R/GA’s Vin Farrell, in III Parts
As the global head of R/GA Studios, Vin’s career has been dedicated to storytelling. He started out in the independent film business, before shifting to digital advertising, giving him a unique perspective of how marketing works.
‘The Studios’ serve as R/GA’s in-house production team that merges tech prototyping, presentation design, content production and influencer marketing. The core function is to, as Vin says himself, “make stuff”... Stuff that engages with the multifaceted modern consumer, stuff that works across multiple channels and can diversify demographics.
Vin draws on over 20 years in the business of making and creating. He speaks of the consumers as audience members, people that he personally wants to provoke into feeling something. For Vin, the selling should come after, almost to the point where it goes unsaid.
Avidly aware of the necessity of adapting to shifting media habits without sacrificing quality; Vin is a classical storyteller built for the digital-first age. I had the opportunity to steal an hour, alongside Whalar Business Director Jake Mackay, of Vin’s time to discuss… a little bit of everything.
Part I | Getting Shit Done, New Technology and Studios
What is good advertising to you?
The job of advertising is to attract audiences, to maintain them and have some form of transaction. The obvious shifting landscape is how people are engaged with; in the United States alone, 60% of media consumption in 18-35s are in active media and 25% of media engagement with 65+ is with active media. What I mean by that is, it’s not television commercials.
This technology allows for audiences to skip and ignore content faster and easier than ever before. I think good advertising is something that genuinely doesn’t agitate the viewer, audience or intended recipient. As a first step, it should be; don’t piss me off. I think good advertising helps build communities, it helps communicate a point. It’s less about what I’m selling you and who we are as a brand, it’s more about enticing you to buy.
Good advertising is the attraction and seduction side of communication.
Would you say R/GA Studios are the solution for companies such as R/GA in a landscape that has shifted towards social and mobile content?
I’ve been lucky enough to build studios in different types of organisations in the past 20 years. If there’s one constant, it's that the more open minded and accepting an organisation is, the more successful that organization is if they embrace the studio environment. We live the full cycle of the client. We help pitch, we work on almost every job and we work on every client in the R/GA network. We get to help publicise in market and make case studies off it.
Anyone in a marketing minded organisation, if you are an audience attraction company, in any form of media, if you don’t have a healthy internal studio capability I think you’re missing a core function of the table.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in advertising?
The biggest change I’ve seen, is that the ‘Big Idea’ is no longer a headline. Holding company environments and traditional advertising agencies need to get over themselves there. ‘The Big Idea’ is a top down headline, it’s a tagline. That’s basically what the big idea has devolved to. And I think it’s the last piece that these guys are holding on to.
Within the advertising business, the biggest evolution I’ve seen is what the ‘Big Idea’ really means. With R/GA, and I really believe this, we actually create game changing ideas. We create business game changing ideas that help with the core of the company.
A really good example of the A/R Jordan work that we did, which a traditional ad luddite would look at and say, that’s just a tactic. But I’d rather do 1000 of those tactics then some fucking headline. Right? Because that tactic has changed the way Nike is now selling products. The same day delivery through dark store - that will change their business. Someone told me years ago that Nike+ was just marketing. Nike+ built a running community, they captured data - they changed the way Nike makes and sells their product.
You can’t arrive at a business changing idea these days with just a tagline. You need to be able to understand the mechanics of how the delivery of product works. And how to intercept audiences with technology, and the ability to deliver, simultaneously.
It’s at this crossroads of culture and technology that brands need to be playing and succeeding in. Not, Hi, I’ve got some slogan…
How do influencers fit into your strategy?
I actually think we’re in the third chapter right now. But I don’t know how many chapters there are going to be regarding influencers working within marketing. Chapter one, from an influencer’s point of view was, I do what I want. I’ve got the big following, you play by my rules. That didn’t work out for them or the brands.
Chapter two was, I’ll do what you say. With that, I think you wind up with an influencer reading scripts on a TV commercial. There’s this directional tone deafness.
I think we’re in this phase now which is I do what’s best. An influencer does what is best for themselves and their audience. A brand does what is best for the audience they’re trying to reach. Then, as an agency at R/GA, we’re bringing these new breed intentions to the table and formulating things in a way where there's a healthy balance.
For instance, Samsung acknowledged that they were not building communities around a community building product. Around a maker product, which is the phone. You could make and better distribute better with this phone than arguably Apple.
So Apple has stores, Apple has culture. Samsung was advertising their products the way you would advertise television and dishwashers. The strategic insight was, 80% of kids these days - Gen Z - want to be Youtube stars. Not only do they want to follow, it’s where they’re consuming their content, it’s who they’re listening to - they also want to be that. What Samsung has, as a product, can actually help them make it a reality.
Part II | How the Independent Film Market Set the Tone for Digital Advertising and Thomas Edison Going Mad with Power
How does digital advertising relate to traditional?
Regarding the agency world…. I’ve always been slightly outlier. This was also true when I worked in the film business. I worked in independent film market and in the 1990s it expanded, ballooned, bubbled - then completely collapsed. There was a disconnect between the number of distribution outlets that were out there. Every major studio got involved in the independent film game after Sex, Lies and Video Tape and Resevior Dogs. So Miramax was bought by Disney, October Films was bought by Universal, Fox started Fox Searchlight, Paramount started Paramount Classics, Fineline and Newline, Sony to Sony Pictures Classics... and so on.
Previously, there was a niche market where you could potentially create diamonds, and have occasionally pop up successes. But the problem was how costly it still was to market and distribute film. However, because you could still have a major big hit on your hands, all of the big studios wanted to get involved in that business. You could make film cheaply with a final draft screenplay, with mini cameras and final cuts. But to get your work distributed, you have to go through what I like to call Gate-keeper Media. Or someone at the top of the pile who was deciding what was good enough for the public or not. Then it was really expensive to acquire, market and distribute that product.
Then the competition increased so people were overpaying and overvaluing these films at film festivals. You pay a tonne of money for something, and then you have to spend a huge amount more to get it out there. So the whole industry collapsed in the early 2000s after the .com bubble.
Then you have Youtube and social media - the ease of distribution, the ease of audience, suddenly became as easy as making. Then it became a two way conversation between audiences and the product makers. So these Gate-Keepers, who decided what was good, what was shit and what got made - they suddenly weren’t as important.
I actually think for the entire media… I always look at film as the leading indicator of what happens with advertising. Advertising, in a lot of ways, tries to mimic film.
Is that one of the reasons you’re still producing?
My personal viewpoint on my job is that I’m a storyteller. I want to be involved in as many mediums of storytelling as possible. I’ve tried to cross pollinate between film, advertising and digital for twenty years. I was told really early on, you’re either an advertising agency person, or an advertising production company person, or you’re a TV person, or you’re a film person. You can’t bleed across those different industries.
I was in independent film within the big studio system. When I switched over to advertising - I went to a digital agency. The ability to make was much easier and cheaper. And I knew how to do that coming from a scrappy independent film background. I was able to bring that thinking and talent I knew into a digital advertising environment, and yet we were making videos for banners and for websites. All the film and the commercial advertising people I knew looked down on us. It wasn’t the big screen and it wasn’t TV commercials.
I saw it as the future. This is the future of where our audiences are going to be and we need to be able to make for this new breed environment. My view point in advertising is as I was then, the digital guy in a traditional environment. I’d go to these big TV commercial shoots, where you’d have $2-3 million budget, and I’d have $25-50K to get, quote, “Digital Content”. We were the scrappy up-start in that environment. The world has shifted relatively quickly from that.
I’ve never heard that narrative before, of film directly leading advertising. But in many ways it makes complete sense… So your time at Havas (as Global Chief Content Officer). You were there for 4 years (2013-17) - Could you explain what drove you to move there and what brought you back to R/GA?
You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. Near the end of my first tenure at R/GA, I felt myself start to atrophy. What the Havas opportunity meant for me its that is was a global job. An 18,000 people global network where I learned how to actually work and build in that environment. What drew me back was R/GA's healthy obsession with craft.
I never pitched when I worked at R/GA for the first time, I literally did two pitches in my six years prior. At Havas I did sixty. I also got to work very closely with the media business, like learning how the media buying world works. It was really hard for years; but you don’t learn from easy, you learn from hard. I’m a long game player. Again, that's kind of a douchey statement, so maybe don’t use that..(sorry Vin it’s in)
What I mean by that is I view things in longer waves, to me everything is cyclical. What people forget is that film - and I think a lot of it is happening in social and digital - was always that outlier renegade discipline. It’s where the artists went to convey a message. For instance, in the early 1900s when Thomas Edison invented the camera, he decided what got shot, where it got shown and when it got shown. Then DW Griffiths and him had a falling out. Griffiths left and became the outlier upstart. He then went out to the west coast and started modern day Hollywood.
If you look at the rise of the studio systems in the 30s and 40s, there have been independent film movements throughout the history of film that have actually impacted culture. During the 1970s there was a major independent film movement when a guy called George Lucas and a guy called Steven Spielberg couldn’t get their films made in the Hollywood system. So they independently financed, they almost went bankrupt several times and, from the outside, it created a differentiated product that identified with audiences. They came on the tails of Robert Evans running Paramount. And what Evans did was tap into audiences that studios hadn’t taken risks at before. The way he did it was connecting book writing with screenwriting. He got involved in the development of stories at an elemental level because, and I’m quoting him; “If it ain’t on the page, it’s not going to be on the screen.” So he was one wave of change, and that opened the opportunity to this new breed of creatives. People forget, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino - these were not Hollywood established people. They started on the fringe and became establishment.
And I saw those patterns happening with digital. Then came the digital upstart movement.
The digital guys got shat on by big traditional agencies. We were freaking losers to these guys. And now, it’s all digital. Now, for 18-35s, 60% of their media consumption - it’s not TV commercials, it's not linear programming - it’s all digital stuff.
Where do you see the future of traditional advertising going? Could you see it disappearing entirely in 20 years?
I think it will, by necessity, it will morph into this new marketing mix. In the way that I saw the independent film industry collapse - and these companies just evaporated, it wasn’t like there was this lead time.
Why would I use this typewriter if I can write on a word processor? Why would I use this 60 button remote when I can use this 2 button remote? That’s what technology has done for consumers and for audiences, in that its introduced an element of choice. It doesn’t matter how big and powerful you are, or how much money you have as a media or advertising organisation. If the audience pivots away from your product, or your way of doing things, you just cease to exist.
Part III | The Outlier Becomes Mainstream and How I got Played
What challenges are we facing today and how can we work to find a common solution?
What I’d like to work towards in the next couple of years is getting the youth of any country out to vote if they have the right to. If we can help in any form of sustainability, that’s a positive. We’ll never be perfect, but it's how can you help people create better habits?
People have to take accountability, even if it’s through a thousand different things. It relays back to my earlier point about what some may view as a small meaningless tactics. If you string together a thousand or a million tactics you create the larger environment.
That's what corporations were originally set up to do. Corporations were set up to protect the little guy. To have ownership and have stock. To actively get rid of monopoly minded organisations. But it’s been pirated, and it’s not just corporate America, but more of what the corporate system has turned into. I think we have a generation of people who have grown up without the benefit of major economic upsurge.
2007 was massive, and people are still feeling the effects of the financial crisis. We’re now headed into probably another recession. I was born in the early 70s, so the only thing I ever knew was up up up. But its not sustainable and it doesn’t work.
I actually blame the hippies, I really do. The hippie came out of an anti-war movement, which was amazing and needed. Especially when you had a bunch of assassinations in the United States. But I think hippie movement debulked really quickly into a slacker, selfish, self-identity thing. If you look from 1968-1972, by 1980 those 16-20 year olds were then in power in finance and government and they deregulated everything.
I actually blame the hippies, I really do. I think it was a really selfish thing to do. The hippie came out of an anti-war movement, which was fucking amazing and needed. Especially when you had a bunch of assassinations in the United States. But I think hippie movement debulked really quickly into a slacker, selfish, self-identity thing. If you look from 1968-1972, by 1980 those 16-20 year olds were then in power in finance and government and they deregulated everything.
Deregulation was not a Republican or Democratic thing in the United States, they all did it. That’s why the founders of the country I live in started off with a separation of church and state. It’s why Wall Street stayed in New York and Government went down to Virginia. You’ve got to have a physical separation. That’s why technology, in a negative way, has allowed us to be with each other very easily. So we lost that system of cheques, balance and separation. So technology helped accelerate that process, and I’m hoping that technology also helps rebalance things.
What would you say to someone starting out in this industry, what would your advice be?
My advice would be to try and get with people and try and work with people you can learn from. Mentorship is really important and failure is part of the equation of success. There is a difference between recklessness and seeking failure, and accepting that it is okay to lose.
You’re not going to boil the ocean all at once. There are very few Mark Zuckerbergs or Steve Jobs out there. The sooner you get in touch with what your intentions are, and surround yourself with people who help you realise those intentions. That’s a good thing.
Also, there’s no substitute for straight up hard work.
Something I didn’t work out until I was a little bit older, is the ability to take a hit and get back up and recover. In any area of your life, both personally and professionally, is vital. You have to be able to compromise, you have to not be the most important person in the room….it’s like….. don’t be a douche. Don’t be a spoilt arsehole.
[Jake] One of your first pieces of advice to me when we first met was kill the old Jake?
So we were discussing Matthew Mcconaughey’s acceptance speech at an awards show from the past couple years. He said that he was chasing his future self. My viewpoint on that was I want to outrun my past self, I want to out-evolve my past self. Because if I don’t continue to evolve and change, Vin from 10 years ago is going to come in here and lay me off.
People get caught up in thinking they’re in the business of doing something. If you’re in a situation for long enough, you start thinking it’s normal. And that is a dangerous place to be. Whether it’s a great job, to an abusive relationship. If you’re in it for too long, or if you aren’t aware you’re in it for too long, you start to think that the jobs or the tasks of what your doing are just part of how the industry does things. The minute you’re complacent around that type of thinking is the minute you’re fucked.
Comfortable being uncomfortable?
Absolutely, uncomfortably comfortable. But you have to be comfortable with the idea that your life is made up of constant compromises.
Efficiency is key and a busy mind is a really healthy thing. I always got the best grades at university during lacrosse season because I was busier and more productive. The sooner you master a level of time management. Time management and communication are learnable skills. Also, respect for other people's time. Ask yourself, How am I going to show up to this meeting? Conflict resolution skills are pivotal - don’t shy away from conflict. All of these learned skills come together…
In terms of technology, it’s now a lot easier to be bad at time management, bad at conflict resolution. You can shy away from these core human traits that are elemental components to success.
Could you pinpoint a career defining moment?
Yes. I was in my late twenties and an independent producer - which meant I was hustling to try and get things made. Then I got into business with a very famous actor. I thought by getting into business with him I could propel this one project forward. However, this famous actor wound up taking my money and not performing the task we’d agreed to.
So he got paid to do nothing. When I confronted him on it, I had in fact compromised the contract. I’d overpaid what I should have paid, and I did it out of desperation. I did it out of a desire to just want to see this project happen. What I learned from that I thought if I could just get this amazing script to “a Brad Pitt” (I was not in business with Brad Pitt) then here are all the other moves that are going to happen towards success.
Getting into bed with this actor and, against my lawyers advice, I left the contract loose because I believed this guy when he shook my hand. I was desperate to get a project made, I was trying to create art and earn a living simultaneously. I got rolled. He took my money and then when I came at him, it was just blame the victim. He destroyed me, completely smoked me. It then shortened my lifespan as an independent producer. That was the deal that got me to seek an alternative way of earning a living, and that’s when I wound up in digital advertising. It was a mistake that railroaded me, it was completely of my own doing, but I didn’t set myself up for success and I was in it for the wrong reasons. I compromised everything thinking that this was the move that was going to make it happen, but it was actually the move that put me out of business.
What I learned from that is sometimes the best deals you do are the deals you don’t do. And to be willing to walk away from the right situations. In my late 20s, I was completely turned me upside down. There are people out there who will play you just because they can.
I’ll always assume positive intent, but at the same time, cover your ass. Protect yourself.
And, New York?
What I learned, and I think I did a good job at adjusting to this at Havas. Was as a New Yorker, when you do business in other cities in the US, no one wants to be told what to do by a New Yorker. As an American, and a New Yorker, doing business around the world - no one wants to listen to a New Yorker from America. So, what I had to do was dramatically change the way I showed up in different cultures. I’m still me, but I had to do a lot more listening than talking. I had to really understand the different ways in which business gets done.
You guys are British. What I learned about working with British, it’s what is not said is what they really mean. There’s a subtly to all the cultural nuances to how you guys live and the way you speak. Sometimes they’re very direct and sometimes they’re not at all.
You guys are British. What I learned about working with British people is that for most British men, it’s what is not said is what they really mean. There’s a subtly to all the cultural nuances to how you guys live and the way you speak. Sometimes they’re very direct and sometimes they’re not at all.
French, all about the art of seduction, they have a super interesting way of saying no. Germans, very direct and emotional. Aussies, similar to the British in a mutated way.
I feel very lucky that I’ve had these types of jobs that have forced me into situations that just by the nature of who I am, people don’t like me. Just what I am on paper, and that’s where the photography angle, storytelling through film I can soften my way into the people. I actually think the modern day advertising executive needs to be very active in the craft that they represent. I’m constantly trying to better myself with photography and film.
I take my team out to shoot. Let them see your process a little bit. Through the process of making you learn a lot about people.
A hands on approach?
I’m very triable in the sense of how I work with people. I think life is an arch, I don’t think it’s a straight line then you die or hit a wall. And you have to treat the people around you the same way. I think and act like a pack hunter - I play a role with the posse that I assemble. It’s my job to make the people who work for me’s job easier, to help empower them and make them realise their potential.
Could you see yourself doing something else?
Absolutely. I’m open to the idea. I think we could take this model further. I’ve always wanted to build a truly hybridised media company that looks nothing like any other companies that exist today. I actually think that we’re poised for another new breed media model to emerge.
[But] I’m still a salary guy. I came up on the arts side of things, I was independent film and then I was digital. We didn’t get paid well. I’m making a grown up salary for the first time the past five years at 45. So I didn’t make decent money until very recently and my threshold for financial risk is much lower.
Also, I’d probably get into coaching. I’d want to coach girls lacrosse. I have daughters, but I think this new breed of female athletes is creating opportunity that is so strong. It started with women’s soccer and it happened with basketball.
Last piece of advice, save some money. When you don’t take money from people they don’t get to tell you what to do. It’s that simple, and that’s why I’ve never tried to monetise my photography. It’s mine and it’s an art form for me. It’s also why I stopped trying to earn money in the film business. Once I stopped trying to make money in film, I made four movies. And I’m really proud of the work I’ve been involved in as a producer because I could be uncompromising about the creative vision I had as a producer. If you’re not beholden to a paycheck - you don’t have to listen to them.
Banner content from Head of Design, Greg Haynes (@fybe.one). To check out more of Vin's artistic outlets, you can follow his Instagram here.