AN INTERVIEW WITH LEGENDARY AD MAN, RON LAWNER
BY SUZY MARDEN — PHOTOGRAPHED BY BOBBY DIMARZO
A member of the Wall Street Journal’s Creative Leaders Series, Lawner led the agency to international acclaim and creative honors that include the ‘98 Cannes Grand Prix for Volkswagen, an Emmy, The Grand Effie, D&AD, Kelly Awards, One Show Pencils, Clios, London International Awards and the International Andy Awards. Arnold Worldwide has been on the Gunn Report’s top creative agencies list since its inception in ‘92. Lawner, a long time resident of Beacon Hill and Cape Cod, works as a consultant on a number of corporate philanthropic Brands and serves on a variety of boards.
“A genius is a person described as displaying exceptional intellectual ability, creativity and or originality typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of an unprecedented leap of insight.”
Suzy: It’s hard to quantify what makes someone a ‘creative genius’ except to say that they do things better than previously done before. In your case do you see your talent as inherent, or something fostered?
Ron: I know some people who are laughing right now at the ‘genius’ part. If I have a gift, it’s taking a complicated (marketing) problem and articulating it in a simple, human language, a language people can understand and relate to. Or better yet, in a way that helps them figure it out for themselves.
What where you like growing up?
I was quiet as a kid, kind of an observer. The world really wasn’t of my making and I didn’t really understand it. That may have motivated me to create things I did understand; simple, fun ways of seeing the world. I don’t know, I think that may be true for many creative people.
During your tenure as chairman and chief creative officer, the Arnold brand skyrocketed, was recognized internationally, and won every award for outstanding creative work, growing exponentially. That kind of success is rarely experienced by an agency. How did you manage to be so successful at such different skill sets?
It was a great ride. The idea is simple (making it work in a corporate culture is not so easy). Set the bar high, hire good people and treat everyone with respect. I tried to create an environment that encouraged people to be as good as they could be, whatever their job. If you want to do great work it helps to create a great place to work. Who wants to wake up in the morning and do something mediocre?
Do you have a formula you use to capture a brand’s unique identity, allowing it to stand out on it’s own?
You have to find the right “voice” for a brand. How does it sound, look, feel? Ask yourself, “How do I want you to feel after seeing the TV spot, hearing the radio or seeing something on a billboard or online?” Be consistent. If it doesn’t feel right for the brand don’t do it. Treat your customers the way you’d like to be treated.
Everyone knows the difference between being respected and disrespected, encouraged or led, being told what to think or given a choice. Give people the benefit of the doubt. The work will be better, the brand will do better and so will the agency. It’ll be a better world. Okay, that might be pushing it.
Does a campaign’s potential for success depend somewhat on what the brand is?
Well, no. But that said, winning the Volkswagen account was a wonderful opportunity. We got to do advertising for a great brand and a great client who understood what that brand was about in America and understood the potential if we were successful making it stand for something meaningful again. They let us be as good as we could be.
Your talent is legendary. The work created at Arnold under your leadership was articulated so well. It shaped our world and inspired us. Why don’t we see agencies like this today?
Advertising agencies need to be more courageous and truthful with clients. Show them great stuff. Show them how their brand fits in to peoples lives. Tell them the truth and do it in an original and unique way. ‘They’ll never buy this’ is self-fulfilling. How can they ‘buy it’ if you don’t show it to them?
What Memorable work is presently out there?
I like the TRUTH anti-smoking campaign that uses celebrities caught smoking in public and makes them the new (unwitting) face of Big Tobacco. Brave work. And calling on this generation to end America’s smoking addiction with the ‘FINISH IT’ campaign is inspired.
In closing, if there is a brand out there that suffers from mediocrity what would you suggest?
I’m in the book.