The Egotist & Ad Club Denver Interview: Paul Venables of Venables Bell & Partners

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Advertising historians know well the distinguished, delightful charm of San Francisco, publishing decades of chapters telling rich tales of our industry. One of the newer chapters unfolds daily at agency Venables Bell & Partners, where Founder and Executive Creative Director Paul Venables oversees a think tank of 170+ staffers and a drool-inducing client list sporting brands like Audi, Google, SKYY Vodka, Intel and Reebok — where the independent agency was inked just weeks ago as the athletic company’s new global AOR. Prior to opening VB&P, Paul served as Co-Creative Director, Associate Partner and heir apparent at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

Paul Venables is yet another heavy hitter who will be here next week, Thursday, March 27, as part of Ad Club Denver's speaker series. Register now for Late Night with Paul Venables, where Paul and Ad Club are plotting an entertaining, interactive talk show format. In fact, you can now submit questions for Paul via Twitter to #AskPaulVenables and be part of the show. But first, we have a few of our own.

Q: First off, congrats on your recent triumph of Reebok’s global ad account. Share the highlights on your pitch and plans to evolve this iconic brand.

A: We’re so excited to work on this brand. It’s so phenomenal. Reebok’s at a moment in time where we can shape its future, be part of that wonderful growth. Also, it’s a global East Coast-based account that decided to make San Francisco its home, and we’re proud to represent the Bay Area on a global scale. That’s important to me.

Throughout the pitch, our approach was to live and breathe the Reebok brand. People here became immersed in all things Reebok. And that enthusiasm and energy mattered. Early on, we showed them that commitment. It’s a brand that’s at a great point in its life cycle, and together with them, we’re taking it somewhere exciting.

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Q: Your client roster shows an impressive and rather lean list of blue-chippers. Has it always been your plan to stay focused on a handful of national accounts?

A: Well, it would be disingenuous of me to say it was part of a master plan. A couple of factors were at work. We really put a focus and impetus on the people sitting on the other side of the table. What do they want? What can we do for them? We made it a point to not get obsessed about the product category or its ad history or even the budget. I want to meet the people and see what their aspirations are. What their passion is. The right people with the right intentions are semi-rare, so it keeps the roster at a smaller number.

There was a time when we hit a lull after Napster, HBO and Mondavi and we only had a public utility company, a financial company and a software company. That was difficult, as they were arguably not the sexiest accounts to attract talent. But the common denominator was they all wanted to do something good. That’s what we’re after. Clients that have the passion to do something meaningful in the marketplace. Today, it’s led us to Reebok, SKYY Vodka, Audi, Phillips66, Google and Intel. A much sexier list of brands.

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Q: Let’s time-travel back to your Goodby days. While 'Got Milk?' overflowed in award show ceremonies during your days there, you elected to work on less visible assignments like Netflix and Discover Card. Tell us more about this experience.

A: First, it was a conscious decision. I wanted a more lasting impact in the agency as a leader. I asked Rich Silverstein and Jeff Goodby if I could take away headaches for them, for three reasons. One, it allowed me to create my world. Two, I could hone my management skills. And three, I had clients on the other side of the table that wanted to do something meaningful and lasting. Not just the next funny Bud ad. And we did. We even took one of those “headaches” and won at Cannes.

It’s a good lesson for younger people. Instead of going for that glamorous account, you can take a smarter career path by taking on more difficult and challenging accounts and then make something great. That was my approach at Goodby, and that reality translated to this agency when it first opened. We didn’t want to do ads for the used record store or the Kennedy Museum just to win an award. We wanted real clients, with real marketing challenges, and that mentality attracted respected clients like Microsoft, Barclays and HBO.

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Q: Before cutting the ribbon to your own shop, did you ever have second thoughts knowing that earning the keys to the GSP kingdom might possibly be yours?

A: Ever since I commuted by train from Connecticut to New York to answer phones at an agency, I knew I wanted my own shop. Every job after, I approached it in a way where I was collecting the “do’s” and “don’ts” I might call on one day when I had my own shop. Jeff (Goodby) then one day called and brought me to the Bay Area. Eventually, I was in the catbird seat — I was running one of the best agencies in the world. Things were on a roll. We had just won Agency of the Year for the first time in a long time. And I thought maybe I won’t have my own place, after all. But then my old SBC client (who had moved to Microsoft UltimateTV) called me out of the blue, and that entrepreneurial spirit was rekindled. It felt right. Even during a bad economic time, it just felt right. And I never looked back.

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Q: We hear you’re going to be taking on a talk show format here in Denver. What kind of sneak peeks can we get under this tent? Will you do a Top 10 List?

A: Well, going with this format will either prove to be brilliant or stupid. It’s experimental. I hope people just have fun either way.

I’ll give you a couple of glimpses. First and foremost, Paul Shaffer was unavailable. So we have the local band Pretty Girl, who will provide jams and riffs. I never had a band before in any presentation. If this works, I might use this for new business pitches. There’s no top ten list. That’s old. There’s a good chance I will do stupid agency tricks. They’re not tricks, but stupid things we‘ve done. Potentially, there could be a camera that gives us a glimpse of something else going on, offsite. People will be called up on stage, so wear a nice shirt. There’ll be some modest giveaways, and I have a few other things up my sleeve.

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Q: We also heard you’d like people to tweet questions in for the show itself. What kind of questions are you anticipating?

A: The reason for people submitting questions, beyond my laziness and-slash-or stupidity, was the idea of getting at what people actually want to talk about. Career path stuff. Management tricks. Trends. Leadership issues. New business approaches. The work. Back stories. Who knows? Who needs to hear another ad guy bragging about his shop? I’m open to any category or any random thought. If it’s interesting to them, then it’s interesting to me.

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Q: Well, we’re ecstatic to have you out here. It should be one for the books.

A: It’s experimental and we’ll have some fun. I encourage you to come. Ask whatever questions you want. I’ll get to as many as possible. Any lulls? We’ve got commercial breaks. People who come up on stage might have their own entrance music. This could be a disaster, but it’ll be a fun disaster.

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Register now for Ad Club Denver Presents: Late Night with Paul Venables of Venables Bell & Partners.

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