to the kinds of things they’re doing, the kinds of innovations they’re developing. That could be intellectual property, a technology they’re patenting, whatever it may be. And we give them opportunities to work with our teams, work on the briefs we have with clients, understand their business objectives. So that as a part of the campaign, as a part of the creativity bucket, the story we’re developing, we have an opportunity to add a layer of innovation that our clients could hopefully get nowhere else.

And by specifically having them in the office, it kind of leads to this organic relationship between our teams and the start-up companies. First and foremost, it’s just a really interesting vibe to have start-up companies in your agency that are uber-hungry, always thinking. And it’s an interesting and it’s an exciting way to add a layer of excitement within the organization.

And also, it leads to an organic way of actually ideating together. So as opposed to just tacking on a new innovation or a new piece of technology at the end of a campaign while we’re developing it, our teams are briefed and they’re educated about what each of these companies do so that they can be integrated in a really interesting way.

From our perspective, we are not in the business of necessarily developing that piece of intellectual property or building that technology ourselves. But rather, we want to be the navigators for our clients of what new things are out there and how can we utilize those new technologies, those new ways of thinking to better their own consumer engagement.

So within the process, we see the agency, we see ourselves as the navigators of new technologies. And I think every agency is figuring out how to work with Facebook, how to work with Google. Because many of them are going to our clients directly anyway. But from Y&R’s perspective, we think we have a really interesting added value to our clients by having very close relationships with about 20 start-ups around the world in ten of our largest offices or at least offices that have local communities of start-up companies.

We started the program a little under a year ago in New York. And we are now across 10 offices. So it’s a really interesting way to get back to your question about the landscape of an agency and how do we work, how do we differentiate ourselves. This notion of balancing creativity and innovation is a big piece for us.

How do you identify the companies?

So we have a variety of either VC partners, angel investor partners, around the world who feed us companies. Also, the WPP digital group is looking at companies. We work with them as well to kind of test and see what kind of companies work. Some are from personal relationships that we have. And others are from a variety of VCs.

And it’s interesting. We have one company that is firmly about technology. The name of the company is Interlude. They’re a fantastic part of our Spark Plug Program. And essentially what they do is they have developed a technology that while you’re watching a video online, you can choose, in real time, what’s going to happen next.

So if you’re walking to an elevator, you can choose if the person should go to the third floor or the fourth floor. And instantaneously a new experience will come up based on the decision you made. So that led our creative teams go from creating a linear story online to a multilayered story online. But that’s a technology. That’s a thing. That’s something that’s patented.

We also have people that give us access to really interesting things that we’ve never had before. So another group we have in New York, called The Unconventional Partners, give us access to the world of Hollywood. And they help us get access to scripts before they’re kind of locked and sealed so we can find interesting and seamless ways to build in product integration.

So we’ve had a variety of movie up-fronts this year for our creative team so that we can think about really interesting and seamless ways for product innovation. So there’s no technology there. But still, their skill set and the access they give us can lead to better storytelling for our clients.

So it ranges the gamut in terms of kinds of companies. So we’re purposely flexible in terms of the kind of company. And we’ve seen a variety of different kinds work.

How do you manage creativity?

I think at the end of the day, creativity is based on strong understanding of our audience, and a very strong strategic planning team, and, most importantly, our creative teams that are able to focus on the real truth about a brand, be able to boil down a client’s problem into a specific challenge and give our creative team ways to create stories that are at the beginning, not necessary linked to a specific channel or a specific tactic. But give our creative teams the opportunity to think about the best way to solve a client’s challenge through the idea of the story.

So we try to always think about, of course, the right channels, where are audiences are going to be, at what time, and everything like that. But it’s also important to be able to boil down a client’s business problem from a strategic perspective and let our creative teams think, at the beginning, in a relatively channel-neutral way, to think solely about the story, solely about that nugget of an idea. So our strategic planning teams have a variety of different best practices we use in terms of helping our creative team boil down an entire brief, an entire client problem to one particular truth about a brand that we’re trying to articulate through a story.

We have a very interesting process at Y&R that we call eXploring, that’s led by our global planning director, Sandy Thompson, where essentially our strategic planners, or as we call them in certain parts of the world, our eXplorers, go out into a specific market and pretend they are the audience and really dive in to understand what the strategic problem is that we need to overcome, what the barriers are that we’re trying to overcome for our particular brand.

And often that eXploring process helps our creative teams hone in on the specific truth that will then lead to a great story. We try to enable them to solely think about the story and the nugget of an idea that can then be surrounded with the right kind of channels at the right place at the right time.

So you have the creativity. You have the innovation. Where do analytics and market research come in?

They’re a core part of our planning process. One of the main pieces of research we use is the BrandAsset® Valuator, BAV, which is the largest study of brands in the world, which is a study conducted by Brand Asset Consulting, which is a part of the larger Y&R family. So every strategic project that we start with begins with a deep dive into BAV data to understand where a current brand is and where it needs to go. So that’s a key research tool that we use for sure.

Social media analytics is one of the hottest topics in the research world. What is Y&R doing in that realm?

Sure, let me talk a little bit about VML. VML is Y&R’s core digital partner. And Y&R is comprised of the Y&R advertising side and also our core digital partner at VML. And among many research and analytics tools that VML has, one of them is called SEER, which is a social media listening platform that we’ve developed. Which is our own proprietary technology that we utilize to understand what kind of conversations are going on in the online space. And better to best inform our briefs for our creative team. So social listening is definitely a key piece.

And on the VML side in particular, some of our client relationships are actually firmly based on constantly auditing the social media space to see what kind of insights we can garner. For some of VML’s relationship with Gatorade, in particular, they developed something called Mission Control, which is one of the largest social media studies. And so constant, ongoing social media audit systems that Gatorade uses in order to best understand their consumer at any given time based on a major social media channel.

So we actually developed, and it’s a literal room in Chicago called mission control for Gatorade. And it’s a core part of our business with Gatorade and also how in an ongoing and constant way we’re garnering insights from social media and helping to inform the creative we develop for them.

And mobile is certainly a hot topic these days. What have you guys done in that area?

For sure. A part of our VML team is Iconmobile, which is a fantastic company within the WPP world. And what they are best known for doing and for thinking about and how we infuse them into a variety of our clients is to not think about solely thinking about mobile as app development. How can you really develop mobile experiences that are not necessarily solely within the confines or within the context of thinking about, OK now let’s build an app.  Anybody can build an app these days. Anybody in their garage can build an app these days as a mobile solution.

Mobile is much larger than that because it is the perfect bridge between the real world and the digital world. So you really need to think about the larger experience and where mobile fits in for a consumer. And we work to develop those kinds of experiences for our clients. And we do that in partnership with our companies at VML and iconmobile.

But to your point, it’s definitely an ongoing and an important aspect. Our clients are always asking for how to integrate mobile. And we’re always doing it through the context of not solely an app. How do we create an experience?

Y&R has always been on the leading edge of advertising industry. Where do you see the industry going in the next few years? And what can we expect from Y&R?

From Y&R, I think you can really expect the continuation of the evolution of this balance of creativity and innovation that I talked about before. More and more partners are going to come up in terms of creating holistic solutions for clients that tap into a variety of different channels, probably, to your point, mobile being one of the key and most important ones.

So from our perspective, striking that balance between creativity and innovation, always leading with the story, always leading with that idea that will change a consumer’s opinion or break a specific barrier. If we always keep our eye focused on our core challenge, which is creating those stories, but know how to surround those stories with the latest and greatest innovations and technologies and partners, then we think we’ll be in a good place.

JJ Schmuckler, this is really interesting stuff. I thank you for your time today.

Thanks so much.

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About Dana Stanley

Dana is the Editor-in-Chief of Research Access.

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