If you find yourself questioning just how brands see their place in the media landscape, and the kind of work they aspire to create, look no further than Wieden+Kennedy’s newest hire. Celebrated designer and creative director Richard Turley is the agency’s executive creative director of content and editorial design, where he’ll report directly to global chief creative officer Colleen DeCourcy. He’s based at the agency’s New York office but will work on projects across W+K’s global network.
Turley made his name in the U.S. after leaving the Guardian in London to become the creative director of Bloomberg Businessweek in 2010, spearheading the multi-award-winning redesign of the magazine, while creating what ad and magazine icon George Lois described as “the best consistent set of covers in 40 years.” Four years later MTV hired Turley as its first senior vice-president of visual storytelling, where his team created reams of daily videos, stories, ideas, imagery, and other assorted social assets that lived on MTV as bumpers then spread on social media, as well as the surreal edit-fest MTV No Chill.
While agencies have been touting the idea of attracting talent from outside the marketing bubble for years, and that big names come with bigger expectations, DeCourcy says hiring Turley isn’t about fixing any specific problem.
“Having spent my career being hired to ‘fix’ or ‘evolve’ ad agencies, I can promise you that Richard does not come into W+K with any of that burden,” says DeCourcy. “Richard is a nimble, visual thinker, and we want him in our camp. Period. There are no expectations except that he make the best work of his career, with us.”
That said, she point to Turley’s ability to make distinct connections to pop culture as something all marketers should be aiming for. “As demonstrated by his work with Bloomberg Businessweek, Richard has an ability to visually articulate the things that all of us think and feel,” says DeCourcy. “His work is entirely original and yet completely accessible. Getting back to that intimate connection to popular culture is something that everyone working in this business should be thinking about. By working on my team and across our offices globally, Richard will give us a kind of permission to take ourselves less seriously, break out of traditional media models, and partner with people outside the typical lines of advertising, all to be more relevant to the audiences we want to engage with.”
I had an email back and forth with Turley about his new job, the new realities facing brands and agencies, how they should be adapting and engaging with culture, and more.
Co.Create: Going from the Guardian to Bloomberg Businessweek to MTV and now to W+K–your career seems to mimic the momentum of media in general from newsprint to magazine to TV and now to those who create brand communications and content. Why make this move, and why is W+K the best place for it to happen?
Richard Turley: I left my job at a newspaper in London because I wanted to work in New York. I left magazines because I wanted to learn how to make stuff move. I left TV because being 40 and working at MTV felt oxymoronic. I was going to leave MTV anyway to see what doing nothing felt like for a bit, but last December I ended up in a Mexican hotel with the W+K management team doing breath-holding exercises (long story) and sort of fell in love with them.
How long that love lasts we’ll see, but currently we’re in the heavy petting stage. I don’t know whether W+K is the best place—tell me, Jeff, where is the best place? Should I have moved to the Valley to help with their storytelling skills and pass my days with research meetings and functional-food-eating chillwave brogrammers?
“I suppose the common thread that runs throughout my skittish approach to workplaces is a desire to learn new stuff and the related consequence of working (and learning) from new people. I love being the dumbest person in the room. Not knowing what you’re doing is a skill you can’t teach. And when you don’t know what you’re doing, you can approach problems from the mind-set of a consumer and hope to circumnavigate some of the baggage that you can carry being part of a professionalized workforce. It’s the old Tibor Kalman adage of creative bliss being having power and knowing nothing.”
As the saying goes, brands need to create content as well as anyone else in order for people to pay attention and actually want to engage with it. As a newcomer to the agency world, what’s missing from what brands are doing now and what do you hope to bring to it?
“I would first take a couple of steps back from thinking about engagement and content to set the scene brands AND agencies find themselves in, which is: having a change in the way they produce communications imposed on them by a media ecosystem they’re not set up to cope with (and don’t fully understand). Implicit to that problem is the temptation to impose ‘old’ models onto ‘new.’ These businesses have to fundamentally retool themselves to adapt to what might be a fairly lengthy flux state—trying to keep the old profitable, and the new viable.
“What’s missing from what brands are doing now? There isn’t so much anything missing; more the opposite—there’s far too much, which is paradoxically never enough. The binge-feeding content frenzy shows no sign of abating and from a consumer’s perspective feels little more than a form of capitalized panic.
“Coupled with that, no one can decide what’s good anymore—the traditional norms and metrics of what’s ‘good’ are proving increasingly irrelevant. What’s good is bad and what’s bad is often really bad, but that might mean it’s quite good, and if it’s really good then that usually means it’s more likely terrible. Everyone wants a metric to justify every dollar spent; clients are scared, failure is insulated by spreading risk around so much that no one is responsible for anything anymore, the people at the bottom are powerless, the people at the top don’t want anything much to change. And, hey, Joanne the Scammer just got a million views for a really shitty video that didn’t cost him a cent, took five minutes to record and isn’t even funny but it’s great.”
“But there are a few certainties. It’s not about making more ‘rad stuff’ or parading wackiness. It’s about engaging with a different kind of attention and rethinking what ‘craft’ means for that kind of attention. It’s about actively engaging with culture and audiences directly, unmediated (and unprotected) by the traditional rules of broadcast media, and embracing and experiencing (and not being able to hide from) the feedback loop of the marketplace. It’s about actively engaging with culture, when for the most part that’s done indirectly (sponsorships, endorsements).
“More practically, I think it’s about learning to make things quickly, and creating cleaner work flows that don’t require a dozen people to sign off on an Instagram post. It is about not needing the logo bigger, or adding product placement, or counting how many times the talent sips the product.”
“Your audience (read: YOU) is now definitely smarter than the shitty ads we get served and we’ll swerve the instant we think we’re being sneakily sold something. We’re all far more suspicious of corporations and brand messages than ever, especially when they pop up on our devices. We were on them before they were.
“I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom. We still buy Nikes, drink Coke, use Old Spice, watch Samsung TVs, fly Delta, go to Equinox, listen to Spotify, [ed note: all not-so coincidentally W+K clients] and we still use them in part to define us. We’re curious about those brands and what they mean and what they can offer us, and more pertinently, we’re open to hearing and being entertained by them as long as what they say is either interesting or useful. And guess what, I’m in the line at the supermarket—someone, anyone show me something interesting for a few seconds.”
“But frankly, I have no idea if I can help make stuff people actually want to look at, or do anything meaningful to assist the bettering of our society through the production of messages for large corporations. Perhaps if we regarded advertising as a commercial necessity, not a consumer need, we’d make stuff (tangible and intangible) that’s better?
“That said, I’m not really supposed to be working on that many brands for a bit. We’re looking to make our own stuff and see how that feels.”