5 Good Minutes with Jonathan Balck, Managing Director at Victors & Spoils
Jonathan Balck spent the last eight years at CP+B where he led the account team that won the 2010 Cannes Titanium Grand Prix. He's worked with MINI, Burger King and Saturn as well. Originally hailing from the West coast of Michigan, Jon is actively teaching himself Italian, guitar and photography and serves as an adjunct instructor at the University of Colorado Journalism School.
Q: Eight years at any agency is a long time. What drew you to Victors & Spoils after such a long run at CP+B?
A: Every few years I set a new career goal for myself. Early on it was to get a job close to home. Then, to get one far away. Along the way I experienced agencies in the afterglow of their best work. They had their Lions from 10 years ago displayed, their 5-year-old Agency of the Year magazine covers framed on the wall. And I decided to seek out a shop that was inventing the future, judging success on what they did last week, not last year. I was lucky to start at CP+B in 2003, when we were 130 crazy people in Miami. And I’m proud of my (small) contribution to the way CP+B rocketed to the top, changing culture and the industry. Now, with V&S, I’ve set a new goal – to try to help build something revolutionary from the ground up.
Q: Does part of joining V&S mean you have to give up being selfish? Advertising people constantly want to own the idea and the recognition from it (you lead the account team that won the 2010 Cannes Titanium Grand Prix for Best Buy’s Twelpforce, so you know how it is) — but at V&S, all of that selfishness takes a backseat to the idea.
A: Every great idea that I’ve seen has been a team effort. At V&S we’re just making that truth central to our process. Even though we’re the “professionals,” we see great ideas coming from everywhere every day. Everyone is invited to be part of our team and share credit. It’s a key goal of ours to see a crowd member on stage accepting an award on behalf of themselves and V&S.
Q: Each time a story is written about V&S, haters of the crowd-sourcing model show up in the comments section, including stories about your recent work with DW+H to help rename their agency. Do you think the haters have a point?
A: Fact is, we’re not forcing the change or even inventing the change. It’s happening. So they’re not necessarily wrong in their complaint. Change is hard. Especially for those who are the most comfortable with the status quo. We just want to innovate rather than waiting for innovation to happen to us. Now, we don’t know yet if V&S will be the Napster or the iTunes of the coming revolution in the way creative ideas are sourced and paid for. But at least we’re having a say in how that change looks.
Q: How is Havas’ majority investment in V&S affecting the shop?
A: It’s been great to see the way a huge global network can rally around a little crew sitting under a pirate flag in Boulder, CO. You have to give credit to David Jones and his team for making a bet on one way the future could look. We’ve already worked on projects within the network in Australia and the UK. Both were very cool opportunities that we never would have had without the relationship. We’re looking forward to many more.
Q: What are you guys working on these days?
A: I invite your readers to check out victorsandspoils.com for the latest.
We’re pitching a lot right now which is both healthy and stressful. And we’re constantly working to improve both our digital platform and our engagement with our community. We’re “mistress of record” for a number of Fortune 100 companies. And while we revel in our role of change agent among our clients’ agencies of record, it does mean that many of our assignments need to remain secret.
Q: You teach a class at CU called Creative Account Management. What does that mean and why do you do it?
A: I teach with Jeff Graham (who just started Grenadier here in Boulder). When he and I were in college in the early 90’s, there were no classes teaching how to be a great account person. And most cultural references were limited to golf and cocktails. We wanted to present the other account person. The one whose insight is respected and craved, whose contributions are critical to great work. So we ask students to reverse engineer creative briefs from finished ads each week. Basically: here’s an ad you’ve seen, what did the creative brief say to get that idea? And through this process we hope to impart the idea that account folks need to be strategic thinkers, diplomats, problem solvers and champions of great, effective advertising.
Q: Who shaped your career and helped you get where you are?
A: I truly do stand on the shoulders of giants. I already mentioned Graham, who saw that I might love teaching. Steve Erich, Alex Bogusky and Jeff Steinhour at CP+B gave me the opportunity to learn and contribute at the industry’s highest level. Walt Smith, who ran Saturn at Hal Riney, helped me understand what “great work” and a “great brand” really can be. Jane Brennan at Detroit’s old Bozell office encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and move to California. And of course John Winsor, whose vision allows me to work at a high level while riding a cruiser bike to work.
Q: From V&S' unique perspective, what are you hearing from clients about the ad industry these days?
A: Maybe it’s because our model attracts a very specific sliver of the industry, but we don’t hear a lot from clients who want a new TV spot or even a new ad campaign. They’re looking for ways to bring their customers closer to their brand. That’s not really a new idea, but it sure can be tough to execute. There was a story just last week about Coca-Cola changing the way they innovate to be more transparent and open. Harley-Davidson has made consumers central to their advertising for a couple years now. Our recent work for Smartwool has as well. Consumer-centric is not the future anymore, it’s simply how to do business.
Q: John Winsor, CEO of V&S who was also promoted to Chief Innovation Officer of Havas Worldwide after the acquisition, recently said, “Every day we're learning @VictorsnSpoils that it's more about the community than it is about the technology.” What’s he mean?
A: When we first built Agency Machine, which is our digital collaboration platform connecting the 6,000 members of our community, we kind of assumed the machine was the key to our business. But even as it simplifies the process and does all these wonderful things, we realize it’s only as good as the people putting in the ideas. Now that the machine works pretty well, we’ll be putting a lot more time into giving the community more opportunities to win. Since we opened, we’ve paid out over a million dollars in awards. And we’re proud of that. But direct compensation is just one way to champion the crowd. How can we make members famous? Can we connect members to full time jobs that are perfect for their particular skills? Can we find a way to post more design, strategy and production jobs for our folks to dig into? We have big ambitions for the crowd and ourselves and we think we’re just scratching the surface.