Chemistry, curiosity, and creativity
This episode features Max Pfennighaus, the Director of Enterprise Brand Design at Johnson & Johnson. In an insightful conversation, he brings us into the world of agency selection and brand transformation and shares a wealth of knowledge and behind-the-scenes insights from his extensive experience in working with branding agencies. Max discusses how the role of branding agencies has evolved over the past decade, emphasizing the importance of understanding the client’s unique needs and the ability to adapt to change. He reveals the critical factors that set agencies apart during the selection process, shedding light on the delicate balance between expertise and curiosity. He offers valuable advice on how agencies can make a lasting impression in their pitches, highlighting the significance of team chemistry and a client-centric approach. He discusses the art of engineering discussions during presentations, providing tips on keeping clients engaged and fostering meaningful conversations. Max also shares real-world examples of successful agency selection processes and illustrates how agencies can navigate the intricacies of client expectations and project scopes. Tune in to this episode for an eye-opening exploration of the agency-client relationship, packed with practical insights that can transform your approach to branding and agency collaboration.
Max, it’s great having you on the show. I always think it’s fascinating to be able to talk to someone who has such a broad spectrum of experience and who’s been both agency side and client side. When you went client side the first time, what were the biggest differences for you?
There were a couple of big differences. One was my life had changed a lot. Even my career changed a lot as I went from agency to in-house for the first time. I was at a point in my career where I had spent many years in advertising. I was taking a job at NPR, heading up their interaction design team. It was a creative direction and art direction, a very traditional advertising background, and jumping over to the in-house. One of the cultural shifts that I had to go through and has served me for the rest of my career, to be honest, was thinking a little bit less about gifting the rest of the organization with my ideas.
A lot of when I was in advertising was about myself, a copywriter, or maybe a third person, a media person. It’s this little group of people that would be working a brief and then presenting this amazing set of concepts, hopefully, that the client would buy, versus when I jumped into product development where it’s a fully agile environment and super collaborative. Plenty of people there had a lot of creative ideas and smart things to add to the table from a variety of disciplines.
To jump into an environment like that was intensely collaborative. This is years ago at this point but I remember sitting down at my first Agile meeting and thinking to myself in so many words, “When are these people going to tell me what the problem is so I can go solve it for them?” I was quickly disabused of that notion. It’s a far more complex environment, which is how I’ve proceeded in my career, in general, to be very collaborative, particularly with people who are as different from me as possible and bring very different things to the table than I do and try to connect with those people.
That was a cultural shift. The other piece was I’ve noticed this in all of my in-house jobs since NPR. The priorities were a little bit different in-house. There was a longer tail feeling of being invested and involved in the success of the organization. It was a larger story. I felt like the agency in my agency life and mileage varies with people depending on what type of agency they’re from or the people have had different experiences.
My experience was that we were always brought in to solve a specific problem and then we were on to the next one. We didn’t stay. We weren’t the boots on the ground. We were occupying the territory. We come in, solve it, and then leave. It was a different set of priorities and also a different amount of access to internal systems and the business itself. I felt like it was so much easier to knock on doors like, “I work here. I want to understand how the money works and the sales process.”
People have always been more than willing to talk in that way, “We’re all part of the same club.” It’s a lot more difficult, I feel like, from the agency side to find those clinically right people to talk to. I feel like those are big shifts to turn into an insider and buy into the organization, where it was headed, and thinking long-term and more collaboratively.
One of the things that is interesting about your background is that you were a creative director. You come through the creative side of things. When you go and look at people in enterprise brand roles, a lot of times, it’s rare to see someone who’s come up through that creative track. It’s almost like creatives are oftentimes a pigeonhole within creativity. How have you been able to shake that off and translate that into being a brand leader? What do you think that gives you that’s different from someone who doesn’t have that background?
That’s true. I don’t think there are a lot of people that have my background. Although, there are a couple of pieces to that. One is there’s a little bit of that creative myth around specific industries and job roles being able to own creativity. That has been a very difficult thing to shake off. Sometimes, it works in my favor. Sometimes, it’s like, “We’re going to bring the creative guy in.” It can work against me, particularly in these brand roles because there are plenty of people within every organization that I’ve worked in, from NPR, The New York Times, IBM, and Johnson & Johnson, who are designers and creative, innovative thinkers in their own right.
I walk into a room as a creative person from a creative department that they’re not in. I own creative over here. That has been an important thing to establish that I am here to enable, complement, and meet intuitively as a fellow creator and designer from a different discipline. Also, to awaken that creative sense in other people too. A lot of creative people wouldn’t even consider themselves creative. That’s an important thing to try to draw out of people and identify. I’ve tried hard to be very humble in that way to say, “Creativity and brand design are good for some things but it’s not good for everything.”
To be clear, this is a broad statement but, in general, design and design thinkers and people with creative backgrounds inside of organizations can have problems when their role starts to become strategic. Design often takes too much credit for what’s going on. If you look at a design agency or a branding agency’s website, you’ll see like, “Look at all these brands that you’ve built.” They don’t build the brands. The businesses build their brands. The brand comes from inside, as we know.
Designers, when they come into these conversations or creative people, there can be a certain resistance from the “business side” of the organizations like, “Who are these people? They’re nonlinear thinkers or creative people. They’re blue skyers. I have ROI things. I’m trying to make money here. These people are going to come in and throw monkey wrenches into the situation.”
It’s like this left brain and right brain caution. In any successful business, the business-minded people are running the place. There are exceptions. There are a lot of design-led organizations but a lot of those people have struck that balance in those successful organizations between design thinking and business thinking. I’ve had to put on my business thinking hat. By temperament, even when I was in advertising, purely working on conceptual work, I was a very logical thinker. I was about optimizing. “How’s this going to work functionally?”
That’s what led me to product development because it has a lot of those types of levers in it as well. If I can speak in the business language, as I walk around, whether it’s metaphorically or through the hallways, I try to understand the business and be very functional and results-oriented with what we’re talking about instead of like, “What if we did this cool thing? What if we threw holograms on the moon? It’d be so on brand if we did this.” Those are great starting places and they can be inspiring but they can also be very destabilizing conversations.
Where did you go to acquire that business acumen? It sounds like what you’re talking about is if you were mentoring designers, whether they were in-house or on the agency side and they wanted to not just be thought of as the creative. It’s about bringing that business acumen. What advice would you give on how to go and where to go and do that?
I wouldn’t do it the way I did it. It’s the school of hard knocks where I felt like I would keep coming up with these great ideas and they wouldn’t go anywhere. Intuitively, they made a lot of sense. When I was sitting at The New York Times, I had a lot of ideas sitting in that role. I headed up the Brand Marketing Department at The New York Times.
I had all these what I thought were great ideas from my team. They just wouldn’t go anywhere but the ones that would be the ones that were surprised connected to business results. We would have these crazy ideas about promoting. They were cool ideas but it’s like, “They’re not going to work.” We were launching The New York Times Crossword app at the time. I said, “What if we turned the streets of New York into a crossword puzzle?”
People had to speak in the actual place on the crossword puzzle to solve the letter of the puzzle. It would be this crazy big thing. If you solved the whole puzzle using GPS, then you would go to this cool place like this mystery final endpoint and be awarded some prize, meet Will Shortz, or something like that. It’s a cool idea. It’s like awareness building, I suppose.
There were a lot of ideas like that. They were like, “That’s cool.” Other more practical things were as effective and very on-brand. For example, we noticed that the online subscription process for becoming a subscriber to the paper was abysmal. It was a terrible experience. You’d go and be at the end of reading a heartfelt, compelling story about the topic of your choice.
This is Pulitzer-worthy journalism. These people understand me, what I care about, and my view of the world. You’d have this real sense of connection. You’d see that subscribe button. You’ll be like, “It’s time.” You’d get dragged into the back of a used car dealership to try to sell you under coding and warranties that you didn’t want, price obfuscation. “I didn’t know what I was signing up for.” All these crazy things and the drop-off rate was, as you’d expect, pretty high. People are like, “This isn’t The New York Times. I’m out of here. Thanks.”
We renovated that process and it was very successful from a business standpoint. It was a very clever idea. It wasn’t as grand as the crossword puzzle idea but it was just as strengthening to the brand, as effective, and as much of a Rubik’s cube puzzle to solve. I started realizing through almost trial and error that the successes that I had were about looking for identifying business opportunities and gaps and still using my design brain.
That subscription thing is a good example because the business-minded people are like, “We’re not going to blow this up. This is how we make our money. We’re going to iterate this. Maybe we’ll try a different color button or something or we’ll try ship and stuff. Let’s not go crazy.” You could bring in that inventive approach to say, “What if it was like this? What if it was like Netflix? What if we should have one price? What if you made it super simple for people? Let’s try it and see what happens.” If you can bring in that innovative approach, do it safely and test it. Check to see if it works.
An MBA would be super helpful for a lot of people. I don’t have one but I can look at the brief and what the results are for the client. You don’t see internal clients or external clients, the numbers, the quant, and how they’re going to evaluate success in terms of business success. It’s not just creative like, “Isn’t that a clever idea?” It’s clever but smart.
If you’re not finding the smart results visible to you, then I encourage you, especially when you’re in-house. There are real advantages there. Knock on some doors. “Why are we even doing this project? Why are we even making a crossword app? Who cares?” Get people to open up about the realities of how the business works. That becomes a much more inspiring creative brief and a brand brief to work off of.
Sometimes, you ask someone what they did well and they’ll tell you a story. They can’t necessarily highlight what they did well. What was interesting about what you said is in the story that you told but you didn’t bring this out as an insight. You started talking about empathy and insight as a lead-in to what needed to change. It’s this understanding of where that subscriber was coming from the emotion that they were feeling and what they were, all of a sudden, thrown into.
That’s not whether you work as a creative or a strategist. Anyone can bring that through that lens of insight and empathy but translate it to something as simple. That’s going to drive more conversion if you can extend that voice and experience or think about what that person was feeling in that step before getting to that moment that you’re trying to convert.
I couldn’t agree more. The rise of design thinking as a discipline within organizations may draw a circle around some of these empathic approaches. I feel like that adds a mystique that isn’t necessary. It’s as simple as what you described. Most people are fairly empathic, in general, in their everyday lives. All of a sudden, it’s like, “I’m in this business role. I should set that aside. I know how to be successful inside of this box.” It doesn’t involve that but it can. The way you described, it can be a real inspiration for what to do next.
Optimization and iteration can only go so far when you start imagining how to make people’s lives better and the people that you’re an expert at because you work with them all the time, whether you’re in sales or otherwise, that’s where those opportunities are. “What if we did this? What if we try this?” I bet people would love that.
It’s easier to do that with the rise of purpose-led organizations and things like that. It’s closer to people’s minds at least than it has been in the past, perhaps. It’s like, “What is my company about? This feels like what my company is about.” Some of these metrics are a little bit more available to people than they have been in the past.
I feel like a lot of the experience that you had almost led up to that last role in being the director of enterprise brand designer at a brand like J&J that has always been very purpose-driven. Can you talk a little bit about how a company like J&J views enterprise brands? If you can share what you learned about being in an enterprise brand role at a point where they decide to go through a transformation, ultimately a rebrand.
It is very challenging for any organization of that scale and age to hold on to that sense of clear purpose over time. J&J, for example, is over 150 years old. It used to have about 130,000 employees. It’s this giant company. You look at the history of the legacy of the organization and the purpose is quite strong. Many years ago, it was like the version of Steve Jobs. You had these brothers who started this company. They had a very clear purpose in mind. You can look at all of that stuff and their commitment to health, innovation, invention, and diversity in the workforce.
If you look at the story of J&J in the first couple of decades of its run, it’s a very strong purpose-led organization. It can be very challenging for any company that turns into what J&J has turned into, which is a giant holding company of a lot of different brands that, in their own right, are very strong. You have a B2B company like J & Son, whose founder is a crazy innovator. It’s practically like an Albert Einstein of medical technology and medical advancement.
He’s a well-known guy within his field and the organization itself. It’s full of people that do amazing things. That’s just one company. There are dozens of companies in the portfolio. They’re there because they’re amazing. They were required because they’re amazing. They signed up on purpose because they’re these great companies that want to be part of something bigger.
They decided to go through a brand refresh. What is the trigger when they decide to say, “Let’s go do this?” Why go through that effort?
Any brand that’s reinventing itself, it’s a tremendous expense, particularly at that scale, any company that does this. When I was at IBM, it wasn’t a refresh but it was certainly repositioning the organization to push into cognitive computing, for example. That was what was going on at the time. It’s a big deal to suddenly be about something that you weren’t about before.
What you’re seeing with J&J is the split of the company from an integrated company that had both consumer and B2B components. J&J is purely a med tech in a pharmaceutical organization. That’s a big trigger to start thinking introspectively about yourself. In the J&J case because of where the competition was in their marketplace, they spent a lot of money as everyone knows on their consumer branding.
As a result, everybody sees J&J as a Band-Aid and baby shampoo company. Not just the consumers that they were targeting but also people in the medical field who are unaware of the true nature of what J&J has to offer. Even on the consumer side, like the B2B to C piece. You walk into an operating room and if you see a J&J device in there, you’re like, “Isn’t that the Band-Aid company? I thought this was a surgical platform. What’s going on here?”
It has nothing to do with the quality of the products or the services which are top notch. It’s these brand associations that have gone toward this very specific route on the consumer side. The challenge is how to reveal essentially what was already there. It’s 80%, I’m not sure, but a big chunk of the company, for a long time, has been devoted to innovation in pharmaceuticals and medical technology.
There’s a crazy amount of stories to be told there. There’s a reality of the organization and a legacy of this type of work that needs to be part of the brand. It has been crowded out by the marketing on the consumer side. Once that’s all gone, the question is what triggers the work, which is, “How do we hold on to the heart that we have and the purpose that we were born with to a commitment to public health and global health? How do we hold on to that care?” We’re trying to make people’s lives better and we’re good at that. We have a sense of empathy.
Also, strengthened and emphasized the fact that we’ve invented a lot of stuff that we were at the cutting edge and the forefront of a lot of research and technology. That feels natural. If you talk to people at J&J, they’re like, “That’s what we do. We invent things all day long. We’re building all these devices and creating all these amazing cures for things.” When they go to dinner parties, they say that they don’t work for J&J. That’s not the first thing that comes out of their mouth.
They may refer to the sub-brand that they used to work or currently work for. They don’t start with the J&J thing because it’s not the right foot to lead with. That’s the work of the brand to evolve to that point where they can lead it with J&J at dinner parties to say, “J&J, great. They’re like the Tesla of healthcare.” It’s if that’s where they decide to go. They need to change those associations because they poured so much blood, sweat, and tears into a very specific set of consumer-minded associations over the years.
You have to run the process of choosing and hiring what brand agency you’re going to partner with on that journey in J&J. What is it that you brought to that process from your experience having been in other corporate brand roles but also having been on agency side that you think there’s someone who’s going through this process? What would you advise?
The biggest question about bringing external lenses into this conversation is almost in a psychological temperament type of way. How are they going to complement your executive leadership team that’s driving this process internally? Mileage varies depending on the organization. At times, you have to do a Myers-Briggs test on yourself like, “What are we missing here? What could be helpful to have someone come in with a fresh objective lens? What prompts and assessments will we not make ourselves? What are we blind to?” That is a very helpful exercise.
For example, for the process that we’re going through to get help here, we needed to be questioned on the connection between branding and the business. Is this a marketing exercise that we’re going through to create an advertising campaign that will be about telling a story that will be designed to get phones to ring and buttons to click? Is this an opportunity to signal real change within the organization like a shift in priority to a different way of doing business?
It’s the temperament of a consultant that wants to come in on that case like a creative agency wants to be like, “Prove it. I don’t believe you.” It’s a big complacent company that’s been successful for over a century. Having a little bit of that ability to speak truth to power may not agree with what’s going on. Have that critical eye but I don’t know if that’s always necessary.
Sometimes those organizations already have that. Let’s talk about The New York Times. Droga came in to help solidify The New York Times position as that speaking truth to power during a very specific period, leading up to a presidential election. The New York Times had plenty of sense of purpose and innovation. They had a lot of creativity and innovation going into that process. What they needed was someone to be able to write about them. It’s almost like biting your teeth. It was hard for them to tell the story about themselves and have a little bit of ego about it.
Reporters tend to be very quiet people. You don’t see them inside of their work at all. It required someone to come in and be like, “You’re amazing. We need to talk about this and you having the responsibilities that you have.” The reporters are like, “I want to do my work.” That was a good compliment because a reporter could never write that campaign or put that position forward. It’s about trying to find who’s going to be the best disruptor for your psychological profile or the team driving that process.
You work with different types of agencies as well. The pure-play brand agency seems to have this view that if you want to do brand properly, you should only use a pure-play brand because that’s what they do every day. The ad agent says, “We know how to do rebrands as well.” Is there a recipe or thought for when you should go with one or the other or a mix? What’s your perspective on that?
This is a broad generalization but they’re fairly accurate. It’s a good idea to go with an agency when it’s a storytelling problem as I described. Agencies are very adept at pattern recognition, looking broadly at a situation inside of a company and making it the same at their best. At their worst, they’re taking a 1% truth in magnifying it into the whole thing.
If they’re doing their jobs right, they’re looking at the organization and bringing poetry to it, they’re dramatizing it to a certain degree. It’s almost like a historical film that brings epic grandeur to a historical event. They’re going to take the facts and make them beautiful to a particular audience. They’re not going to invent anything. They’re going to reveal these things beautifully.
There is often no more work to do than that when you’re talking about an organization like Johnson & Johnson or IBM. Not that agencies haven’t done great work for those places but so much of the brand experience is through specific interactions with products. The majority of people’s associations, whether B2B or consumer, are through using the products, going through an interface, and saving lives.
Through interacting with people if you’re a service brand or B2B.
In those types of things, you have to sweat the details. Like journalists, you have to ride with those people and do the hard work of trying to see the world as they see it and see problems as they see them so that you can optimize and shape the brand at that point of contact. That is a different type of thinking. I’m sure there are advertising agencies that work that way like I’m sure there are brand agencies that tell great stories.
In general, those tend to be the polls of climbing in with the business to understand their systems, process, and customer journey and looking almost media agnostic like, “We shouldn’t do a campaign at all. This isn’t a storytelling problem. This is a subscription problem. We need to optimize your subscription flow or there’s an opportunity there. This is like a sales conversation.”
They need to almost be execution agnostic which to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Everything looks like a campaign. The nice flexibility of a branding agency doesn’t have any particular bias towards execution again if they’re doing their jobs. They’ll try to look at what the opportunity is and then play to that opportunity. Also, teach people to fish.
It’s like, “We’re not going to come here and fix the thing for you. We’re going to point this out. If you think this is a problem, we’re going to talk about how this is off-brand. You should probably change your sales process and commit yourself to sustainable packaging. If you keep talking all the time about being a zero-carbon footprint company, you should probably blow up this factory and retool all of those.” Those are the conversations that a branding agency can have. An ad agency may spitball those ideas but they’re not going to go into the hard work of doing those things.
Also, the way the business model operates. They go to this investment in creativity in building into that business model. It’s a bit of a question of scope versus scale. If a brand agency is doing its job well, it’s more likely to come and say, “You need to shift some of those from advertising and put it into the customer experience, customer call center, and training.” That’s going to improve the experience and generate word of mouth. There’s no point in advertising if you need to fix some of those other elements.
It’s not a question of one being better than the other. It’s making sure you’re solving the right problem. Whether they’re B2B or traditional consumers, the people can be able to tell that you’re BS-ing them about what you’re doing. The level of transparency is at an all-time high for that and the accountability. People have no patience for that stuff anymore.
Even the businesses themselves. I read something that 180 of the top 200 companies in the world have said that their driving principles are no longer about shareholder value. It’s about making the world better. They do it because they’re accountable. They’re thinking about the future and where things are going. They want to align themselves with the brands and the companies that are doing that. It didn’t use to be that way. You could tell people what you were up to and they’re like, “That’s what they’re up to based on the advertising.”
When you think about going through this process, it must have been interesting being on the client side and being in the room watching all the different branding agencies present. Can you share any insight around how pitching and the role of branding agency has changed maybe 5 or 10 years to what it is in 2023? How did the agency stand out in its proposals and pictures? Take us behind the scenes into the room and the conversations.
There was a spectrum of agencies that we talked to. As we’ve discussed, there were agencies of different temperaments and reputations. Some were a little bit more known for being firebrands, outspoken, and challengers to conversations. Others were more systems-oriented and could operate at the scale that we were comfortable with and had a long track record of doing things like that. Another category might be agencies that we’ve worked with in the past. J&J is such a large organization. There are a lot of agencies that have come in, helped out, and have collaborated over the years.
There are plenty of places that know the brand pretty well, historically. That was one of the things that was different maybe from other times that I’ve gone through this process. The agencies that knew us and worked with us, I wouldn’t say that they were necessarily too comfortable with us. They didn’t make assumptions but they probably could have benefited from asking more questions and taking more of a neutral and objective approach to try to understand how much of a revolution or an evolution this was.
J&J probably has a reputation of being a fairly conservative company when it comes to projecting the brand. Their experiences confirmed those types of impressions and the projects that they had worked on. However, this is a big moment, historically for someone unprecedented. I don’t think this ever happened to a company of this scale. Some of those folks underestimated how much of an appetite there was for change here.
They probably could have benefited from instead of assuming that they knew the political climate that they probably could have leveraged that political climate and asked some questions about, “Is it business as usual? This seems like a pretty big thing. Should we come in?” We have some assumptions like, “Are these correct?” Every agency that asked for it had an initial conversation or a Q&A before they came back with a proposal.
They could ask as many questions as they wanted. The smarter ones happened to be the ones that didn’t know us very well. They could ask a lot of “stupid questions,” which are not stupid at all. “How invasive is this? What kind of company do you want to be in when you grow up?” It might have been hard in some ways for the agencies that had existing relationships. Not present existing relationships but that had known us.
I felt like they almost felt like they should have already known the answers to those questions so they will probably be afraid to ask them but it would have benefited the process quite a bit if they had maybe been proud and had described their background with us. “We know you a lot. We know this, that, and the other thing. This could all be wrong though so let’s talk about it.” That would have been a better approach than trying to figure out what the problem was and the challenge that was at hand.
You’re cursed with knowledge a bit. You need to forget what you know sometimes when you get into the process if you’ve already been working with them.
That’s right. If you have a beginner’s mind or a little bit of curiosity or objective like, “I’m a new person here. I want to ask some questions. They might seem pedestrian but I want to level set,” and there’s a way to get to that type of conversation, then that’s worth it. The other thing right next to that is certain parameters were built into the RFP that said, “Here’s a lane that we want you to play in. Here are lanes that are covered by either internal resources or other partner agencies.”
This is quite significant. We had another agency that we were working with that was going to be working on the positioning. It had some initial recommendations on our architecture but those were set in stone on how that wanted to go. In the RFP, it said, “This stuff is already taken care of. We want you to focus more on the identity refresh.”
To the credit of some of the agencies that were involved in the pitch, a few of them didn’t ignore it but reasoned through it. That’s probably a better way to say it. They said essentially in their ways, “As we all know here, you can’t do this type of work or this identity work without being part of that positioning process, collaborating heavily there, and having a point of view on it and so on.” They did it anyway because it was all part of an approach.
A lot of the agencies came with thought starters like, “Maybe the identity should be this or this. We don’t know. We’re going to show you how our brains work.” Part of how our brains work inevitably will lead to these larger questions of what you stand for and how this connects to your purpose. They couldn’t pin themselves into being limited to that one sphere. Ultimately, that served them very well.
The ones that swam in their lanes tightly, technically, probably scored an A plus on the brief but also scored a B plus. All of those are great work but they fell a little short compared to these other agencies because ultimately, those agencies showed how their brains worked through the process and were honest with themselves. “This is how we are. This is how we work best. Based on what you’ve told us, this is how we would recommend approaching it.”
It is almost like a clinical approach I feel in a way to design problems and branding problems. It’s like when you go to the doctor. The doctor tells you, “I’m seeing your chart here. It looks like you’re smoking here. Look at your liver. You’re drinking too much.” The doctor is not going to get mad at you about it. They’re an expert. They’re going to tell you, “I can tell you’re shaving years off your life. You probably shouldn’t do this. Do what you want,” but they’re speaking from a position of expertise. It’s not an opinion like, “Why are you a bad person and smoking?”
What these agencies were able to pull off was this clinical approach, “Based on what we’re seeing here, I know you wrote the brief like this but this isn’t how we see this working.” It wasn’t like, “You guys wrote a bad brief. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” It was, “This is how we work. There’s rationale and a lot of smart work that we’ve done in this way. Let us show you three cases of how we’ve done it this way and it’s been super successful.”
Ultimately, that prevails, which I thought was good. It was interesting because it became about expertise in chemistry and not painting by numbers. We talked about the temperament of different organizations. There might have been others. It’s very possible and maybe it’s a miscalculation. J&J from the outside looks like a very conservative company when it comes to these types of things.
Maybe there might have been a concern of, “If we color outside the lines here, we won’t even get in the room. This is going to be bad.” Do you want to get in the room if you’re the agency that has to conform to these restrictions to even get in there and sacrifice your approach and expertise to shoehorn into what the client’s structure is? The answer is probably it’s a little bit of a push-in poll. There’s probably a compromise there but those agencies that stay true to themselves ended up doing a lot better.
When you think about going through that process and you get to the final pitch, how much of a perception do you already have around where you might be leaning, even going into that final presentation? What are some of the factors that might have influenced that? For example, even during the Q&A process. The types of questions that people are asking, that level of curiosity, how much is that already impacting your perception and going into that pitch? You go in with that notion of, “I’m leaning here. I might still be swayed.” Maybe talk a bit about that because I’m giving you a lot of leading. I’m asking the question and almost answering it.
At the very base level or the most superficial level, the first impressions are because they are formed when the team walks into the room. How many people do they bring? Did they bring as many people as you have? Did they bring a handful of people? How important is this to them? Is it too important? They brought twice as many people. Having a little bit of symmetry there was good. That’s obvious stuff but also, having a complement of people that can mirror the client side.
If you have design represented, you’re reading the invite list and you’re talking to them in these initial Q&A sessions, you see like, “Design is playing a huge role in this. We should probably bring a deeper bench.” If designs are not, then maybe you shouldn’t. Make sure that you proportional the importance that you’re reading based on who’s participating in the process with the agency team that’s coming to the table. Also, the chemistry of that group. You read that stuff. These are basics but I don’t know.
I feel like it’s surprising how many well-established agencies tend to stumble on some of these basic things. It’s also due to perhaps their scale. A lot of these people walk into the room. You can tell half of them never met each other before. You can tell that they flew the lead creative in from Eastern Europe or something or wherever he was running around. They brought the president in and she’s coming in. It’s like this assembled Voltron Force for the sake of this meeting itself. You can tell there isn’t a lot of chemistry there. That comes out quickly.
You’re also looking and feeling the energy and the chemistry between the team themselves.
Does it feel like they work together as a team? It’s not like it has to be something where they’ve all worked with each other for ten years. There’s a sense of, “We’ve all worked on this project together. We have a shared vision. We all see ourselves as facets in this project and we understand our place in it.” It’s a lot to ask because no one’s getting paid anything for this. It’s this whole thing that’s speculative. I understand and appreciate the scale of pitches.
If you’re at this level of success and you’re coming into the room pitching J&J, you probably have a lot on your rotisserie but that’s just part of it. It’s what you said. It’s making it clear that this is a team that has their eye on the ball. They’re curious and asking questions. Those things are very important. It’s fairly straightforward. I’m surprised at how many people missed this but be able to leave a lot of room for discussion and engineer your presentation to be about discussion.
Everybody says they’re about discussion but nobody does it. It feels like, “Stop us whenever you want for Q&A. Stop us anywhere for questions,” but they’ve built a 55-minute presentation for a 16-minute thing. There are ways to architect it. The goal is to walk out of the room, in my opinion, particularly in the first round. They get the problem or understand how to approach the problem, at least. Maybe they don’t get the whole thing. They can’t wrap their head around it.
It’s starting to dawn on them how complicated we are and the magnitude of the problem may be. It’s also something where you can tell that the agency cares. They know what they don’t know. They have a lot of smart questions to ask. They’re very comfortable being off script because they’re very talented people who can extemporaneous or improvise on the fly. That’s important.
It’s tricky because a lot of times, I feel like you want to bring in more junior people to give them a lot of pitch experience. That’s fine. Balancing that with more senior people is important so that you feel like you have the benefit of that sense. The questions will go sideways or up and down. Those senior people can pivot and then perhaps hand off to a junior person to be able to elaborate on a particular line of questioning.
What are some of the good or not-so-good ways that you’ve seen or maybe that you’ve even participated in of engineering and discussion? Sometimes, you try and do that in a way that falls very flat. Are there any stories like the best examples that you’ve seen that were done well?
I know those times when it’s gone poorly too. It’s almost like a stand-up comedian. It’s like crickets in the room. You’re like, “Does anybody want to say anything?” There’s nothing there. Having a backup plan for no discussion is great. You can fill the air with answers to your questions. That’s a good backup plan. In terms of examples of things where it’s gone well, one approach was getting a sense of what the architecture of the presentation is going to be upfront so there’s a clear sense in the audience’s mind about what’s going to be covered and how many concepts we are going to look at.
They have a sense of where the fuel gauge is on this thing. A lot of people don’t want to speak until they’ve seen everything. Some people want to see it all. I feel like design people will say stuff right away. They’re used to critiquing stuff on the fly like, “The clay is soft. I’ll poke holes and ask questions.” Others are more analytical people in the room. Some of them are incapable of conversation because they need to go away and think about it. They took a bunch of notes. You can see those people like crazy. They need to ferment on that and come back.
Some people are in the middle and are a little analytical. Probably, they have some questions about the agency, their process, and their approach to things. If you can keep it away from evaluation, come up with three different ideas, for example, to show how well you worked. I don’t think of getting into a conversation like, “What do you think about this? What do you think about that?”
It’s way too soon. It feels like it puts people in a place where it’ll feel like they get the answer wrong. It’s like, “I like this one. I don’t like this one.” They don’t want to commit to those kinds of conversations. You can keep the bar lower around the process like, “What’s your creative process like? Do you tend to like three different directions?”
One of the agencies came and said, “We like to triangulate our coordinates with our creative. We like to come up with something that feels close in, in a very conservative angle, and that’s crazy. They like to come up with something that’s even crazier.” That’s how our approach works. One of the reasons why we think this is crazy is because of this. We think you guys are not perceived as innovative.
The craziest thing over here, for example, is showing you guys like you’re the Tesla of healthcare. That’s what this looks like. Do you think you guys are the Tesla of healthcare? Are there people in the organization that feel that way? We were curious about how innovation works at J&J. What we’re seeing is that it’s sort in a pocket. It looks like there’s a place called J&J Innovation but we were curious. “Is innovation something that lives throughout the organization?”
This will help us because as we’re developing concepts for you to get a sense of where creativity is within the organization, it will be a real source of inspiration for us. It’s almost even asking the question and then it’s like, “That’s a cool way of working.” Leading questions like that to reveal why you’re asking the question and that reveals what’s important to you as you’re working through ideas are great ways to start conversations.
It allows people to come back to say, “It’s tough. I don’t know. I haven’t seen innovation from where I am over in my part of the business.” They’ll say very proudly, “Innovation is everywhere. It’s a huge problem. Nobody sees it but it’s everywhere,” which isn’t the case. We have a bad time trying to communicate that. That’s one approach.
It keeps it a little bit more abstract and less evaluative. It gives people excuses to speak to their expertise. Everyone loves talking about what they know. If you can figure out ways to get people to contribute based on if you have a media person in the room, make some observations about the media spend and the medium mix based on what you’re seeing.
As a disclaimer, we probably have it wrong. We don’t see everything but it looks like your social media approach has spiked and has focused on personal health versus global health, for example. It looks like we were seeing a C change there. How much of an emphasis do you put on connecting your larger campaign messaging to social work? We’re curious because we love to do that. We love to stitch that stuff together. We’re super integrated with it. Putting out those types of questions that let people speak to what they’re good at is not foolproof but it’s your best shot.
There’s a lot of great learnings from all of this. Anyone who’s reading on the client side is thinking about how to evaluate agencies in this process as well. Max, this has been a fantastic and brilliant conversation. We could have kept going for two more hours but thank you so much for being part of this.
Thank you. It’s always fun to talk about the work and the process. As a creative person, I always like to listen to directors’ commentaries and behind-the-scenes. It’s so important to get a sense of how other people work too. I’m a big fan of this show and the work that you’ve been doing. Keep it going.
Thanks, Max. I love the director’s cut idea. I’m going to use it. Thanks so much for being on.
About Max Pfennighaus
I have over 25 years of experience leading and building creative teams within organizations knownfor their high standards of performance and excellence: IBM, Johnson & Johnson, the New York Times, NPR, and others.
The focus of my work has ranged from purely UX/UI, which is how I started at NPR, to more cross-functional leadership roles that span the full range of brand experiences, which is where I am now at Johnson & Johnson.
I spent the first 13 years of my career in advertising, where I learned the ins and outs of successful creative development from industry greats like Pete Favat and Ron Lawner at Arnold Worldwide, where we created work for one of the most successful and awarded anti-smoking campaigns in history, “The Truth.”
I am a hands-on designer and strategist. I enjoy the view from the trenches but feel equally at home in the more rarefied air of executive boardrooms. I believe good design and good branding is effective are integral to the performance and growth of every organization, large or small.