A lot of agencies claim their culture is what makes them unique. Cactus doesn’t need to claim anything. It has quietly, humbly and quickly become one of those places where the top talent in Colorado just wants to be. They come for the clients. They come for the opportunities. And they come for Norm Shearer, Cactus’ Creative Director, who motivates them by simply staying out of their way. As 2008 begins, Norm Shearer tells us about the past, present and future of his company.
Q: In the four years since you’ve been Creative Director at Cactus, the shop has grown from a creative whisper to a resounding roar – landing your C-Tree TV spot on AdCritic’s 2007 Top 20 list just weeks ago. Can you explain how Cactus has achieved such an enviable transformation?
A: Just like the industry, Cactus has gone through several transformations in its 18 years. But in all that time we have remained true to some very simple principles. Joe (our founder and strategic director) has never wavered on those standards of what he wants Cactus to be about, and I think it just takes time for any business to gain momentum, especially a business like an ad or design firm.
I can understand people’s perceptions of us from the outside, but you have to understand that our agency’s coming of age is the result of years of hard work, adding the right team and gaining the trust of clients with the budgets and guts to let us swing for the fence. Cactus has produced great work for many years.
The branding/advertising business is a tough model, but from day one Joe and I agreed to never waver on our standards of how we treat our team, our vendors, or our client relationships. We’ve both worked at enough places to know how not to do it. So we are building as we go and would have it no other way. We are proud of our roots and the fact that we are born of this market. Like many of us here in Colorado, we chose to live here first and work here second. So you just figure it out, put your head down and do the best work you can that day.
Q: In one sentence, what is the creative philosophy of your agency?
A: Love your trash can.
Q: How did you end up in advertising? And what makes you want to stay?
A: I’ll try this as condensed as I can get it… Ok, so I failed out of Chemical Engineering at University of New Hampshire where I was recruited to play Lacrosse. (I was raised here in Denver). My parents freaked at my .58 GPA and yanked me back home where I then took some classes at a community college and I was “urged” to meet with a career counselor. Welcome to Psychology 101 the hard-ass way, via Mom. I always had a passion for art and my personality tests came back saying I should be a doctor or go into advertising. With the firm fear of advanced science rooted in my head from my previous experience I thought advertising/design might be more my thing. So I applied to CU’s Journalism School which touted a strong advertising program.
At CU I met and was advised by Brett Robbs, one of the best ad teachers in the nation in my opinion. He has turned that school into a serious career placement center for great agencies, all the ones we love. Us CU ad geek alum are lurking everywhere in the country thanks to Brett. He’s also the reason I got involved with teaching art direction classes. I’ve been teaching up there for 8 years now and Brett is truly an inspiring person to be around. He taught me to lead a creative life, not just a career… anyway, I worked for a short stint at a small Denver firm, cut my teeth on a dose of crap-ass reality and then got married, sold my electric bass, my fishing gear and my snowboard, and moved to LA to go to the Art Center to refine my book.
I had my hopes set on working at Wieden or Goodby, or maybe a small hot shop. But after 4 years in LA we decided to come home and buy back the snowboards and fishing gear. I am a Colorado boy and playing here is what helps recharge my batteries. I’ll never forget when Lou Danziger came to a guest lecture and he said something to the effect of “stay true to what makes you you, and the design inspiration will follow.” So I declined looks from the traditional markets and came home to Denver. Been here ever since, and have done everything from freelance, to starting my own shop in my basement, to being an art director/designer at the best shops here in town… to now being CD at Cactus.
Looking back, I was excited about what advertising and design had to offer. The reward of solving a problem with a funny headline or a twisted visual became addictive early on. This business is the acceptable day job of the rebels and the fringe thinkers. The thing we get a kick out of at Cactus is having an impact on a business, to see the results of making a connection with people through a big idea. Having a positive impact on the world through ideas is what it all boils down to. I love the non-conformity of the business we are in, the chaos, the team camaraderie — the energy of all that is rewarding and gratifying to be a part of. It serves our entrepreneurial needs well and I think anyone even close to the business these days has to be an entrepreneur to be successful.
Clients need so much more these days than even 5 years ago. They want and need help with every facet of their business, not just advertising. So I’m in it now because I love being in business alongside my clients and not just doing their ads, but helping their businesses have a positive impact on the world.
Q: By our count, Cactus has around three-dozen employees (give or take). Yet, you’re able to produce a massive amount of work to rival an agency double or triple your size. What’s the secret to keeping such a tight-run ship?
A: [Note: We are currently at 28 Cacti.] For one, we are really picky about who works here because our culture and our people are what generate the ideas, and that’s what clients are buying. So everyone here at Cactus is on the same team, pushing the same direction. I think many agencies, and many businesses in general, hire people to fulfill tasks and pluck off the to-do list. We have made a standard of hiring people who want to personally excel and contribute and make great work no matter the department or level. So we give them an assignment and step out of the way.
This creates crazy efficiencies. For example, we have some huge debates, but they are about the right things. They aren’t about things like, “Is there a safe solution in the mix?” “Would the client buy that?” “But we can’t do that with our budget?” Nope, everyone here is on the same page from day one — that we want to create work that is meaningful, relevant and not invisible. And it’s everyone’s job to do that from point A to Z, to help each other achieve that level of delivery, and overcome the daily obstacles and parameters. Of course this process doesn’t generate a gold pencil every time, but it certainly sets us up for success. By making everyone responsible for the end product, it levels the petty department ego crap that I hate, by creating respect among the departments and teams. It’s hard enough to make great branding and advertising without getting in our own way. So we try our best to create a positive and nurturing culture of achievement balanced with challenge. It promotes growth and retention, and in the end the client wins because they get more energy and more ideas for their money.
It’s crazy, and it becomes managed chaos, because when the engine is really humming over here, you can’t tell who does what sometimes — creatives are writing strategies, media people are suggesting concepts, and account planners are thinking of new tactics. All I can say is that treating our teams with respect and making this place more of a family than a business has allowed us to generate lots of innovative ideas. And in the end that’s what clients hire us for. So we just create a culture of ideas and nurture that, and everything else has seemed to fall in line.
Q: How do you inspire your creative team?
A: I don’t. That was mistake #14 as a first-time CD. Like I said before, we hire inspired people and then get out of their way. I manage from afar, and ride with a very loose grip on the wheel when it comes to team management. I totally trust my team and we recognize that mistakes are going to happen when you are always swinging for the fences. How you deal with the mistakes, and how the team rallies around each other to get back on track, is what is most important. Clients gravitate to us for that quality. They like us and trust us for that type of leadership and thinking. I try my best to just manage by example, and make decisions that support our standards and culture in every moment I possibly can.
Our culture here is everything. So I spend a lot of my energy trying to keep our environment positive, challenging and moving — about something bigger than ourselves or our own microcosm.
Q: How do you personally get ideas?
A: I think it was DaVinci who said “Creativity is just observation.” If it’s not, please don’t burst my bubble, cuz I like that quote. But I really believe that. I keep personal and experimental sketchbooks and contribute to them almost every day. They are kind of like visual journals for me. One of my college sculpture teachers started me on it and my friend Micheal Smilanic has been a contemporary inspiration for me too. Maybe it’s the fine artist in me, but I believe you can only output what you input. So if you surround yourself with ad annuals and ad geek crap 24/7, eventually you’ll just regurgitate that. But if you live a full and experienced life, your ability to have a more meaningful and more diverse relationship with your art is more vast. Our art is advertising, design and business ideas.
Q: In our research, we discovered that you graduated from Art Center College of Design – consistently rated as one of the top schools in the world for our industry. Tell us your view on Colorado’s art schools, any suggestions you might have for their improvement and any advice you might give young blood graduating in the coming months and looking to begin a career here in Denver.
A: There is a crazy amount of talent here. Denver is really burgeoning in the last few years with everything from the music to the art scene. I’m really excited to be here as we consistently grow and get stronger respect in all aspects as a business, artistic and creative community. That’s why I got involved with the Art Museum and CultureHaus. I really believe in this community as a whole and I’m proud to support it. But, I don’t think there is one school killing it over another here. From CU and DU to Metro, CIA and Rocky, the schools all offer programs that talented and driven people can make their own. I’ve seen really great students come from all of them. My advice is to absorb as much as you can from as many people as possible and then do it your own way. I hear students too often say they were told to do something one way or another, and then they just follow dutifully without their own interpretation or spin on it. Then they get confused when someone responds differently, as if they didn’t fill in the blank with the right answer. This business is so subjective; you’d go nuts trying to please everyone. You have to take all the advice and then make up your mind how you want to do something and apply your own passions to it. If people don’t respect you for it, screw ‘em – you know you wouldn’t want to work for that type of place or person.
Q: What, in your opinion, makes someone a creative talent worth hiring?
A: From a portfolio standpoint: strong strategic thinking and rationale behind their work. Simple and clear solutions, even if the execution is abstract or consciously decorative, the foundation of the idea must be ultra simple. Also, great insight shows their ability to gather info and be patient with solutions that otherwise might have been overlooked or might fall into poor templated thinking.
From a personal standpoint: someone who is interesting and captivating to talk to about anything other than advertising and design. Some of the coolest and most interesting people I’ve met in this business talk about anything but advertising. It’s one thing to be passionate about work, but you have to keep things in perspective.
Q: You worked with Buck, a top animation house, on the Own Your C TV spot for Colorado’s State Tobacco Education & Prevention Partnership. You worked with Rosey, a director from @radical.media, on the Colorado Lottery TV. Very few agencies in the region can claim such high-powered creative partnerships over the last year. How did you interest these heavy hitters in collaborating on your projects?
A: We paid them for one. It also didn’t hurt that they loved our ideas. We had calls with them and they were really cool and sincere about their approach. Our culture is about doing great work, and also having respect for the process and each other. If our vendors and partners don’t match up to that level of criteria, I could care less how talented they are or who they’ve worked with. Our attitude is that we come up with the best ideas we can and then find the best people who can execute those ideas. Buck was world-class on delivery, but they are also just really cool people. There also are some great talents locally that we have worked with and that can compete on a national level. We enjoy working with new up and coming artists as well. It’s fun and inspiring to be around that type of energy.
Q: Last fall, Cactus inherited the Colorado Lottery account – a 25-year legacy moving over from Karsh\Hagan. With much to learn and much to prove, can you let us in on any secrets about what Cactus is planning for the account in ’08?
A: The Lottery is great. We pitched the account because we believe in the cause (proceeds to benefit state parks, open space, recreation) and we sincerely believed that we were the right agency to help the Lottery accomplish its business goals. After meeting the client’s team we knew we could do some great work and start a great relationship. In the first year, we want to do a ton of listening and really get to know their business inside and out. It would have been foolish to swoop in and suggest major strategic overhauls off the bat. We’re faced with a bigger challenge than with many clients because the lottery is a massive state organization with millions of dollars in sales monthly. They run like a private company would run with regards to efficiencies and delivery, yet they are a state agency and operate through state policies. So we are learning like crazy and having a ton of fun executing on the current strategies, while we simultaneously introduce new strategies.
Currently we are undertaking the initial steps of planning for the Colorado Lottery brand in general. Our goal is to blanket the rejuvenated brand over the products they offer, as opposed to promoting individual products as they have traditionally done. This is important because many people don’t even know that PowerBall is a part of the Colorado Lottery, they think it’s a separate national game. Many don’t know what Cash5 is – an entire product line is almost invisible. So we have some ground to cover in figuring out what to say and how to be more relevant to people, making things more consistent across the board. The next 12-18 months will be really interesting as we put the brand on a pedestal above the individual products.
We’ve also just started introducing the new “Don’t forget to play” tagline treatment that will ultimately be everywhere. And we’re changing the way Lottery takes new products to market, experimenting with different approaches to advertising, POS and media strategy.
We will most likely try a bunch of different things, and see what works and what doesn’t. The client is great that way. They realize from experience that advertising and branding is a moving and organic process and that it takes fine-tuning, and will always be evolving with the consumer.
Q: What’s the most meaningful piece of communication you and your agency created this year?
A: I am really proud of the work we did for The GLBT Center. It was smart, insightful, effective and built trust with the client. The Center is one of our non-profit accounts. The effort we give them comes from our commitment to contributing our professional talents to the community in which we live and work, for causes in which we believe. Many places (and in my past I have been as guilty as anyone) do pro-bono as a way to win awards. While that can be a great way to build a book, it has long-term flaws. It sends an underlying message to everyone in the agency that the paying clients are a burden and don’t deserve the same innovative ideas, because it would require too much work or effort to convince them of the value. It quietly justifies that it’s ok to not try to sell great thinking to all of your clients.
Q: Your youth anti-tobacco effort for Colorado and the national Truth campaign developed in partnership by Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Arnold share tactical similarities. Can you tell us the ways you were inspired by the Truth campaign and how you evolved the thinking to make it your own?
A: Yeah, we have huge respect for the Truth campaign and the innovation they have had. However, our research showed that teens were growing tired of Truth’s strategy. CP+B hit on a strategic insight when they launched Truth back in the 90s. At the time, teens were very anti-establishment and that strategy played really well for many years. But now the Truth about big bad tobacco is established and anti-smoking messaging is literally a part of teen culture. We had to do something fresh to help reduce the growing 21% teen smoking rate in Colorado.
It all began with great insight. Our research involved many methods allowing us to be submersed into teen culture so we could hear what teens had to say about everything in life, not just tobacco. Themes developed that showed kids were very independent thinkers and wanted to make their own choices sooner than later in life. Blame it on media, tech or the over-protective parent onslaught, but teens today want more independence sooner. With the on-demand lifestyle of teens and the “long-tail” attitude permeating teen life — smoking became just another lifestyle choice folded into the mix.
So we realized we needed to remind them that all choices are not equal — that they need to enter into certain choices with some trepidation. This approach works well since it speaks to all teens, not just the tobacco users, or the ones who haven’t confronted the choice yet. And this strategy also taps many other teen health discussions like sex, drinking, drugs, health, fitness, etc. Choice seemed to be the common denominator. So the basis for Own Your C is to empower teens with the resources to make wise choices and to remind them of the consequences of those choices. We aren’t pointing the finger or blaming anyone. We’re merely giving them the tools to be accountable for their choices.
Maybe we have some tactical similarities with the Truth campaign since the Own Your C campaign is creating a sincere dialog with teens about health issues, but strategically it is very different. Truth also set out to merely make not smoking cool – they focused on prevention, but not cessation. Own Your C focuses on both.
So far, Own Your C is working. In only the second year of the campaign, recent statewide surveys have declared the teen smoking rate to be at about 16%. Our C-ride and street team has visited about 200 schools and youth events across the state. We’ve connected to teens at the Own Your C-sponsored Detention high school rail series. Brand recognition for the Own Your C brand is extremely high and memorable. Brand involvement is also very high with our online forums and some new viral tactics that are delivering way above what we had forecast. Most recently, we’ve experienced a huge response to our online video contest with over 90 submissions from local high school students. One other success within the Own your C campaign is the free online and text-messaging tool we developed called FixNixer, a tool specifically designed for teen smokers to help them quit on their own terms.
Q: What is the trick to getting inside the mind of a teenager with advertising, since your staff is obviously not their age?
A: Research, and solid planning, the right way. Our account and media teams were extremely creative about how they developed the strategies and tactics, and how they guided the creative team along the way. We did our homework and got inside the culture of teen life. We didn’t just go to the mall. We joined chats, MySpace, Friendster, and developed our very own blogs and micro sites to help us gain insight. It helps too that many of us have outside passions like snowboarding, skateboarding, etc. Before a creative even sniffed a Sharpie there was a ton of research and insight gathering.
Q: Why should the rest of the country be paying attention to what’s going on in Denver right now?
A: The tide has turned from the rule of the big agencies to many thriving small creative shops. It will be, and has been, amazing to see the agencies that have either been born or gained steam in the last few years begin to win significant business and really prosper. Colorado agencies are consistently getting into the books now, and getting more attention in national press. That’s why I volunteer for the New Denver Ad Club and am really proud of what Matt, Brian and Gregg did with The Denver 50. National clients are starting to take notice and Crispin’s move here has certainly helped… It’s just the beginning.
Q: Can you and Cactus help lead Denver to a better, more meaningful creative place? If so, how?
A: I can’t say that it’s a goal or a mission for Cactus specifically. For one, that just sounds cocky and is not our place to determine or even debate. I’m baffled and fed up with people thinking Denver and this region is a crap hole. There is brilliant work being done here by agencies and the artists and talent who produce it. I love it here and I have many friends that are doing well, winning awards, making a living and enjoying the life we get to have here. There are crappy agencies and assholes in every market. Dan Wieden doesn’t lay awake worried about how bad the agency down the street is. If you are one of the people who think it sucks here, then just do better work and stop complaining. I think that it’s interestingly convenient to cast criticism on others rather than on yourself and your own work.
Q: If one account from anywhere in the world magically dropped into your lap right now, what would it be and why?
A: Burton. I love everything they are about. They are true to the root of their business and have never wavered on their standards or lost sight of who they serve. It shows in every detail. Maybe I’m just biased because I grew up schlepping a Burton Woody up Berthoud Pass with moon boots on — so if I could wave a magic new biz wand, that’d be my pick.
Q: Cactus had a great year. How will you top it in 2008?
A: Thanks. Hopefully we can continue to make smart new business moves and new hires. We want to continue to grow responsibly, but we don’t want to be big just for the sake of it. I’d love to see us grow more while maintaining our quality, culture and creative standards.