In our series, Then & Now, we track the professional paths and key career decisions of the people with the coolest creative jobs around.
In the ad world, Wieden+Kennedy Portland executive creative director Mark Fitzloff is a rare find. Yes, he’s an award-winning creative who has led some of the industry’s most memorable campaigns for Old Spice, Coke, and Nike at one of the most respected agencies in the world. But, more notable still, over the last 15 years he hasn’t had to bounce around the globe and industry to get there.
Here, Fitzloff outlines his four lessons in creative career success and longevity.
Before Wieden + Kennedy, Fitzloff had been working at Anderson & Lembke in San Francisco as a copywriter on B2B marketing for tech brands. “When I started at Wieden in the late ’90s it was to work on Microsoft,” says Fitzloff. “They were really struggling to keep the client happy, mainly around the idea that Wieden + Kennedy didn’t really ‘get’ technology, so I was hired to work on that under the erroneous assumption that I knew a lot about technology. I didn’t, but if that’s what they wanted to think, that’s fine.”
His creative director in San Francisco didn’t think he should take the job in Portland. He told Fitzloff, “It’s a trap, you’re gonna be permanently known as the tech monkey and never get to work on the cool stuff.” Fitzloff says it was tough to hear, but obviously “was one of those seminal moments of bad advice ignored.”
But six months after he moved to Portland, Microsoft broke up with Wieden + Kennedy. After holding his breath for a bit waiting to be fired, Fitzloff says “I woke up one day and I was working at Wieden + Kennedy and there was no Microsoft and I just picked things up from there.”
Back then, Nike was the clear jewel in the agency’s crown. It was what most of the creative’s aspired to work on. But Fitzloff took a different approach. “For me, it’s about doing the thing no one else wants to do and proving yourself through that,” he says. “I was never really into sports and everyone here in those days really wanted to work on Nike. It’s not that I didn’t want to work on Nike, but I knew I wasn’t the obvious choice for it. So I took a sort of pride in being one of the ‘everything else’ creatives. That led to my first creative director assignment on Coca-Cola, which was perceived at the time in the agency as a bit of a hopeless case because they thought it would be a drag and not lead to great work. And it ended up being awesome.”
Fitzloff led the creative on Coke’s campaign that included the 2007 Super Bowl spot, “Video Game,” an upbeat twist on Grand Theft Auto-like universe.
“Soon after that it was P&G, which some people thought would be a disaster, but I did it and got Old Spice. I can remember no one wanted to work on that when it started.”
And we all know how that turned out.
Despite his success at Wieden+Kennedy over the years, Fitzloff has still had his fair share of frustrating times, when he was tempted to quit or take another job offer. “In advertising there’s a lot of flattery and hyperbole about fancy job titles,” says Fitzloff. “But it’s important to have a healthy dose of insecurity or inferiority to have the ability to withstand a lot of those temptations. Because a lot of them are bullshit. Over time you start to realize your job is more about what you’re actually doing every day than it is about the title you happen to have. I always felt really good about the challenges that were put in front of me here and, the ability to look at jobs that perhaps sounded fancier and feel secure knowing I don’t need to take more than I feel I can handle. It kept me on the straight and narrow.”
One big spot or campaign can start your phone ringing with competitive offers, but Fitzloff thinks it’s a good idea to kick the ego down a peg and try to take the long view. “Trying to make advertising a career is a tricky game because you can accelerate pretty quickly early on but if you want to think about your lifespan in it, you have to be a bit more conservative, take your time to choose the right opportunity at the right time,” he says. “When people get promoted too quickly or take these big jobs they’re not ready for, they really tend to flame out. Especially being a creative person in management, if you’re not mature about it and still a bit naive, the things that make you a great creative person are not going to make you a great manager. So you’ll take this big important sounding job and then realize you actually have no power or responsibility and you’re not ready to deal with the politics of management.”
As you move up the agency food chain, balancing between management and creative work can become a very real challenge. For Fitzloff, right from the start W+K legend Jim Riswold was the example to follow.
“When I got to Wieden, Jim Riswold took me under his wing,” says Fitzloff. “When I first started here, I felt there was a division in the company between the old guard that built the Nike work through the late ’80s and ’90s, and the new people coming in who were working on the other accounts the agency was getting like Miller, Microsoft, and even some Coke. Some people felt the agency was getting too big, not like it used to be, and these were Jim’s peers because he was the first copywriter hired here. But Jim had a way of really embracing the new people and the agency’s new phases and staying relevant. Part of that was seeing him being open to me, even though I had no credibility or connection to the work he was doing. I really appreciated his ability to change with the times and I also really learned a lot about creative direction from him. He was a real, lead-from-the-front-because-that’s-where-the-bullets-are, kind of guy.”
That’s not a casual compliment. Back in 2000, Fitzloff wrote the copy on an ad for Nike’s Dri-Goat trail-running shoe. Adweek called it one of the “10 Most Offensive Ads of All-Time,” and it attracted protests from consumers and disabled advocacy groups. “Phil Knight called Dan [Wieden] and demanded the copywriter be fired,” says Fitzloff. “But Jim took the fall and responsibility for it. His explanation was, ‘I don’t ask you to watch out for where the limits are, that’s my job. You’re supposed to do the biggest, most memorable work you can, and it’s my job as the creative director to shape it into the thing it’s supposed to be.’ So his support of people was very inspiring, so when I became a creative director I tried to apply those lessons to my own work.”
For young creatives it can be a tough slog to get a chance to ply their trade at a top agency for clients that want to be bold and creative. Fitzloff’s advice for anyone hoping to one day have a hand in making a Nike ad is to stay true to yourself. “It starts with having some self-awareness about your point of view and what your voice is,” he says. “The only sure disaster is someone clearly trying too hard to look, sound, act and be like people who are already in the business. It’s a tricky Catch-22 in that you have to prove you’re legitimate but you can’t use other people’s work as your template. And if you come into a place and express that–whether it’s funny or earnest–as long as it’s unique and true to you, it’s about how you demonstrate or express it. Here, I don’t think we’ve ever been overly concerned with the quality or finish of the work, but we’re very sensitive to seeing that independent spirit and voice.”