A wordsmith and a worldly thinker : Interview with Todd Lief

Todd Lief is a unique bundle of skills and experiences – and he is fun to collaborate with. I have known Todd for about 17 years since we first met at Michael Glass Design while working to reposition Columbia College. I was impressed with his ability to listen, distill and create simple and powerful phrases that amplified the creative quotient. Since then we have kept in touch and have collaborated at Andersen Worldwide and on a few projects at Trope Collaborative.

Todd is a writer, but is more than that. He has a deeply curious humanistic mind that soaks up all sorts of knowledge and aims it at creative endeavors. He was shaped by the golden age of advertising where writers and other creatives collaborated on a wide variety of campaigns trying to articulate the essential truth about products and services to the public. This interview is one of my longest, not due to more time with Todd, but that he packs in a lot of thinking in the same amount of time.

He has spent time and effort exploring creativity and what goes into the act of being creative. With his work in Gestalt psychology, Todd developed a diagnostic tool called Working Impressions (a great name for a service) to focus on areas of agreement. It is a Swiss Army knife as it can be applied to any situation or industry with different meanings using the same tool.

Over the years, Todd has never been far from my thoughts as I can count on my hand individuals that have had a concrete impact on my thinking. His career choices are very close to my own career choices and our restlessness in finding new challenges and building on experiences for greater value ties us together.

Todd in his accessible and relaxed style exudes true professional empathy, curiosity and a desire to make a real impact. He once told me he is also a charter member of American Express where membership has its benefits. It has been a real benefit to know Todd.

How did your time in the army’s psychological operations shape your worldview or that of human nature?

PsyWar was a brand new concept when I volunteered for that emerging branch of the service during the Kennedy Administration in the early 1960’s. My unit was originally known as the 305th Radio, Broadcasting & Leaflet Battalion, but it soon became the 305th PsyWar Battalion. During one particular summer on Active Reserve Duty at Fort Bragg, NC, our team’s assigned mission was simply just to “screw up the war game exercise” that was taking place between elements of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions as a demonstration of the effectiveness of psychological warfare itself. Our high-efficiency, very low-key interventions sowed the seeds of so much chaos and confusion in that war game exercise that discipline in the ranks broke down, and senior commanders were obliged to shift their focus from the exercise itself to dealing with surprising and unexpected nuisances we created in the ranks that got in the way of their goals.

What did you take away from your tenures at Leo Burnett Co., J. Walter Thompson Co., and McCann-Erickson, Inc? How were each one different and how did they help inform the person that you were becoming? How did running your own agency modify your feelings about these three agencies?

J. Walter Thompson was the biggest agency I ever worked for. When I began work, I was very happy just to be working there. I knew I was a very low man on the totem pole, but I did not care at the time. When I would go to industry events and parties, I was able to proudly tell people that I worked at J. Walter Thompson, and that was all I needed to say since everyone had heard of JWT. Never mind that I was working on small projects. As time went on, I started to pay more attention to my working environment. You know, situational awareness they call it. And as I watched the various people working there, my competitive blood began to boil. I wanted to work on better accounts and to be closer to where the action was in advertising, which was in television.

Working there at JWT, I also began to learn what was going on at other agencies. This was a small industry. At the time, even before the Mad Men era of the 1960s, J. Walter Thompson was not only the biggest agency I ever worked for, it was in fact the largest agency in the world. It was a feather in my cap to have that credential and I could take it wherever I decided to go. I began to think about working at other agencies. J. Walter Thompson was perfectly solid, with excellent accounts, but it was not known as a creative or trend setting agency, which is what I was looking for. It seemed to me, as I looked around, that in Chicago the most exciting work was being done by Leo Burnett, and Needham, Louis and Brorby (the predecessor to DDB Needham). Because of its design emphasis, Needham was a place where art directors should work and Leo Burnett, because of its copy focus, was where writers should work.

Leo Burnett himself was a copywriter and quite a famous one. I decided to send a resume around and got an interview at the agency and eventually secured a job there. Even then, at about age 24, I began to understand that if I kept moving from agency to agency, not settling down, it might not be good for my long-term career plans. Everyone told me to stay, otherwise I would come to be known as a “job jumper,” which was a definite no-no in those days, when it was very important to stay in one place, eventually even to retire there and collect benefits. I stayed at Leo Burnett longer than any other agency and even got to meet Leo Burnett himself.

He was mostly a quiet, calm presence, surrounded by talented people who could be somewhat less quiet or calm. As a matter of fact, the number two at the agency was Draper Daniels , a fiery and fascinating individual upon whom the character Don Draper on Mad Men was actually said to be based. Years later at some industry event, I had an opportunity to spend some time with Daniels’ widow Myra Janco, an advertising professional in her own right, who confirmed that Draper Daniels-Don Draper connection.

Getting a job a Burnett became fiercely important to me.  But it turned out there was more involved than just getting a job there. The truly important thing turned out to be: at what level did you got hired?, Who hired you? Initially, a kind of gate keeper conducted the first interview, a screening, This man, John Matthews, would meet you first and decide if you were qualified to go further. If so, he would assign a low level person to interview you next. If that person approved you, they would then refer you to more people up the ladder. I had six or seven interviews before I had my last interview with Draper Daniels.

This process was tricky. You had to impress each person interviewing you just enough, but you couldn’t threaten him, either. That meant you had to offer your nice mix of friendly collegiality and talent but you couldn’t make him feel that you might also pose too much competitive danger to him with some unwelcome challenge. I will never forget that interview with Daniels. I was so excited about meeting with him. During our interview, fairly early in it, somewhat nervously I pulled out my pack of Viceroy cigarettes for a smoke. I was only too aware that Leo Burnett had the Philip Morris account that included Marlboro cigarettes. Daniels stopped talking and looked at me and said “Young man, I assume you are aware that Leo Burnett is the agency of record for the Philip Morris Company. One of their brands is Marlboro. I assume you would be willing to change brands in order to get a job here.” I was really on the spot, and didn’t know how to respond. Somehow I found it within me to say, “I understand your question. I actually tried Marlboros because I enjoyed the ads, but I did not like the cigarettes. So, much as I want to work at Burnett, I cannot promise that I would switch brands in order to get a job here – unless you can tell me exactly how my taste in cigarettes is related to my writing skills.” Well, he laughed at this and we bonded over this interchange and he hired me right then and there. I actually ended up working for him twice, the next time some years later when he was the Creative Chief of Chicago’s McCann-Erickson office.

I really liked working at Burnett. There was something electrifying in the air. At my time there I worked on accounts like US Savings Bonds, an Ad Council pro-bono agency assignment. I also worked on, Sunkist, Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble, some experimental Philip Morris brands, and a new P&G laundry detergent called Salvo that was a solid disk of detergent you could toss into the washing machine instead of measuring out some grains of powder. Unfortunately the market did not accept this product.

I also worked on some cake mixes made by Pillsbury. Baking at the time was viewed by society as an act of love on the part of the woman, usually Mom, doing the baking. Cake mixes were a tricky product to formulate and market because they walked a fine line between making it too easy for Mom and too hard. The housewife could always make a cake from scratch, but that was a lot of work.  At the other extreme, some modern cake mixes were formulated to the point where all you had to do was add water, stir, and put it in the oven. These products were not accepted. Some smart person figured out the reason was that Mother was not being asked to do quite enough, so the Burnett mixes were reformulated to where she had to add an egg as well as water to the mix. This modest added effort gained acceptance in the market. The research group figured this out, a creative insight at the dawn of behavioral research within agencies.

As I reflected on my agency experiences to that early date, I realized that J. Walter Thompson, was an agency led by account management where account executives would interface with the client and tell creative people what the clients wanted. At Burnett, creative people told account people what ads should be used to sell the client’s wares. Account people were happy to support the creative process and advocate for their ideas. At the end of the day the client would decide and agencies still get the types of clients that they deserve. Burnett championed my own corresponding belief that the central focus of advertising was the creative process.

An interesting story about the US Savings Bond account: For many years buying U. S. Savings Bonds was seen as a patriotic act, supported by somewhat bland advertising. But then in 1960 Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the podium at the United Nations and announced to Americans that our grandchildren would live under communism. This was very provocative and scary at the time. I had an idea that we could use this event to sell savings bonds. We created some ads where the featured image was Khrushchev pounding his shoe, with a headline saying, “This man says your grandchildren will live under communism.” Then there was a smaller headline below his photo that said, “$18.75 says they won’t.” This was quite a departure for the client, which was a branch of the Federal Government.

At the time all creative work at Burnett had to be approved by the CRC, the Creative Review Committee. This consisted of management, account and creative leaders who would screen concepts before they could be presented to a client. You had to pitch your campaign to them. I was very nervous, as this was my first experience with this momentous committee. I got to the room early and was in fact the first one there. There was a long, narrow conference table, seating about 20. I decided to sit in the chair immediately to the right of the head of the table, next to where I assumed Leo Burnett himself would sit, as I wanted to catch some of his rays. People started to file in and all were giving me dirty looks.

Eventually, Pete Franz came in, put his hand on my shoulder and said “Todd, you will have to move.” When I explained that I wanted to sit next to Mr. Burnett, Pete Franz explained: “You are sitting in Leo Burnett’s chair.” (Pete Franz was the actual head of the Creative Review Committee, rather than Leo Burnett, so Pete was the person entitled to sit at the head of that long and potent table, and the only person in the room who bothered to say anything to me at all.) By that time all the other chairs were taken and I had to stand at the back of the room.

The meeting came to order and I gave the presentation and was excited to hear what all these high level experts would have to say, and was prepared to accept their verdict. Pete Franz asked the committee to weigh in. I was instantly aware as the comments moved around the table that everybody was saying almost exactly the same thing. The first person said something like, “Yes, that campaign is certainly different but I am not sure if the US Government is ready for this.” The second person said, “Well, I can see some possibilities, but I am not sure if we should take such a large step.” Everyone said variations on this exact theme. Finally it got around to Leo Burnett himself, the last person to speak. He got up out of his chair and walked over to the concepts on the wall. He studied them up and down and finally said just three little words, which I will never forget:  “I like it,” he said. Immediately, the room exploded with supportive delight. Now, of course, everyone else liked it too. Because their initial responses had provided coverage for both points, liking it looked natural enough. After that meeting was over, with some sadness I realized that I had nothing further to learn from these people, and that was when I decided to leave Burnett.

What is your view on Mad Men and how accurate its portrayal of advertising culture?

I find the portrayal generally accurate, especially in terms of the fashions, the office decor, the customs, the general shallowness, the sexism and competition. What I don’t remember from my personal experience in that era was the amount of sex going on (maybe it was there all along, and I just missed out on it,) and the frequency and volume of all the drinking going on in the office. I remember some drinking at lunch and after hours, but if so much drinking in the office was going on, it was happening where I myself didn’t see it.

How was collaborating with designers different than being in an adverting agency? Did you notice differences between advertising and design?

Life and work inside an ad agency is much more complex than collaborating with a designer. Agencies employ individuals in many areas of expertise, from the content, look and feel of messages to the media chosen for their dissemination, to the audiences specifically identified to receive the messages, to developing and defining the general marketing plans that will support the entire activity. The creative people in agencies are often at some distance from the client. Designers, in contrast, typically work directly with and for their clients on projects that may or may not have a promotional component. They are intimately involved in the everyday communication with the client and come to understand something about the client’s aesthetic sensibility, since that will have some influence over what the designer will be able to see produced. While exceptions exist, generally speaking the nature of the collaboration between a designer and his/her client is, it seems to me, much more intimate than the nature of the collaboration between an agency’s creative people and their client. I found myself attracted to that emotional closeness and involvement.

What is your view on how writing is viewed in 2011 that is different than when you began as a writer?

Advertising writing today is in some ways less formulaic than it was when I began. It seems to me we once had more rules about “writing copy that would sell.” We were trained to understand product features and benefits in the context of user needs, and to write explicitly about benefits to the consumer. I think advertising writing today is less rigid and more informal. The fact is that advertising is a part of the larger culture today in a way that it never was before. There’s more humor in it now, more effort to make the advertising seem friendly, likeable and clever than to focus hard on a few explicit rules about “selling something.”

You mentioned that “I want to know more about how people understand the world and make it work for them.” Was this a motivation of pursuing Organization & System Development at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland and what did that experience provide you in insight that connects back to understanding “each of us was an active participant in making meaning?”

I was an ad agency entrepreneur for several years and helped to create and build a successful and well-respected company. But what surprised me was that my company also seemed to have a mind and a life of its own. The company appeared to want to move into areas its leadership and staff didn’t necessarily support, gravitating toward new practices that had nothing to do with anybody’s original vision. This odd phenomenon fascinated me. I got interested in organizational behavior and I went back to school to learn more about it. I discovered that organizational design has a huge influence on organizational behavior, which in turn has profound influence on the people within it and corresponding issues such as energy, morale, team spirit, and the like.

It confirmed a belief that I developed thanks to having had experience at so many different agencies. They are all filled with positive minded people doing the best that they can and yet the types of work coming from these agencies are so different. Some people have a high tolerance for pain with conditions others would not put up for five minutes. This convinced me that there are many ways to do the same thing. If you are in a job that does not fit, you can stick it out and toe the line, or if you have courage you can take the risk to leave and look for fulfillment somewhere else. This process is not as simple as I thought because people have different ideas and you cannot have everyone think the same way. However, there is organizational spirit to create the environment to create a successful team, but you cannot convert everyone.

You discussed that in Gestalt psychology “people could look at the same things and events and come away with different understandings.” If this is true, how do you square this with your experience in psychological operations that tries to architect a shared perception to a group of people?

You play the odds. In that PsyWar scenario we talked about earlier, of course there were many soldiers who were committed and dedicated and recognized that they were being played upon by our efforts and did not buy into it. However, for every one of those there were seven others who were willing to play along or give up.

Most of us know that there are individual and group issues, but we do not always recognize how important these differences are. For example, athletic coaches understand that it is one thing to have a star player and another to have a winning team. A star player can cause animosity or create pride amongst his teammates. What I was always trying to do was to try to get people to understand how an individual operated within a group – and that they are different. I believe that differences between people and the groups they are in need to be made explicit. Sometimes you just have to give up your strict individualism. This relates to a concept in Gestalt psychology called sub-optimization where an individual willingly gives up some personal efficiency for the sake of improved overall group performance. You cannot change group behavior as such, but you can change your own – and see what happens.

Organizational change and change management seems to fluctuate as an area of focus for companies and the consultants that are hired by them. It seems as if business consultants, public relations and marketing firms want to play in this area. What can marketing do to meaningfully lead or influence organizational change behind the promise of a brand that a company makes or distributes?

It is an interesting question. If you are going to make a recommendation to a client that may fall outside your charge, you need to have the client‘s agreement that they are open to hear what you have to say. Otherwise it may be perceived as none of your business and there are others to take care of it. For example, I had a client who suddenly because interested in improving his overall customer service and wanted to hire someone who would be in charge of it. This client asked me my opinion on this decision, and I told him that customer service is everyone’s job all the time, and is an attitude to be emphasized company-wide rather than the responsibility of a particular department. This was new information for this client. If marketing has ideas of how the company can improve, I think you must first have the client‘s trust and willingness to listen to what you have to say about things outside the core reason why you were hired.

People have a need to want to control a situation. Organizations feel that they can control events and desired outcomes. Given your experience, is control an illusion?

Of course we can control quite a few things. But I also think that a lot that goes on in the world is out of our control. That is the dark side and unexamined side of organizational life, as managers do not like to admit that they are not in control of the situation. There are many random events and random accidents that happen frequently to individuals and organizations alike. These are difficult to plan for. You need to balance actualization of what you can control and also be prepared for the unexpected.

Back in the 1970s, companies would frequently discuss strategic planning and five year plans. But I can assure you that not one of those five year company plans developed so carefully in 1978, for example, had the foresight to take into account how the personal computer from IBM would forever alter the landscape of business when it came along in 1980, just two years later. Yes, we can tell ourselves to “expect the unexpected,” and maybe we can take that stance in the world. But the specifics of that “unexpected” are never fully knowable in advance. Maybe a better idea here is just being able to mobilize for decisive responsiveness to whatever comes along to interrupt and challenge the status quo. In many cases it is like accurately predicting the weather. We can only do it only up to a point. What we can do, however, is adapt fast when conditions change. Unexpected weather? Change our shoes and jacket. Unexpected business development? Change our policies and behavior.

Can you elaborate on your views on human decision-making and how good are we at making decisions? Hard ones? Important ones? What gets in the way of making a good decision?

I think that there are good decisions. But at times, what gets in the way is that we do not know enough to make a really good decision. We do not have the right information at the right time. In the marketplace, if you go too far in one direction, it has a way of pushing you back. We do not know all these forces in advance until they are upon us. There is also behavior that cannot be predicted – such as in the case of Steve Jobs – who changed everything, not just the computer industry.

Planning is important, but plans are often thwarted by unanticipated events. As they say in the military, “no battle plan survives an encounter with the enemy,” because we do not know precisely how an enemy will react. So many forces are involved with conflict, so  much can go wrong, and usually does. Decisions have a spectrum of degrees of importance and not all decisions are consciously or thoughtfully made.

I used to run workshops and I would ask participants “how do you know when you have a good idea?” The answers varied, but people typically report a kind of psychological and physiological rush, a feeling of pleasure, a sense of being happy. In the extensive literature about the creative process this is known as the “hedonic response,“ “hedonic” from the Greek word for pleasure. When that happens, it probably it is a good idea. Similarly with groups of people, when everyone laughs together unexpectedly, it is usually an indicator that some shared experience has touched everyone at the same time. My model Working Impressions was a way to look at the group mind in a non-threatening way to find common understandings.

You use the term creative and creative organizations. Creativity and creative organizations used to be associated with the fine and applied arts, but now creativity is being discussed by all sorts of professions. Why do you think this has happened and what is the role of the fine and applied arts if everyone is creative?

An artist‘s job is to create novelty in a medium. In a larger sense my belief is that everyone has creative capacity from birth, but that over time, much of it is taught and trained out of us. I remember in the 1950s and 1960s we had creative departments in ad agencies. This made me happy as I liked to be in a creative department, but it also made me uneasy because it seemed to denigrate everyone else in the agency, as if they were not creative. Outside the ad industry, most people associate being creative with artists. I used to worry that clients could feel like second class citizens because they are not typically called creative or do not have the word creative in their title.

The ability to paint very realistically, is that necessarily creative in and of itself? Or does it just show a lot of skill? If Picasso painted the same thing through gestural marks, is that not also creative? There is an element of novelty in the creative process. It’s probably important to go beyond the established methods in ways that have not been done before. This happens for example in law and medicine all the time, but these are professions that are not typically seen as creative. But then we are asked, Do you want a creative lawyer, or doctor? Or just someone who is expert at what they do? I see this as a false distinction. I think you can have both. For best results, I am on the side of hiring someone who is creative in whatever they do.

As a creative person, you seem to make connections between things that are on the surface that do not seen to have a direct association with one another (like chemical research and advertising). What has been the role of the directed imagination and invention in honing your skills as a creative person?

I actually work at this. I strongly believe that the very process of creativity involves the bringing together of previously unconnected, disparate, elements, ideas and relationships. It is a way to shake things up. Creativity in part is about noticing what others do not. I like to observe people’s ways of looking at the world and build upon that with them.

When creativity becomes an intellectual endeavor, how does this change the meaning of creativity? Put another way, if we begin to look for patterns in creativity and the imagination, does this inform or detract from the intuitive process of being creative?I think you are asking something like: does over-intellectualization get in the way of the creative process itself? If we look at something too hard, does it get in the way of doing it? Well, maybe. But if we do not look hard enough at something then we do not learn much about it. Some creative people dismiss the label creative. Others wear it on their chest. There is a huge amount of literature about creativity, but it is not some rare and exotic specialty known to a precious few; it is part of our common birthright as humans. We all think metaphorically to make meaning. We all have an immense reservoir or creativity. We can learn more about it. Creativity can be evolved and enhanced in everybody.

You seemed to be one of the early adopters of having an office from your home. How has your office and the meaning of work changed for you – and how have the introduction of digital technologies shaped the intersection work and office for you?

I was an early adopter of a home office. In fact, when I first moved my office home from downtown, at first I got a lot of sympathy from people. They would ask me endlessly when I was going to move back downtown again? I told them I wouldn’t. Five years later, instead of offering sympathy they were asking me how they could do it themselves. Of course I was also interested in computers and the connectivity they offered, and realized that I could not do what I do without them. What’s it like working at home? People would ask me that all the time. I finally figured out what to tell them: Here’s the thing about having a home office: I‘m always at work, and I’m always at home.

Looking back on your varied career, what have you learned about yourself, clients and the world in general?

I am a restless and curious person and not early satisfied. I‘m a quick study and can do things fast.  And as things have come to me easily, I also have a tendency to be lazy. I’m also especially interested in groups, and group process. As we learn more about how the world works, we need to look harder at groups. Most of the work that goes on in the world goes on in and with groups. There is much more potential in a group than an individual, but we do not really know much about how groups actually work. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I stayed in one ad agency all along, but mostly I am OK with the decisions I have made. I think I have challenged myself differently, and had more fun and met more interesting people along the way. When you get to make your living out of your own wits, and have fun doing it, I think it feels a little like beating the system.

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